Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada. [31465/17]

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

2. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Canadian Prime Minister. [31485/17]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Justin Trudeau. [32103/17]

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

4. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his engagement with the Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Justin Trudeau on 4 July 2017. [32320/17]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his discussions with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; and if CETA, North Korea and climate change were discussed. [32470/17]

Ruth Coppinger

Ceist:

6. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings with the Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Justin Trudeau. [32478/17]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

I was very pleased to welcome the Prime Minister, Mr. Justin Trudeau, and his family to Ireland last week. The Prime Minister was especially welcome as my first international visitor given the close and historic ties between our two countries. Our meeting was an opportunity to discuss our shared and common outlook on the issues of free trade multilateralism and climate action.

We discussed the importance of the bilateral trade and investment relationship between our two countries. Annual trade between Ireland and Canada is valued at more than €2.75 billion while Canadian tourist traffic to Ireland has increased by 56% in three years, with close to 200,000 Canadians visiting Ireland every year. The Prime Minister and I agreed that there is considerable potential for growing trade and economic links further given increased direct air access, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, and the strength of our respective economies.

We discussed the current state of play of Brexit since the commencement of negotiations, and I outlined Ireland's priorities in this regard. The Prime Minister was also interested in developments in Northern Ireland, and I updated him on the current political situation there. He reiterated to me the Canadian Government's commitment to support the Northern Ireland peace process and offered any assistance that might be helpful to drive progress.

The Prime Minister and I discussed the benefits and opportunities regarding CETA for both our economies and progress towards the commencement of provisional application. CETA is a progressive and comprehensive agreement which will remove over 99% of tariffs and create sizeable new market access opportunities in many sectors for Irish firms.

We also discussed climate change and reaffirmed our commitment to the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The Canadian Government continues its efforts to work with the US on climate change matters given that US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement cannot proceed until 2020.

The Prime Minister and I reaffirmed our commitment to working together across a range of common interests. I look forward to working to strengthen further the bilateral relations between Ireland and Canada in the time ahead. For the sake of completeness, let me add that North Korea did not feature in our discussions.

I later hosted a dinner at Dublin Castle in Prime Minister Trudeau's honour. This event was attended by distinguished guests representing various aspects of Ireland-Canada relations, including politics, tourism, business, culture and sport.

Prime Minister Trudeau's visit to Ireland, coming so soon after the visit of my predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, to Canada in May, represents a new era in Irish-Canadian relations. There are enormous opportunities for our two countries to work much more closely together, including on economic issues and trade. I look forward to this relationship blossoming in the coming months and years.

There are six questioners in this grouping. Would it be an idea to take all six and then go back to the Taoiseach for a further response?

I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

The fairly desperate scramble of the political establishment in this country and elsewhere to understand why it is so discredited often focuses on trivia and superficial impressions about what is important and what motivates the electorate. Never more did we see this on show than during the visit of Prime Minister Trudeau, when the focus of much of the commentary was about socks, image and jogging through the park. There was no serious debate about the substantial issues for which the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Trudeau affirmed their support, which are the actual reasons the political establishment is in trouble, namely, the consequence of 25 years of corporate-led globalisation, of which CETA is the latest version. I say seriously to the Taoiseach that he should recognise, even for his own narrow political concerns or, for that matter, those of Deputy Micheál Martin, that the reason the establishment is in trouble is the consequence of corporate-led globalisation on ordinary working people and their incomes, public services, infrastructure and the growing inequality in the distribution of wealth, which CETA will further exacerbate. The Taoiseach keeps saying he favours trade. So do I. I favour trade in a way that will benefit the majority of people. All the lauding of CETA, which the Taoiseach has reaffirmed, fails to acknowledge, first, that he plans to apply it without any democratic mandate in this country, as in many other places, which infuriates people, and, second, that he fails to acknowledge the damage it will do to workers' rights, environmental standards, the distribution of wealth, health and safety standards or, according to a recent academic study, the estimated 300,000 jobs that will be lost in Europe as a result of the agreement. None of these things are mentioned.

I thank the Deputy. He is out of time.

The Taoiseach just forges ahead with his support for this deal that will only benefit multinational corporations.

I share Deputy Boyd Barrett's concern about CETA. To take a specific example, the concern is that it does not protect the environmental standards we desperately need to enforce. One can say one thing but do another. The Taoiseach said that many of his discussions with Prime Minister Trudeau concerned the issue of climate change. Whatever the spin may be, I am afraid my understanding is that the Canadian Prime Minister spoke at a recent oil conference in Canada and said no one would find 173 billion barrels of oil and not use it, and this is what the Canadian Government is doing in one of the greatest acts of environmental destruction happening on our planet. The use of that oil would account for approximately 30% of the total global carbon budget that we can afford to release into the atmosphere. Prime Minister Trudeau's Government's co-operation with the US Government in building and reopening the Keystone pipeline and other pipelines calls into question their role in the climate issue. I am interested to know what the discussion about climate change between the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Trudeau was about. What did the Taoiseach propose as our special initiative or special actions in this area? Did he ask the Canadian Prime Minister to explain how he can talk up climate and yet plan to burn 173 billion barrels of shale oil, the dirtiest form of fuel available to us? What leg does Prime Minister Trudeau have to stand on in respect of the climate issue when he is planning to do this and ship the oil across the Keystone pipeline and other pipelines to the rest of the world?

As the leader of a party which supports international trade agreements and understands the value and importance of them, particularly for our economy and the maintenance and development of jobs in our economy, I posed a number of questions about CETA to the Taoiseach at the previous Leaders' Questions. Supporting international trade means we have not only a right, but also a responsibility to drill into the individual component parts of each trade agreement. The concerns expressed about the investor court system in particular are a matter I raised last week. It would address a huge number of people's concerns here if decisions in respect of disputes in international trade were fully determined by our domestic courts and would not be subject to any external overview beyond that. I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's view on this matter. It was because of this and issues related to the environment, for example, as raised by Deputy Eamon Ryan, that Seanad Éireann voted against CETA. I would be interested to hear the Government's response to a vote of one of the Houses of the Oireachtas in this regard. Relatedly, when will the Dáil get a chance to fully debate a motion that the Government ratify the agreement?

I was intrigued by the answer the Taoiseach gave regarding Prime Minister Trudeau's offer of assistance from Canada in the next phase of the peace process. What was the Taoiseach's response to his offer? Does he envisage or see the kind of supportive role that was played in the past by the United States being supplemented by Canada, and how would this manifest itself?

As the Taoiseach has acknowledged, one of the big issues of his conversations with the Canadian Prime Minister was CETA, yet there has been no real debate on this issue despite widespread concerns about the implications of the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, especially among farmers, workers and small and medium-sized indigenous companies. There has been no proper debate here in the Dáil, and the Government has chosen to ignore all this and has signed off on the provisional application of the deal at EU level. It has ignored that such a treaty must be agreed by all state parliaments, including the Dáil, and we have yet to vote on this. The only vote in the Oireachtas, as an Teachta Howlin acknowledged, was a Seanad resolution calling on the Government not to ratify the deal. One of the issues at the core of the concerns is the inclusion of the investor court system, which would allow Canadian-based corporations the right to sue governments in the European Union for compensation for the loss of expected future profits in response to government actions that impact on the companies' activities.

We have received legal advice that the inclusion of this system is not compatible with Bunreacht na hÉireann. There is a duty and a responsibility for the Dáil to discuss these issues to ensure that citizens are fully informed of what is included in this trade agreement. Will the Government agree to CETA being debated in the Dáil? When will we have the opportunity to vote on this controversial trade deal? Has the Government sought a legal opinion on the need for a referendum to ratify CETA?

It is a fair point to say that the curious thing about Prime Minister Trudeau's visit is how our Government's primary objective seemed to focus on personal publicity rather than on issues of substance, and while Prime Minister Trudeau did do events linked to Irish economic strengths, it was surprising that the Taoiseach decided to emphasise other aspects.

The CETA agreement is the most important issue of substance at the moment in Irish-Canadian relations. I remind Deputy Adams that we tabled a Private Members' motion here on CETA and enterprise, which was passed, and there was a debate about the issue in the Dáil some weeks ago. Perhaps he was not around or did not realise that this had happened. We did it for a reason. I attended a Dublin Castle event and met representatives of some companies. Among them was a small company from Limerick which employs around 80 people. I asked them if they realised that there was a chorus of negativity around CETA in Dáil Éireann, and they were taken aback.

They were surprised?

These are small companies we are talking about. These are two young men who set up a software company and they could not understand the disconnect between some politicians and the real world out there, where people want the Canadian trade deal in order that they can export their products. To a certain extent, all of the noise made has been negative and anti-CETA, and there has been no corresponding balanced perspective in terms of the value and importance of trade and weighing up that balance in terms of a free trade agreement.

Free trade agreements are notoriously slow to deliver. They move at a snail's pace. Multilateral trade agreements are extraordinarily difficult to get over the line. When they do get over the line, we have a regular chorus of negativity and anti-trade sentiment. People say that it is all wrong and that it is a terrible thing. Exaggerated claims are made to the effect that it is a dastardly attempt to destroy the ordinary people. Many ordinary people depend on jobs in companies that are growing and prospering because of free trade. We have never had realistic, logical alternative from the left, from People Before Profit or the Anti-Austerity Alliance. We hear that those parties do believe in trade, but of a different kind, whatever that means. We are a small island on the Atlantic. We need an open economy. We made the decision in the late 1950s and early 1960s to open up. We cannot dictate to the entire world and we will not be in a position to dictate to the entire world. Trade is the lifeblood for working people in this country and there must be a degree of honesty about this debate and face up to it. Other parties might talk about establishment politics, whatever that means. We are all elected here. I do not label anybody in terms of establishment or anti-establishment. That is the oldest trick in the political book in terms of rhetoric. The reality is we represent ordinary working people who depend on a salary every week or month because they work in companies that have to sell goods and services, be they beef, milk, software or life sciences; companies that will not expand if they do not have access to new markets.

Did the Taoiseach make any specific commitments about the ratification of CETA and when will this Parliament ratify CETA? I agree with other Deputies on that matter. I have been calling for this for 12 months. Let us have a debate and a ratification process here.

I know we are all equal but I do not believe I will need the extra two minutes that Deputy Martin took for himself.

We found out more about the Taoiseach's socks during the visit of Prime Minister Trudeau than anything else. We saw soft focus pictures of the Taoiseach jogging in the Phoenix Park, which the media, compliant as they are, chose to focus on. CETA is a very serious issue and as other people, including Members of the Seanad, have said, there is a conflict between CETA and our Constitution. The key issue is the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, now known as the investor court mechanism, which allows companies to sue states for a loss of profits or interfering with their right to make profits. For example, should the State implement regulations around environmental standards, working standards or other regulations? Yesterday a Bill on waste reduction was progressed in the Dáil. Is that something that could hit companies?

I do not know which circles Deputy Micheál Martin moves in but there is huge international opposition to this, including from trade unions, so I am surprised that his friends were not aware of that.

They are not my friends.

As for the realistic alternative the left would advocate, we are more international than many of the parties of this Dáil and of course we believe in international trade but trade in which workers' rights are protected and the environment is put to the forefront. Some international trade must be challenged. Some trade is absolutely ludicrous, such as bottles of water passing each other on aeroplanes. We want to protect the environment.

Is the Taoiseach going to allow a debate in the Dáil? A Private Members' Bill does not cut it, nor does a motion. Will there be a proper debate in the Dáil in the autumn? Will the Taoiseach allow this to go to a referendum if he does propose that it should be passed?

We are eating into the time for the second group of questions. Perhaps we should take an additional eight minutes to allow the Taoiseach to address the questions, if necessary.

I am in the hands of the Ceann Comhairle.

I often hear Deputy Boyd Barrett speaking about the political establishment being discredited and in trouble. I do not know for sure what he means by that phrase. I presume that he is referring to my party and perhaps the parties of Deputies Micheál Martin and Howlin. Of course, all of our parties win many more votes that his party does in almost every election.

It is historically declining.

In fact, we win more votes in one or two constituencies than his entire party wins across all its candidates in the entire country. He may want to reassess what he means by being discredited and being in trouble. Perhaps in his view going from an 80% share of the vote to 60% means one is in trouble but going from 2% to 2.5% is a great victory. Everyone has a different perspective on these things but I consider the fact that his party has so few votes and so little representation in democratic assemblies to be more of a reflection of his politics being discredited and in trouble than that of the major parties in this House.

Provisional application for CETA was ratified by the European Parliament on 15 December. Trade is principally an EU competence and the European Parliament, which is elected by the people of Europe, ratified democratically the provisional application of the agreement by Europe. We expect the provisional application to take place this year. The real benefits derive from provisional application because that allows us to remove tariffs on the vast majority of goods that are traded between Canada and the European Union. We expect that application to happen this year and we will see the benefits flow from that in the years ahead with more trade between Europe and Canada, consumers getting better prices and successful companies getting more business and therefore being able to create more jobs-----

Many small companies will go out of business.

-----and thus resulting in more revenues for the Exchequer.

In terms of full ratification, I agree it absolutely requires a debate and a vote in the Dáil. However, no date is set for that as yet. Thus far only two members states, Latvia and Denmark, have ratified the agreement in full. We do not have any date for that at present. The real benefits in terms of trade, business, jobs and revenue come from provisional application, which will happen this year and was approved democratically by the European Parliament on 15 February.

There was some anti-free trade rhetoric in the House during the questions. We have heard this anti-free trade rhetoric before. We heard it when people opposed joining the European Economic Community back in the 1970s. We heard it when people opposed the Single European Act in 1986. We heard it when people opposed joining the World Trade Organization. Very few people in Ireland seriously wish to reverse any of those free trade agreements or pacts we have entered into because people recognise those agreements are part of the reason we have 2 million people working in Ireland, rather than only 1 million, as was the case not long ago.

It is part of the reason for the improvement in living standards and prosperity in recent decades because we are a trading country and an open economy, and on balance we benefit from free trade agreements. There are pluses and minuses in any treaty or agreement but we certainly have more upside than downside. That is why people, including small and big farmers and businesses, are now fighting so hard throughout the country to retain free trade with Britain. They understand instinctively that their farms, property, businesses and jobs benefit from free trade. That is why we are trying to defend free trade with the United Kingdom which in some ways appears now to be turning inwards. That is why we are so committed to retaining free trade with the rest of the European Union and expanding our trade agreements with Canada, Japan and any other place within reason that is willing to negotiate agreements with us.

On climate action, the Canadian and Irish Governments recommitted themselves to the implementation of the Paris Accord. We had some discussion about the United States and the fact that even though it has issued its intention to withdraw from the Paris Accord, that cannot happen in effect until 2020 which potentially will be after the next electoral cycle in the United States. We expect it will meet its targets in the meantime. We will struggle to meet ours but we do intend to do so and will publish the national mitigation plan next week. We did not get into much detail on what Canada and Ireland are doing to implement the Paris Accord but we did commit the two countries to implementing it.

That is because there is not too much detail.

On the peace process, the Canadian Government offered to assist in any way it could. There was no specific offer as to how it can help. I did recall the important role General John de Chastelain, a Canadian, played in monitoring decommissioning and the putting of arms beyond use. I inquired as to how he was doing and he is still alive and well. We did not get into any particular detail on what additional assistance the Canadian authorities could offer in the peace process. We have got to the point now where the amount of external assistance we need from other countries is less than it might have been in the past. Most of the issues that need to be resolved need to be resolved by people in Northern Ireland and in Ireland and Britain without external help. That is not to say, however, that we do not reserve the right to request it from time to time.

We move now to Question No. 7 in the name of Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett.

The political establishment, which I will define for Deputy Micheál Martin, comprises the people who have dominated this State since its inception-----

Sorry, the Taoiseach answers first, then the Deputy can come in.

He is practising.

Cabinet Committees

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will consider establishing a Cabinet committee on the arts. [31466/17]

The Government established a number of Cabinet committees last week, of which one, Cabinet sub-committee B, will deal with all matters pertaining to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which has responsibility for the arts. The intent in the new configuration of Cabinet committees is to give a sharper co-ordinated approach on policy matters to ensure a whole-of-Government perspective. In addition, as I stated yesterday, I intend to do a lot more on a bilateral level with Ministers to try to drive the agenda and get things done.

As I was saying, the political establishment, which I will define for Deputy Martin as being the people who have dominated the State for the past 75 years, like a narrative in which they say they are the people in favour of enterprise and jobs whereas the left just wants to give out about things.

The lecture continues.

The truth is that we just want different priorities in developing jobs and enterprise. One of those, which we have talked about incessantly, and at the time of the previous budget, People Before Profit was the only group of people to include it in their budget submission, is the need to increase the arts budget significantly and to recognise the enormous, cultural, economic and social potential of the arts.

Is this Question Time?

There has been some rhetorical acknowledgement of that issue by the Government and Fianna Fáil, largely because of the work of the National Campaign for the Arts and others. In reality, however, the arts budget for 2017 was reduced by 16% on what it was in 2016 and we are at the bottom of the league table when it comes to expenditure on arts as a proportion of gross domestic product, GDP. We do not recognise the value, potential, work or contribution of artists. There is probably nothing that has enhanced Ireland's reputation at every level on the international stage more than arts, poetry and music, yet the level of interest of the political establishment beyond rhetoric is pathetic. That is borne out by the pitifully low level of investment in the arts. Is the Taoiseach's new regime going to recognise this huge gap, begin to back the arts and artists and invest in our cultural talent?

Yesterday, we had a discussion with the Taoiseach about Cabinet committees and he managed to provide almost zero detail on how these new cumbersome committees will work apart from the fact there will be a constantly changing membership. The idea that the old committees had to be abolished because too many were attending – I think the Taoiseach said there were up to 30 or 40 – is ridiculous because the Taoiseach has it in his power to say only so many should attend and keep it streamlined, as was once the case. There is a serious concern that this new set-up will reduce transparency and co-ordination by rolling a wide range of issues into the one committee. Up to the present we could at least judge the level of activity on health and judicial reform and other areas by seeing the number of meetings which these committees held. Under the new arrangements, even this small amount of information will not be available. The number of my questions that have been transferred by the Taoiseach's office or submitted for disqualification has expanded fairly dramatically in the past three weeks. Once these committees are in operation, what level of detail will the Taoiseach be willing to provide to the House on their agendas, activity and the substance of their discussions?

It is important that a Cabinet committee on the arts be established. I disagree fundamentally with Deputy Boyd Barrett on his criticisms of previous Governments. They did not dominate. They were elected in a parliamentary democracy. One of our enduring legacies to the nation was that during the rise of fascism, we managed to produce a republican constitution in 1937 when the rest of Europe was going fascist. The Deputy should never forget that.

We snuffed out the Blueshirts for a while.

We did that and it is an enduring document that I am proud of. The arts have had cycles of being up and down. There have been good periods when Governments did a lot for the arts. This House, generally speaking, is committed to them. I agree the Government could do more and that an arts committee should be established.

The fact the Taoiseach has decided to drop the Cabinet committees on the arts and on the Irish language is a blow for both. While arguably the lack of support for the Irish language and the lack of adequate funding for, or recognition of, the arts are evidence that some committees have not made a huge difference in respect of Government policy, nonetheless the scrapping of half these committees means that these important matters will get even less attention and be given even less priority. That is a matter of deep concern. The Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy McHugh, said that one of the new committees on social policy and the committee on the economy will have direct responsibility for the Irish language and the Gaeltacht. He says this will provide a greater focus. How does the Taoiseach expect this to happen?

The arts are the essence of what we are. They are bread and roses. In their widest form, particularly in working class communities, the arts can be uplifting. They can also be an economic driver. The Government's approach to the arts has been pitiable despite the fact the arts are most of what Ireland is best appreciated for in the wider world. An example of Fine Gael's approach to this was the appointment of John McNulty of that party to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA, by a previous Taoiseach merely to facilitate a nomination for a Seanad election. We need to stop messing about with these essential issues. Will the Taoiseach reconsider creating a dedicated arts and heritage Cabinet committee to drive that work forward?

I am glad that it is external artists who make the judgment on the value of previous Administrations rather than Deputy Boyd Barrett. Their view of Ministers such as President Michael D. Higgins and the contribution he and many of his successors-----

I was not talking about Michael D.

Deputy Boyd Barrett disparaged everybody in one broad stroke. Some exemplary-----

Michael D. was never part of the political establishment.

He was a member of the Labour Party. He was a Minister of Government.

He was on the left wing of the Labour Party.

He was mainstream pretty quickly.

He was an honourable exception.

Some exemplary officeholders have contributed. A number of things are important and I ask the Taoiseach and the relevant Minister, who is sitting beside him, to consider a number of things. First is the multi-annual funding of the arts, which we provide for some of the major art organisations like the Gate or the Abbey. It is impossible for significant organisations to plan without a commitment to a three-year horizon at least. Multi-annual budgeting is something I tried to introduce myself across Departments. For arts bodies to plan or hire artists, it is necessary to think about a timeframe well beyond 12 months. It is something we might do. One of the things we sought to do in this year's budget was to ensure that the significant boost in the capital spend for the 1916 centenary commemorations would be embedded as a capital spend in the arts. Unfortunately, it was not done. While some residual funding was embedded, not all was provided. These are a few of the issues a Cabinet sub-committee, which I hope will find time to debate the arts, should address.

I welcome very much and accept the genuine nature of the supportive comments other leaders have made on the arts. The budget increase for the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs for last year was between €18 million and €20 million. This included a €5 million, or 8%, increase in the annual budget for the Arts Council, an increase in the budgets of all of the national cultural institutions, €2 million to allow for the opening of the newly restored historic wings at the National Gallery of Ireland, which are now open, the opening of Killarney House, which took place the other day, an increase of €2 million for the Irish Film Board, an increase of €1 million for Culture Ireland and funding of €5 million for the implementation of the Creative Ireland programme for 2017 to 2022. While it was the case that there were budget reductions during the downturn when budgets were being decreased in all areas, people can see from the actions of the new Government that when there is a little bit more space and more resources, the arts are getting their fair share in the increases I have just outlined. Other measures are in place. Creative Ireland is very exciting and I am very much behind it. It is now under way. We had Cruinniú na Cásca over Easter and there are local government plans in place. There is €5 million for that this year. In addition, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and I worked together to change the social welfare code to exempt self-employed artists from normal activation measures. They can now concentrate on their art for a time without having to go through the normal activation procedures provided they are recognised by a recognised arts body.

I engage with people in the arts sector a great deal. It is an area I have been interested in myself. I will be at the Galway Film Fleadh on Thursday where one of my friends is premiering "Pilgrimage". I recommend people go and see it if they get a chance. When I meet people who are interested in or involved in the arts, they tend to ask me about funding. Sometimes, they ask me about multi-annual funding. I agree with Deputy Howlin's comments in that regard. It would be much better if we could have multi-annual funding horizons in place for the national cultural institutions and the Arts Council. It is not something I can guarantee will be in the next budget but it is something I would like to see there. I have never had a single person involved in the arts or culture ask me how many times a sub-committee met. It is really not top of the list of concerns of those involved in the arts and culture whether we have a sub-committee and how often it meets. What they are interested in is funding generally and funding on a multi-annual basis. Funding will increase next year.

Government Information Service

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the staffing and media monitoring in the Government Information Service unit; and his plans for changes. [32105/17]

The Government Information Service is comprised of the Government press secretary; the deputy Government press secretary; the assistant Government press secretary, and the position is currently vacant; two assistant principal officers, one of whom is assigned to MerrionStreet.ie; four press officers at higher executive officer level, two of which positions are currently vacant; three communications and media assistants at executive officer equivalent grade assigned to MerrionStreet.ie, all of which positions are currently vacant, and one clerical officer. All relevant recruitment processes are being finalised and temporary arrangements are in place to cover the vacancies detailed above.

While I have not, as yet, made a decision on changing the resourcing or structure of the Government Information Service, I am giving thought to how Government might best communicate its initiatives, work and strategic policy priorities to the public and relevant stakeholders. I intend to establish a small unit in my Department to focus on strategic communications across Government. This unit will complement, not replace, the existing arrangements in Departments and agencies for dealing with press, media and communications. The precise mandate and other arrangements for the operation of the new unit will be worked out over the coming weeks.

The Taoiseach listed a number of vacancies in his reply. There are vacancies for an assistant Government press secretary, two of four press officer positions and three executive officer equivalents in the communications and media assistant area. Is it the Taoiseach's intention to fill all of these, will that be done in the normal way through the Civil Service recruitment process or will specialists be brought in? The Taoiseach said he wanted to restructure the Government Information Service. What does he have in mind in particular? Will the new unit with responsibility for strategic communications across Government be housed within the Government Information Service and serve under the head of that service? Is that how it is to work? Is it a link between press officers in Departments to provide better information? How is it to work?

I did not realise there were quite so many vacancies until I read out the reply. I imagine some are Civil Service vacancies, which will be filled in the normal way should the Secretary General determine they remain necessary. Political appointments such as that of the assistant Government press secretary simply have not been made yet and probably will not be until the autumn given that we are entering a relatively quiet period in terms of media.

The strategic communications unit will be separate. It will be a unit of the Department and not under the auspices of the Government Information Service. The Government Information Service will do what it does currently, namely, deal with the press on a regular basis, deal with protocol and deal with national commemorations. The strategic communications unit will be something new. It will try to pull together all of the communications that occur across Government. We have a lot of Departments and agencies and they are spending a great deal of taxpayers' money. They have an awful lot of staff. I do not believe an adequately coherent message is coming from Government. There is an opportunity to make savings in the total amount spent by Departments and agencies on communications and public relations and there is also an opportunity to present a much more coherent message to the public as to what the Government and its agencies are doing and what the public service is providing people with.

It is news to all of us that there is to be a parallel information service in this strategic communications unit. From my experience in government and from what the Taoiseach has explained, the unit will replicate what the Government Information Service does. Is there a budget line for this? Has the Taoiseach envisaged its staffing component and at what level? He might provide us with an indication of that.

As this is the first time since the Taoiseach's appointment that the topic has been discussed, I wish the staff of the Government Information Service well. Given the emphasis the Taoiseach and his advisers place on photo opportunities and media management, their jobs will be quite difficult. The Taoiseach might explain why the summer economic statement is being delivered at a press conference instead of in the House. It is in order to deliver it in the House.

The Taoiseach needs to explain this strategic communications unit. I know he has covered it up by saying it will save money but it sounds very much to me like this is a political machine that is being put in at the heart of the Taoiseach's office to deliver a coherent political message on behalf of the Government. We need to be absolutely clear that existing-----

The Shane Ross monitoring unit.

The Government never co-ordinates Deputy Shane Ross with what it is doing itself, so the idea that this strategic communications unit will bring greater coherence to the Government message is not the issue. Fundamentally, it seems to me that we are getting a beefed-up political operation. It is a bit like the noted New Labour operative in the UK, Alastair-----

-----Campbell. I was watching the comedy "The Thick of It" recently. I hope the Taoiseach does not end up there in terms of that type of operation.

He would be so lucky to have it.

That is, in terms of the comedy side of it. The point I am making is that the Taoiseach needs to be very clear as to what is envisaged, how it is going to work alongside the Government Information Service, and that it would not be politicised and not be part of some political operation over the next 12 months.

I happen to think that a strategic communications unit might be a good idea, provided we know what strategy is involved and we have much more information on it instead of it just being dropped in, as it were, in one or two sentences. I would imagine that this could be a Tony Blair type machine, but it could equally be something that looks at the main strategic objectives of a Government. One would argue that, at this time, they have to include the delivery of the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit, a united Ireland and how one would get and win a referendum on unity.

That brings us to who it is we need to engage with. The Government needs to engage with people in the North. It is very important that there would be an ongoing engagement. Some parts of the North cannot even get RTE. The images coming out of the North during this 12 July period are very upsetting and offensive. I think they would be considered hate crimes in anyone's book. They are the work of a very small minority, however. The vast majority of the Orange celebrations will go on without any great disruption to people's lives. However, one asks if the Taoiseach has thought about engaging with people in the North through the media about Brexit.

The Government's position is wrong on Brexit. It wants a designated status for the North outside of the European Union when the only sensible position is to have a designated status for the North inside it. Would this strategic communications unit deal with that issue in the North and our friends in Britain and, of course, the big issue of a united Ireland? If the Taoiseach is serious about it, surely the strategic communications unit should be tasked with communicating the Government's position on that important issue.

The new unit does not exist yet. It probably will not be established until September but I am happy to give the House notice of it and any information I have on it now. It will be supplementary to and separate from the GIS because its role will be different and complementary. It will not be political. It will not be staffed by political appointees. People will be seconded from other parts of the Civil Service and public service. Its role principally will be to inform the public about what the Government is doing and explaining to the public, and more broadly, the actions of Government. For example, it will explain the budget. There will be a €58 billion spending package announced on budget day, but people have very little knowledge about and understanding of it. There is an opportunity to explain it a bit better. The unit will explain the capital plan when it is published and how that will impact on and benefit every community throughout the country. As another example, in a few weeks' time the new universal child care subsidy kicks in. This subsidy will be worth approximately €1,000 a year, or €20 a week, to families with children in child care. Every child between the age of six months and three years will benefit from this subsidy, but how many people know that this is going to happen in less than six weeks? We need to invest a lot more effort in explaining to the public some of these new initiatives that are being led and implemented by Government and how Government is working for them to make their lives better.