Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Starting yesterday afternoon, we have heard reports of a draft text of a British withdrawal treaty. There have been rumours, counter-rumours, statements of support and the usual statements of defiance even though the document has yet to be published. I gather the document extends to over 400 pages. We appreciate on this side of the House that it is necessary to give the UK Cabinet space this afternoon to consider the document and the findings it contains. Given in particular the Taoiseach's new-found interest in dedramatising the relationship between Ireland and the UK, we understand he is possibly constrained in what he can say. However, he should be very clear that my party considers this document to be as important for the island of Ireland as it is for the United Kingdom and the European Union and expects the Oireachtas to be given the same opportunity as the Parliaments in both of those jurisdictions to discuss and scrutinise the agreement when it is fully available. This document is a seminal one in the history of the island and the Oireachtas should have the power and capacity to scrutinise it on that basis. We need to scrutinise it because it affects not only economic issues but almost every aspect of day-to-day life on this island. It is not only about the backstop for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, but about trade, economic, social and civic issues also.

Every Member of the House wants a deal and it is in the interests of the island of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union to get one. Every business owner, farmer and worker looking at us today wants a deal which protects trade and our relationships on an east-west and North-South basis. Nobody wants a border between the North and the South, not even the DUP, and nobody wants a no-deal Brexit scenario. While I appreciate that the Taoiseach cannot speculate on the detail of the draft, I ask him to comment on a number of principles. Can he confirm that the Good Friday Agreement as it stands will not be impacted negatively if the draft withdrawal agreement is ratified? In the case that there is a further extended transition period after the formal withdrawal period concludes, the UK will continue to be a full member of the EU for the next two years. What are the principles which will guide the relationship after that? When will a copy of the draft withdrawal treaty be made available to Members of the House on all sides to allow us to scrutinise it and begin the process of debating an agreement which is so important for Ireland?

I appreciate forbearance on this issue and the understanding as to why I may not be in a position to answer questions in the detail I might like. I have been in touch with Deputy Calleary's party leader this morning on the issue and around that point. A very important and sensitive Cabinet meeting will take place in London today from 2 p.m. and I do not want to say anything here which might up-end it or make things any more difficult than they already are for the Prime Minister. I know the Deputy will not want to put me in a position where I have to do that.

At the outset, I note once again that Brexit is not our policy. Brexit is not going to be good for Ireland. The best case scenario for Ireland would be for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union, but that is not a matter for us. It is a matter for the British people and their Parliament and they have made a decision which we must respect. Our objective from day one has been to minimise any harm to Ireland and Northern Ireland and to maximise any opportunities that may arise. Our strategy from day one has been to be European and very much one of the EU 27 and indivisible from them. It has been to ensure that the European Union understood our concerns and vital national interests and to ensure that our concerns and vital national interests became European concerns and interests. Michel Barnier and his team have very much taken that on board as have my colleagues in the European Council, Commission and Parliament. In December last, when the joint report - the agreement between the EU and the UK - was issued, I said the next step was to turn the report into a legally binding and operable withdrawal agreement. While we are close to that point today, it remains a draft agreement. It has yet to be agreed by the UK Government which will discuss it this afternoon. It has yet to be agreed also by the European Council. We may be in a position to have an emergency European Council meeting before the end of the month to do exactly that.

As to the Deputy's questions, my reading is that the Good Friday Agreement is not negatively impacted by this. In fact, it is protected by the draft agreement. Deputy Calleary asked also about the transition period. It is envisaged to run from the end of March next year until the end of 2020 with the possibility of a time-limited extension. During the transition period, the United Kingdom will not be a member state of the European Union. In essence, however, the rules, regulations and acquis would continue to apply to provide businesses and citizens time to prepare for any permanent changes which may take place and, more importantly, to give us time during the transition period to negotiate the future relationship between the EU and the UK around trade and security.

Can the Taoiseach confirm that the agreement will be made available to the House and that there will be a vigorous debate here? We have had 12 months of discussion around last year's agreement and within that discussion there has been tortuous interpretation of language. Language meant something completely different in London to what it was taken to mean in Dublin and vice versa as well as in Brussels. Is the language in this agreement watertight so that it will not be subject to another 12 or 24 months of interpretation and difficult disagreement between our nations? Can the Taoiseach guarantee that the agreement will be time-proof so that no matter who is Taoiseach or Prime Minister, the commitments contained in it will be honoured for however long it lasts? In the event that agreement is not reached, in particular if the draft does not get through the UK Parliament, can the Taoiseach confirm that, in line with the contingency advice of the EU Commission on preparations for a no-deal Brexit, we are in a position to deal with such a scenario?

If the agreement is made it will be an international treaty between the European Union, including Ireland, on the one hand and the United Kingdom on the other. As an international treaty, it would, therefore, continue to apply even if there were a change in government here or in the United Kingdom. That is the nature of such agreements.

As to the process and next steps, there are obviously a lot of things that can go wrong. Should the UK Cabinet be in a position this afternoon to express content with the text, it is proposed that the Commission task force might be in a position even tonight to publish the text with the probability of an EU Council meeting on or about 25 November.

As we all know, the text would have to be ratified by Westminster and the European Parliament.

Although it is not legally necessary, my strong view and the decision of the Cabinet is that the text should be put to a vote in Dáil Éireann and I give that commitment now. I appreciate that Members will want to read the text and, therefore, we may need some flexibility around timing. If we are in a position to publish the text and to give Members time to read it, it is intended to offer briefings to all parties this evening. We have arranged for briefings tomorrow morning for the Northern Ireland parties, or at least for those which wish to partake in them. All things going to plan, we may have a debate on the matter next week. This can be agreed by the Business Committee, thus giving everyone the chance to read the agreement in full and to think about it and then having a vote on it in the Dáil.

Yesterday the draft Brexit withdrawal agreement was agreed between the European Union and British negotiators. After all the machinations, false starts and back and forth of the past year and a half, I welcome the fact that we might have a suitable deal on the table. I say "might" because we have not had sight of the text of the deal. However, we are hopeful that a deal which meets what we in Sinn Féin have consistently called for might be on the table and we await the detail of such.

From the beginning of this process, we have consistently called for a special deal for the North of Ireland, reflective of its unique status and the vote that was cast there. The agreement should ensure no hard border on our island, that citizens' rights are protected and that the Good Friday Agreement is protected and upheld. We have put that case at home and abroad. We have urged the Government to promote an all-Ireland view on the matter, which is what has guided our approach in Sinn Féin. We have not sought to play party politics on this issue and I am sure the Taoiseach will acknowledge that, as both he and the Tánaiste have in the past. We have rightly called the Government out when we thought it was on the wrong track but we have been supportive it was when we assessed that it was on the right one.

One of the core issues is that of the Irish backstop which, in our view, remains the bottom line in ensuring that there is never a hard border on the island of Ireland, the interests of citizens are upheld and the Good Friday Agreement is protected. That protection remains absolutely vital and the British Government must be held to the commitment it made last December. Perhaps sense will prevail in Downing Street this afternoon. I hope that will be the case.

The DUP has come out of the traps to oppose what may be on the table. That does not surprise any Members on this side of the House. In opposing any positive solution, it has aligned itself with the most right-wing elements of the Tory Party, UKIP and extremist Brexiteers in moving from an initial position of wanting no hard border on the island of Ireland to apparently actively seeking such a border. It is living in a fantasy land when it comes to Brexit. It has no idea what is on the table but it is certain that it is against it. That is an absolutely reckless and irresponsible position to take.

There is an onus on us all to defend our country's political and economic interests. That should be the position of every person in every part of our Ireland. There is now an onus on the British Government to step up to the mark. Last week, the Taoiseach told the Dáil that the Government will not resile from the fundamental position that a backstop must form part of the withdrawal agreement and that it cannot have an expiry date or unilateral exit clause. Is that still the case?

I ask the Taoiseach to provide detail on when he intends to bring party leaders together in order that they will be as fully briefed as possible on the detail of the deal. It is important that takes place without delay. The Sinn Féin leadership, namely, our party president and vice president, will be speaking to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, after 5 p.m. this evening and it is important that there is a briefing from an Irish perspective before that opportunity arises.

All things going to plan, we intend to offer a briefing to party leaders and their teams this evening and offer a similar briefing for the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Green Party in Northern Ireland tomorrow morning.

It is important to remember what the backstop is. It is not our preferred solution but, rather, a fallback or insurance policy. The joint report published in December of last year outlined options A, B and C. Option A involves resolving the issue of the Irish Border in a new future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom. We will try to negotiate that during the transition period. Option B related to UK-wide specific solutions, but in many ways that is now the potential for an extension of the transition period if required. Option C is the backstop which would only kick in if options A and B were unsuccessful. The backstop must be in place and legally operable. It cannot have an expiry date and it must not be possible for one side to withdraw from it unilaterally. It is important to appreciate that it is our intention that the backstop should never have to be invoked. If it is invoked, that should be a temporary measure until a new agreement is put in place to supersede all or part of it. However, it must apply until that is the case.

I thank the Taoiseach. He mentioned that in his view the Good Friday Agreement was protected in the draft agreement, which is to be welcomed. We will examine in detail how that stacks up when we receive the published text.

On the guarantee of a permanent backstop, I ask him to outline to the House the nature of any potential revision to the backstop following a review. What would be the role of this Parliament, which the Taoiseach outlined will vote on the agreement, in that regard? Will it be necessary for Ireland to consent to any changes to the backstop?

I welcome that briefings of party leaders will take place, but it is important that they take place in a timely manner. Given our role and the opportunities we have had to deal with the British Prime Minister and negotiators at a European level in advocating the Irish position, it is important that a briefing from an Irish perspective takes place before the Sinn Féin leadership speaks to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, after 5 p.m. today. That should be taken into account in scheduling the briefings.

It is important to point out that if it is concluded, the agreement will be between the EU and the UK. Ireland is part of the EU but will not separately sign up to the agreement. However, any change to the agreement will be made through the European Council of which, of course, Ireland is a member, in the form of the Taoiseach.

I accept the Deputy's points regarding things being done in a timely manner and note his comments on the phone call to the Prime Minister, Mrs. May. Members should bear in mind that Cabinet meeting will begin at 2 p.m. and may not be finished by 5 p.m. We will have to see how this plays out over the course of the day. We want to be able to give Members the text as well as a briefing on the text. However, I remember the furore when the German Parliament saw elements of our budget before our Parliament did. That must work both ways. We have had enormous support and solidarity from other EU member states and institutions throughout this process and I do not want to put documents which members of other parliaments have not seen into the public domain. It is very important that this is all done at the same time and done by Brussels.

I wish to put on the record of the House that this is a difficult time for the unionist community in Northern Ireland. Many unionists may be feeling vulnerable, isolated or quite worried about what may be agreed in the coming days. I wish to say to them that the Good Friday Agreement will be protected.

That includes a recognition of the fact that we respect the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and the principle of consent, which is that there can be no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland unless a majority of people there say so. We are very happy to have that written into any agreement because it gives the unionist community a legal guarantee.

I hope a deal is done on Brexit, and I hope it means that a general election is imminent because there are so many issues that are not benefiting from the current arrangements. I want to deal with one such issue, namely, child protection. As the Taoiseach knows, Oberstown was in the news again at the weekend when the real reason for the non-publication of the Goldson-Hardwick operational review, which was concluded almost two years ago, was revealed. I remind the House that the operational review was commissioned on foot of a number of serious incidents, including a virtual riot by young people, a major fire that caused €3.5 million worth of damage, strike action, health and safety concerns and behaviour management concerns. It is worth pointing out that since the Goldson-Hardwick report was concluded, there have been further serious incidents, including one last year which required armed gardaí to be called. High Court proceedings looking into the unlawful use of restraints and solitary confinement at Oberstown are under way.

All of this relates to a facility which deals with the most vulnerable and troubled young people in the State. Over half of them have lost one or both parents. Some 42% of them are at serious risk. They have drugs and alcohol problems. They are not going to school. They are in care and so on. It is hardly surprising that the authors of the report said that they have grave concerns about what they learned and that it is in the public interest for the report to be published. It is a sad irony that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs justified the non-publication of the report on the grounds that she was not convinced that fair procedures had applied. To whom should fair procedures apply? It certainly is not fair to the many children who received extended prison sentences of up to five years for their role in these disturbances that a report on the circumstances leading up to the incident has not been published. It is not fair to Professor Goldson and Professor Hardwick, who are consummate professionals who checked and rechecked. To this day, they have not been given legal information on why the report has not been published. I have to say that if these academics were based in Ireland, they would not be treated like this. Instead, the beneficiaries of fairness were the board and some of the staff in Oberstown who threatened legal action and resignation. They got away with it. They succeeded in intimidating the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In other words, those responsible for the operation that was being reviewed blocked the publication of the report.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. It was revealed to me this week that another report involving very serious child protection concerns has not been published. This report relates to social work services in the midlands. My questions are quite straightforward. Will the Taoiseach provide an assurance that this review, which was commissioned for publication, will be published? More importantly, what will the Taoiseach do about the fact that it looks like two major organisations under the aegis of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs are incredibly comfortable with giving the two fingers to the Minister and the Department so that they can carry on doing whatever they like? Sadly, these two organisations are charged with protecting our most vulnerable children. The report I referred to that was mentioned earlier in the week, which we found out might not be published, involved one young person in a serious harm situation where social workers had been notified over a period of ten years.

I thank the Deputy. As everyone in the House will appreciate, Oberstown works with and serves children who have very profound difficulties. Many of them have had a very bad start in life and have immense needs and great difficulties. Sadly, they are often a risk to themselves, to other people, including family members, and to their communities. This is a very hard area to work in. The staff who work in this area are very dedicated, generally speaking, and have a vocation to work with children who have such significant and difficult needs. Several reports have been published. They outline the reforms that are required at Oberstown. Recommendations from these reports have been published and incorporated into the overall reform plan, which is being limited. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, has the board's legal advice with regard to this and that has been accepted. I am sure that when further opportunities arise, the Minister will be able to answer the Deputy's questions in a little more detail than I can in the course of this debate.

The brevity of the Taoiseach's answer is an insult to the vulnerable children who are currently in the charge of our child protection services. The second report I mentioned was concluded in 2016. The allegations in the report are so serious that the Garda is investigating them on the grounds of reckless endangerment. We have a strong belief that the report in question will not be published. The professional people who carried out the Oberstown review and its recommendations on a contractual basis, and on the understanding that it would be published, have not been given any legal reason it cannot be published. If there is a legal reason and if redactions are necessary, why can it not be published on that basis? Even though there have been improvements at Oberstown - it could not really get much worse, considering the problems that have been encountered there - the reality is that HIQA reports which have been completed this year set out 38 child protection and welfare concerns, none of which have been concluded. In a number of those cases, the person who made the complaint was not even given an acknowledgement. These are children who are suspected of abuse. Some of the allegations were against staff members in the facility itself. We do not know if those staff members, and those referred to in the correspondence that has been leaked or provided under freedom of information, are still working there and still represent a potential threat to vulnerable children. I know the Taoiseach has bigger fish to fry today, but I am sorry to say that his initial response to me was a little disrespectful to the people at the heart of these matters.

As the Deputy has rightly stated, these allegations are very serious and are being investigated by the Garda. It is important that we allow the Garda to carry out its investigations and that we support it in its work in this area. I have not seen these reports, but I appreciate that we must always have regard to the risk that the publication of any report could prejudice an investigation and could make future criminal prosecutions more difficult. That must always be borne in mind.

There is no Garda involvement at Oberstown now.

I can answer one of the Deputy's questions by telling her that the board has communicated with the authors of the report. On the issue more broadly, I assure the House that the Government is absolutely committed to improving child protection in Ireland. We have established a Department of Children and Youth Affairs with a dedicated Minister at the Cabinet table. We have amended our Constitution to enshrine the rights of children in it. We have put Children First on a statutory footing. Last year, after many years, we successfully introduced mandatory reporting of child abuse. When I say that a great deal of progress is being made in this area, I do not mean for a second to diminish in any way the seriousness of the issues at Oberstown which the Deputy has rightly raised.

The Rural Independent Group wants to see the Brexit talks concluded. We look forward to the Taoiseach's briefing on the text this evening.

Several weeks ago, I raised the issue of economic and social deprivation in County Tipperary, particularly areas of Tipperary town and west Tipperary, with the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputies Regina Doherty, and the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys. The former indicated that far from being areas of deep concern, County Tipperary and Tipperary town are flourishing and thriving. Nothing could be further from the truth. It appears that the sky-high rate of youth unemployment and the Pobal index figures on deprivation are figments of people's imagination. This assessment has created a deep sense of anger across the county. People have taken to the streets in their thousands to highlight the reality of the situation and to try to bring home to the Government what is actually taking place on the ground, or more accurately what is not taking place. There is a total lack of understanding and empathy.

I would like to refer to a comparative study that was commissioned and written by Ms Lisa English, who is involved in the Jobs for Tipp action group. The findings of this study, which compares deprivation levels in south Tipperary with those in the north-east inner city of Dublin, are truly disturbing. The report finds that the districts of Tipperary east, Tipperary town, Tipperary west, Clonmel west and Carrick-on-Suir all score more highly on the Pobal deprivation index than areas in Dublin's inner city. It concludes that deprivation levels in the towns of Tipperary, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir are far in excess of those in inner-city Dublin. Unlike Dublin's inner city, there are no special tax incentives or developer-led initiatives to help to regenerate towns in County Tipperary.

The Jobs for Tipp action group has made applications over a number of years to the town and village renewal scheme but they were all refused, despite the fact it has a property from Tipperary Co-Op on a long-term lease. Added to the challenges is the fact that overall the south-east region is the second most disadvantaged in Ireland. Despite its importance to the region, the N24 also suffers from slow journey times and substandard design and alignment, and it is congested where it is routed through a number of towns, particularly Tipperary town, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, as well as villages. It is choking Tipperary town.

There is one option I want the Taoiseach to consider and it would demonstrate a real commitment on the part of the Government to the county. Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, consideration can be given to the creation of a strategic development zone, SDZ, in the south and west of County Tipperary to help tackle deprivation and to attract small-scale job creation in towns such as Tipperary town and Carrick-on-Suir. Such zones have been used successfully in places such as Cherrywood and the docklands in Dublin. A Tipperary development company or task force could be established in co-operation with Tipperary County Council and central government funding. Will the Taoiseach support this option or, at the very least, ask the relevant Ministers to create an interdepartmental group to bring some joined-up thinking to this crisis? The message is just not getting through. There seem to be no genuine sense of the special circumstances that are preventing areas of Tipperary from tapping into the growth that is slowly starting to materialise in other parts of rural Ireland.

As the House will acknowledge, it is very much Government policy to ensure our nation's prosperity is shared, that everyone benefits and that all parts of the country benefit. Project Ireland 2040 is very much about making sure we have economic development in all parts of the country, that the large cities outside Dublin grow twice as fast as Dublin, that we develop new major urban centres, such as the Dundalk to Drogheda corridor, Athlone and Sligo, and that we make sure we have a growth in population in rural Ireland. We want more than 200,000 people living in rural Ireland by 2040. Before the end of the year we will be able to make the first allocations under the urban renewal fund and the rural renewal fund. Deputy McGrath knows that €2 billion was set aside for the urban fund and €1 billion for the rural fund. I am sure very good projects have come in from Tipperary for those funds but I am not in a position to allocate the funding today.

I appreciate that many towns in Tipperary are not doing well. I saw the media coverage of the protest that occurred in Tipperary town. I have been there in the past. At the same time, we should not make the mistake of failing to acknowledge that Tipperary is a good county. It is a good place to live and has a lot of successful industries. It is an area we should speak about in such a way that attracts people to move there and attracts investment towards it.

The Deputy will have seen unemployment fall significantly. In north Tipperary, it peaked at more than 8,000 in 2012 and it is now down to 4,400. In south Tipperary, unemployment almost reached 10,000 and is now down to 4,700. A lot of work is being done by the enterprise agencies. There are now almost 6, 000 jobs in companies supported by Enterprise Ireland in Tipperary. There are 3,600 people working for 11 IDA Ireland client companies. In recent months, job announcements were made by DMS Governance in Cashel and significant investment in the Lisheen Mines bio-economy project.

The Deputy also mentioned roads. The allocation for regional and local roads in Tipperary increased to €21.7 million this year from €18.4 million last year. That is a big increase in roads funding for the county. This is separate from any funding provided through the local improvement scheme.

On the issue of an SDZ for the area, we are always open to consideration of this but such a zone is not necessarily the magic bullet people think it is. I have an SDZ in my constituency and we often colloquially refer to it as the slow development zone. There are other SDZs, for example in Knock, that may have benefits in the future but just designating something an SDZ does not mean development follows. It requires a little more thought than that.

I am well used to the Taoiseach's acronyms and how he can describe them. I will tell him one thing about Tipperary - we are not slow, whatever about an SDZ. In Tipperary town, 5,000 people came onto the streets in good humour. I acknowledge the work that goes on there. The voluntary sector is huge. There is Tipperary Co-op, Brodeen Engineering Knockanrawley, the Canon Hayes centre and Moorehaven with 520 people. We want Government support. We do not have a fair slice of the cake. The rural regeneration and development fund has a budget of €1 billion, as the Taoiseach keeps telling us. Six applications have been made from County Tipperary. We are not holding our breath because we have held it before. The Minister, Deputy Ring, has said a total of only €55 million has been put away for this year so it is not happening. Will the Taoiseach encourage his Ministers to establish a strategic investment interdepartmental group? The people of Tipperary are ready, willing and able to collaborate and co-operate and we will show the way. We will lead the way if necessary but we need support from the Government. The Government has neglected west Tipperary and Tipperary town as well as Carrick-on-Suir. They have been abandoned by successive Governments but this Government and the previous Government have definitely abandoned them. The Taoiseach saw it himself when he came to visit. He saw we had no bypass. Now he has gone off with the road from Limerick to Cork and abandoned the idea of the N24 from Limerick to Waterford that would go through Cahir. It was €400 million cheaper. I ask the Taoiseach to consider establishing this group. We will make sure it will not be a slow development issue in Tipperary because we will engage with it and make sure it works.

The Deputy mentioned the existence of the rural regeneration and development fund. It has €1 billion that we have set aside for the next ten years to invest in our towns and villages in rural areas to make them more attractive for people to stay in, move to and establish businesses in. There is also a €2 billion urban regeneration fund for settlements of more than 10,000 people. Applications have been made from Tipperary but they have yet to be assessed. We expect to be in a position to make the first allocations before the end of the year.