Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee G, justice and equality, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [19915/18]

Brendan Howlin


2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee G, justice and equality, last met; and when it is next scheduled to meet. [21020/18]

Michael Moynihan


3. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee G, justice and equality, last met. [21096/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett


4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee G, justice and equality, last met. [21099/18]

Joan Burton


5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee G, justice and equality, will next meet. [21115/18]

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

Cabinet committee G last met on Monday, 16 April. The date of the next meeting has not been finalised. In addition to meetings of the full Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I meet Ministers on an individual basis as required to focus on particular issues. In this regard, I regularly meet the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, to discuss justice and equality matters.

Cabinet committee G provides political oversight of developments with regard to justice and equality issues, including implementation of the Government's programme of reform for the justice sector. The Cabinet committee ensures a dedicated focus on the substantial reform of the policing and justice systems which the Government is determined to achieve. It will build on work already completed or under way. This includes the establishment of the Policing Authority, which is overseeing implementation of the existing Garda modernisation and renewal plan. In addition, the Commission on the Future of Policing is due to report later this year and will no doubt make recommendations for further change.

The effectiveness and renewal group for the Department of Justice and Equality is also carrying out work. Chaired by Mr. Pádraig Ó Ríordáin, it will focus on practical implementation of necessary reforms and modernisation and provide an initial report to Government by 30 June 2018.

Building on the commitments in the programme for Government to advance gender equality, the Government intends to advance a number of specific initiatives in 2018, which are in line with the aims and objectives of the national strategy for women and girls.

Given the number of questions in the group, I ask Deputies to stick to the time provided.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach as ucht an fhreagra sin. Caithfidh mé a rá go gcuireann sé iontas orainn an tuairisc a fhoilsíodh, a leagann amach tuairimí 6,500 gardaí, a léamh. The cultural audit of 6,500 gardaí makes for concerning reading because it reinforces what many whistleblowers have told us, namely, that speaking out is not encouraged and there is a culture of fear in the Garda Síochána because of the potential consequences of speaking out. There is no doubt we need a major shift from a culture of secrecy and impunity towards one of transparency and accountability. The Commission on the Future of Policing must make radical proposals that address not only the structure of the Garda but also the culture of policing. The Government must take a radical approach to implementing the recommendations once they have been made.

On a related issue, an article published in the Irish Examiner yesterday reported a statement from a spokesperson for the Garda Representative Association that up to 50% of front-line gardaí had not received CBD2 training, which means they cannot exceed speed limits or activate blue lights in emergencies. This is a shocking revelation. Thus far the Garda has refused to disclose official figures on the number of gardaí who have not completed this training. Will the Taoiseach instruct the Minister for Justice and Equality to do so without delay?

The Taoiseach spoke of modernisation of the Garda Síochána. On new year's day 2017, as a result of damage sustained in an road traffic accident, a Garda patrol car was taken out of commission in County Donegal. The Garda station in Bunbeg has still not had the patrol car replaced. I have raised this matter numerous times with the Garda and the Minister. We do not have modernisation of a police force when a Garda station does not have access to a patrol car and gardaí cannot carry out their duties effectively.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Will he bring the House up to speed on the position regarding the appointment of a new Garda Commissioner? The deadline for applications was 12 April last. Will this be a stand-alone appointment or is it envisaged that there will be a strengthening support base for whomever is appointed?

The Taoiseach referred to the Commission on the Future of Policing, which is due to report in September next. Under its terms of reference, the commission could bring forward proposals for recommendations in advance of its final report.

Have any reports or recommendations been received by Government from the commission to date in advance of the final report which is due in September?

The PwC cultural audit was referenced by Deputy Pearse Doherty. The Taoiseach will recall when I introduced the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 I stated that all the international experience I looked at showed it was only the starting measure. In other words, changing the law was easier than changing the culture. It seems as if we have not changed the culture. What specific training or initiatives can be taken to ensure that staff are not fearful about outing their suspicion of wrongdoing?

During the last general election there was widespread shock about the shooting at the Regency Hotel and the escalation of gang-related murders in parts of Dublin. The Taoiseach will remember how the Government lined up to say that the force of the State would be brought to bear on the gangs and the threat they posed to communities would be lifted. It was also said that co-ordinating the effort would be a core priority of the Cabinet committee on justice. Over two years later, can the Taoiseach tell us whether he believes that these promises have been fulfilled? Has the siege really been lifted on communities suffering from the actions of these gangs? The same core feud and gangs appear to be involved and the escalation in the years up to 2016 has continued rather than abated. No doubt the activity in the immediate aftermath of the Regency Hotel shooting had a significant impact in preventing planned murders. However, the current situation is extremely serious. Assistant Commissioner Leahy stated last week that gardaí have had to issue 522 warnings in the recent past to potential victims of gangs. Of these, 61 cases involved what the Garda defines as "critical or severe" warnings.

Can the Taoiseach also confirm whether or not the Government is concerned about or aware of increased numbers of people using heroin in Galway, Limerick and Cork? While recent reports confirm that gang burglaries are down, this morning's newspapers report the head of the special crimes operations, Assistant Commissioner John O'Driscoll, stating yesterday that the courts are too soft on serial burglars. He speaks of burglars being arrested 50 to 60 times and that the sentencing is not seen as a deterrent. Is the Government planning to address this and can the Taoiseach tell us why there has not been more progress on something which we were told was an absolute priority for Government?

Has the committee discussed the issue of whistleblowers and providing the support to whistleblowers that the Government often claims it is committed to? I raised with the Taoiseach a couple of weeks ago the case of Mr. Stephen Walsh who blew the whistle on fraudulent behaviour, and indeed bribery, in the health service which revealed that a surgical equipment company had been essentially bribing staff working in the area of procurement in 13 hospitals and exposed that scam. Ever since, the reward for Mr. Walsh has been to be blacklisted from any employment in that sector. The man is near breakdown.

The journalist who blew the story, which got a lot of publicity at the time, wrote to the Taoiseach recently asking could he do anything - I raised it with the Taoiseach as well - to support this man to get employment again. Only in the last week, the Taoiseach wrote back a letter stating there is nothing he can do and Mr. Walsh should go on the public jobs website to see if he can find something. Is the level of support we give to someone who put his livelihood on the line to do the State a service which revealed criminal activity in public procurement that we say it is tough luck if he is blacklisted? Is that good enough? I ask the Taoiseach in this individual case to reconsider whether he can help this man because he is at the end of his tether but also, more generally, whether we need to be a bit more supportive of whistleblowers when they do the State a service if they find themselves in difficulty afterwards as a result of their whistleblowing.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the interim measures for asylum seekers accessing the labour market, and specifically accessing further education and training. We have undertaken to receive into Ireland several thousand Syrian refugees and that is in process at present. I do not know whether the Taoiseach is aware that access to the labour market generally is through access to further education and training or traditional third-level courses that have an employment, vocational or workplace training component. The problem is that there is a lack of clarity in education and training boards as to whether they can make provision for those who have come or, in this case, been invited as refugees and asylum seekers to Ireland. Unless they get adequate language skills and the education and vocational skills they require to become employable in Ireland, which they are anxious to become, the chances are they will be sitting in reception centres for a long period of time. That is not good for them. In fairness, it is disturbing to local people in the different areas where they are settling, notwithstanding all they are doing for asylum seekers, that they cannot properly access the jobs market. I noted yesterday that the Government made a decision to go back to the policy of the former Minister, Ms Mary Harney, and former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, to relax the visa requirements for those coming from outside the EEA in certain occupations paying €22,000 or more a year but it is doing little or nothing to provide for the rapid integration of the asylum seekers whom we have already invited into this country to access the language and education skills they need.

I am sorry the Taoiseach has only three minutes to deal with those questions.

I will do the best I can. First, the PwC cultural audit of the Garda made interesting reading. I read it with some degree of concern. I welcome the fact the audit was done. Many big organisations do not conduct cultural audits. I am not sure whether we have done one in the Oireachtas. It would be an interesting option that the Ceann Comhairle might consider.

I would not recommend it.

However, I welcome that it was done. It is part of a genuine effort by the Garda to reform and modernise, both as an organisation and as a workplace. The job now is to make changes, put those changes in place and then repeat the audit, perhaps in a couple of years' time to see whether it has made a difference. That is how the audit cycle works - one finds out what is the issue, one makes the changes, one repeats the audit and one sees whether those changes have made a difference.

In terms of Garda training, the number of gardaí is now increasing rapidly since Templemore was reopened to Garda recruitment. We have recruited 1,800 additional gardaí and are now up to 13,500 gardaí. I read with some concern that some of those are not trained to do everything that we might like them to do but we need to bear in mind that each garda has a different role. It is important that gardaí are trained to do the job they are actually doing. It is not necessary that every garda be trained to do everything. If gardaí are not out in cars, for example, if they are not involved in pursuit, they do not necessarily need to be trained in that. However, if it is part of their job description or the particular role they have, it is important that they are trained to do it. Given that we are recruiting so quickly, I can understand why it may be difficult to ensure that everyone has all the bits of training that one may get after a couple of years' experience.

The recruitment process for the Garda Commissioner is ongoing. I am told there is a good range of applicants, both internal and external. However, it is not yet at finalisation and I have not heard any names. It is important though that whoever becomes Garda Commissioner is empowered to make changes - this will apply to the new CEO of the HSE as well - and refresh the management team because one cannot bring about change in an organisation if one only changes the top person.

I do not know how many times we have tried to bring about change in organisations by just changing the person at the top. It requires more than that. I am really determined that the new Garda Commissioner and the new HSE CEO will be able to refresh their top management and middle management teams and reorganise those organisations as they see fit. I have seen it work well in other organisations such as the AA, to give one example. I am sure it can be done in big organisations such as the Garda and the HSE.

I met the members of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland a couple of months ago to discuss the broad issues with them. They have not submitted a report to Government yet. I understand a report may arrive at the end of June but they will not be able to make their final report until September. I am very keen for it to be a report that contains recommendations we can implement. We will continue to engage with them on that.

I am afraid I do not have any specific information on heroin sales or trading in the cities, which the Deputy mentioned, but I will ask for a reply to be furnished to him from the Department of Justice and Equality.

On burglaries, we have changed the law to punish recidivism to make it an additional offence if people have been involved in or convicted of multiple burglaries. Recent statistics show a very significant decrease in the number of burglaries in the State which is encouraging. Garda statistics come with a health warning. I am very aware of that. A downward trend in the number of burglaries is very welcome and I am sure it will be welcomed by families and homeowners.

With regard to whistleblowers, we are observing what is happening at the disclosures tribunal and observing the different types of whistleblowers there are. The outcome of that tribunal has been interesting in that regard and it can be difficult to identify which whistleblowers are absolutely genuine and which are not at all. The disclosures tribunal has been very revealing in that regard. We are interested to see what comes out of it in terms of further recommendations on how we can make the public service a supportive environment for people who are whistleblowers. The last Government, of which I was a member with Deputy Burton and Deputy Howlin, was the first to bring in legislation to protect whistleblowers. It is far from perfect but it was a genuine first attempt to create a more supportive environment for whistleblowers within the public service and private sector.

We did it before that.

We will review that legislation.

There was sectoral specific whistleblowing protection legislation brought in.

That is correct. This is the first time there was-----

-----an overarching one. It was initiated by the then Minister, former Deputy Pat Rabbitte, and after that by Deputy Howlin when he was Minister. It was an important step in the right direction as were the sectoral ones prior to that. We may need to build on it further.

On the gentleman that Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned, I wrote back to him after the Deputy raised it with me. I do not want to discuss anyone's private business here in the Chamber but if I remember correctly he was looking for a particular type of job in the public service-----

He is just looking for help.

-----and I am not in a position to organise employment for people in the public service, as much as I would like to. People need to apply for jobs that are available and that is how people get employment in general.

He has been blacklisted because he blew the whistle.

With regard to refugees, particularly those who have been invited to this country such as Syrians, which Deputy Burton mentioned, I will make sure we get a detailed reply for the Deputy on access to English language education and training. I do not have an answer on that in front of me. I believe some is available but perhaps not to the extent it should be. The point Deputy Burton makes is very well made. If we invite people into our country as refugees we should assist them to become full members of our society and allow them to participate fully in our labour market. It makes sense that if we have people already in Ballaghaderreen or Blanchardstown, providing them with English language education and access to education so they become part of the workforce is eminently more logical than issuing work permits to people who are not already here. The Deputy made a very valid point in that regard.

We are running over time. We will move on.

Departmental Policy Functions

Mary Lou McDonald


6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [19916/18]

Brendan Howlin


7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [21021/18]

Michael Moynihan


8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the detail of the public service reform unit within his Department. [21097/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett


9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [21100/18]

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

The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to support me, as Taoiseach, and the Government in delivering on the programme for Government objective of public policies and services that support a socially inclusive and fair society. The division supports the work of Cabinet committee B and the associated senior officials group. This covers social policy and public service reform and seeks to ensure a co-ordinated approach to policy in areas such as education, children, equality and reform of public services. It also supports the work of Cabinet committee E and the associated senior officials group which deals with issues relating to health including the delivery of health service reforms. The division further supports the work of Cabinet committee G and the associated senior officials group, which provides political oversight of developments in justice and equality issues, including the implementation of the Government’s programme of reform for the justice sector.

The division also provides the secretariat for the Civil Service management board, which is chaired by the Secretary General of my Department and oversees the implementation of the Civil Service renewal plan. It incorporates the programme for Government office which publishes regular reports on implementation of the programme for Government. It is responsible for liaison with the National Economic and Social Council which falls under the remit of my Department and supports the north-east inner city initiative, including the programme implementation board and the oversight group.

The division also provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups. Given the nature of its role, the division works closely with Departments that have day-to-day responsibility for specific policy areas.

If Deputies take all the time asking questions we will not have any time for answers.

I will try to keep it brief. The programme for Government office which is responsible for reporting on the implementation of the commitments in the programme for Government falls within the remit of the social policy and public reform division of the Taoiseach's Department. In April last year a progress report was published in respect of the programme for Government commitments but there has been none published since then. When can we expect the next progress report to be published?

On a related issue, my party leader, Deputy Mary Lou McDonald, asked the Taoiseach in March about his intentions with regard to the confidence and supply arrangements the Government has with its partners in Fianna Fáil. It was put to the Taoiseach at the time that there was a difference of opinion between the Taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fáil with regard to when the agreement should be reviewed with Teachta Martin saying it could only happen post-budget. Is it the Taoiseach's view that it should happen before the budget? Will the Taoiseach enlighten the Dáil about whether they have discussed the matter since and have they now come to an understanding about when this review will take place? I would also be interested to hear Deputy Martin's views on this issue.

With regard to the public sector reform initiative which was very strongly driven in the last Administration, is it happening, in effect, under one Minister with the amalgamation of the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform? In particular with regard to making senior administrators accountable, we had embarked on a Secretary General's analysis system. Will the Taoiseach give us an update on it? Is there an annual evaluation of performance of Secretaries General, which is something that is extremely important?

The health service reform is the thing that is most on the agenda and most in focus now. I was intrigued by the comments the Taoiseach made earlier in Leaders' Questions that the Government intends to slim down the HSE. What specifically does the Taoiseach have in mind when he talks about slimming down the HSE? One of the things that Members of this House are very concerned about is accountability. The responses we are getting from parliamentary questions are at best wholly inadequate. We need to have a system that is understood. I say this to the Ceann Comhairle as well. If parliamentary questions were adequately and comprehensively answered it would obviate an awful lot of angst, concern and further inquiry. In terms of the reform agenda, I ask the Taoiseach that there be political oversight to ensure parliamentary questions tabled are properly responded to.

The Taoiseach will be aware that in the past fortnight very serious concerns have been raised about the situation with regard to one of our most important social services, which is the prevention of homelessness. I understand the social policy division is responsible for providing the Taoiseach with materials concerning many of the services that are part of the State's response to homelessness. A major concern now is the priority is trying to change the figures rather than acknowledging that current policy has not worked even though the Taoiseach announced last November that "we have a strategy and it is working."

Can he show the House that he will prevent changes to reporting which prevent the ability to compare figures over time? It looks like the Minister is preparing to move to a reporting approach which will both reduce the numbers reported and prevent a full, like-with-like comparison of the figures. Does the Taoiseach accept that the figures show that, since the general election, the overall figures are up by 85%, with the number of homeless children up by an astonishing 126%? Will he prevent his close confidant, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, from making changes that will undermine the ability to properly compare figures over time? He could tell the Minister that we could add many figures because some are not counted at all. Young mothers who go back to live with their parents in many local authority houses across the country where there are two beds and a cot in one bedroom are not being counted, but they are essentially homeless and would be without the goodwill of their parents, many of whom may not be in the best of health. If the Minister wants to change the figures for people who are looking for housing, we can all make a contribution which he may not welcome.

I presume the social policy sub-committee discusses disability issues and the implications of ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. How does that fit with planned changes in special needs assessments which speech and language therapists and the Psychological Society of Ireland believe will significantly undermine the supports available to families who have children with special needs? There is a legal entitlement to an assessment within three months, although the target is rarely met. As and from April, a new standard operations procedure has been brought in which will mean that there will be screening within three months, but this will not result in a diagnosis. To receive support one has to have a diagnosis. Previously, if one had an assessment, one would obtain a diagnosis and then receive support, but that will not happen now. A person will be placed on a waiting list which will extend way beyond three months and he or she will not be able to access support which will force many families to go privately. It looks like this is a move to make it appear that there will be a three-month assessment when there will not because the goalposts have been moved. The Psychological Society of Ireland and speech and language therapists believe there will, as a result, be wrong and missed diagnoses and that children with special needs will be robbed of the support they need.

On the programme for Government, the progress report for year two was cleared by the Cabinet this morning and we will publish it at the most opportune moment in the next couple of days or weeks. It sets out all that has been achieved by the Government since it took office two years ago and signals what it wants to achieve in the next two or three years, should it survive that long. I believe it can, but, under the confidence and supply agreement, it is a matter for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. We will let everybody know when we believe it is the best time to tell them. My commitment remains and we are working on its ongoing implementation.

On health reform, we propose to follow the prescription laid out in the Sláintecare document. We will be in a position to appoint an executive director of the Sláintecare office within a couple of weeks, provided the person accepts the offer. When the office is established, we will have somebody whose sole job will be to report on the health reform programme, operating under the aegis of my Department and with my support.

Following what is recommended in the Sláintecare report, the HSE, as a national entity, will be slimmed down and become a national centre with its own board of nine or 12 members with a much more high-powered chairperson. We do not want it to be the type of board that just receives board papers once a month and will have a meeting the next day. We need more involvement and focus than the board of a smaller organisation would have. We are examining the possibility of having a chairperson in addition to the CEO who would give it a day or two each week and have the support to do so. We discussed this issue in detail at the Cabinet this morning and are considering whether we should establish the board and the chairperson before appointing a new CEO, using the board and the chairperson to do so.

The Taoiseach might bring in the RTÉ cameras while he is doing it, as his predecessor did.

On the structures below it, the recommendations made in the Sláintecare report are for community health organisations and hospital groups to be realigned. There are community health organisations which are geographical and usually cover two or three counties, or bits of counties, and there are hospital groups which do not align with them. The Sláintecare reports recommends bringing them together and that work is under way. It is intended that they will be made separate legal entities with their own CEOs and boards, as is the case with health and social care trusts.

What about the Ireland East group?

Ireland East does not align with the CHO but extends from Navan through the Mater Hospital all the way down to Wexford, which made sense from the point of view of putting hospitals together to make them part of an academic group but which did not make sense geographically when it did not align with community health organisations. Putting hospital groups and CHOs together is going back to the philosophy of integrating primary care and secondary care services.

I do not have the answers on the SNA issues raised by Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett, but I will check them and correspond with him. I am sure what he said is not the intention, but I will get a proper answer for him.

On housing and homelessness, I am not particularly interested in engaging in a statistical debate on the number of people in emergency accommodation as the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and Deputy Eoin Ó Broin seem to be doing on a weekly basis. Whether the total is 9,000, 10,000 or 11,000, there are considerably more people in emergency accommodation than there used to be. My focus is on solutions and I am reassured by the figures from Ulster Bank yesterday which showed that the level of construction activity was really picking up. I can see it in my constituency where new apartment blocks and housing estates are being built. That is not the case all around the country, but it is starting to happen in Dublin, particularly in west Dublin. Some 18,000 new homes began construction in the past year and we need to get the number up to 25,000 to meet demand, before getting above it in the following year in order that we can catch up with pent-up demand from the years when very few houses were built. Last year we added, by various mechanisms, 7,000 units to the stock of social housing, which allowed us to move 4,000 families out of homelessness. The struggle we have, of course, is that as many families and people are becoming homeless as we can provide social housing for. The time will come when we will reach equilibrium and get on top of the issue and the position will start to improve, but we are not quite at that point yet.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Brendan Howlin


10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of times Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, has met to date in 2018; when it plans to meet next; and the persons attending. [21022/18]

Micheál Martin


11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of times Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, has met since June 2017. [19992/18]

Mary Lou McDonald


12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the number of times Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, has met since June 2017. [20956/18]

Micheál Martin


13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if Cabinet committee C, European Union including Brexit, is meeting before the summer economic statement. [21059/18]

Micheál Martin


14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met. [21061/18]

Joan Burton


15. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the number of meetings held in 2018 by Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit. [21116/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 15, inclusive, together.

The Government approved the establishment of Cabinet committee C on 5 July 2017. This Cabinet committee covers issues relating to the European Union and assists the Government in its ongoing consideration of Brexit. It also supports my participation as a member of the European Council.

Cabinet committee C first met on 11 September 2017 and again on 13 February this year. The next meeting is expected to take place before the June European Council. In addition to me in my role as Taoiseach, the membership of Cabinet committee C includes the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, with special responsibility for Brexit; the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform; the Minister for Justice and Equality; the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation; the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment; the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine; the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport; the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection; the Minister for Education and Skills; the Minister for Health; the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs; the Minister of State with responsibility for trade, employment, business, the EU digital single market and data protection; the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, and the Attorney General.

Given their significance, matters relating to Brexit and other EU issues are more frequently discussed in full Cabinet format, as they were this morning, particularly with regard to the multi-annual financial framework. I meet regularly with relevant Ministers to focus on particular issues, including those relating to the European Union and Brexit. Preparation for Brexit at official level, both in regard to the negotiations and in preparing for the potential consequences of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, is intensive, with a range of interdepartmental and senior official groups meeting very regularly.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Yesterday, Michel Barnier told Ministers that little progress has been made on the issue of Ireland since the March announcement. Time is getting very tight. We understand the British Cabinet is today meeting in the two structured committees, one looking at the so-called customs partnership and the other the so-called maximum facilitation. Neither is likely to address the fundamental issues of concern on the Border of Ireland. Michel Barnier said the proposals are not realistic, although I saw the Minister, Deputy Coveney, said yesterday that customs partnership has some merit. There is real pessimism now. Will the Taoiseach give us an up-to-date view on whether he believes either of the two proposals being looked at by the British Cabinet will meet the requirements of Ireland?

It is fair to say that over the past week there has been a mounting lack of clarity on Brexit talks and what we are looking for. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, in very different unscripted ways, have now said the customs partnership model proposed by the United Kingdom may provide the basis for a deal. This is 100% contradictory to previous briefings and public statements. Will the Taoiseach clarify what he means by this? As things stand, the European Union negotiators have said any customs partnership is a non-runner for technical and policy reasons and that it does not address the impact of the United Kingdom being outside the Single Market. Instead of giving us his commentary on the internal issues and the mess within the British Government, will the Taoiseach tell us what he sees in the customs partnership that provides a basis for reaching a final agreement?

Over the past two weeks, in here and outside, I have asked the Taoiseach repeatedly if he will explain whether his statement that letting key decisions run until October is of no great concern is still his policy. How does he reconcile this with more recent statements, which suggest he sees talks stalling if major progress is not agreed in June? Of course, this raises the ultimate question, which I have asked before. Will the Taoiseach explain to us what minimum progress there has to be in June for talks to proceed? Can we define what we mean by minimum progress? The east-west relationship is extremely important economically, and we need far more flesh on the bone and far greater clarity about our objectives than we have had to date.

As we know, we are just six weeks away from the June meeting of the European Council and we are none the wiser on the British approach to the Irish issue in terms of Brexit. We learned from an article that the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, penned in the British edition of The Sunday Times at the weekend that she does not have a plan. Indeed, that article could have been penned in any week over the past two years because it seems nothing has changed in her regard. Wish lists are not a negotiating position. We have heard from Michel Barnier that there has been little progress on this issue since the last update in March. This is hugely concerning. While the British Tories may play games with this issue and may have internal politics at play, this is people's lives and people's rights. It is defending the Good Friday Agreement. We need clarity and solutions. In the middle of all this, we have the DUP with its playground rhetoric and Sammy Wilson adding to it with his bizarre comments at the weekend. This shows again that it continues to put the interests of all the people of the North at risk, not only nationalists but unionists. I am concerned about, and I seek some clarity on, the succour that has been given on the customs partnership scenario, which has already been dismissed by the European negotiators.

I also want to raise the Common Agricultural Policy and the multi-annual framework that is in draft form at this time. The proposal is to cut the CAP by 5%, or €3 billion, annually, which would have a devastating impact on Irish farmers and agriculture. At the same time as the cut to the CAP we see an increase of approximately of €20 billion in the area of defence. As a cut to the CAP is taking place, which supports 130,000 farmers in Ireland and supports 100,000 people working across the agrifood sector in Ireland, what Europe is proposing is an increase in defence spending. Have the Taoiseach or the Minister, Deputy Creed, raised this issue with their European counterparts? What is the position of the Irish Government on proposals that would see farmers and the CAP budget sacrificed at the table of increased spending on defence?

Does the Taoiseach agree that the recent comments by Mr. Barnier have been very sobering, to say the least, as the witching hour, in terms of June and October, comes ever closer? I want to ask the Taoiseach specifically about the so-called max fac, which is about maximum facilitation-----

It sounds cosmetic.

It sounds like the favourite brand of cosmetics some time ago. The point is that the language in the debate is becoming increasingly obscure, particularly for people not involved in politics and not involved in economics. At the same time, all along both sides of the Border, people, particularly small traders, are really concerned about what will happen. In this context there was a reference to a favoured trader or a favoured business type status. Has any progress of any kind been made or a discussion had on this? Have the Revenue Commissioners here continued to draw up plans on potential Border facilities? Does the Taoiseach believe in the possibility of max fac or is it, to be honest, more magical thinking? When did the Taoiseach last discuss these issues with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May? Clearly, she is having a pretty torrid time at present in terms of the two factions in her Cabinet, namely, those in favour of a soft Brexit and a very large number of Eurosceptics who seem to be strongly in favour of just walking out and seeing what happens next. That would be very difficult for the whole of the island of Ireland.

A brief question each from Deputies Boyd Barrett and Haughey.

What scale of atrocity does Israel have to commit to trigger EU sanctions against it? I ask this in all seriousness. Israel has favoured trade status from the European Union with the EU-Israel Association Agreement. Effectively, we treat it as an associate member of the European Union, yet it massacred 58 people yesterday. It killed another 45 or 46 over the past six weeks. Six weeks ago, before the protests even began, I said to the Taoiseach that Israel is deploying snipers and will shoot unarmed protesters. The Taoiseach said he hoped that would not happen. It happened, and it has happened every week, and I have raised it with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste every single week, but nothing happens. There are no sanctions and no action, just words of regret and concern. At what point do we actually do something?

Israel is acting in flagrant violation of international law, with human rights abuses and the collective punishment of Gaza through the siege. You name the law and it has broken it but still we say, "No problem. We regret it. We will have a chat with them and convey our concerns." There is, however, no action, no sanctions, nothing. It is pathetic.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that he is attending the EU-western Balkans summit in Sofia later this week? What are his aims and objectives in attending the conference? What is on the agenda? What is the Taoiseach's attitude to enlargement? Presumably, Ireland is supportive of the applicant countries where negotiations have commenced. I am interested in hearing the Taoiseach's thinking on these issues in advance of him attending the conference.

I will attend the informal Council at the EU-western Balkan summit in Sofia in the next two days. I will have two objectives. First, I will take the opportunity to engage with other Heads of State and Government on EU issues, from Brexit to initial conversations on the next EU budget. I will also be expressing the Government's support for further enlargement into the western Balkans. We are strongly of the view that enlargement into central and eastern Europe is the right thing to do. It has helped to establish democracy across the Continent and bring relative prosperity to the countries of central and eastern Europe. We believe the countries of the western Balkans should be part of that European path. The countries in question do have to live up to standards and the Copenhagen criteria still apply. Provided the countries in the western Balkans - Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania - can meet these standards, we believe they should be able to join the European Union. We are very supportive in that regard. This is the position I have articulated in the past and I will certainly do so again in Sofia in the next two days in welcoming these countries into the European family in the way Ireland was welcomed in the past and Croatia has been welcomed most recently.

I am sure the European Union's response to Israel will be discussed. It will be a topic for the working dinner tomorrow night. The way the common security policy works in the European Union is by consensus or unanimity, not by qualified majority vote, QMV, or a simple majority vote. The European Union can only act when there is consensus. A number of member states are very close to Israel, much closer than Ireland. Unless we move more towards QMV on foreign policy matters, to which I imagine Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett would be opposed, it is difficult for the European Union to act in that regard. Member states acted together in reaffirming their views that the embassy of the United States of America should remain in Tel Aviv and not move to Jerusalem. We were able to reach consensus on that issue some months ago, but on other matters I believe it will be very difficult to do so in reality. That is just the way it works in the absence of deeper integration on foreign and security policy.

Little progress has been made in the Brexit negotiations in recent weeks. For some weeks we have been awaiting more detailed proposals from the United Kingdom on a customs union or an alternative wording of a backstop plan, about which it has also spoken. In the absence of proposals from it on a customs union or an alternative wording of backstop plan, it is difficult to make progress. We stand by the backstop plan and the text of the Northern Ireland protocol as it is. We must insist on it being included in the withdrawal agreement unless there is a better alternative. That is the position of the task force and the EU27. October is and always has been the deadline for the withdrawal agreement and ratification thereafter by the European Parliament and the UK Parliament. In June we want to see real and meaningful progress. If we do not see it in June, we will have to ask serious questions about whether a withdrawal agreement will be possible in October at all. At this stage, I cannot say what progress looks like. It is too far away and there are too many moving parts. It may, however, become more apparent as we move into June. The customs partnership proposed by the United Kingdom last June would not be workable. That is very much the view of the task force and the EU27 and it has been rejected. I believe the customs partnership is closer to being made workable than the maximum facilitation proposal or max-fac which, as Deputy Joan Burton pointed out, I had thought was some form of make-up or deodorant. I have certainly not seen to date any detail that indicates that such a solution would be as functional as make-up or a deodorant. We are not drawing up any plan for a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, full stop. There is not going to be one. I have made it very clear to my counterpart in the United Kingdom and the other EU Prime Ministers that under no circumstances will there be a border.