Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Many of us in this House have met the wives and partners of Defence Forces personnel and the representative organisations of rank and file and commissioned officers, the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO. We have read the Defence Forces climate survey by the University of Limerick, which was published last year. Today, we read in a major story in The Irish Times that two naval vessels, the LÉ Orla and the LÉ Niamh, were unable to set sail due to crew shortages and reservists were drafted in to crew the LÉ Eithne. If we look at all of that together, the picture being painted is one in which the Defence Forces are very seriously depleted and going through a severe retention crisis, with a shortage of specialist personnel in terms of bomb disposal experts and so forth, very low morale all around and poor pay and conditions of service.

In addition, among the Defences Forces, there is a very real sense of a lack of respect and, indeed, contempt from Government towards the Defence Forces. This view is also being articulated by retired personnel who are particularly angry at what they see as a continuing dismantling of our Defence Forces, a once proud force representing our country. One former retired officer describes the relationship between the Defence Forces and the Department of Defence as "toxic, broken, dysfunctional and dangerous". The general secretary of RACO said the Defence Forces "governance and command structure is breaking down". Within the Air Corps, we are told there is a shortfall in pilots of 30%. It is clear there is a depletion among the officer ranks, with some even buying their way out of the Army. There is a critical shortage of specialist officers, from Army bomb disposal experts to aeronautical engineers and pilots.

We remember the quotes from members of the Defence Forces in the Defence Forces climate survey.

One said the Defence Forces are being turned into a JobBridge scheme. The authors spoke about private soldiers struggling to survive and depending on their parents. Others were saying they could not get a mortgage. Another said he had to live with his parents along with his wife and kids. The officers were saying that they could not help them. The only thing they can do is give the soldiers time off so they can save a day's childcare. Through all of this, the Government is in denial.

Does the Taoiseach accept that morale is very low within the Defence Forces, that the conditions of service are very poor, and that there is a retention crisis? Will he confirm the report in The Irish Times this morning regarding the inability of two vessels to set sail because of the shortage of crew?

I cannot confirm that. The Chief of Staff is compiling a report for the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, on that. I can say that the Naval Service, which has about 1,000 personnel, is at about 92% strength at the moment. The Chief of Staff will prepare a report on that for the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe.

The Government is a strong supporter of our Defence Forces. We value the role that they play, whether it is in peacekeeping overseas, acting on behalf of the State during emergencies at home, for example, natural disasters that happened last year, or providing aid to the civil power and support for the Garda when needed. We are now investing again in our Defence Forces. In contrast to what the Deputy has said, the budget for our Defence Forces increased by €25 million this year and we have a major investment programme under way in upgrading our Defence Forces after years of neglect. There is €250 million for new vessels, for example, €55 million for new armoured personnel carriers, €32 million for new aircraft, and €11 million for new armoured utilities as well as upgrades at the Curragh, Cathal Brugha, Athlone and many other barracks. We are now once again investing in our Defence Forces after years of neglect and cutbacks that happened for reasons the Deputy will understand.

PDFORRA has its conference today and the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, will attend. We as a Government will continue to engage with PDFORRA and RACO on the issues that now arise. We have a pay agreement with all public servants. That applies for three years. We are only in the first year of it. It provides for pay restoration for all public servants earning less than €40,000 by the end of this year and all public servants earning less than €70,000 by the end of 2020. For the Defence Forces, it is about a 7% pay increase as well as reversal of the 5% cuts to their allowances, which the Deputy will recall.

There is a high turnover rate. That is correct. There is about an 8% turnover rate in the Defence Forces every year and a 92% retention rate. That is not uncommon in defence forces. Being in the Defence Forces tends to be a job for younger men and women. It tends not to be a job for life. If people are not moving up the ranks, they will generally move on, often to better opportunities in the private sector, taking with them the skills they have built up. They also get early pensions in their 40s and 50s, which are set up to enable people to move on to new careers. A turnover rate of around 8% is not uncommon.

However, there has been an increase in departures in recent years. We acknowledge that as a Government. It is a change in recent years and there are particular issues around losing Defence Forces personnel with particular expertise that is now very valuable in the private sector. That was not the case during the recession but it certainly is now as we enter a period of full and high employment. The Deputy is right that there is a shortage when it comes to experts, pilots and engineers. More generally, there is an issue across the Defence Forces when it comes to 24-hour duty, for example. We have a mechanism by which we can examine that and resolve it, which is through the Public Service Pay Commission. The Department of Defence and the Defence Forces have made a submission to it, as have the representative organisations, PDFORRA and RACO. We will work through that with them and will have an evidence-based report from the Public Service Pay Commission which will allow us to act and to make improvements in terms and conditions over and above those agreed.

What does the Taoiseach mean he cannot confirm it? He is the Minister for Defence. He is in charge of the Army, the Navy and the Air Corps. Why can he not confirm that story? It was revealed early this morning. We have learned there was an emergency meeting on this in Haulbowline last Friday between the Chief of Staff, the assistant chief of staff and the flag officer commanding.

By the way, there was no denial this morning by the Naval Service. There was a carefully worded statement but no denial. Why can the Taoiseach not confirm this? Did he not get on the telephone? Did he not talk to the Secretary General of his Department and ask the simple question: "Is it the case that two ships could not set sail because we could not crew them?" The Taoiseach is failing and continues to fail the Defence Forces. The Defence Forces climate survey last year was a warning to everybody. This is not about departures or high turnover. That is lovely language, language that masks the reality of a critical lack of morale among members of the Defence Forces. There is an urgent need for a comprehensive response from the Government, not just parking the issue and using the Public Service Pay Commission as a way of dismissing them and saying, "Sure we know you're not going to stay too long anyway. Sure won't you all leave eventually?" What faith and respect in the Defence Forces emanate from that language? It is a proud force. People have had long careers in the Army. One can travel to locations throughout the country where families have pride in being members of the Army and serving overseas.

The Deputy is way over time.

There is a crisis. I want the Taoiseach to answer to the House. Why does he not know the answer? Why can he not confirm this morning's story? It is a serious issue if we cannot crew our naval vessels.

I cannot yet confirm it for the reason I gave the Deputy - I have not yet received the report from the Chief of Staff.

Is the Taoiseach serious?

The Minister of State has spoken to the Chief of Staff and we are awaiting a report. There can be many reasons a vessel may not be able to sail.

However, I can say there are 1,000 personnel in the Naval Service out of an establishment figure of 1,094.

Can the Taoiseach confirm that the story is true?

Therefore, the Naval Service is at 92% strength. There are many reasons a vessel may not be able to sail.

The lack of staff is one.

However, I can confirm that the Naval Service has been able to fulfil all of its duties in fisheries protection and interdiction, as well as its other duties, during the period.

What did he say to the Minister of State?

No. We cannot return to the matter.

Is it a "Yes" or a "No"? Is this morning's story true? Can the Minister of State not confirm it?

In an interview published in this morning's edition of The Daily Telegraph the leader of the DUP Arlene Foster had this to say:

It has been deeply frustrating to hear people who voted remain and in Europe talk about Northern Ireland as though we can’t touch the Belfast Agreement. Things evolve, even in the EU context.

There has been a lot of misinterpretation, holding it [the Good Friday Agreement] up as a sacrosanct piece of legislation.

Such comments are not just unacceptable and wrong, they are, in fact, dangerous and reprehensible. They reveal a reckless disregard for the peace process, prosperity and progress. It should be remembered, of course, that Arlene Foster left the Ulster Unionist Party in 2003 because of her opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and it appears that the leader of the DUP has learned nothing in the intervening 15 years. It is entirely wrong to describe the Good Friday Agreement as "a piece of legislation" to be altered or changed on a whim. It is, in fact, an agreement between all backgrounds and strands of political outlook in the North and the South. It is a fundamental component of the constitutional landscape of this country. It is also an international treaty between this state and Britain which has been lodged with the United Nations. It is the people's agreement, not a bargaining chip. Perhaps the leader of the DUP needs to be reminded that the agreement was endorsed by the overwhelming majority of citizens on this island, by more than 70% of the electorate in the North and 94% of voters in this State. It was the first time since partition that unionists and nationalists, including republicans, had voted together in common cause. Incidentally, the second such instance was the Brexit referendum. The DUP rejected the Good Friday Agreement and embraces Brexit. On both counts it acts in defiance of the democratic wishes of the people of the North.

I want to make it clear that the Good Friday Agreement is not up for renegotiation as part of Brexit. It is, in fact, sacrosanct. The best way forward for everyone on our island is not to dismiss the agreement but to embrace it. Instead of play-acting and pandering to extremes, the DUP should fully commit to the implementation of that agreement rather than seeking to undermine it. It should stop denying citizens' rights. That, of course, would unlock the pathway to re-establishing the North's institutions.

Last year it was agreed that the Good Friday Agreement must be protected in all its parts. Will the Taoiseach agree with me that this is not only absolutely essential but it is non-negotiable? Will he agree with me that the Good Friday Agreement is, in fact, sacrosanct and will be protected in all of its parts?

I thank Deputy McDonald for the question. This is a very important matter, as everyone in the House will agree. The Government stands by the Good Friday Agreement and will defend its primacy. We see our role, as the Irish Government, as being co-defenders of that agreement. We should not forget all that has been gained from the Good Friday Agreement. It may not be operating as it should be at the moment but look at what has been gained: peace in Britain and Ireland, power-sharing most of the time in Northern Ireland and ever-closer co-operation between North and South. It is not a piece of British legislation. It is, as Deputy McDonald says, an international agreement between the British and Irish Governments, as well as a multi-party agreement among the various parties. It is an agreement that was put to referendum and adopted in 1997 with over 70% support in Northern Ireland and over 95% support in this State. While it may be factually correct to say that the Good Friday Agreement, just like any international treaty or agreement, could be changed, it could only be changed with the agreement of the British and Irish Governments and with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland and, indeed, cross-community consent at that. It is not something that can be changed by any one political party or by any one Government. Certainly, as far as this Government is concerned, the Good Friday Agreement is not up for negotiation in these talks over Brexit.

I thank the Taoiseach for that response. I echo his sentiments in respect of the achievements of the last 20 years. All of that should be acknowledged in spite of the fact the institutions are currently not operational. It needs to be acknowledged also that in order for power-sharing to work, in order for the institutions to be re-established, the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday Agreement must be embraced in their totality. I welcome the Taoiseach's confirmation that the Good Friday Agreement is not up for renegotiation or change on the basis of Brexit or to facilitate the extremes of hard Brexiteers. When the Taoiseach takes to his feet again, I ask him to respond directly to Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, and to insist of her, as a political leader, that she respects the Good Friday Agreement and that she, in fact, becomes part of the full implementation of that agreement.

I have known Arlene Foster for many years. She is a woman I like and respect. I had the opportunity to be her counterpart for three and a half years when we were both responsible for tourism on the two different parts of the island and we worked very well together when the Good Friday Agreement was operating. I would say to any political party in Northern Ireland or, indeed, on these islands that we should all respect the Good Friday Agreement and we should all work as hard as we can to make sure those institutions are back up and running again, with the Assembly giving expression to the democratic will of people living in Northern Ireland, and an Executive so that decisions are made not by civil servants or politicians in London or not made at all, but are made in Stormont, Belfast, where they should be made. It would also mean we can get the North-South bodies up and running again. The bodies still operate but the North-South Ministerial Council does not, which is of great regret when we are talking about important projects ranging from the A5, which is important in connecting Derry and Donegal to Dublin and Leinster, to the North-South interconnector and all the issues that arise as a result of Brexit.

We could manage these issues much better if we had the institutions up and running. I call on everyone to respect the agreement and the decision of the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to embrace it and make it work.

The boundary alterations between Cork City Council and Cork County Council have the potential to cause major financial strain for Cork County Council. Report after report was presented to the public in the past few years to try to sell this plan. When others and I read the reports more closely, it was obvious that the plan had the potential to have catastrophic consequences for west Cork and the county generally. I immediately called on my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group to table a motion in the Dáil against implementation of the plan. In spite of receiving support from Deputies from counties Kerry, Tipperary, Clare, Galway and Dublin, I received no support from any Dáil Deputy from Cork. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independent Alliance Deputies all voted down the motion as party leaders and deputy leaders cracked the Whip, forcing many to turn their backs on their own constituency in return for a promised compensation package that we were told would be put in place for the county for ten years. At a meeting held in the council chambers on 13 September, to which all Oireachtas Members were invited, we discovered that a new wording was being proposed for the package. It looks like it will not be for ten years but will instead be reviewed sometime in the first three. It could happen in the first two months. By law the city council will not be compelled to pay compensation which may well lead to a legal suit between the two local authorities in the not-so-distant future, which would have further serious consequences. In their thousands, the people of Ballincollig signed petitions about not being forced inside the city boundaries. It also looks like the people of Blarney and Tower will be forced inside the city boundaries against their will. The people of west Cork, where I have seen seven businesses close in the past few weeks, are completely against the plan. However, democracy has been kicked out the window in order to force the plan down people's throats. The county council voted unanimously against this happening, but the extension of the city boundaries is being railroaded through, notwithstanding the fact that every honest politician in Cork knows how rural communities will see a major loss of commercial rates, development charges and property tax revenue.

At a special meeting of Cork County Council for all Oireachtas Members on 13 September the newly worded proposals were rejected by those Members present as shockingly bad, with serious consequences for the whole county. In the two meetings held by Cork County Council to advise Members of the Oireachtas of the consequences for the county, the non-attendance of the Tánaiste, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Micheál Martin, sent a clear message to me and the councillors present that they ignored their councillors on the ground and favoured a boundaries extension which would throw the whole county to the wolves. Opposition to our motion 12 months ago indicated that some senior party members had forced the Whip on their Deputies to vote against the motion. In other words, they forced their own Deputies to vote against their own constituency, which was nothing short of shameful, but it is not too late. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene personally where others have not and sideline the boundaries extension until all potential disasters have been explored. They have been overlooked to date. I ask him to follow in the steps of my fellow west Corkman, General Michael Collins, and govern for the country, rural and urban. He must not allow politicians who are not acting in the interests of all the people to win out.

It is nothing to laugh about.

The scriptwriter did well.

I thank Deputy Michael Collins for raising this issue, which is of great interest in Cork, city and county. The Government supports the proposed redrawing of the boundaries for Cork city and county councils. We are ambitious for Cork, which is our southern capital and second city. We want the population of Cork to grow by at least 50% by 2040. We want the population of Cork to grow twice as fast as that of Dublin between now and then. We are willing to stand behind the city in the case of any structural development required to ensure that will happen. We see Cork as part of an Atlantic economic corridor stretching to Limerick, Galway and beyond and acting as an alternative pole of development to the greater Dublin region. That is very much at the centre of the Government's balanced regional development policy and ambition. We see Cork as a university city and industry hub, with a developing airport and rapidly expanding port. We see it having its own directly elected mayor in a few years to provide the city with a strong personality at its helm who will hold executive powers.

We acknowledge absolutely that this is a change and that all changes and reforms are difficult.

In some cases, and it will be the case in other counties, it may result in a loss in revenue, in this case a loss in revenue to the county from property tax and certain business rates. There will, therefore, be a compensation package. Compensation is necessary to ensure the county area does not lose out and we continue to be able to invest in the many large towns, small towns and villages throughout County Cork. I have every confidence that this will be worked out between the two councils and with the Minister.

The Taoiseach does not seem to grasp the consequences of this issue for County Cork. Can he tell me the amount of revenue that will be lost to Cork county in the next five to ten years if this plan is implemented? Can he tell me what services will be lost? The mayor of Cork County Council and his colleagues will travel to Dublin on Thursday to try to get an understanding from the politicians here of how serious it would be if this plan were implemented. If the Taoiseach cannot withdraw the plan, can he at least ensure it is written into law that no review can take place of the package for the county for ten years and that the city council will have to pay each year, as previously proposed?

I call the Taoiseach to conclude on this matter.

It is not intended that any services will be lost. People living in Cork county will continue to receive the services from their local authority that they receive now. In terms of revenue, there will need to be a compensation package. This must be worked out. It is the case that as a result of areas moving from what is now the county into the city, commercial rates could be lost to the county. Those areas will also transfer, however, and the cost of providing the services in them will no longer fall to the county but to the city, so expenditure will fall as well. As I said, this was done very successfully in Limerick, as will be the case when a similar process follows in Galway. There will be a compensation package to ensure that this transition can happen seamlessly and that services and the financial stability of the county are protected. The Deputy has my assurance on that.

Last week at the Committee of Public Accounts I raised the issue of the national broadband plan. There are now significant concerns as to how the process to date has been managed, whether the awarding of the contract, if we get to that stage, will have been done in the best manner possible and whether the State will get the best possible deal. We know there will have been no competitive tendering for what is one of the largest and potentially most lucrative communications infrastructure projects in the country to date. Just last week, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission was scathing about the potential monopoly within the waste sector, yet here we are in this process with only one bidder. The remaining bidding consortium has changed so fundamentally from the initial bid that it is almost unrecognisable from the entity which first entered the process. We had Eir and SIRO exit the process, while Enet remained as the leader of the remaining consortium. In July of this year, SSE pulled out of the consortium. Enet replaced SSE with the State-backed Irish Infrastructure Fund, yet the consortium continued to morph and just last month it emerged that Enet is no longer leading the consortium but is now a partner alongside other companies, including Actavo, formerly known as Siteserv. Enet, the original bidder, is therefore now only one part of the consortium, which is now led by a private investment firm, Granahan McCourt.

Surely the Taoiseach has concerns about this process and the substantial changes that have occurred within the bidding process since it was first launched. He must be concerned about the links that will inevitably be drawn between the awarding of previous controversial contracts and some of the same personnel involved in this consortium. After all, Fine Gael was in government when the Irish Water contracts were awarded to a subsidiary of Siteserv, which is now the subject of a commission of investigation.

Fine Gael was in government when the second mobile phone licence was awarded to Esat, which then became the subject of the Moriarty tribunal. It is now looking like Fine Gael will be in government when the national broadband plan contract is awarded to a consortium in which the same high-profile businesspeople are involved. It is vital that the process for awarding the tender be above reproach. Would it not be better and more pertinent to ask the questions now, before any contract is awarded, in order to make sure there is absolute public confidence in both the process and the outcome?

My questions are as follows. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the bidding process, in which only one bidder is involved, will deliver broadband and best value for money? Does he have concerns about the sustainability of the remainder of the consortium, given that it has changed so much since it entered the process? How stable will it be into the future? Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the money spent on the process thus far has achieved the desired outcome?

The national broadband plan aims to ensure every home, school, business and farm in Ireland, no matter how remote, will have access to high-speed broadband. Our ambition is for Ireland to become one of the first countries in the world to be able to do so. It is probably the most ambitious project for rural Ireland since the rural electrification scheme and will probably involve the biggest ever infrastructural investment in rural Ireland. It is a project of that scale, enormity and importance, which is why we have to get it right and we are absolutely determined to do so. It is not true to say there is no competitive tendering. There were many bidders and we are now down to one. Of course, we would much prefer it if there were more, but that is the way markets work. If there are more bidders, one will probably get a better price, but we are down to only one for many reasons. The Department will carry out due diligence to ensure the consortium is capable of delivering and getting the job done, which is the most important thing; to ensure we will get the best price possible, notwithstanding the fact that there is only one bidder still involved in the process; that the process is robust and fair; that we will learn from the mistakes of the past and be aware of the risk of legal challenges which, of course, everyone will want to avoid.

On broadband provision more generally, it is important to acknowledge the enormous progress made by the Government of Fine Gael and Independent Members since Deputy Denis Naughten became Minister. We have seen an expansion of access to high-speed broadband across the country.

That was due to the work of commercial companies.

The rate stood at 52% when the Government of Fine Gael and Independent Members took office. It is now over 70% and will be close to 80% by the end of the year. The increase has been driven very much by the national broadband plan. Commercial investors knew that this was coming and got in ahead of it, put the infrastructure in the ground and provided broadband for homes. However, it will still leave approximately 550,000 premises that will not be provided for by the commercial sector. That is where the Government must intervene. Where the market cannot provide, the Government must intervene. We see this as a project of enormous importance. It is possibly the largest single infrastructural investment in rural Ireland since the rural electrification scheme and it is one we are determined to deliver.

There were a number of questions to which the Taoiseach did not respond. I echo his remarks about the need for the national broadband plan. I do not think anyone wants anything other than for the plan to work, but the process has to be robust. I received a reply to a parliamentary question I tabled last November about the procurement process. It stated the process was still competitive because there were two strong operators in the telecoms field involved. In February I received another reply which stated there was still competitive tension because there were two strong competitors. There is now one bidder remaining and that bidder has changed completely since the process commenced. It has been so unstable it has morphed into something entirely different. How can the Taoiseach give any guarantee that it will still exist in six months or a year or that it will deliver? There are so many questions about the national broadband plan.

Care has to be taken that there is public confidence in how the process works. If the process is faulty, then the outcome is likely to be faulty as well.

I am confident that the process has been robust. The Deputy is correct to draw attention to this. It is important we get this right because it is an enormous investment that will run for 25 to 30 years. There is the expression, act in haste and repent at leisure. We need to ensure this process is robust. We are confident it is. It is new and unprecedented. That is what makes it different from other contracts. It has not been done before, even by other countries. That in itself brings about an inherent risk. That is not a good enough reason, however, not to do it.

The remaining bidder in the national broadband plan put in its final tender to the Department on Tuesday, 19 September. Over the coming weeks, the Department’s procurement team will evaluate the submission. The Minister looks forward to receiving the output from that particular evaluation. As I mentioned, it is unique in terms of its level of ambition and vision. The focus is to ensure that a future-proofed technical solution will allow this and future generations to participate fully in digital society.

Is that the same group?