Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I am very conscious that, for many years, the people in rural Ireland and in towns and regions across the country have been promised access to high-speed broadband on numerous occasions but there has been an absolute failure of delivery. I can go back to the 2011 general election when, at that stage, Fine Gael was promising broadband to 90% of homes and businesses by 2015. It is now 2018. At the general election of 2016, again, it was said 100% would have it by 2020, and we know what has happened. People out there are very impatient and frustrated at the lack of real progress in terms of getting this issue and the national broadband plan implemented.

We then fast-forward to last week and the resignation of the former Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten. When I had raised the issue on the Wednesday in the House, I was heavily criticised by the Taoiseach, yet, the following day, he came in to echo what I had said, namely, the ultimate decision maker should not be meeting the last remaining bidder in a tendering process, leaving himself open to the perception of favouritism, being lobbied and canvassed, and so on. The Taoiseach changed tack fairly dramatically the following day because of further revelations about further meetings, one in particular organised by the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen, with the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, and David McCourt.

It is interesting when we look at the background to this.

A very good article by John Kennedy was published on the Silicon Republic website on 6 September 2017 and quoted a Government memorandum of the time on concerns about the potential for costs to increase as a result of the remaining bidders having to access poles and ducts on Eir's infrastructure. The fear was that it could go from an incremental cost of 10% to 15% extra to anything up to 60%. That is directly set out in a memorandum from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment to the Government. The point of this is what the remaining bidder is anxious to do and what the key issue is in that regard, namely, the level of subsidy the Government is prepared to offer to the bidder and which will be a key component of the cost. It is vital, therefore, that this kind of canvassing and lobbying should not take place. As such, has the Taoiseach met the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen, and asked him to provide the background to why he organised the meeting, what transpired at it and what was discussed. In addition, I want to know the terms of reference of the assessment the Government has undertaken with Mr. Peter Smyth and if they will be published. Can the Taoiseach indicate to the House when we can expect the proposed legislation on the national broadband plan?

I thank Deputy Martin. As Taoiseach, I note that the Government is absolutely committed to bringing forward the national broadband plan. When this Government of Fine Gael and Independents working together came to office a little more than two years ago, just over 50% of homes, farms and businesses in Ireland had access to high-speed broadband. By the end of this year, we will be at 80%. In just two and a half years, we have made enormous progress to bring high-speed broadband to homes, farms and businesses across the country.

The Government will not get close to 80%.

We are determined to bring that to 100% as soon as possible. We want to ensure that the 540,000 homes, farms and businesses across rural Ireland which lack access to high-speed broadband should have it as soon as possible to allow them to access public services which are available online to a greater extent and become part of the digital economy. We want businesses in rural Ireland to sell their products and services on the Internet just as those in urban Ireland do. When it is completed, this project will be seen to have been as significant as rural electrification was decades ago. The level of investment required will be very high, but it is an investment which is merited and worthy and, as such, the Government is determined to bring it forward.

Mr. Peter Smyth is the independent process auditor and he has been in place for quite some time. It is part of his role to ensure the process is all above board. He will carry out a review to ensure and assure the Government that everything has been above board. We will have the terms of reference for that review in the next couple of days and we anticipate that he will be able to report within three to four weeks. With the approval of the Dáil today, Deputy Richard Bruton, will be assigned to the Department as Minister on a full-time basis. I have asked him to spend the next couple of weeks focusing on this issue and ensuring we do everything we can so that the broadband plan continues to operate. It is a complex process. There is an evaluation committee and a national procurement board. We are at the point at which a contract and tender can be agreed. It will have to go through the evaluation board and the procurement board before the decision comes to Government. That builds in very significant safeguards.

I have spoken to the Minister of State, Deputy Breen. He informs me that Mr. McCourt asked him to pass on an invitation to Deputy Naughten to have dinner with him in his house. They live quite near each other. The Minister of State passed on the invitation, the then Minister accepted it and the dinner took place. He also informs me that the national broadband plan was not discussed on that particular occasion.

The expansion of broadband has been carried out by commercial interests, which is fair enough, and has nothing to do with Government or State intervention at this stage. When the Taoiseach says the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, passed on the invitation, did he do it silently? Did he just pass it on?

Did he show the Minister the house?

It is not a credible explanation, to be frank.

We are talking about the last remaining bidder for an enormously costly contract. The Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen, was asked to set up a meeting with the key Minister, the key decision-maker. This cannot be flippantly brushed aside as the Minister of State having passed on an invitation and - hey presto - the Minister having accepted it and the Minister of State having facilitated the meeting. It is a little more serious and should be taken more seriously than that.

I related to the Taoiseach the article of 2017. I will read what the memo stated: "The level of subsidy bidders might seek for the reduced intervention area [that is, after Eir has got the 300,000] could increase by between 10pc and 15pc if an incremental cost is applied to infrastructure access, and by more than 60pc if the existing regulated price for pole and duct access is applied". The remaining bidder, therefore, has a real skin in this game in getting this over the line in the ultimate negotiations with the Government.

The Deputy's time is up.

That is why it was so inappropriate and so wrong for a Minister to meet a bidder in that context.

The Taoiseach might answer the question as to whether the fact that the consortium changed dramatically at the eleventh hour in its composition could leave the bidding process open to legal action and challenge.

The commercial investment that has occurred has been very much spurred on by Government policy and the national broadband plan: commercial operators getting into areas quickly, providing broadband quickly, knowing that if they did not, it would not form part of the Government's plan. Therefore, much of the commercial investment that has happened would not have happened as quickly had it not been for the policies pursued by the Government.

The invitation was not passed on silently; it was passed on verbally. The dinner occurred in 2017, at which time other bidders were in place. Ultimately, it was up to the then Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, to decide whether accepting the invitation was appropriate. The Minister of State, Deputy Pat Breen, has no role whatsoever in the national broadband plan and, while we may all agree that passing on the invitation was unwise, I do not think it is a resigning matter.

"Do not think."

I do not think it is.

Is the Taoiseach not sure?

Last December the British Government signed up to a deal to avoid a hard border on our island, safeguard the Good Friday Agreement, in all of its parts, and ensure there would be no loss of citizens' rights. At the time we were told that there was a deal to provide a backstop that would recognise the unique circumstances of the North and all of Ireland in the event that a comprehensive free trade deal was not agreed to in the future. We were told that the agreed arrangement would be enshrined in an operable legal text by March. That did not happen. We were then told that the British Government would produce firm proposals by the time of the June meeting of the European Council. That did not happen either. Then the deadline became October. Clearly, that deadline is now to be breached. Yesterday the Taoiseach said negotiations could continue into next month or up to the meeting of the European Council in December. The long and the short of it is that time is quickly running out for a deal to be struck. This is a direct consequence of the British Government's prevarication and abysmal failure to produce any realistic proposal. Its latest proposal for a time-limited backstop means that, in reality, there is no backstop at all. I met the British Prime Minister yesterday and have made this point bluntly to her. I have told her that she needs to live up to the commitments made last December and that nothing less will do. I have told her that she needs to place the Good Friday Agreement, progress and the unique circumstances of Ireland above short-term political calculations and expediency.

Regrettably, her toxic deal with the DUP has undermined progress. The DUP has moved from a position of trying to prevent a hard border to actively promoting one. The reality is that it does not represent the majority view of citizens in the North who voted to remain; they opposed Brexit. Those in the DUP cannot be allowed to dictate the pace of Brexit and undermine our agreements that have delivered so much for Ireland and Britain. I hope that last evening, in the course of his conversation with Ms Arlene Foster, the Taoiseach made these points to her.

When he travels to Brussels tomorrow, there will be an onus on him to defend and promote an all-Ireland view and to insist that commitments made are commitments honoured. He told us last December that we had a cast-iron guarantee in respect of Ireland. Nothing less than that will do. Nothing less than that will be acceptable. I hope the Taoiseach brings that message clearly to the European Council tomorrow. Can he confirm for the House that no withdrawal agreement will be struck without a legally binding and operable backstop to protect Irish interests?

I can confirm that there will be no withdrawal agreement without a legally operable and legally binding backstop which assures us that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That has been the Government's position since the referendum. That is our position. We have not departed from it and we do not intend to do so. We should not forget that the commitment given to us by the UK Government, which is in black and white in a report published jointly by the UK and the EU, says that there would have to be a legally operable backstop as part of the withdrawal agreement and that it would have to apply unless and until an alternative solution is found. All we are asking is for the UK to honour the commitments it has already made in black and white in the year gone by. I am sure a country like the UK, with its proud history, would want to do no less than honour the commitments it made in black and white and in writing during the course of this year.

The deadline has always been October. If one reads the guidelines from the European Council and if one reads what I have said in this Chamber since last March, if not before, one will see that the deadline has always been October. Of course there is a risk that it may slip. We indicated at the last summit in Salzburg that it may be necessary to hold a special summit in November to sign off on a withdrawal agreement. If it slips further, a summit is already scheduled for December. The deadline is October and that has not changed.

Significant progress has been made. The withdrawal agreement provides for the financial settlement. The money the UK will pay the EU to meet its obligations before it leaves is broadly agreed. We also have agreement on the rights of EU citizens who will continue to live in the UK and the rights of UK citizens who will continue to live in other parts of the EU. We have broad agreement on a transition period. It will run until the end of 2020, which will give businesses and citizens time to prepare for the permanent changes which will take place thereafter. We have agreement on the common travel area, which is of great importance for Irish and British citizens. It allows us to travel freely between Britain and Ireland. It allows us to live, work, study and access housing, healthcare and education in each other's countries as though we were citizens of both. Other EU citizens will not have this right after Brexit. We have yet to reach agreement on the detail of the Irish protocol, which is also known as the backstop, and on the text of the future relationship that will exist between the EU and the UK after the transition period. There is still quite a gap there and quite a good bit of work to be done.

While I accept all of that, it would be a mistake to create the impression that the matters which need to be agreed in respect of the Irish protocol or the backstop are simply matters of detail. The truth is that we are approaching crunch time. It is decision time. The British Prime Minister has a big historic call to make. She can decide to side with the hard-line Brexiteers and the DUP and - by accident or design - crash Britain out of Europe with all of the consequences that might follow. Alternatively, she can choose to do the right thing by Ireland by sticking to the commitments mentioned by the Taoiseach, which were freely entered into. The Taoiseach should be in no doubt that the forces which are now looking for a Brexit at any cost, regardless of the consequences for Ireland, are vociferous and strong and have to be faced down. Can the Taoiseach tell us whether there will be a special summit in November?

Is that decision made? The Taoiseach seems to be accepting that the October deadline will not be reached. I agree with him on that score. What of a no-deal scenario? How prepared is the Government for that terrible vista?

A decision on whether there will be a special summit in November has not yet been taken. A date is pencilled into our diaries in case it is necessary, but the decision that we made in Salzburg was that we would only have a special summit in November if decisive progress was made in October. I cannot say at the moment that decisive progress has been made, but that is something that will play out over the next couple of days in Brussels. A decision will be made on whether to have a November summit when we can determine whether that is necessary. We will not be having a summit for the sake of it. If we have a summit in November, it will be to conclude a withdrawal agreement, including a backstop on Ireland.

In terms of preparations for no deal, even though I strongly believe that a no-deal scenario is unlikely, we are stepping up our preparations for that scenario. We had a detailed discussion at Cabinet today on Brexit and on those preparations, and that includes the hiring of customs officials and veterinary inspectors, preparing legislation, IT systems and preparations to install physical infrastructure in our ports and our airports, but not along the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

I welcome the establishment at the weekend of the patient support and advocacy group for women affected by the CervicalCheck scandal, 221 Plus. I echo the calls for accountability among managers in the health service for errors that have been made, but that should also be extended to accountability among the political class for the error made in the first instance by outsourcing this vital aspect of women's healthcare.

Over the weekend, there were newspaper reports that the new plan to extend the CervicalCheck contract involved taking back into the public service cytologists from MedLab and doubling the fees payable to Quest Diagnostics. I would like to know the Taoiseach's opinion on this matter. It is an acknowledgement of the failure of outsourcing and privatisation that the Government would take the extraordinary move of taking back into the public service scientists from private labs. Is this the beginning of the end for outsourcing? Are we going to move to repatriate the service in the long run? That is what is required. It means we will have to train adequate numbers of cytologists and invest in public laboratories.

What is happening behind the scenes in terms of indemnifying these laboratories? Is there an agreement similar to the Woods deal being worked on in the background that would allow laboratories that have made mistakes with women's health in the past to get away scot free if claims are made against them in future? This question needs to be answered.

There is a further question on open disclosure. Much has been said in this Parliament about the need for open disclosure. As an elected representative, I have asked not once, twice, three or even four times, but many times, both orally and in writing, for the answer to a simple question, namely, from which labs the 221 failed tests came, but I have not been given one. I am getting a lot of gobbledygook and waffle, but I am not getting an answer. I now know, having seen the evidence, that the answer to this simple question is available. It can be given over. Why is it being consistently blocked?

I have asked the Taoiseach a number of questions. Is there an acknowledgement by the State that outsourcing was at the heart of this tragedy and that, by bringing cytologists back into the public service, we will begin the process of repatriating the service? Why are we doubling the fees to Quest Diagnostics when outsourcing happened in the first instance because it was supposed to save the State 30% of the cost? This is a large and ironic twist in the debacle. Serious questions need to be answered.

I join Deputy Bríd Smith in welcoming the establishment of 221 Plus, the new support group for the women and families affected by CervicalCheck.

As Members will know, that is being supported and funded by the Department of Health.

The decision on outsourcing was made by a previous Government more than ten years ago, so I have no political axe to grind in defending it or any interest in that regard. It was made before the party I lead came to office. It is important, however, to have regard to Dr. Scally's report. We asked him to study this matter and report to us. He found that the laboratories, namely, the Coombe, the private laboratories in Ireland and the private laboratories in the US, were all up to standard and that there was not a significant difference in the quality of those laboratories. That may not fit in with the Deputy's particular ideology but, regardless of anyone's ideology, that is what he found, that the laboratories, whether Irish or American, whether private or public, were all up to standard and up to scratch.

It is also important to remember what Dr. Scally stated in his report. He pointed out that if one provides cervical screening for 1,000 women, 20 will have cancer or pre-cancer, screening will pick up 15 of those, it will miss five, and those five are the false negatives, but all false negatives are not negligent. In fact, most false negatives are not negligent. False negatives are part and parcel of screening. They are a known limitation of screening, so the fact, or non-fact, that there may be more false negatives in one laboratory or another cannot be seen to be a sign of higher levels of negligence in one laboratory over another. It is important for those of us who are interested in the facts and the truth about this issue that we understand that and that we do not spin or twist these things to suit our own narrative. False negatives, by the way, occur in all laboratories. There is no laboratory that did not have false negatives and there is no laboratory that will not have some degree, unfortunately, of medical error or negligence, whether Irish or American, or whether public or private.

Discussions are ongoing with the laboratories as to how we can continue the cervical screening process. We all want cervical screening to continue. The one way to ensure that lives will be lost is if screening does not continue because we know that screening has saved lives and that the incidence of cervical cancer has been going down in Ireland for the past few years because of the HPV vaccine and screening. We want to make sure that screening continues.

What will not happen and what is not being considered is any sort of retrospective liability or the State covering retrospective liability. That is not something that is under consideration at all. Most of the services are already back in Ireland. MedLab and the Coombe are in Ireland, so most of the services are already in Ireland. It is my view and that of the Minister for Health that when we go to procurement for the new HPV-based test, we will want to make sure the laboratories are of the highest quality and standard.

We have been given the same answer again. The Taoiseach's answer did not address my question. I asked him specifically about public service contracts being offered to cytologists in MedLab. Is that an indicator the Government is serious about taking the service back into public control? If MedLab and all the other laboratories were entirely up to scratch, why is the Taoiseach offering public service contracts? If it is not true, please say it is not true.

Another issue is the degree of error. Yes, all false negatives happen but the degree of error is so serious that some of these laboratories have paid out significant sums of money to the women involved. We know that. We also know that Dr. Scally, by his own admission, was not charged with investigating the 221 very grave errors that were made. I still have not had an answer to the question I asked regarding from which laboratories they came. I am not asking that question to suit my ideology. That is a disgraceful claim to make against me. It does matter which laboratories these tests went to and the outcome of outsourcing. There would be an indicator in the answer to my question, if ever I can get one. An open disclosure to a Deputy would be welcome.

I am not in a position to discuss contracts that are under negotiation or contracts that are not signed. The backdrop to what is happening, however, is that there are laboratories now which no longer want to be involved in providing tests to Irish patients in the Irish health service because of the situation we have had in Ireland, because of litigation and other matters. It should be a matter of concern to all of us that there are laboratories, and it may even happen in other areas of healthcare, where international companies, and even Irish-based private companies, no longer want work from the Irish health service because of the current environment.

That is because they put profit before health.

We should all bear in mind our responsibilities in that regard, if we are genuinely concerned about and interested in protecting women's health. There is a risk in the rise in litigation and how it can impact on health services and quality. I again want to point to the facts for the Deputy because they do matter. Deputy Bríd Smith is making an assumption that the 221 false negatives were all negligent, but they were not. We are going to have to devise a system to determine where negligence occurred and where it did not.

To know whether they were negligent, one must know from where they came.

The issue I raise is one that has been awaiting resolution for a very long time. Given the current difficulties with Brexit and the implications for the Good Friday Agreement, there is a real fear that the group Justice for the Forgotten and the survivors and the families of those killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings may never see a resolution. I should not have to raise this issue today, but after many years and much discussion in the Houses, in spite of the work of Justice for the Forgotten and, most significantly, the three Dáil motions in 2008, 2011 and 2016, there has been no resolution. The Dáil motions were concerned with seeking access to information and providing an independent international judicial figure who would have access to all of the relevant original documents. All three motions were passed unanimously but have been ignored by the British Government and the British embassy, which is an insult to the Dáil.

Numerous parliamentary questions on the issue have been submitted, the most recent being that from me and Deputy Brendan Smith in early October. We were told that the issue was of the utmost importance to the Government and included in the programme for Government and that it was imperative that we moved ahead with full implementation of the Stormont House agreement. That agreement provides for an historical investigations unit for Troubles-related deaths in Northern Ireland, but there is no such unit in the Republic of Ireland, as there is not in the case of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Therefore, victims here are being treated differently. Here such deaths will be treated like all other crimes, that is, as matters for the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána that will follow up on any new evidence. How is that to inspire confidence that there will be a resolution because there has been no action taken on evidence that has been available since 1974? Within a few weeks of the bombings the Garda had information on who, how, the timeframe and the routes taken by the bombers, but the investigation was wound down within a few months.

Twenty years later Mr. Justice Barron conducted an inquiry and produced a report. Has there been any action taken on it? There has not been a single conviction. Mr. Justice Barron found that Garda files and evidence from the bomb debris were missing. Further investigative journalism and books all suggest there was collusion. Mr. Justice Barron wrote that the Government of the day had shown little interest in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and that lack of interest has continued with subsequent Governments right up to today. Throughout we had the failure of the British Government to co-operate. That continues to this day with its ignoring of the three Dáil motions to which I have referred. It has been hiding behind the facade of national security for over 40 years.

The Taoiseach and his predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, made very strong public statements on child abuse by members of the clergy and religious institutions. Is it not time to do the very same for the survivors and the victims' families in seeking access to all of the original documentation? Is it not time for the Garda Commissioner to apologise for Garda failures to date? Such actions could provide the impetus for real action in order that Justice for the Forgotten, the aptly named group, will see a resolution.

I thank the Deputy for raising the important issue of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, one of which took place in her constituency. I again take the opportunity to extend my condolences to the survivors and the families of those affected, many of whom are still grieving and still do not have the answers to the questions they ask. Unfortunately, I am not in a position either to answer them. There is only so much information that any of us has on these terrible events which occurred some decades ago. I do not have an up-to-date note on the issue in front of me, but I will try over the course of the week to respond in some detail in writing to the Deputy's questions. I had not anticipated that the issue would be raised today.

Regarding historical inquiries in general, this is something of which the Government is very supportive. However, the fact that the institutions - east-west, North-South and in Northern Ireland - are not functioning in they way they should has meant that much of the progress on legacy issues that should have been happening has ground to a halt.

I had the opportunity to meet the leader of the DUP last night when we had a discussion on many issues, including what could be done to get the institutions in Northern Ireland up and running again. She seemed to be committed to it happening and it can happen once there is more clarity on what Brexit will look like. The Tánaiste and I are very committed to doing everything we can, once there is clarity on Brexit, to acting quickly to reconvene the talks, subject to the agreement of the parties, and trying to have the Assembly and the Executive up and running again and the North-South institutions functioning again. That will put us in a place where we can start to honour some of the commitments made on legacy issues.

The legacy issues have been the Cinderella of Brexit. The victims and survivors in this jurisdiction deserve the same respect and treatment as those who died in another jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that another motion would be passed unanimously here today. Equally, there is no doubt that the British Government would continue to ignore it, as would the British embassy. A public statement by the Taoiseach, similar to the one he made on child abuse, would be welcome. There is a dignified and respectful commemoration held on 17 May each year that is attended by various people, including former Presidents and Taoisigh, Ministers, Deputies, councillors and Senators. It is important that it happen, but it is almost like an exercise in box-ticking. The commemoration this year is done and dusted. In the meantime, the survivors and families of the victims are still waiting. I hope, when the Taoiseach considers what I have said, that he will consider meeting them as soon as he can. There are other issues such as Brexit and broadband provision that need attention, but the people concerned have been waiting for a long time. They need to know that their wait is coming to an end.

I take the Deputy's comments onboard and will consider them. I am not sure if there was a question, but I will take into account what she has said. The Tánaiste and the Minister for Justice and Equality have met the families and those lines of communication will be kept open.

That concludes Leader's Question.