Programme for Government

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4)

Richard Boyd Barrett


1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the status of the programme for Government. [21779/21]

View answer

Alan Kelly


2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of the programme for Government. [23207/21]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald


3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of the programme for Government. [25951/21]

View answer

Mick Barry


4. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the status of the programme for Government. [26518/21]

View answer

Oral answers (19 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4 together.

Government has been working hard to implement the commitments in the programme for Government across a wide range of issues in all Departments. The ten Cabinet committees established by this Government reflect the full range of policy areas that it will work on during its lifetime as set out in the programme for Government. Cabinet committees meet regularly to continue this work. Strategy statements which have been prepared by Departments reflect the key national priorities as outlined in the programme for Government.

My Department has been involved in progressing some key programme for Government commitments in recent months, including ongoing monitoring and management of the impact of Covid-19 on the provision of both Covid and non-Covid healthcare; the establishment of a shared island unit in my Department; the establishment of a unit in my Department to help support social dialogue; an ongoing major review of the national development plan; the development of a national economic recovery plan; the development of a well-being framework for Ireland; the publication of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill; engagement with European Union leaders to advance a range of high-level objectives in the programme for Government, in particular relating to Brexit, Covid, the European Union budget and the European Union green agenda; implementation of Global Ireland 2025; establishment of a future of media commission; completion of the work of the Citizens’ Assembly on gender equality; and ongoing oversight of the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, the Government’s plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland.

Government will continue to work hard to ensure delivery on every aspect of the programme for Government.

The programme for Government stated explicitly that the annexation of Palestinian territory by Israel was a crime against international law and that the Government would respond appropriately using its positions. What will the Government's response be? I believe it should expel the Israeli ambassador and impose sanctions immediately. Israel is not just annexing territory. It is ethnically cleansing Palestinian land, most recently the ethnic cleansing of 28 families from Sheikh Jarrah, inciting the current escalation. As we speak it is committing war crimes for the fourth time in the past decade against the people of Gaza. It is involved in systematic apartheid policies. At what point will the Government expel the Israeli ambassador and acknowledge that the apartheid state of Israel is a rogue state that needs to be isolated?

This morning I heard credible reports that US military aircraft, en route to Israel, refuelled at Baldonnel Airport. I do not know if that report is true, but it comes from credible sources. Does the Taoiseach know anything about that? Will he find out if it is true? Let us not forget that the US is arming the Israeli regime, giving it the missiles to fire at people in Gaza. It is absolutely shocking if US military aircraft are having their planes refuelled in Irish airports and that we would in any way be facilitating the horror that is going on in Palestine.

With recent developments and new policy commitments on housing, are there plans to review what the Government has put down in the programme for Government in respect of housing? Things may have changed. The Government is obviously going to make an announcement on a package that has been agreed at Cabinet today. Will the Government be changing the commitments on housing that it has written into the programme for Government?

It is reported by Simon Carswell in The Irish Times today that the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, is about to sell 69 apartments in Malahide to a UK investment fund. Does the Taoiseach agree with this? Are there plans to ensure apartments like these can also be offered to first-time buyers or to older people who are downsizing? Is it Government policy now that apartments should be rented and not owner-occupied? What is it going to do in this area?

The Business Post reported that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is about to lease an estate of 39 homes over 25 years at €2,500 per month. Local councillors were not even told about the deal. What is the Government's view and position on this? Does this apply to other deals? My colleague, Councillor Martha Fanning, had no idea about this even though she is the chairperson of the housing policy committee.

My final question relates to Project Ireland 2040 and the planning framework. We have gone through the Covid-19 period and hopefully we are coming out of it. It has been the biggest disruptor our country will ever see. Project Ireland 2040 will surely have to be rewritten. Our priorities have changed. Surely there will have to be a refocus on it. The process by which the planning framework is working in county development plans is going to become one of the biggest headaches the Government has ever had to deal with. What does the Government propose to do on that? There are serious issues coming down the line as to the restrictions and the profiling that will have to go on in many county development plans because of the way in which this has been interpreted and implemented. I can tell the House it is going to be a problem.

The Citizens' Assembly on gender equality made a number of recommendations that complement and supplement the programme for Government commitments on tackling domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence and supporting victims and their children. Is it the intention of the Government to consider the implementation of these recommendations in tandem with its own work?

The Taoiseach is aware that Tusla's review of emergency accommodation is due for publication. There are nine counties with no refuge provision. Community and voluntary services continue to bridge the gap left by the State's failure to meet its emergency accommodation obligations as per the Istanbul Convention. How quickly can we expect the Government to increase such accommodation and the necessary wraparound services following the publication of this review?

An audit of the segmentation of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence responsibilities across Government Departments and agencies is also ongoing, as is an update to the national strategy. Can the Taoiseach inform the House when he expects the audit and the strategy to be completed? How will he approach their implementation?

We are also waiting on domestic violence paid leave proposals as well as legislation to provide for domestic homicide reviews, which is a very important measure. Deputy O'Reilly and I have introduced a robust piece of paid leave legislation and the Government should proactively engage with it.

The current cross-departmental approach to domestic and gender-based violence robs us of a single point of responsibility and accountability within the Government. As a result, we have a disjointed system of policy development, funding, service provision and legislation. Therefore, we continue to fail victims and their families. Will the Taoiseach consider establishing a unit within his Department to oversee the implementation of the programme for Government commitments and the outcomes of the various reviews and audits that are currently under way, as I have described, along with the Citizens' Assembly recommendations?

We have two further questioners and we need to allow time for the Taoiseach to respond. I call Deputy Barry now followed by Deputy Paul Murphy.

Last night in Limerick more than 70 gardaí, including 20 members of the public order unit, were mobilised to try to help strike-breakers to pass picket lines organised by Debenhams workers. The gardaí sealed off two entire blocks of the city centre street and unsuccessfully attempted to kettle the workers and their supporters. They also pulled a worker with more than 40 years of service towards this, treating him like a criminal. I am delighted to report that the workers and their supporters mobilised in such numbers and with such determination that this strike-breaking attempt failed for the third time.

Last week I asked the Taoiseach about a similar Garda mobilisation in Waterford. He said that he was not aware of it and would look into it. There have been, by my estimate, more than 300 gardaí mobilised for seven separate attempts at strike-breaking - in Limerick on three occasions and in Waterford, Tralee, Henry Street in Dublin and Blanchardstown in Dublin. I believe that the Taoiseach is very well aware of this.

The programme for Government states:

Protecting citizens is the founding duty of the state and policing has a defining role in that basic function. An Garda Síochána has a strong tradition of policing by consent with deep rooted connections in every community that enable it to carry out its work fairly and effectively.

I have a question for the Taoiseach in light of the difference between what is on the printed page and the reality in Limerick, Waterford, Tralee and around the country in recent weeks. Why are gardaí, who are being paid by the taxpayer to fight crime, being used as a battering ram against working people in a legitimate industrial dispute?

I ask that Deputy Murphy might be brief, please.

The terror, murder and collective punishment being inflicted by the Israeli state on the Palestinian people is horrific. Bombs are raining down in Gaza. I have been there and I have seen with my own two eyes just how densely populated it is. The consequences are that over 60 children have been murdered, over 200 Palestinian people have been killed and over 1,000 people have been injured. Ethnic cleansing is taking place in East Jerusalem. Within the borders of Israel, pogroms organised by far-right activists are taking place against Palestinians. The Taoiseach said earlier that it has to stop but is the Irish Government going to do anything to attempt to put pressure on the Israeli state to stop? Will he expel the Israeli ambassador? The Minister for Foreign Affairs says that this is a flawed idea and that it would not make any difference. Would it not send a very clear message that would resound around the world, of opposition to the murderers who make up the Israeli Government and of solidarity with the Palestinian people?

The Taoiseach has four minutes to respond now.

I state again that what is going on within Gaza and Palestine is absolutely unacceptable and unjustifiable. In my view, there has to be a ceasefire. Both sides should immediately cease hostilities. In particular, I have condemned Hamas for firing rockets indiscriminately over the border into Israel which has also resulted in deaths and injuries.

There is no equivalence-----

The Israeli Government response has been wholly disproportionate and wrong, in my view. I have said this. I have been in Gaza. One cannot bomb Gaza in the manner it has been bombed without killing innocent civilians - children, men and women. That has happened as a result of the decisions of the Israeli Government. It is wrong and it should stop. Both sides should stop - both Hamas and the Israeli Government - in the interests of innocent civilians. From any humanitarian perspective, what is going on is shocking. The world is watching with horror at what is unfolding. There is abject poverty in Gaza. The long-standing situation there is that it is essentially being hemmed in from the rest of the world. Proper access has not been allowed to a whole range of activities that would be normal in most people's lives.

The European Union and others have supported the region with particularly the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, which provides education, food supports and a range of other services for Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza. That is good and constructive support but there comes a time when the EU and others have to call it as it is, in terms of the unjustifiable and disproportionate approach by the Israeli Government to this issue. That said, I do not agree with the idea of breaking diplomatic relations as somehow being an answer or response to this.

In my view, diplomatic relations maintain the channels of communication and engagement with governments that you may disagree with or that might have different perspectives on issues but, fundamentally, we should maintain diplomatic relations with as many countries as we possibly can on an ongoing basis. If one was to follow the scenario the Deputy is opening up through to its logical conclusion, there is a lot more out there in the world that we could be looking at in the context of that sort of an approach. Having been Minister for Foreign Affairs, it does not make a whole lot of sense to me. It would be a 24-hour wonder and would achieve very little, if anything.

It makes sense if you are a Palestinian.

No, the expulsion of an ambassador does not make sense. What matters to a Palestinian is the sustained support that successive Irish Governments have given through Irish Aid and UNRWA.

It worked with apartheid South Africa.

We have done that as a Government and Europe has as well, on its credit side. It is difficult to get cohesion across the EU on this issue but it has supported, from a humanitarian perspective, social, educational and community projects right across Gaza and the West Bank, and governance as well, to try to support the creation of a two-state solution, which we have always believed is the ultimate answer to this terrible thing.

In terms of the housing issues raised by Deputy Kelly, aspects of the programme for Government are always being looked at and we are open to new innovations and new changes. When I said that housing was the number one priority for the Government, it means we will look at everything, in all areas, to see if we can create additional housing supply. We are not supportive of existing supply of housing being bought up by investor funds in any shape or form-----

I thank the Taoiseach. We have to move to Question No. 5. We are out of time.

Vaccination Programme

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Alan Kelly


5. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [21938/21]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett


6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [24662/21]

View answer

Bríd Smith


7. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [24665/21]

View answer

Paul Murphy


8. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [24668/21]

View answer

Mick Barry


9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [26139/21]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald


10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the vaccine roll-out group chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [25952/21]

View answer

Oral answers (31 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 10, inclusive, together.

A Covid-19 vaccination subgroup chaired by the Secretary to the Government has met on two occasions to discuss elements of Covid-19 vaccinations in the context of the overall Government strategy on Covid-19, including a roll-out of the vaccination programme, operationalisation of recent changes to the programme following NIAC advice and communications. Membership of the subgroup included senior officials from my Department and the Department of Health, including the Chief Medical Officer; from the HSE, including its chief executive officer; and the chair of the high-level task force on Covid-19 vaccination, along with the chiefs of staff to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan. No further meetings of the group are scheduled. However, it may meet again if required.

The roll-out of the national vaccination programme continues at pace. As of last Friday, in excess of 2 million vaccine doses had been administered in Ireland. Some 36% of the eligible population have now received a first dose and more than 13% of the eligible population are fully vaccinated.

Deputies first learned of this group when it was reported on in The Irish Times on 19 April. It was set up to avoid some of the serious political and logistical differences that were beginning to emerge. Is it a formal group? Is it constituted formally or is it just an informal group? We are hearing today that the vaccine roll-out is moving to those aged between 45 and 49, which is very welcome. They will be offered the option of receiving AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson. If they do not want one of those vaccines, they may have to wait for an mRNA vaccine. I welcome this but it is a departure. I am not saying it is a negative departure, but it is a departure because, obviously, an option is being given to people. Has this been thought through as regards knock-on effects? I believe, like the Taoiseach, every citizen should take the vaccine that is offered to them.

I am the most pro-vaccine person one could ever meet but I have to admit there are people, for instance, in the 60 to 70 age group, who did not take the AstraZeneca vaccine as they wanted an option. I am not saying that is right; I am just saying it is reality. Some people did not take it because of the 16-week gap between doses of AstraZeneca but now another group is being offered an option. The Taoiseach can see where others will go with regard to this issue. Has he thought about this? Which age group does he expect will be receiving their vaccines by the end of June in order to reach the 82% target and the 55% second dose target? I presume it will be those aged 25 and up.

What consideration has the roll-out group given to our contribution to the international effort to get as many people vaccinated as possible? Has where the State is going to go in that regard towards the end of the year in terms of giving vaccines to other countries been projected and planned?

Finally, I refer to a very important question that I do not think has been raised. At the beginning of May, the European Medicines Agency, EMA, started to evaluate an application by Pfizer to extend the use of its vaccine to the 12 to 15 age group. At the start of May, Canada became the first country in the world to approve its use for those aged 12 and up, followed by the United States a week later. Are we planning for this? If so, where are we planning for it? Is this group looking at it or is there a timeframe in place with regard to being able to vaccinate those aged under 16?

I got my notification that I will get my vaccine tomorrow in the Aviva Stadium. I am delighted with that and I would like to thank-----

The Deputy might score a few goals while he is there.

Would a football match not be nice? I wish to thank all the front-line healthcare workers and all those involved in carrying out the vaccination programme. Nothing tangible has really been done in terms of a meaningful "thank you" to all healthcare workers. There should be some sort of financial acknowledgement for healthcare workers and, indeed, other groups such as the student nurses and midwives whose issues I and my colleagues have raised many times in the House and who should be paid for their placements. Along with the psychologists and all the other healthcare workers and allied professionals who have been undervalued, they need payback from the Government after Covid.

No matter how successful the vaccination programme turns out to be, if large swathes of the world are not vaccinated, we will get variants and we will have problems and this crisis will continue. I do not for the life of me understand why the Government and the EU do not understand the absolute urgency and imperative of sharing the vaccine technology and lifting the intellectual property restrictions and patent restrictions on getting the vaccine produced globally at the levels necessary to vaccinate the global population.

I wish to make one additional point on Israel and Palestine. If the Taoiseach wants proof that Israel is an apartheid and racist state, not a normal state, its vaccination programme is a perfect demonstration of that. It vaccinates Israeli citizens but not Palestinians, which, by the way, is very stupid from a health point of view apart from anything else, but also demonstrates the apartheid nature of the state and why we need to treat it the way apartheid South Africa was treated.

I think we are all grateful for the success of the vaccine roll-out so far. Long may it continue that there is no problem with supplies, vaccinators or any of the other organisational issues that have to be implemented. I echo what has been said about a people's vaccine. To restate the obvious, none of us are protected until all of us are protected. The crisis in India has not abated. In fact, the Indian variant is now causing significant worry throughout the UK. Does the Taoiseach think it is good enough for the major companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and AstraZeneca that have paid out $26 billion in dividends to their shareholders in the past nine to 12 months, creating a new wave of vaccine billionaires, which is enough money to vaccinate the entire continent of Africa, not to be willing to share the intellectual property rights? Will the Taoiseach, as Leader of the Government, along with Joe Biden, going by his indications thus far, go to the World Trade Organization, WTO, or instruct our representation at that organisation or in the EU to go to the WTO and state that the companies must relax the patents on the intellectual property rights over these vaccines? We must do so because, otherwise, this is vaccine apartheid. One in every five people in the richer countries have had a vaccination. Guess how many have been vaccinated in the poorer countries? It is one in every 500 people.

That is vaccine apartheid. We are guilty of supporting it unless the Taoiseach speaks up and instructs our representatives in the EU, and wherever we can make representations in foreign affairs or on the UN Security Council, to state that we support the people's vaccine campaign. We want to see that vaccine being accessible to everybody at great levels of production throughout the world.

There is no more glaring example or indictment of capitalism than the situation with Covid vaccines. The truth, pure and simple, is that major pharmaceutical companies and their search for profit maximisation are standing in the way of vaccines getting into the arms of, literally, billions of people around the world. That is devastating for those people but, as has been said, it is devastating for the entire world.

The Government's position on this is not clear. When the Biden Administration, under pressure, announced that it supported the waiver of intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines, the Minister for Foreign Affairs tweeted: "This is a very significant announcement ... - it won’t solve all [Covid] vaccine manufacturing & supply issues, but [it's] a big step & the right decision in response to a global demand emergency." Since then, it is clear that Angela Merkel has been lobbied by the private pharmaceutical companies and is not supporting, and it seems the EU will not support, even the Biden position on a waiver of intellectual property.

Which side is the Government on? Is it on the side of the billions of people seeking access to vaccines or is it on the side of big pharma? Will it take a position in advance of the World Trade Organization, WTO, meeting? Will it argue for the EU to take a position at the meeting of voting in favour of the India-South Africa waiver proposal?

A young man left mandatory hotel quarantine in Dublin yesterday. He is an Irish student at the University of Pittsburgh. He got a second vaccination in the US on Monday, 3 May, but was taken into quarantine when he arrived home to Ireland on Thursday, 6 May. He was told by the authorities that he should have waited seven days after his second vaccination before travelling. This means that he would have been free to travel here on Monday, 10 May, but the State decided to quarantine him for much longer than that, until 17 May, yesterday, and to charge him €2,000 to boot. Why? This case also raises the issue of a double standard in the treatment of Erasmus students arriving from European colleges compared to students travelling from colleges outside the EU. The State pays the quarantine fees for Erasmus students, so why not do so for students studying in the US, such as this chap, or for those studying in other places outside the EU?

We are nearly a week into the cyberattack on the HSE and the Department of Health. We are told it will take weeks to resolve this matter. Obviously, the operational capacity of the entire system has been completely undermined and patients will suffer as a result. The picture emerging from our public health system in respect of its IT capacities and technology is not a good one. Speaking to the media yesterday, the former head of the HSE said that while those working in the organisation's ICT team are highly skilled and motivated, expenditure on IT security during his time was about a quarter of what is spent in other countries' health systems. Can the Taoiseach confirm if that is true? The HSE's former chief information officer also shared this view on the public airwaves this morning, so it is not a good situation.

I ask the Taoiseach to clarify the annual spend on IT systems in the Department of Health and the HSE. Who provides cybersecurity to the HSE and the Department of Health? Can he clarify if the Minister for Health immediately informed the HSE chief of this attack, and did he in turn inform his senior management and information communication technology, ICT, teams?

Many Members have raised the issue of historic underinvestment in information technology. It is now absolutely clear that significant and immediate investment is very urgently needed. I am sure we can at least agree on that point.

The Taoiseach has two minutes for a response.

Deputy Kelly raised the issue of the advice from NIAC. The most recent advice is now being considered by the HSE. The Chief Medical Office is overseeing that as well. That will have to come to Government. It has not yet come to Government for a formal decision. The key objective for Government is to get as many vaccines out there as we possibly can. Vaccination registration is opening this week for those aged between 45 and 49, which is very positive.

A number of Deputies have spoken about the international vaccine effort. President Biden's gesture in relation to the waiving of intellectual property rights was mentioned. The only democratic block that has led the way substantially on vaccines is Europe. It has facilitated the export of 200 million vaccines to approximately 90 countries around the world. America has not shared any. Today, it stated something about sending out 20 million vaccines, yet all the Deputies got up to praise that statement. The reality is Europe is leading the world in vaccine production, manufacture and export. Europe has administered 200 million vaccines to its own citizens.

Will intellectual property, IP, be waived?

It has facilitated the export of 200 million vaccines.

Will the IP be waived?

The Deputy's whole strategy on this issue has always been to reduce everything to the single transferable slogan and sound bite as if that would magic up vaccines-----

Will the intellectual property be waived?

-----in the morning, which the Deputy knows it would not.

Will the IP be waived?

Will Deputy Murphy allow me to respond? I heard him and did not interrupt him.

The Taoiseach should try to answer.

The Deputy should have courtesy. I am giving my reply. The key to getting vaccines distributed around the world is to get them produced at volume in the first instance. That is the point - to get the manufacturing capacity in place. Those with the know-how, can do that much more effectively-----

I thank the Taoiseach. We need to move on to Question No. 11.

There is this idea in regard to just waiving intellectual property. The negotiations will take quite some time and we will approach them constructively on behalf of the European Union-----

It would be much better if the Taoiseach and the Deputy did not have a one-to-one exchange. Our time is up on this block of questions.

I ask for two or three minutes.

No, I am sorry. I will tell the Taoiseach why. Deputies posing questions need to realise that they need to ask questions rather than make lengthy statements.

It is then very difficult for me to-----

The Taoiseach cannot really be expected to respond to lengthy statements if Deputies do not leave him the time to do so. It is not fair to him or to the process.

That is my difficulty and-----

Let us go on to Question No. 11.

The only difficulty with that is my part answer might be mischaracterised in subsequent debate and commentary. However, I take the Ceann Comhairle's point. There is nothing he or I can do about it.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Questions (11, 12, 13, 14, 15)

Alan Kelly


11. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [21939/21]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett


12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [24249/21]

View answer

Bríd Smith


13. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [24252/21]

View answer

Paul Murphy


14. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [24255/21]

View answer

Mick Barry


15. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [26140/21]

View answer

Oral answers (33 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Question Nos. 11 to 15, inclusive, together.

As part of ongoing dialogue with churches, faith groups and non-confessional bodies, I met with faith leaders on a number of occasions since my appointment as Taoiseach. The most recent meeting I had took place on 15 April last when I met with the leaders of the all-island Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Irish Council of Churches. We discussed the ongoing contribution to peacebuilding and the work the churches undertake on an ongoing and daily basis at community level in Northern Ireland.

We had a very constructive discussion on Northern Ireland, which included a shared and grave concern at recent incidents of violence on the streets. We agreed that the causes of the recent violence are complex, but it is essential that calm, measured and positive leadership be exercised at every level, political, civic and community, for all the people of Northern Ireland. We also discussed the complexities and sensitivities around the consequences of Brexit and the commitment to uphold the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. The church leaders and I recognised the 1921 centenaries as profoundly important and sensitive moments in engaging with the shared history of these islands and agreed it will be important to promote a sensitive, inclusive and respectful approach in the marking of those centenaries still to come.

I welcomed the church leaders' St. Patrick's Day message reflecting on the centenary of partition and of the formation of Northern Ireland, which highlighted the valuable opportunity they provide to recognise different perspectives on our history in a way that explores what can be learned for today and contributes to reconciliation and healing on the island. I briefed the church leaders on the Government's shared island initiative. The church leaders and I recognised the importance of dialogue, engagement and respect for all communities and traditions on these islands. The church leaders and I agreed the pandemic has posed challenges for all our citizens in terms of mental health and well-being, recognised the importance of faith to the spiritual and mental well-being of many people and communities and looked forward to the time when church services and other in-person activities could resume.

Is this Questions Nos. 11 to 15?

It is myself, I think.

Are we doing Nos. 5 to 10?

It is No. 11.

Yes. I call Deputy Kelly.

The main issue I wish to raise is the new national maternity hospital. There remain serious concerns regarding ownership and control of the proposed new hospital. Unless this hospital is built on State-owned land, religious ethos will continually hinder the healthcare received by the women who use it. As long as there is continued ambiguity about the control and operation of the hospital because of who owns the site, it casts a cloud over the hospital and there will be a concern about the independence of the procedures carried out there. Dr. Peter Boylan has articulated these issues numerous times, including to me directly. We need this hospital urgently and we need to get it right. We do not need to make mistakes.

I have three questions on the matter. Is the Government prepared to provide a guarantee as to the future ownership and operation of this hospital? Would the Government be willing to take time to put in place the appropriate legal arrangement to ensure the land is owned by and not leased to the State and is operated by the HSE through a board of directors appointed by the Government and public, rather than by any hospital group? Will the Taoiseach commit to forming an Oireachtas committee solely to address these questions and, if necessary, grey areas and concerns relating to the hospital's development and governance, or else instruct a committee to do so?

There is a little confusion. I just came in. Questions Nos. 1 to 4 and Nos. 5 to 10 have been dealt with. We are moving on to Nos. 11 to 15 and Deputy Kelly does not feature in those questions. I am not sure where the confusion lies but I want to get it straight. The Taoiseach ranked Nos. 11 to 15 together, is that right?

Deputy Kelly asked No. 11. Deputy Boyd Barrett asked No. 12-----

That is fine. He is just not on the list. We are on Nos. 11 to 15. Deputy Kelly has spoken.

Let me read out what I have before me. We are on Questions Nos. 11 to 15. It is Deputies McDonald, Paul Murphy, Boyd Barrett, Catherine Murphy and Barry.

That is not what is listed.

We will not argue. I am only clarifying.

What I have here is Deputies Kelly, Boyd Barrett, Bríd Smith, Paul Murphy and Barry.

Lovely. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

Okay. I call Deputy Bríd Smith.

Go raibh maith agat. The question of the national maternity hospital is hugely important to women in this country. If men could get pregnant, it might have been answered by now, but it certainly has not been answered. On 25 May, it will be three years since people voted overwhelmingly - more than two thirds - to allow women make a choice on the question on termination of pregnancy in their own country, once and for all. The legislation that came in after that allows for limited access to abortion.

On the question of the national maternity hospital, I will quote Archbishop Eamon Martin and ask the Taoiseach for clarity on the statement, because he was recently speaking to the church leaders. He said “the carrying out of abortions or morally illicit medical procedures at the [national maternity hospital] would be repugnant” to Catholic teaching and “regardless of the eventual outcome of the proposed transfer, the church will remain clear in its public statements that there is no place in a maternity hospital for abortion[s].” If that is a statement of the church leader, where does the Taoiseach stand? What was the point in the long campaign over many decades to repeal the eighth amendment, successfully have a referendum and implement legislation? Now we will build a national maternity hospital with church ethos still intact that does not allow for abortion or other reproductive services, in-vitro fertilisation, IVF, treatment, transgender treatment etc. Will the Taoiseach clarify what will happen and when?

In answers to me, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has said the operating licence to run the national maternity hospital would be issued to St. Vincent's Healthcare Group, a company whose statutes pledge it to uphold Catholic values and vision. In this day and age, we should not hand any more hospitals over to the church, especially our national maternity hospital. Nowhere in the world do Catholic-controlled hospitals provide contraception or perform IVF, surgical sterilisations or abortions.

On top of that, the Minister said there would be private outpatient clinics in this new public hospital and one in six of the consulting rooms would be private. He said the details of this deal will not be put before the Oireachtas before it is agreed at Cabinet. It is not good enough. The public needs to know what is being done and whether the result of the repeal referendum almost three years ago will be undermined by a secret deal with the nuns' companies. Will the Taoiseach at the very least give a guarantee that the contracts to run this hospital will be put before this House for scrutiny and approval?

The legal framework to protect the State's investment and ensure the national maternity hospital remains in State ownership has still not been completed. Eighteen months ago, the Tánaiste told us the details of this transfer would be finalised in a matter of weeks. Yet significant questions remain unanswered in terms of the make-up and mission of the new hospital. None of this has been satisfactorily addressed, as colleagues have said. The Religious Sisters of Charity received conditional permission from the Holy See to transfer their shareholding to the new company established to facilitate the provision of health services. The conditional permission cites Canon Law, which is astonishing and totally inappropriate. It has previously been reported that the Vatican initially opposed the Religious Sisters of Charity's decision to transfer their interest to the new company and the former Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, played a critical role in securing the conditional permission. Has the Taoiseach discussed this matter with the new Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Dermot Farrell, or raised the omission of a public interest director from the board of the new company? What effort has been made to ensure the new maternity hospital will be absolutely free from religious influence?

Deputy Kelly raised the issue of the national maternity hospital, as have all the Deputies who spoke subsequently. Religious ethos will not influence the policy or activities of the hospital. I supported the repeal of the eighth amendment and the national maternity hospital will not be in any shape or form influenced by any religion. I have not discussed it with any bishop or archbishop. I do not think it is appropriate. Nor did they seek to discuss it with me at any stage.

This Government is ten months old but this project has dragged on for years. The existing situation in terms of women's health in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street, is not what it should be. We cannot continue indefinitely in the existing location, in terms of modern maternity and health care for women. We need a new facility.

Even if it was cleared in the morning, we are still looking at some years before a new facility would be constructed. We need to keep that in mind as we continue to debate this issue because it seems to me that over the past five to six years it has been exhaustively engaged in by a variety of contributors. There is a necessity, an imperative, to get this modern facility in place. The decision to move to the St. Vincent's campus in the first instance was a clinical medical one in order to have a maternity hospital adjacent to a tertiary hospital for the betterment of women and newborns, to allow for health interventions that might be urgently required. The most successful example of that is CUH where the maternity hospital is on site. I was Minister for Health when that maternity hospital was constructed on the grounds of the hospital, and we have not had a similar example built since. That was in the 2000s. We do need to get on with it.

I fully accept the points that have been made about the independence of the new hospital and that all State policies would be followed through without question in the policy of the hospital and the operational working of the hospital. That is something that I would not just be very keen on, but insistent on. I will revert to the Minister for Health on the issues people have raised with a view first to conveying their views but also seeking to get a resolution once and for all because the current situation is not at all optimal in terms of women’s health. We need this new facility as quickly as possible.

I am not in favour of a special Oireachtas committee because I do not think we need one on a hospital. It would create a precedent and I am not sure of the value of that. We have a health committee and it would seem to me that the Minister coming before the committee would be the proper forum for discussing and teasing out these issues.

The issues raised by Deputy McDonald concerning the Sisters of Charity getting permission to divest of the land relate to previous years. That worked itself out. As far as I am concerned, this needs to be a State-owned and operated hospital. It will be, and State policy will be the dominant and only feature of this particular hospital.

When will we get answers from them?

Once the agreement and the discussions are complete, I would expect full accountability to the House in that respect.

When do we expect the agreements and discussions to be completed?

As I said, this has gone on for quite a long time. Covid has dominated, but when we get full clarity around that, we will revert to the House on it. The Oireachtas health committee is an appropriate forum for the ins and outs of this project to be debated. We need to get a new national maternity hospital built.

Could we get an answer from the Minister for Health?

The Rotunda is to follow. I have always found it extraordinary the length of time it has taken to argue these issues out and get them resolved given the State investment in all of these sites.

I thank the Taoiseach.

The State has invested hugely on the St. Vincent's site.

We agree with the Taoiseach on that, but we are not getting any answers.

I thank the Taoiseach.

We should not be having these long-running sagas in terms of ownership and all the rest of it.

I thank the Taoiseach. We are going to move on. That completes questions to the Taoiseach.