Ceisteanna - Questions

Urban Renewal Schemes

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in the north-east inner city initiative. [3892/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when he last met with the Dublin inner city forum; and the status of improvements and investments since it was set up. [4354/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when he last met with the Dublin inner city forum. [5309/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when he last met with the Dublin inner city forum. [5351/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

The Mulvey report, Dublin North East Inner City - Creating a Brighter Future, which was commissioned by Government was published in February 2017 and contained an outline plan for the social and economic regeneration of Dublin's north inner city area.

In June 2017, Michael Stone was appointed by Government as independent chair of the north east inner city programme implementation board. Members of the board include representatives from relevant Departments and Government agencies, business and the local community.

The board is assisted in its work by five subgroups: tackling crime and drugs; education, training and employment; creating an integrated system of social services; improving the physical landscape; and addiction treatment and rehabilitation services.

The board and its subgroups continue to meet on a monthly basis to oversee and progress the implementation of the 54 actions set out in the Mulvey report.

Officials from my Department work closely with the board, the subgroups and the dedicated programme office. The chairman of the board reports to an oversight group of senior officials chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. This group meets regularly and held its most recent meeting yesterday. This structure ensures strong and active participation by all relevant Departments and Government agencies and deals with any structural barriers or issues highlighted by the board.

Cabinet committee B, which I chair, provides the requisite ministerial oversight of the initiative, and receives regular updates on recent progress and implementation of the Mulvey report actions.

I last met the chair of the board at the launch of the P-TECH initiative in Larkin community college on 16 November 2018.

The board recently published its 2018 annual progress report. Notable achievements highlighted in the report include: 50 new staff funded and recruited to enhance service delivery in childcare, youth work, elder care and physical environmental projects; the completion of refurbishment works on the Lourdes day care centre; commencement of enabling works to Fitzgibbon Street Garda station; 51 new gardaí assigned to the area since last April; and the development of the P-TECH initiative in three second level schools in the area to link industry and education through mentorships and internships.

The Government is committed to supporting and investing in the north east inner city community, and ensuring that Michael Stone and the board have the necessary resources to achieve their targets and fulfil their ambition. To this end, the Government has made available €6.5 million in funding for the initiative in 2019.

Showing the ambition for 2019, the board intends to place an emphasis on ensuring that the longer-term interventions required to make a fundamental and transformational change to the area are initiated and implemented.

Central to the board’s aims for 2019 are initiatives to improve assistance for families affected by addiction issues and drug-related intimidation; to build on relationships with local businesses and employers to create sustainable employment; and continued efforts to improve the physical and built environment to make the north east inner city a better place to live and work.

Notwithstanding the very good work being undertaken as part of the north east inner city initiative, there are big problems in the north east inner city as we all know, similar to the issues in my area that need to be addressed. There has been a big increase in illegal dumping in the area since the disastrous privatisation of bin collections. Antisocial behaviour is on the rise and gangs are openly selling drugs on street corners.

There is also a major problem, not just in the inner city but in many other areas, of quad bikes and scramblers being illegally driven around housing estates and green areas. I was disappointed that a Bill I introduced to regulate these vehicles was voted down by the Government and by Fianna Fáil. Residents are living in fear and there does not appear to be strong Garda visibility. We have raised this lack of visibility with the Garda and the Minister for Justice and Equality, which is a consequence of there being 54 fewer gardaí in the north-central area compared with the position a decade ago. This must be corrected.

Given the lack of affordable and social housing in the city, there is a growing trend of two and three generations of a family sharing a single overcrowded home. This is having a very negative impact on people's physical and mental health and on children's education and social development. It is a big contributory factor to many of the problems of the north inner city. We must get to grips with the massive housing shortage across the area and right across Dublin.

There are lots of abandoned historic buildings in the inner city, which are major eyesores for residents and visitors alike. They include Aldborough House and the former Magdalen laundry site on Sean MacDermott Street. There is a lack of imagination and political will to develop these buildings for the local community as opposed to simply serving the interests of private developers.

While the work of the north east inner city group is very welcome, serious issues arise concerning the level of resources required and more importantly, about the lack of a coherent national local development agenda. There is nowhere in the world where a once-off report and the ongoing implementation of that report has delivered sustained regeneration. What works is a systematic and ongoing process of local engagement, shared planning between State agencies and ongoing planning.

Last month, Deputy Curran asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, why the Government is refusing to adopt an approach of systematically targeting concentrated disadvantage. There has been a huge drop-off in the kind of co-ordinated approach that existed a decade ago. The reply that Deputy Curran received was an example of a Government which is mainly focused on the number of projects Ministers can announce, rather than on having a real impact. The approach is to distribute funding in a much broader way, devolving some to the local authorities but most into the hands of the Minister. This has led directly to a reduction in the funding being given to the communities most in need. The joint planning approach of State services in disadvantaged communities has been pushed to the side as well. The spirit of the revitalising areas by planning, investment and development, RAPID, programme has been well and truly buried.

I ask the Taoiseach to commission a short report on the impact of moving from a development approach focused on the most disadvantaged communities to one which is far more scattered. Does the Taoiseach agree that the approach in the north inner city that he was praising should be followed elsewhere? Before Christmas, the Taoiseach promised to examine the issue of the increased politicisation of grants in a range of areas such as the arts, community development and research. I ask him to outline the results of that examination.

The People Before Profit local representative in the north inner city, Gillian Brien, who resides in the flats on Constitution Hill, was forced recently to organise a community protest at Dublin City Council offices over rat infestation in the flats and apartments on Constitution Hill, Queen Street, Dorset Street and Upper Dominick Street. A five year old child was bitten by a rat recently. I spoke to Ms Brien this morning and asked her if the protest has had any impact. The council had promised to address the issue but she told me that nothing has happened and that the rat infestation continues. I heard a person who had lived in the tenement houses on Henrietta Street on the radio recently, as part of the centenary celebrations. He was talking about what Dublin was like back then and in terms of the terrible aspects of living in the tenements 100 years ago, the biggest issue was rats. Today, we still have rat infestations and even when the residents of inner city communities protest at Dublin City Council offices, nothing is done. They fear that the failure to address the neglect of their areas is linked to an agenda to drive the local community out and to socially cleanse the inner city. Huge numbers of the Dominick Street and Dorset Street flats are lying empty. Mr. Brendan Kenny from Dublin City Council said recently that there would be no more public housing in the inner city and that all social housing will be in places like Coolock and Ballymun. The fear of the inner city communities is that the neglect is deliberate. They believe their communities are being run down and issues like rat infestation are not being addressed because the agenda is to destroy their communities and to push them out. What is the Taoiseach going to do about that?

The north inner city initiative is one of those projects that has been supported by Members across this House. It was a really important initiative of the Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny. However, there are some concerns about the initiative. I speak to former Deputy Joe Costello very regularly about these matters and particularly about the pace of investment. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that the additional allocation, which brings funding up from €2 million to €5.5 million, that was announced with some fanfare last October will be spent and that the projects earmarked for 2019 will go ahead as planned. When will the community hub in Rutland Street school be up and running? Does the Taoiseach plan to put this initiative on a statutory footing? We have asked about this previously because it would give great reassurance to the local community. Are the plans to develop Aldborough House going ahead? One of the demands of the local community is that local labour would be involved in any refurbishment work on Aldborough House. Has the Government considered that and if not, will it consider it?

I remember having discussions with the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, about the fact that this initiative, if we get it right, could be a model that is replicated in other disadvantaged areas. Has the Government considered expanding this particular initiative to other vulnerable or disadvantaged areas in the country?

I will pick up on a few of the questions that were asked by Deputies. I note the Deputies' comments and will respond to their direct questions. Deputy Ellis asked about the Magdalen laundry site. As Deputies will be aware, Dublin City Council voted against the sale of the former convent and laundry on Sean MacDermott Street. The proposed plans were for the development of a hotel and social housing units for older people on the site. In that context, it is not entirely correct to say that the council has no plans for social housing in the area. The council actually did have plans but they were voted down by the city councillors in this particular instance. Sadly, that is happening more and more all over Dublin. There were also plans for a suitable memorial to the Magdalen women, which would have brought investment and footfall to the area. There are, of course, a lot of understandable sensitivities around the site, given its former use but I am hopeful that the land will be developed for the benefit of the area and the residents, while respecting the difficult history of the location.

Deputy Micheál Martin raised the issue of local community development and I acknowledge that he has raised this issue on many occasions in the past. There are lots of ways to deliver local community development. My constituency has quite a number of pockets of deep disadvantage, as does the Deputy's. Sometimes community development is done through vehicles like local drugs task forces and the DEIS programme in education, which most people will acknowledge has improved education outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The CLÁR programme for depopulated rural areas is important, as is the use of local community development committees, LCDCs, as a vehicle for the delivery of local community development. It is too soon to judge whether the north east inner city model is one that should be followed and replicated in the future. No one would question the excellent work that has been done by the group in recent years but ultimately any appraisal has to be based on outcomes. We would have to take one or two similar areas around the country and compare the outcomes there with the outcomes in the north east inner city to assess whether all of the good work and investment has actually led to an improvement in measurable outcomes. It will take a couple of years before we can know that for sure. We need to make a distinction between good work and good outcomes because they can be quite different.

In terms of the politicisation of Government grants, I do not accept that criticism. Any grants that are announced by the Government must be applied for and there is an appraisal and evaluation system in operation. Often there is a scoring system too and then the Minister announces the successful grantees. Then a flurry of freedom of information requests are submitted to make sure that there was no political interference in the process and I am assured that it is not the case.

When I was the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport I was very involved, along with the then Minister of State, Deputy Ring, in changing the sports capital programme so that it was less political and had a proper scoring system.

Each county got an amount of money relative to the number of people living in that county rather than where the Minister might be from. Those criteria have been retained for the sports capital grants by subsequent Ministers.

I am sorry to hear about the condition of some of the social housing around Dorset Street, as mentioned by Deputy Boyd Barrett. I know that area well for lots of different reasons. I cannot comment on Dublin City Council's plan but suffice it to say that Dublin City Council is a council that is now very much dominated by left wing political forces. If there is any attempt being made to run down the area, surely they should take some responsibility for-----

That is the reason they have had to organise protests.

The Taoiseach should not blame others.

-----their role in holding the city council to account, especially if they are in the majority on that council.

People Before Profit does not have a majority on that council. I can assure the Taoiseach of that.

On Aldborough House, the last I heard was that the plans for Aldborough House were to develop it for offices as a company headquarters, thus bringing employment into the area.

On the funding, I am advised that for 2019, €6.5 million has been funded through the community enhancement programme, formerly RAPID, and the community facilities scheme. In terms of the ambition for 2019, the board intends to place an emphasis on ensuring that the long-term interventions required to make a fundamental and transformational change to the area are initiated and implemented. Central to the board's aims for 2019 are to assist families affected by addiction and drug related intimidation in particular, to build relationships with local businesses and employers to create sustainable employment and to continue efforts to improve the physical and built environment to make the north east inner city a more attractive place for people to live and also to work.

Programme for Government

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

5. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if there is an informal or formal vote deal with members of the Independent Alliance. [4076/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the supports provided by his Department to the Independent Alliance and those supporting the Government. [5352/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.

There are no arrangements of the nature suggested by the question with members of the Independent Alliance. The Programme for a Partnership Government sets out the agreement between the party groups and Deputies who are participating in, or supporting, Government.

My Department, as outlined in the strategy statement, provides assistance to the Taoiseach and the Government, including the Independent Members of Government, through the Government secretariat, the parliamentary liaison unit, the programme for Government office and the Cabinet committee structure, to ensure Government business is managed to the highest standards.

The chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and the political co-ordinator for the Independent Ministers in government are also based in my Department.

The Government press secretary acts as a spokesperson for the Taoiseach and the Government and is assisted by the press office in his role of co-ordinating the media relations of all Government Departments. The deputy press secretary, who is also based in my Department, is tasked with co-ordinating communications for all the Independents in government.

When this issue arose in the past the Taoiseach said he had no difficulty in being transparent and that there was nothing unusual in the arrangements for dealing with Independent Deputies. That being so, will he list the Independent Deputies who have been assisted by his Department's liaison unit in regard to matters dealt with by other Departments? If not, will he explain why not?

Last Tuesday, the Taoiseach outlined the political staff who report to him. I understand that in his eagerness to claim to have fewer staff than his predecessor he made an error and that he in particular failed to note the one staff member is a seconded civil servant and, therefore, is in a different position. The Taoiseach also stated that the Independents in government are serviced by their own political staff and three people in the Department of the Taoiseach who hold the titles, deputy government press secretary for the Independent Alliance, chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and political co-ordinator for the Independent Alliance. Their role is to co-ordinate the work of one Cabinet Minister and four Ministers of State. The Independent Alliance currently has no backbenchers and so has no need to co-ordinate with a parliamentary party. Smaller groups and parties in government also always receive disproportionate support but is this not more than a bit excessive, particularly given that their ministerial staffing is in addition to this staff? Will the Taoiseach outline the process he went through in determining why this is a proportionate level of support in his Department for the Independent Alliance?

In regard to the other Independent groupings, the Taoiseach indicated previously in the House that he has a number of channels of communication with, for example, the Rural Independent Group. My understanding is that Deputy Harty is the point of contact for the Taoiseach and the Government with the Rural Independent Group on specific issues. Can the Taoiseach confirm this and can he indicate whether there is a specific arrangement with Deputy Lowry in terms of particular issues that occur in his constituency because there is always a tremendous degree of coincidence around issues raised in the House and prepared replies pertaining to initiatives in that Deputy's constituency? I am interested in an update on these matters.

I have a couple of questions for the Taoiseach. Is there a formal voting arrangement between the Government and Deputy Naughten? What Independent Deputies who are not Ministers are in a formal voting arrangement with the Government? I ask the Taoiseach to list them and to outline what supports or liaison measures are in place in this regard.

As Deputy Micheál Martin said, the Taoiseach's Department employs three senior political staff to work with the Independent Deputies in government, including the deputy Government press secretary, a chief strategist and a Mr. Dónall Geoghegan, a political co-ordinator for Independent Ministers. Now that there is only one Independent Minister, Deputy Zappone, is Mr. Geoghegan employed exclusively as a support for her or do his duties now extend to the Minister of State, Deputy Canney?

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is a member of the Independent Alliance. Many of our citizens, unfortunately, had to emigrate to secure employment or better wages, nurses being a typical example. Emigrants with particular skill sets are being encouraged to return home, and rightly so. However, on their return they face considerable obstacles settling back into society. For example, they face discriminatory and costly motor insurance premiums. In recent times, I have been dealing with cases on behalf of returning emigrants who have been quoted exorbitant car insurance prices. This is ridiculous. These obstacles will not encourage people to return to Ireland. Rather, they will be another reason not to do so. This matter needs to be urgently rectified if we are to encourage emigrants with much sought after skills to return home. Legislation needs to be brought forward to remove such discriminatory practices in the case of returning emigrants. The Taoiseach should use his influence and instruct the Minister, Deputy Ross, to review this issue.

Following the last election, there were three, at least, career civil servants who were in the Department of the Taoiseach and formerly had been working in the office of the Tánaiste in the context of the Department of the Taoiseach. They were allocated to assisting in a Civil Service manner. The Taoiseach referred to them on several occasions and to the work they were doing in terms of new politics, the Dáil and, specifically, in regard to Independents who were inclined to support the Government. Are those three civil servants, one of whom is in a senior position, still in post and are there more people working in this area? Also, will the Taoiseach tell us if these staff are in addition to the people referred to by my colleague, Deputy Howlin, who are more traditionally Government advisers who have come in as external advisers from media careers and have previously been advisers to different Governments at different times?

I do not believe there is a list of Independent Deputies supported by the Department. However, Independent Deputies of all hues are welcome to contact my Department and we are happy to assist them on request if we can.

The Department should be open to requests from all Deputies not only the Independents.

This includes Independent Deputies who do not regularly vote with the Government, including, for example, Deputies Harty and Michael and Danny Healy-Rae. If they contact the Department, we of course try to assist them as best we can even though they more often than not vote against the Government.

Is there an informal relationship between the Rural Independent Group and the Government?

I do not know what that means. We assist them as best we can. Whether they vote with Government or not we assist them as best we can.

I think they voted for the Government on some key occasions in the past. I was obviously intrigued by that because they tend to make loud noises from time to time, particularly in respect of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, while at other times, they are quite acquiescent. The Taoiseach said the last time that Deputy Harty was the contact point for them.

There is no written or formal agreement but if an informal agreement means that Independent Deputies are welcome to contact my Department for assistance then there is such an informal agreement. That does not mean that they always vote with the Government. Many of them usually do not vote with it, as Deputies would acknowledge.

There is no formal voting arrangement with Deputy Naughten. However, he is a former Government colleague and my Department is happy to provide assistance to him should he request it. Again, there is no formal agreement with Deputy Lowry but he will often give us advance notice of questions he will raise during Leaders' Questions thus allowing us to prepare a better reply. Other Deputies also do this, including Deputies Healy-Rae, Connolly and Wallace. If Deputies provide us with advance notice of questions they are going to raise in the Chamber, it obviously enables us to give a higher-quality reply and I would like to extend this courtesy to any Member of the House if he or she wishes to give 48 hours' notice of the questions he or she is going to ask.

Is the Taoiseach serious?

I can promise the Deputy that he will get a better answer.

If those guys are that naïve and gullible, that is their problem.

The role of Mr. Geoghegan is to assist the two Independent Ministers who are not members of the Independent Alliance, namely, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, although I understand he mainly assists the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. It is useful to have him in the Department because it helps to ensure that Independents are fully aware of things that are happening across Government, not just in their own Departments, and facilitates the flow of information.

As the arrangements that were set up to support Independent Ministers and the establishment of the parliamentary liaison unit, PLU, preceded my time as Taoiseach, I do not know exactly how those arrangements came about but they have not changed in the past year and a half. In terms of the PLU, the make-up of the current Dáil and the new procedures that have come into place as a result of Dáil reform have resulted in Government conducting its business in a very different way. They have also resulted in an increased workload for Government Departments, particularly with regard to the volume of Private Members' Business.

The PLU was set up to perform a liaison function to help ensure that Ministers and Departments are properly informed of new responsibilities and procedures in the Thirty-second Dáil. One of the main functions of the unit is to provide assistance to Ministers and their Departments on Oireachtas matters with particular emphasis on assisting Departments with Private Members' business. The proportion of Private Members' legislation in the Oireachtas has increased significantly and Departments' engagement on Private Members' legislation has also had to change. The Government's engagement with this process has also had to change so the unit provides Departments with detailed information on the rules and procedures with regard to Private Members' business. It also provides real-time information on the progress of Private Members' Bills through the Dáil and Seanad.

The unit will be working with Departments to ensure the Government plays its part in implementing the memorandum of understanding between Government and Dáil Éireann on Private Members' Bills. It also raises awareness of Dáil reform and new responsibilities of Departments by holding meetings with the Departments. It liaises on a regular basis with advisers to ensure they are informed about Oireachtas issues and assists them in engaging with the new process arising from Dáil reform. In this regard, the unit provides detailed information on upcoming matters in the Dáil and Seanad and highlights any new Oireachtas reform issues.

The unit was established to perform a liaison function to help ensure that Ministers and Departments are properly informed of the new responsibilities and procedures in the Thirty-second Dáil. In this regard, the main focus of the unit is to liaise with Departments and advisers on Oireachtas matters, with a particular emphasis on assisting Departments with Private Members' business. In performing its functions, the unit is happy to engage with any Member of the Oireachtas, where appropriate. It is not the function of the unit to ensure the support of Deputies in the House. That is a political function. The unit is there to provide factual information on Dáil and Seanad issues and Dáil reform. The unit primarily assists Departments and advisers on Oireachtas matters.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Joan Burton

Ceist:

7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent contacts with the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. [4209/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when he last spoke with the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission. [5187/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the EU leaders since the votes were taken on 29 January 2019 in the House of Commons. [5330/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent contacts with the Presidents of the EU Council and EU Commission. [5353/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the Spanish Prime Minister, Mr. Pedro Sánchez, recently. [5629/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

12. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he plans to meet the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk in February 2019. [5630/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

13. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent contacts with the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. [5670/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will be travelling to EU capitals in February 2019 to discuss Brexit. [5681/19]

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

15. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent discussions with EU Commission officials regarding Brexit. [5697/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

16. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Brussels on 6 February 2019 and the meetings he held and the officials he met. [6512/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

17. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his request to the EU Commission for EU aid in the event of a hard Brexit and the response he received on 6 February 2019. [6674/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

18. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if the European economy and growth rate was discussed at the meeting he had with Mr. Donald Tusk and Mr. Michel Barnier. [6675/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

19. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Mr. Donald Tusk and Mr. Michel Barnier while in Brussels on 6 February 2019 and the issues that were discussed. [6679/19]

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

20. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent trip to Brussels. [6703/19]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

21. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the visits he has planned abroad. [6708/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

22. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent trip to Brussels and the meetings he attended. [6709/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 22, inclusive, together.

I meet and speak regularly with my EU counterparts bilaterally and at formal and informal meetings of the European Council. I had the opportunity to meet with several of my counterparts at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, including the Prime Ministers of Poland, Austria, Luxembourg, Croatia and the Netherlands. I also spoke recently by telephone with Chancellor Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Sánchez of Spain, as well as the newly-elected Prime Minister of Latvia, Krišjnis Kariš. All of my counterparts assured me of their full commitment to the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland within which is contained the backstop, and their view that it cannot be renegotiated. Other EU issues also arose in our conversations.

Most recently, I travelled to Brussels last Wednesday for a series of meetings with European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his deputy, Sabine Weyand, and the chair of the European Parliament Brexit steering group, Guy Verhofstadt, as well as Commissioner Phil Hogan. I also spoke by telephone with the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani.

President Tusk and I discussed the latest political developments in London and noted the approaching deadline for the UK's departure from the EU. We agreed that the withdrawal agreement is the best deal possible and that it cannot be reopened. While we hope that the backstop will never be used, it is needed as a legal guarantee to ensure there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, while protecting the integrity of the Single Market and the customs union. In my meeting with President Juncker, he restated his firm view that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, should not be renegotiated. We agreed that while on the EU side, we will continue to seek agreement on the orderly withdrawal of the UK, given the ongoing uncertainty in London we will also further intensify our preparations for a no-deal scenario.

President Juncker confirmed that the Commission stands ready to assist Ireland in meeting the specific challenges we face as a result of Brexit, particularly in very vulnerable sectors such as agriculture, agrifood, fisheries and small exporters. He also confirmed that programmes providing assistance for cross-Border peace and reconciliation will be strengthened, not diminished. We agreed that Ireland and the Commission will continue to work closely together over the period ahead. A number of other issues also arose in my meeting with President Juncker, including the free trade agreement between the EU and Japan and the situation in Venezuela.

Both President Tajani and Guy Verhofstadt, MEP confirmed to me that the European Parliament is committed to protecting peace and stability on the island of Ireland and that it wishes to emphasise and remind people that any withdrawal agreement must be approved by the European Parliament as well as Westminster. I thanked all my colleagues for their strong commitment and noted that as a small country, this strong solidarity resonates deeply in Ireland and other small countries.

I engage regularly with Prime Minister May. Most recently, I met with her over dinner in Dublin last Friday and we briefed each other on our respective engagements in Belfast and Brussels earlier that week. We discussed developments in Northern Ireland and our shared interest in seeing the devolved institutions restored. I reiterated our wish to see the withdrawal agreement ratified in order that negotiations on a close, ambitious and comprehensive relationship between the EU and the UK can start immediately. Other EU and international engagements are envisaged in the period ahead. I will be happy to inform the House of these in due course.

We have six speakers and we must give the Taoiseach an opportunity to reply. As my clock is showing about 13 minutes, I ask Members to be brief in their questions if they all want to get an answer.

As the witching hour approaches in terms of the approaching Brexit deadline, has the Taoiseach discussed with the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council the arrangements that will be put in place with regard to Irish hauliers, for example, coming to French ports? From the French media, I understand that they will have an EU queue, into which I assume the Irish hauliers will allowed, and a UK queue. Can the Taoiseach tell me whether information is available and when will it be made available to hauliers? Most hauliers are self-employed and have either one truck or just a couple of trucks so many of them are smallish firms. Has the Taoiseach identified working protocols with the EU with regard to what none of us want but what may happen for some time, namely, a difficult Brexit and a difficult withdrawal from the EU by the UK?

In particular, have any additional insurance arrangements been put in place? What is going to happen in regard to people driving in Northern Ireland on their Irish insurance?

Whether hauliers or private motorists, people are looking for clarity in regard to these issues. Clearly, if an agreement is reached, these issues are not as difficult.

This afternoon the British Prime Minister is due to update the Westminster Parliament on the state of Brexit talks. She is supposedly going to tell MPs to hold tough. It is vital that the Taoiseach stands firm in the face of this last-ditch attempt by the British Government to renegotiate the backstop. It is our only insurance policy to prevent a hard border on this island and it is supported by the majority of citizens, businesses and other key sectors across the entire island. Any retreat would jeopardise Irish interests, the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. With the exception of the unionist parties, there is political consensus North and South on the need to protect the backstop. The actions of the British Government in seeking to ditch it are not only an act of bad faith but have made the prospect of a no-deal situation much more likely. In the event a no-deal situation transpires, the Government must immediately begin preparing for a referendum on Irish unity. A unity referendum is consistent with the Good Friday Agreement and, if passed, would see the entire island retain membership of the European Union. It is a common sense alternative to a no-deal scenario. People voted to remain in the EU.

It is 45 days until the UK is due to leave the EU, according to the current legal situation in both the UK and the EU. In order for this to change, something has to be both agreed and ratified before then. In terms of our domestic preparations, we are likely to be the last country in the EU to have enacted legislation to cater for a no-deal scenario. Given we are likely to be the worst hit, can the Taoiseach explain why we are so far behind on this? The Netherlands, which has just as complex a situation to deal with, has all its staffing in place and all its legislation is not only published but it will be law this month.

In regard to the meetings with President Tusk, it is indeed a red herring that everyone keeps talking about whether Europe will stand by Ireland. There is no doubt about this: if Ireland refuses to accept what is proposed by the UK, the EU will accept Ireland's refusal. The far more important issue is whether Ireland will be ready to face any eventuality. Last December the Taoiseach said that all firms that need to be prepared should be prepared by 29 March. Given the claim that everything is being monitored closely, can the Taoiseach confirm to us that all firms which will be impacted by Brexit will actually be prepared by 29 March? I draw his attention to the AIB report yesterday which showed only 51% of SMEs are prepared.

For three weeks in a row the Taoiseach has refused to answer a very simple and direct question I have put to him, and which every other Prime Minister in Europe has already answered, namely, what exactly will happen on the Border if there is no deal on 29 March?

The Deputy should conclude.

He cannot, on one hand, say we need a deal in order to keep the Border operating as it does and then refuse to say what will happen. We know he is not contemplating or planning anything but this is no help to Border communities and businesses, which are deeply concerned about what they might face in 25 days' time. The Taoiseach might indicate whether it is his view we are heading into extension territory in terms of Article 50.

The Taoiseach last week held meetings with the EU Presidents and with Prime Minister May. If no progress is made in the weeks ahead, the Taoiseach will face a significant decision at the March EU Council summit. It is very hard to know exactly what Prime Minister May's strategy is. However, it seems to be to push to the very last minute, to be bland again this week and give the opportunity for an amendable motion at the last minute to hold her own people together, and then expect that she can get her deal over the line with the alternative being a catastrophic fall out of the EU by the UK. Since it is now crystal clear there will be no reopening of the withdrawal agreement, was alternative wording to the political statement discussed by the Taoiseach and did he have any discussions with Prime Minister May on what might be acceptable, in her judgment, to a majority in the House of Commons?

The obnoxiousness and political bankruptcy of the Tory Brexiteers and UKIP mean that just about anybody else looks good compared to them but in recent weeks it has maybe masked the lack of principle and ethics of the EU itself, when one looks at how it is dealing with events that are unfolding in Catalonia or, for that matter, Venezuela. The Europe that proclaims itself as an upholder of human rights, democracy and so on is standing idly by while 12 people - many elected representatives or former Ministers of Catalonia - are today starting trial and facing up to 25 years in prison because they organised a referendum, which they won, for Catalonian independence. It is quite shocking it is happening in the centre of Europe yet there is deathly silence from the EU.

I also think it reprehensible that the EU and now our Government have decided to join with Donald Trump in intervening in Venezuela.

Maduro is a disgrace.

Maduro is an authoritarian. I am not a supporter of Maduro. I am a supporter of the people's revolt that happened a number of years ago against the deep inequalities in Venezuelan society.

Please, Deputy. I need to call Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Maduro is an authoritarian but that does not give Trump or anybody else the right to interfere in the political processes in Venezuela. That is up to the people of Venezuela. Does the Taoiseach really think the Government or the EU should be interfering and, essentially, giving cover to Trump, who is threatening military action in Venezuela?

I call Deputy Eamon Ryan. If we want answers from the Taoiseach, we must conclude questioning shortly.

I took far less time than some others.

I appreciate that. I call Deputy Eamon Ryan.

I thank the Taoiseach for meeting the co-leader of the European Green Party, Philippe Lamberts, last week. Mr. Lamberts is on the Brexit steering group in the European Parliament and we found the meeting very useful. What Deputy Howlin said is true. There is not a hint of a chink that we may blink either in Europe or Dublin with regard to any fundamental change to the withdrawal agreement. That is also what I hear from Mr. Lamberts, who I would trust on what is happening in Brussels.

I would differ slightly from Deputy Howlin in regard to the possibility of London agreeing something on alternative wording within the political declaration. While I would welcome that, I believe the likelihood is very slim. It seems to me there are three possible courses. The first is a worrying possibility, given Prime Minister May is saying today in Westminster they should stall for more time and get closer to the edge, when the fear is they could go over the edge, which would be deeply damaging for everyone. The second, which is a recent development, is that she could cross the House of Commons, take what is in Jeremy Corbyn's letter and agree some sort of arrangement which would provide for the UK to remain within the customs union and the Single Market in some form, even though that would go against her red lines. The third is a second referendum.

With regard to the second possibility, if Jeremy Corbyn's approach was returned, it might give the DUP something it could swing behind in the sense it would not breach its red line of not infringing the UK single market or ours of infringing the EU Single Market. Jeffrey Donaldson wrote a positive article in the Sunday Independent last weekend saying we need statesmanship and dialogue and that we need to engage. I encourage the Taoiseach to make further such approaches. I know he met with the DUP recently and he should continue on that track. I accept we cannot do much and this is London's call.

However, we should encourage in every way we can that they might help facilitate such a second solution along the lines of what Jeremy Corbyn has outlined in his letter.

In relation to haulage, I and the Government are very aware of the extent to which the United Kingdom is used as a landbridge to get our product to mainland Europe and to get product from mainland Europe to Ireland. There is of course the option of going by sea and there is a lot of capacity on existing vessels going directly from Ireland to continental Europe, but that takes much longer and involves additional cost.

It does not take all that much longer. It takes 18 hours.

The Taoiseach should be allowed to respond without interruption.

If there is a deal, there will be no change in haulage arrangements until 2021, but if there is no deal it is anticipated that the UK will join the common transit convention. However, at Dover that would leave Irish hauliers joining the EU queue and delays could occur there.

It is anticipated that there will be transitional arrangements to limit the delays at ports and that haulage licences will continue to apply, at least for a number of months. On legislation, the legislation is on schedule. It is still our intention to publish the Brexit omnibus Bill on 22 February, and with the co-operation of the Opposition in both Houses to have it enacted by mid-March, well in advance of the 29 March deadline.

I am afraid I cannot confirm that all firms are prepared. It is up to individual firms to make their own preparations with the assistance of the Government and it is not possible for me to confirm that they will all be prepared, but I would anticipate that those firms most exposed to trade with the UK will be the most prepared.

We heard yesterday that only 50% of businesses are prepared.

On the question in relation to the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, we have not made any preparations for physical infrastructure on 29 March.

If we face a no-deal scenario, obviously we have a dilemma. The United Kingdom will be bound by WTO rules and we will have EU laws around the protection of the Single Market and the customs union, and we have the Good Friday Agreement, which I believe is paramount. Part of the Good Friday Agreement is that we keep the Border open and invisible between the two islands. It may not be written into it, but I believe it is implicit in it, so I think at that point we would need an agreement on customs regulations between the EU and the UK, and we have one now and I would like to see it ratified.

On Article 50 being extended, I cannot say whether it will be extended or not. It really is up to the United Kingdom to make an application for an extension, should it so wish, but I do note that it is quite far behind in its plans, in particular its legislative plans, with regard to Brexit, much further behind than we are.

I did not have any discussions on alternative wording with Prime Minister May. I believe that would constitute negotiation and negotiation really can only happen between the EU on the one side, including Ireland, and the UK on other, but we did discuss what might be acceptable to the UK Government and it will not surprise anyone in this House to know that it is in the space of either alternative arrangements yet to be defined, or a time limit or unilateral exit clause for the backstop, and that is something we cannot accept. I understand where the British Government is coming from. It has a real fear that the backstop might become a trap and were the backstop invoked that the UK could end up permanently in the orbit of the European Union against its will, so we need to find a way that provides an assurance to the UK Parliament and the UK Government that that will not happen, while at the same time not diluting our legally binding and legally operable guarantee that there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

I do not wish to comment on Venezuela in much detail because I have spoken on it before, other than to say that neither I nor the Government would support or endorse military action in Venezuela by any other country, including the United States, but we do advocate that there would be free elections, the restoration of democracy and human rights and that economic opportunity for the people of Venezuela should be restored.

Did the Taoiseach discuss at all with Prime Minister May holding a referendum on Irish unity? It is part of the Good Friday Agreement.

The discussion is finished. Sin deireadh le ceisteanna.

I am asking the Taoiseach whether he discussed the matter with the British Prime Minister.

Deputy Ellis is out of order.

Will the Taoiseach answer that question?

Will Deputy Ellis abide by the Chair?

It is a simple question. Other countries are asking about a referendum on Irish unity. He should do so.

Deputy Ellis should respect the Chair.

It is a bit ridiculous.

To answer the Deputy's question, "No".

That is something the Taoiseach should be pressing.

And a referendum in Venezuela.

He already made his opinion known on that.

Deputy Ellis cannot be supporting the dictator there.

The discussion is over. Ceisteanna to the Taoiseach are over. We are moving on. I gceann nóiméad beidh ceisteanna chuig an Aire Iompair, Turasóireachta agus Spóirt. The discussion has ended.