Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he has held recent meetings with church leaders and faith communities. [53041/17]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent and planned engagements with church leaders and faith communities here. [1838/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on planned or past meetings with church leaders. [3089/18]

Ruth Coppinger

Ceist:

4. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he has had meetings recently with religious leaders. [3173/18]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met the church leaders recently. [3445/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

On 31 August last, I held a formal meeting under the structured dialogue process with representatives of the Catholic Church, led by Archbishop Eamon Martin. I was accompanied at the meeting by the Tánaiste and Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and by the Ministers for Education and Skills; Health; Transport, Tourism and Sport; and Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

A wide-ranging discussion took place on a range of important national and international issues including the World Meeting of Families in August 2018 and the possibility of a visit to Ireland by the Pope, education issues, the eighth amendment of the Constitution, Northern Ireland, overseas development aid and social justice issues.

I also recently received a courtesy call from the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, as is traditional around the Christmas and new year period.

Yesterday, I met representatives of the main Protestant churches, the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist congregations. I was accompanied by the Ministers for Justice and Equality; Business, Enterprise and Innovation; Education and Skills; Health; and Transport, Tourism and Sport; and the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with special responsibility for international development.

This was the second in a series of meetings I will hold with dialogue partners. We discussed important social and economic issues facing Irish society including Brexit, education, the eighth amendment to the Constitution and international development.

Church and faith communities play an important role in Irish life, and it is very beneficial that Government should engage with them in a structured way. Some of the issues we discussed at these meetings were very challenging. They are issues on which people have deeply held views and which are matters of conscience. Our discussions were valuable not just because they dealt with important issues, but particularly because they were conducted in an atmosphere of respect for the views of others in which everyone sought to be constructive.

The Taoiseach said he met representatives of the Catholic Church to see how he can facilitate the planned visit by the Pope later this year. I deduce from the Taoiseach's remarks that he had some discussion about this. If so, will he give some sense of what is expected and anticipated and what kind of support he expects the Government will provide to facilitate this visit? Furthermore, does he have any insight into whether the Pope will visit the North? Pope John Paul II did not visit the North when he came here, but when the possibility of a papal visit was raised perhaps two years ago, both Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster welcomed the notion of a visit to the North.

Finally, and very briefly, local people in Ballivor, County Meath, have protested against the proposed siting of a so-called drug treatment centre run by a group called Narconon, which is closely linked to the Church of Scientology. My colleague, Deputy Peadar Tóibín, who is a local representative, has pointed out that there is no provision in legislation for the regulation or inspection of residential treatment or rehabilitation centres specialising in addiction. Will the Taoiseach tell us whether he shares the concerns that have been raised about this? Is there a way to support local people and allay their concerns?

I, too, think there is value and merit in having a structured dialogue with faith group leaders in our country. In the Taoiseach's discussions on the eighth amendment, did he share with any of the faith groups his personal views on repeal of the eighth amendment? What kind of legislation did they suggest? Were all the groups he talked to united in a particular view on the eighth amendment? Was he just involved in a listening exercise without sharing his own views on these matters?

I refer to the issue of schools, particularly in the context of the Catholic Church. I listened with some care to the views expressed - very well, I think - by the Minister for Education and Skills recently on offering choice for a growing number of our citizens who want choice regarding secondary education in particular. Did the Taoiseach discuss this matter and did a shared consensus emerge on it?

Finally, what inputs will the State have into the visit later this year of the Pope? Obviously, there will be security considerations and costs but, regarding the way in which the visit is to be planned, does the Taoiseach have a schedule of State inputs that he might wish to share with the Oireachtas?

Will the Taoiseach elaborate on the discussions he had with Archbishop Martin about the eighth amendment? Many people have said, rightly, that the debate on the likely referendum on the eighth amendment should be conducted in a reasonable and respectful manner. However, the fact is that in the past it has often been people associated with the church, often in senior positions in the church, who have tried to reduce the argument to phrases such as "abortion is murder", "it is about the destruction of innocent life" and so on. This is what has polarised previous debates.

I remember standing outside these Houses a long time ago and being physically attacked with hurleys by people attached to the Catholic view of abortion because we were protesting about the treatment of Miss X at the time of the tragic X case. It is important that the Taoiseach sends out a very clear signal that the Government expects those who are anti-abortion not to polarise the debate with such terms, which are really derogatory and do not respect the decisions of huge numbers of Irish women to seek abortions under very difficult circumstances, whether as a result of poverty, rape, mental or physical health threats or whatever other reasons, and expects the church to commit not to denigrate women in the debate that is likely to ensue.

These structured discussions with leaders of various faiths have been ongoing for approximately a decade and they are a recognition of the importance of churches and other religious organisations in the lives of so many in our society and in our country. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in different areas for Ministers to announce policy towards institutions managed by religious groups through the media rather than raising them first in these dialogues. One of the side effects of this has been to slow down important developments such as the transfer of patronage of national schools. In that case, years have been lost as a previously co-operative approach was replaced by one of mutual suspicion. This certainly happened in terms of the patronage issue.

Has the Taoiseach given any assurance of consultation before major changes in policy towards schools are announced? Specifically on national schools under the patronage of minority religious groups, the cutbacks which targeted smaller schools had a deeply negative impact on them. The changes to staffing allocations forced on the Government through the confidence and supply agreement are helping, but long-term security is needed for small rural schools, particularly those of minority religious denominations. This is something of which I was always very conscious as a former Minister with responsibility for education. It is extremely important that the minority religions, in terms of their education, are protected and that their ethos is facilitated in that regard. It is just as important a part of diversity in education provision. I ask the Taoiseach to look at the voluntary secondary school sector. I believe there may be a bit of discrimination going on in terms of the capital funding of schools in the voluntary secondary school sector. I am aware of a school in Rochestown, St. Francis College, which has been waiting seven or eight years for a new build. It has now been told it will be an extension. Meanwhile, other schools are being built. There is no difficulty with the other schools. There should be parity of esteem in the capital programme, irrespective of the tradition or ethos of any school.

Was there any discussion in the Taoiseach's meetings with the religious leaders on the issue of the quality of sex education in schools? As the Taoiseach is aware, the vast majority of primary schools are controlled and owned by religious institutions. Approximately half of secondary schools are directly controlled by religious institutions, and it seems to me there is a Catholic ethos in many community and ETB schools. Does the Taoiseach believe it is possible to have real fact-based sex education in schools with a religious ethos? Would a teacher who was inclined to give such an education in all cases discount the question of ownership of the school, the ethos of the school and the question of a so-called chill factor? I wonder how issues such as contraception and abortion are taught in these schools. There is the question of the LGBT community and transgender young people. The very fact these schools are segregated is itself a form of discrimination against trans young people. What is taught in terms of transsexuality? What policies do these schools have with regard to flexibility on uniform policy for trans schoolchildren? Perhaps when the Taoiseach next meets the religious leaders it might be time to state it is time to separate church and State in the realm of education for many reasons, not least of which would be the provision of thorough, modern, fact-based education, including sex education, for the children of the nation.

I will start with the questions on the attendance of Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin. My Department, through its protocol division, is assisting the church authorities in the organisation and preparations that need to be made for that visit. Even though it is not formally a State visit, the assistance provided to Pope Francis will be the same as if it were. Pope Francis will be given the full support of the State in terms of protocol, security and any other matters. I understand from Archbishop Martin that the Pope's major interest in the visit is, of course, attending the World Meeting of Families. This is why he is coming to Ireland and Dublin. He may do one or two other things, but the focus of the visit will be the World Meeting of Families and the events associated with it. Any decision on whether he will also visit Northern Ireland is, of course, a matter for him and the Vatican.

I certainly want to join others in acknowledging the worries and legitimate concerns of people in Ballivor in County Meath at the proposed opening of a Narconon centre there. This is, nonetheless, a free country which guarantees free association to people and citizens, so I am not sure whether the Government can do anything if it has planning permission for the centre. Certainly, if people are there by free will and their own decision and they are not been detained against their will, it is difficult to know what actions the Government can take. I will certainly speak to my public representatives in the area to see whether there is a way forward.

With regard to abortion, my role, and that of the Minister for Health, at the meeting was largely to outline the process to date. The process was established by the Government, which set up the Citizens' Assembly which then made recommendations which were considered by an all-party Oireachtas committee. The reports of the Oireachtas joint committee and the Citizens' Assembly are now being considered by the Government and the Cabinet will make a decision shortly. It is fair to say the Roman Catholic Church was opposed to the repeal of the eighth amendment. The Protestant congregations were a little bit more nuanced, but were not supportive of the proposals made by the Oireachtas joint committee. I certainly agree, as did they, that the debate that will occur over the next few months about changes to our laws should be respectful. They should not be personalised and nobody should be pressurised to take a particular view or decision. I call for respect from all sides for all sides in the debate. The people will ultimately make this decision and I trust the people to make the right decision based on compassion and empathy while not disrespecting human life.

There were discussions on school patronage, but most of this will be followed up bilaterally between the congregations and the churches and the Department of Education and Skills. The view of the Government was that what should be paramount are the wishes of parents, especially parents of preschool children who are not already attending school. There will be appropriate consultation and appropriate collaboration in achieving any change of patronage.

I very much agree with the views of others on the need to respect minority groups and to protect minority schools. All of us have a small Church of Ireland or Protestant school in our constituency that is a very important part of the fabric of those communities and we very much support them. We did not have an opportunity to discuss sex education or uniform policy.

Economic Policy

Gerry Adams

Ceist:

6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic policy division of his Department. [53042/17]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy will next meet. [1682/18]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on changes he has made or plans to make to the economic policy division of his Department; and the work it is undertaking. [1837/18]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the economic expertise available to him within his Department. [2112/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together.

The economic division of my Department supports me and the Government in developing and implementing economic policy aimed at sustainable and regionally balanced economic growth, well-planned infrastructural development and quality employment. The Cabinet committees and senior officials groups, supported by the division, help deliver policies in these areas.

Cabinet committee A covers issues relating to the economy, jobs, the labour market, competitiveness, productivity, trade, the Action Plan on Rural Development, the digital economy and pensions. It met last week, on 18 January, and the next meeting has not yet been scheduled. Cabinet committee D covers infrastructure, housing, infrastructure investment and delivery, climate action and the national planning framework, and is next due to meet on 1 February.

The data protection unit within the economic division supports the Minister of State with responsibility for data protection and contributes to a whole of Government approach to the challenges from the increasing digitisation of modern life and the associated significant increase in the amount of personal data generated.

The division also monitors implementation of the Government Action Plan for Jobs and supports Government priorities, such as pensions reform, labour market and skills policies, housing, infrastructure, climate action and regional and rural development.

It co-ordinates the preparation of the annual national risk assessment, which provides an opportunity to identify and consider potential economic risks and challenges on a structured basis. It co-ordinates Ireland's participation in the European semester and works with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the European Union division of my Department on the possible economic impact of Brexit.

I am satisfied my Department has a full range of skills and experience to provide me with the necessary advice on economic and other policy challenges facing the country at this time. As Deputies will be aware, my Department works closely with the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure a coherent whole-of-government approach to economic policy, including challenges that now arise from international and EU developments. The economic division also includes officials and staff with a range of economic qualifications, including specialist staff recruited as part of the Irish Government economic evaluation service, IGEES, as well as at least five staff with either PhD or master's qualifications in relevant economic or other policy disciplines. Others have extensive experience dealing with economic and related policy questions. Appointments and recruitment in my Department are the responsibility of the Secretary General and senior management in the Department. There are no plans to change at present the current structure of the economic division but the Department staffing needs are reviewed on an ongoing basis.

Zero-hour and if-and-when contracts are a problem for many workers in this State and last week there were protests here about zero-hour contracts. Workers called for an end to them. There is much pressure on workers affected by these contracts, who do not know how many hours they will work, how much money they will earn and whether they will have enough money at the end of the week to pay bills, including rents and mortgages. All this leads to serious health issues, including mental health issues. It has also led to the exploitation of workers and the hollowing out of workers' rights.

Deputy David Cullinane produced a Bill to address this issue and it was subjected to rigorous pre-legislative scrutiny here and passed to Committee Stage. It is now held in money message limbo by the Taoiseach's office. Has the economic policy division discussed this Bill or Mandate's Secure Hours - Better Future charter? Has it been discussed? If not, why not? Will the Taoiseach consider dropping the money message rules holding up Deputy Cullinane's Bill? There are proposed amendments to be made by the jobs committee that could protect the rights of these ordinary workers and enhance economic policy.

We have the context of the Oxfam wealth report and the upcoming Davos meeting and, yet again, we find a report indicating the gap between a tiny group of the richest people in the world and the vast majority has widened to shocking and obscene levels, with 1% of the population owning 82% of all wealth. Oxfam cites in particular the erosion of workers' rights and government policy and decision making, as well as the failure of corporations to pay proper taxes, as the factors responsible for this shocking rise in inequality. That is mirrored here, with record numbers of millionaires cited in recent reports, along with two additional billionaires, with some of those, interestingly, involved with construction and property areas.

On the other hand, there is a massive housing crisis arising from the fact that people's wages are not sufficient to buy housing on the open market. Construction workers do not want to work in construction because they will have to put up with zero-hour contracts, as has been mentioned. From day to day and week to week, those people do not know how many days or weeks they will be working. Their pay and conditions are not sufficient even to buy the houses they are building. Not surprisingly, we do not have the capacity in the form of workers to build houses for people. Does this give the Taoiseach pause for thought about the need to address income and wealth inequality in this country and, very specifically, to deal with the matter of zero-hour contracts?

The Taoiseach will recall very well that his predecessor had an economic adviser who was, if I can put it this way, a very strong voice in all the deliberations of the previous Administration. Does the Taoiseach intend to appoint an economic adviser or is somebody fulfilling that role right now?

Over Christmas, the Taoiseach warned that wage growth posed a threat to the economy. It struck me as very odd that the matter he decided to focus on as the most significant threat to the future economic well-being of the country was wage inflation. Does he not accept that wage rises are very modest and wage growth in 2017 was below 2%, with average weekly earnings hardly rising at all in the past number of years for many workers? It is time they got a break so as to share in the recovery we can see that is manifesting economic growth rates. Does the Taoiseach accept that workers deserve a pay rise, particularly in light of pressures in the housing and rental markets that have become so obvious?

The Taoiseach might indicate if he intends to appoint an economic adviser. I understand a number of Bills have been published relating to zero-hour and banded hours contracts and the Government is due to publish a Bill. Will the Taoiseach confirm if that will be in the next two weeks, as we were told that would be the case? Will the Government be flexible with amendments coming from the Opposition with that Bill so we can work collectively in the House to get the right resolution for workers with unacceptable conditions? There is a lack of a banded framework in many cases and people are living from week to week. They cannot get security in terms of mortgages, bank or car loans, etc., and their lives are on hold for many years. The confidence and supply agreement between the Fianna Fáil Party and the Government refers to the need for improvement of rights in this specific area.

The Taoiseach's economic division is involved with the development of the capital plan, which has been ready for well over a year but has been withheld in order to extend it to ten years.

It is being redrawn.

This will also allow the preparation of an advertising campaign led by the Taoiseach's staff. It is fair to say the expertise within the Taoiseach's Department has focused largely on recruiting communications staff and allocating €5 million towards marketing and communications advice he requires. I am aware that Ministers have been ringing around telling people to get their plans together so they can be submitted to the national plan. The rigour and criteria we were led to believe would inform the national plan have waned somewhat recently. I know this and word has gone to constituencies to get some sort of a plan in anyway because if they are not in the overall national plan, they will have no hope in future of getting funding. That is what seems to be happening. It is meant to be a ten-year plan but it will be the first without estimates or costing attributed to it. Will the Taoiseach explain the exact criteria being used for the inclusion of projects in the plan? Will he give a personal assurance that there are no cases of Ministers telling State agencies where projects are to be built in direct contradiction of expert advice?

I will start with the question on employment rights. The Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, is leading on the legislation to abolish zero-hour contracts in some circumstances and also to give people more generally greater certainty about the hours they work and income earned. The legislation was published in December so perhaps Deputies missed it because of the Christmas period.

We are wondering when it will come before the House.

I do not know that.

When I asked about this, the indication was that it would be as soon as time allowed.

That is the answer. The Bill was published in the first half of December. It supersedes the Bill put forward by Deputy Cullinane. I am keen to have it in the House as soon as the Business Committee can provide time for it. When we deal with the legislation, it is important we do not throw the baby out with the bath water. I refer to when provisions in contracts might make sense. For example, emergency services operate on an if-and-when basis.

It can make sense to have a certain number of core hours and an if-and-when provision on top of that, so people are called in when the work is available. People who work in transport, logistics, shipping and aviation say that the same applies in their areas. The ship comes in when it comes in and it is not always possible to know the exact times when staff are needed. It is important that what we do makes sense. We must protect workers and ensure they have greater certainty about their hours and incomes, but we also must not have a situation where employers are paying staff not to do any work for a prolonged period and then cannot get staff when they need them because of excessively restrictive legislation. This was discussed at Cabinet rather than in the Cabinet sub-committee.

Regarding the housing crisis, there are many reasons for us having such a great challenge with housing in the State. However, the underlying issue is a lack of supply of suitable homes, apartments and houses. There are more people who can afford to buy than are able to buy at present due to the lack of availability. I do not fully agree with the Deputy's analysis in that regard.

I am struck by the number of times today that Deputy Howlin has asserted I said certain things that I did not say. I certainly did not say that wage increases were the largest threat to the economy as that is not my view. It is probably Brexit, but other threats to the economy may arise. I did say something along the lines of unsustainable or excessive wage increases potentially being a threat to the economy. If they are unsustainable they would have to be taken back at a later stage. We should not repeat the mistakes of the past by giving people welfare increases, tax cuts and wage increases only to take them back from them when they most need them a few years later.

That hardly arises now, does it?

I did not say it arises now-----

Why mention it now?

I mention it now because the Deputy raised it.

No, the Taoiseach's article did.

It was not an article. It was a report from a press conference. I did not read the reports but I guess, as is often the case with reports on press conferences, they are quite different from an article I might have written. They only take elements of what one says. However, I did not say, and I am sure that was not reported, that it was the largest threat to the economy because that is not my view.

It is a significant one.

However, I believe excessive tax cuts, wage rises and increases in public spending would drive inflation and would be counterproductive. I am determined that this Government should not repeat the mistakes that were made by previous Governments, which operated the inflationary and pro-cyclical economic policies that caused so much damage in years gone by.

I said that the Government is committed to improving living standards. By any objective measure living standards have been improving for the past two years. The most recent Central Statistics Office, CSO, numbers from the survey on income and living conditions, SILC, show unemployment is substantially down, pay is increasing, poverty and deprivation are falling and inequality is narrowing. I said that we could improve living standards in a number of ways, but particularly in three significant ways. One is wage increases, which are well deserved. That is why we increased the minimum wage and negotiated pay restoration with public servants. The second area is tax reductions. That is why we reduced the USC and income tax in the budget and improved tax credits for the self-employed and home carers. It should be borne in mind that while the Government can increase the salaries of public servants it cannot increase the salaries of people who are self-employed or in the private sector. One of the best ways of putting money directly back in the pockets of the vast majority of people, that is, people who are self-employed or work in the private sector, is through tax reductions. That is the reason I disagree with the view of other parties that we should not have any tax reductions and that only public servants should see an increase in their wages.

We must move on to the next group of questions.

Finally, the other way is through reductions in the cost of living, which is why we introduced the child care subsidies and reduced the prescription charges and are taking action on insurance to reduce its cost.

European Council Meetings

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the EU Council in December 2017. [54820/17]

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

11. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the proceedings of the European Council meeting held in Brussels on 14 and 15 December 2017; and the bilateral meetings he had with Heads of Government on the margins of this meeting. [55056/17]

Stephen Donnelly

Ceist:

12. Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly asked the Taoiseach if he has discussed phase 2 of Brexit negotiations with Mrs. Theresa May since 1 January 2018; and if members of his Department have attended sherpa meetings for the same period. [2008/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the December 2017 EU Council meeting. [3090/18]

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

14. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to Chancellor Merkel recently about Brexit. [3056/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 14, inclusive, together.

As I outlined in my post-European Council statement to the House on Tuesday, 16 January, the December European Council met in four separate formats over the course of the two days, Thursday, 14 December, and Friday, 15 December.

The meeting on Thursday afternoon focused on social, educational and cultural co-operation, as well as security and defence. Later that evening, we met as part of the leaders’ agenda on the future of Europe with the focus this time on migration, although a number of other topics were also raised. On the Friday morning, the euro summit considered the future development of economic and monetary union, after which we met in Article 50 format to discuss progress in the Brexit negotiations.

We started on Thursday afternoon with an exchange of views with President Tajani of the European Parliament, before moving on to review progress relating to security and defence. In addition to a discussion on EU-NATO co-operation, the launch of permanent structured co-operation or PESCO was marked.

We also discussed social, educational and cultural co-operation. A number of interesting points were raised, such as including the social agenda as part of the European semester process - although a decision on this was not taken at the European Council. There was also a short discussion around climate change and the "One Planet Summit" in Paris.

Under the leaders' agenda that evening, there was a lengthy discussion on migration. The progress achieved on the external dimension was acknowledged. There was no final agreement on the internal dimension, where further discussion is needed to achieve an effective and sustainable policy, which respects the concepts of responsibility and solidarity.

A number of external relations items were also discussed, including Russia and Ukraine, where there was agreement to a roll-over of sanctions, and Jerusalem, where we restated the EU position that our embassies should remain in Tel Aviv.

On Mercosur, given our concerns around the beef sector, both President Macron and I intervened to express our strong views regarding what should and should not be included in any deal.

The Friday morning euro summit took place with the outgoing President of the Eurogroup and the President of the European Central Rank in attendance. Both were positive about the economic situation but cautioned against complacency and urged further reform. We discussed a range of issues, including the completion of banking union, the proposal to develop a European monetary fund and a possible finance minister for the eurozone. I intervened to express my strong support for continuing our work on the banking union and the capital markets union but I also said that I was not convinced of the need for substantial institutional change at this stage.

Finally, the European Council met in its Article 50 format and formally took the decision that sufficient progress had been made in phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations, enabling us to advance to phase 2, during which transition arrangements and the framework for the UK's future relationship with the EU will be considered. There is much work yet to be done and close attention will have to be paid to ensure that all the commitments and principles agreed in the joint EU-UK report on citizens' rights, the financial settlement and the Irish-specific issues are given full legal effect in the withdrawal agreement. This will be our key focus in the coming weeks. I am pleased that the European Council also agreed to negotiate a transition period and to prioritise discussion of this in the first part of phase 2.

I had no scheduled bilateral meetings in the margins of the December European Council but, of course, I exchanged views with many of my EU counterparts, including Chancellor Merkel.

I have not discussed phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations with Prime Minister May in recent weeks and no meeting of the EU sherpas has been convened over that same period, although there is regular and ongoing communication at official level.

During our discussions at the European Council in Brussels, I again thanked my EU counterparts for their solidarity and support on Irish-specific issues. I also thanked the European Parliament, during my address in Strasbourg last week, for its understanding and support in the negotiations. I had an opportunity, too, to meet briefly with President Juncker and Mr. Michel Barnier.

At the outset, I note we need a better format to discuss fundamental issues in Europe and the future of Europe than the 90 seconds we get to put a question and get a reply on a range of complicated issues. Several of us have raised this previously. The Taoiseach might give some consideration to that.

I have two questions. With regard to Brexit, work has now begun on phase 2. Other European countries have put forward their views on the transition period and the future relationship between the UK and the EU as regards freedom of movement and the type of access the UK might have to the Single Market. Did the Taoiseach put forward Ireland's position? Is the Taoiseach in favour of a special deal for Northern Ireland? Is he in favour of a special deal for the United Kingdom outside the existing templates or does he support what has been put forward as an EEA-type of arrangement such as with Norway or Canada, or Canada plus or, as one of the British negotiators mentioned, a Canada plus plus?

What objective did the Taoiseach set out for Ireland in that regard?

On the future of Europe, the Taoiseach did not state when asked about it before Christmas, the most recent time these matters were discussed in the House, that he was going to Budapest to meet the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Perhaps it was not on his schedule at that time. These are very important issues because the future of Europe, whether it is going to be based on a liberal view of Europe involving freedom and a balancing of powers between government and other institutions of state and a free judiciary and press or on something else, is a very important issue on which Ireland should have very clear views.

The main focus of interest for this country in the summit regarded the Article 50 negotiations at which it was decided that sufficient progress had been made during the first phase of the Brexit negotiations and guidelines for the second phase were adopted. The Taoiseach informed the House last week that we will now move to phase 2, regarding transitional arrangements and the framework for the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Although it was difficult to get to the end of stage one, that would seem to have been the easier part. We have since noticed a difference of interpretation of the agreement reached between the European Union and the UK in December. There seem to be different interpretations in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the European Union. It is important for that to be clarified. I note the Taoiseach has not been in contact with the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, since then. It is important to again reiterate what we mean by that agreement and that, as the Taoiseach said last week, there can be no backsliding. We need to put that point across very forcefully.

I tabled two questions on this issue and Deputy Donnelly asked me to also deal with his, so I ask the Ceann Comhairle to allow me a little more time.

I have tabled two questions and Deputy Donnelly asked me to deal with his issue, so I ask the Ceann Comhairle for a little more time.

Many issues were discussed at the European Council meeting and the Taoiseach has outlined some of them. One issue discussed was the future of Europe, as raised by Deputy Howlin. The Taoiseach added to his vision for Europe when he recently addressed the European Parliament. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, has put forward his own vision in that regard. It is clear that he favours increased centralisation, greater co-operation and more integration. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is finalising a new coalition between the two largest parties in Germany, which it seems will also result in calls for deepening integration. The Franco-German axis is very much to the fore, which could lead to more harmonisation, a new eurozone budget and fiscal policy and a single EU corporation tax rate. Against that, there has been a rise of illiberal tendencies in parts of the EU such as Poland and Hungary, while there has also been a rise in the far right in member states such as Austria. Where does Ireland stand on this debate? As the Taoiseach is aware, further integration could require treaty change and a referendum in Ireland. We need to be very clear on such matters. Does the Taoiseach think we have gone as far as we can in terms of further integration at this point in time?

On 15 December, the second day of the European Council, a young woman, 16-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi - a child - saw her 14-year-old cousin, Mohammed, shot in the face at close range with a steel-coated rubber bullet, very badly injuring him. When Ahed, her mother and other members of her family confronted members of the Israeli Defence Forces, they were arrested and put in front of a military court. Ahed and her mother are now incarcerated and charged with assault, her 14-year-old cousin having been shot in the face. This occurred in the context of yet more illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank, against which people in her village were protesting. I ask the Taoiseach to speak out about her case, ask our European colleagues to do the same and to immediately demand that the charges against her be dropped. We have leverage with Israel because it has special trade status with the European Union. For a minor such as young Ahed to be treated in such a manner against a background of continuing illegal Israeli settlements is absolutely disgraceful. I commend the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which will be protesting on this issue on Thursday outside the Oireachtas. I hope the Taoiseach will raise this issue with the Israeli Government and his European counterparts.

During the statements in the House last week on the European Council, the Taoiseach acknowledged it is important to remain vigilant to ensure that commitments entered into in December's Brexit agreement are delivered in full. He warned against any backsliding in that regard by the British Government. What has he done to ensure that will not happen?

The head of Enterprise Ireland recently warned that many Irish companies are still unprepared for Brexit. Through what additional measures is the Government planning to assist companies this year?

A majority of Tory MPs are opposed to the transitional deal that Theresa May has brought forward. The President of the EU Council, Donald Tusk, has, understandably, warned the British Government that it needs to move quickly to set out its position on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. There is a complete lack of clarity about what kind of relationship Britain wants. Is the Taoiseach any clearer on what kind of relationship the British Government wants and will the negotiations on this commence at the end of this month as planned? The Taoiseach said he might meet the British Prime Minister while he is in Davos. Are there any plans in that regard?

On Brexit, I wish to point out to the Taoiseach that several members of the Fianna Fáil Front Bench recently went to London, including Deputies Donnelly and Niall Collins on diaspora issues and Deputy Darragh O'Brien. I also recently met Vince Cable there. Having met British Government officials and politicians, suffice to say there is a very significant difference, as Deputy Haughey said, between how London and Dublin view the agreement. Those in London who met members of Fianna Fáil were at pains to stress that they see the agreement in terms of North-South areas of interaction as limited to the all-island economy and the Good Friday Agreement. It is very clear they have a narrower sense of what it means than do people in Ireland. A transition agreement is essential and the longer it remains in place, the better. This process is about kicking the can down the road, for as long as possible in some respects. Such sentiment is increasing across Europe.

As regards the future of Europe, President Macron seems to have deprioritised the Common Agricultural Policy from a French perspective. The French, along with Ireland, have historically been key to the maintenance and retention of the Common Agricultural Policy because it is so vital to our agriculture and food industries. Has the Taoiseach had any discussion with President Macron on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy, given its importance to Ireland and, in particular, has he obtained the views of the President and the French perspective in that regard?

In the context of the Taoiseach's meeting with Viktor Orbán, has the Government been sufficiently robust in upholding European values such as separation of powers, freedom of the media and an independent judiciary in Hungary and Poland? Whether we like it or not, there is a growing sense that Europe is acquiescent by its silence and lack of proactivity in that regard.

Time has elapsed for Questions to the Taoiseach. Perhaps the Taoiseach will issue written responses to the Deputies as we must now proceed to Priority Questions to the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Perhaps, by agreement of the House, the Taoiseach could be afforded a couple of minutes to reply.

If Deputies so wish.

I suggest we give the Taoiseach a few minutes to reply.

If Members consume all of the allotted time to ask questions, none will remain for replies.

More vigour from the Chair is obviously required.

I can try to be brief.

Phase 2 of the Brexit talks is very much happening in the background and behind the scenes at the moment. It will be this way until the end of February or March. We negotiate as the European Union. We were successful in the outcome of the phase 1 talks because we stuck to the position of not negotiating bilaterally but negotiating as part of the EU 27. For that reason, and having assessed the last few months, I do not believe it would be wise for any EU Head of Government to differ publicly on the EU's negotiating position or to speculate too much. I can say that our objective is to ensure the guarantees in the UK-EU report agreed in December and to make sure they are made legally binding in the withdrawal agreements, which is essential over the next few weeks. We want a transition period to give businesses and individuals a chance to adjust to any permanent changes. It will be around two years or that is what is being considered.

On the future EU-UK relationship, of course we want free trade in goods and services to remain as it is now but not in a way that undermines the Single Market. We are very much open to the possibility or idea of unique arrangement for Northern Ireland, but only if it is needed. If the EU-UK relationship is close enough it may not be needed. That is there as a back-stop.

I did not inform the House of my meeting with Mr. Orbán because at that stage it had not been arranged. It was not confirmed until the middle of December. It is important to point out that Mr. Orbán is a democratically-elected Prime Minister of Hungary and we are aligned on a number of very important issues such as Brexit, a future close relationship with the UK and on tax. Hungary and Bulgaria, which I also visited, both have lower tax rates than Ireland. They can be important allies for Ireland when it comes to corporation profit tax. The two countries very much agree with free trade and free enterprise; they are not protectionist. We are, of course, not aligned on other issues. I raised the issues, for example, on the law on non-government organisations, NGOs, the restrictions on academic freedom and the issue of Hungary not accepting its fair share of refugees. I believe in engagement, however, even with prime ministers and presidents with whom one might not fully agree. I am delighted that Deputies Howlin and Micheál Martin, who raised this also believe in engagement, often with leaders with whom they might not fully agree. On 18 October when visiting the Communist Party of China on the occasion of its 19th congress, Deputy Howlin took the opportunity, on behalf of the Labour Party, to "extend fraternal greetings and best wishes to the leaders of the Communist Party of China." These are fraternal greetings to a Government that is not elected and around which perhaps there are some concerns regarding human rights and executions and so on. Deputy Martin, when he was the Minister for Foreign Affairs, had to engage on many occasions with people he did not necessarily agree with.

I am not criticising engagement-----

Answers to questions please.

On a point of order, we were not criticising the Taoiseach on engagement.

At least €5 million is being spent on this unit, one would have to do something.

I asked about the European Union's attitude to Poland and Hungary.

That quote was Googled so I did not need much money for that.

A sum of €5 million has been spent so it has to produce something.

We are looking for answers to questions please.

There were some very nice words spoken about al-Assad, but I will read them later.

The Taoiseach has missed the point completely.