Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone conversations with Prime Minister May on 29 and 30 January 2019; if he has had subsequent conversations with the Prime Minister; and the issues that were discussed regarding Brexit. [5327/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if Prime Minister May or her officials have outlined the UK alternative proposals or suggestions when they spoke on 29 and 30 January 2019. [5328/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent telephone conversation with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [5373/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he spoke to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May when she was in Northern Ireland; and if she outlined suggestions in relation to the European backstop as laid out in her speech on 5 February 2019 while in Belfast. [6678/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May explained the way in which she expects to prevent a hard border and not to scrap the European backstop in view of her speech in Belfast on 5 February 2019 when they last met or spoke on the telephone. [6682/19]

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

6. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent conversation with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [6702/19]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent conversation with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [6706/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May on 8 February 2019. [7902/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussions with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [7978/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if Prime Minister May spoke in relation to there being no need for a Brexit delay in view of the fact it would serve no purpose when they met in Dublin on 8 February 2019; and if his attention has been drawn to the fact that Prime Minster May informed business leaders of this in London on 12 February 2019. [8029/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he or his officials discussed the impact on supply chains from east to west and others with Prime Minister May when they met in Dublin on 8 February 2019. [8030/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May. [8286/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with Prime Minister May since a motion was rejected on 14 February 2019 in the House of Commons to prevent a no-deal Brexit. [8463/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he discussed the future European elections with Prime Minister May when they met in Dublin. [8468/19]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

110. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he discussed the lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly with Prime Minister May when they last met in Dublin. [8034/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 14, inclusive, and No. 110 together.

I met with Prime Minister May over dinner in Farmleigh House on 8 February when we briefed each other on our respective engagements in Belfast and Brussels that week. We discussed developments in Northern Ireland and our shared interest in seeing the devolved institutions restored. We also discussed possible structures for future engagement post Brexit.

On Brexit, I restated the EU position that the backstop is an integral part of the withdrawal agreement. It was negotiated in good faith over many months, it is finely balanced, and it was a compromise in itself. It was approved by the 28 EU leaders in November. No other solution has yet been found that ensures that the absence of a hard border in all circumstances can be guaranteed. I reiterated our wish to see the withdrawal agreement ratified so that negotiations on a future partnership between the EU and the UK in the areas of economy, trade and security can start as soon as possible. We did not discuss any technical aspects of Brexit. The Prime Minister indicated that further consultations are taking place in London and with the European Commission in Brussels. We agreed to stay in touch over the coming period.

Prior to our meeting on 8 February, I was in contact with the Prime Minister on Tuesday, 29 January and we spoke by phone on Wednesday, 30 January following the previous day's votes in Westminster. I set out once again the Irish and EU position on the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish protocol and the backstop therein, noting that the latest developments in Westminster had simply reinforced the need for a solution that is legally binding and practically operable.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. There are 38 days to go until Britain is due to exit the European Union according to the current law of both the United Kingdom and the European Union. We all understand that there is chaos in London and that it is still unclear what would satisfy a majority in the House of Commons. The neat daily commentary we get from our own Government about what London needs to do is fine, but the issue today is what the Government is going to do and what it is doing.

For three weeks in a row I have asked the Taoiseach to answer a very basic question. If no deal or no delay is agreed in the coming weeks, what will happen on our borders both at sea and on land? We are so close to Brexit that some businesses are already taking orders and scheduling production which will take effect on or after 29 March. These businesses need to know a hell of a lot more than that our Government is not contemplating or planning certain things. The Taoiseach has said what he is not planning and what he is not contemplating. What do these businesses need to do to prepare for a no-deal scenario next month? Can they be assured that no additional steps will be required of them if they are crossing the Border in 38 days' time? The Taoiseach has repeatedly made it clear that a failure to have a withdrawal agreement and something like the backstop would mean disruption. He needs to start being open about what exactly that disruption will be. What will happen on 29 March in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

It seems clear that a text of some sort is being discussed with the United Kingdom and that our Government is fully informed about what is in it. Will the Taoiseach outline the nature of that text to us in the course of his answer?

We are now at ten minutes to midnight. If St. Patrick's week is removed from the 38 days, there are fewer than 30 working days until the UK's withdrawal, assuming that everybody will be working weekends in the lead up to it. The Irish Times today said that the British focus is now on legal language which would put a limit on the backstop in respect of content, duration, or both.

The Taoiseach has spoken with the Prime Minister several times recently, as he said, on the phone and in person. Has she told the Taoiseach specifically what legal changes to the withdrawal agreement she and the British Government are seeking? Have the Taoiseach's EU counterparts advised him as to what the British are actually looking for in their negotiations? Has an extension to the Article 50 period been considered in the discussions? Is the Taoiseach aware as to whether the Prime Minister is trying to negotiate that? An extension of the Article 50 timeline probably would suit a lot of people in Ireland because it would give us some more time in which to prepare. Has there been an agreement about any likely impact on the European elections in May in the context of an extension of Article 50?

I want to ask the Taoiseach about another aspect of British politics which we heard echoed today on "Morning Ireland", when a contributor echoed a position of Theresa May's about which we should have something to say. We had a journalist making a casual connection between support for Palestinians, criticism of the Israeli state and anti-Semitism, essentially suggesting they were all the same thing. This has been an extremely worrying narrative that Theresa May has echoed in attacking Jeremy Corbyn. They are attacking what they describe as the hard left and accusing them, incredibly, of being anti-Semitic because they support Palestinians and are critical of the apartheid policies of Israel. We all abhor anti-Semitism and should oppose it in the most robust fashion. However, it is absolutely unacceptable that an Orwellian narrative is now spreading across Britain. It had better not spread over here; it needs to be resisted. It suggests that legitimate criticism of apartheid policies in Israel and of the persecution of Palestinians by the Israeli state somehow equates to anti-Semitism. Opposing apartheid policies and racism should actually lead us to be critical of what Israel is doing, not to be silent about what Israel is doing. Precisely because we oppose racism and abhor the suffering of Jewish people in the past, it is absolutely important to criticise what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people.

I invite the Taoiseach to reiterate that the backstop, the Irish protocol as per the withdrawal agreement, remains the bottom line for this State and for the Government. Can the Taoiseach confirm that he told Mrs. May at dinner that this is the case? Can he confirm that the backstop cannot be time limited in any respect and cannot contain unilateral exit clauses, which would render the backstop entirely meaningless? Can he confirm that he had that conversation again with Mrs. May, to make that clear? Can he shed some light on what she shared with him in terms of her game plan to move things forward? We are now advised that the British Attorney General has a wording which would involve, it is speculated, a time limit on the backstop. Did the Taoiseach have a conversation with Mrs. May about that? Has text been shared? Does the European Union have text? Has the Taoiseach seen it? Did Mrs. May make any reference to moves to change the political declaration rather than the withdrawal agreement itself? Can the Taoiseach shed any light on these matters?

On Brexit, I assure the House that the Government is working towards securing the ratification of the withdrawal agreement including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and the backstop. I think that is achievable. It may not be achievable in the next few weeks but it is achievable and we are working towards that. On what may happen if there is no deal on 29 March, we must always remember that 29 March is a UK deadline, one set in Britain for Britain. It was not set by Ireland or the European Union. A no-deal Brexit is not a threat that Ireland or the European Union is making. It can be taken off the table by the United Kingdom at any time, either by revoking Article 50 or by seeking an extension of it. We will listen to any requests the British may make for that. I was asked by some Deputies about texts being discussed. No texts have been discussed or shared with us and I have seen no text nor have I discussed any text. We are not being secretive about a text that does not exist. I imagine that is another conspiracy theory.

Will the Taoiseach answer my first question about what would happen? We all know we did not set the 29 March deadline.

I am going through them. That was not the Deputy's first question. In respect of no deal, we are making preparations at the ports and airports. We have control of land that we need at Rosslare and Dublin. We have control of Dublin Airport and will be able to enforce the acquis if we need to at the ports and airports. In respect of land borders, I have said many times in this House that we are not making any preparations for physical infrastructure, controls or checks on the land Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. As I have said before, that does create a real dilemma and a real problem for us. In the event of no deal, the United Kingdom will have obligations under the World Trade Organisation and we will have obligations to protect our Single Market and customs union, of which we will continue to be a full part. That would create a dilemma for both countries and for the European Union. Therefore the only solution which can assure that we do not see the emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is an agreement on customs, a common customs territory, call it what you will, and regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the European Union or perhaps the whole UK and the European Union. That is what we have negotiated. I do not think we will get anything very different from the agreement that is on the table now. Even if there is a period of uncertainty after 29 March, we will end up with an agreement not dissimilar from what we have now. That is why we should ratify it now and not subject citizens and businesses to that level of uncertainty or potential damage.

The UK Government has been quite open about what it is seeking. It is seeking to explore alternative arrangements which it believes could replace the backstop. We have yet to see any such alternative arrangements written down in legal form, let alone operating and tested and working anywhere in the world. They seek the possibility of a time limit and we have explained why a backstop with a time limit is not a backstop, as the Prime Minister herself eloquently explained when she was advocating for the backstop. An insurance policy that can be cancelled at the time one most needs it is not an insurance policy at all. They have sought a unilateral exit clause and again we have explained why it is something we cannot accept.

I have raised the issue of Article 50 potentially being extended and the Prime Minister has made her position clear. She intends that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on time on the date it has set. On the European elections, there are conflicting legal opinions but the general consensus is that if Article 50 is extended to the end of June or early July, the European elections will not have to take place in the United Kingdom as the new European Parliament does not actually sit for the first time until early July. However, if Article 50 were extended beyond early July, it would be necessary for the European elections to be held in the United Kingdom, as UK citizens would continue to be EU citizens and therefore under the treaties would have a right to be represented in the European Parliament. We have made provision in our legislation that if the elections do take place in the United Kingdom, the candidates last elected in Dublin and in Ireland South will not take up their seats in the European Parliament until such a time as the United Kingdom has left. Another detail which is unfortunate but we can find no way around is that should the United Kingdom leave before the European elections take place, UK citizens resident in Ireland will not be able to vote in the European elections as the treaties say that the European Parliament represents the citizens of the European Union.

UK citizens will not be EU citizens after Brexit. They will continue to be able to vote in local elections, Dáil elections and Seanad elections, but will not be able to vote in European elections. Unfortunately, we could not find a way around that as it would require an amendment to the treaties.

I do not think for a second that criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, and I very much agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett in that regard. The occupation has gone on for far too long. This Government is a very strong supporter of a two-state solution and a just and lasting peace as there can be no peace that is lasting that is not just. We believe the settlements are wrong. The Tánaiste is currently hosting a two day retreat on the Middle East in Farmleigh House and Iveagh House, with foreign ministers from Arab countries, France, Bulgaria, Sweden and other countries. We are very committed to Palestinian statehood and a two-state solution. We do not believe it is inherently anti-Semitic to be critical of the state of Israel. Perhaps Deputy Boyd Barrett is missing the point about the concerns some people have. It is not so much about criticisms of Israel but the double standards of some people who are very critical of Israel for doing certain things that are wrong while turning a blind eye when similar things are done by regimes in places such as Zimbabwe, Cuba, Venezuela or North Korea. They naturally wonder if there is something particular or different about Israel that singles it out for criticisms-----

We are critical of all those regimes.

-----when other countries that do the same things are not criticised. What is different or unique about Israel that it is single out for criticism when other countries that do the same things are not mentioned, are absolved or are even supported?

Those regimes are not supported by my party.

Northern Ireland

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

15. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken with Ms Arlene Foster or Ms Michelle O'Neill since votes on 29 January 2019 in the House of Commons. [5349/19]

Joan Burton

Ceist:

16. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings with the major political parties in Northern Ireland. [6705/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

17. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his trip to Northern Ireland and the meetings he attended. [6710/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

18. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Northern Ireland and the parties he met. [7900/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

19. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Northern Ireland and the meetings he attended. [7985/19]

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

20. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met with Ms Arlene Foster since January 2019. [8461/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 to 20, inclusive, together.

I travelled to Belfast on Friday, 8 February for a series of meetings with each of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland. I met with the DUP leader, Ms Arlene Foster, the vice president of Sinn Féin, Ms Michelle O'Neill, the UUP leader, Mr. Robin Swann, the Alliance Party leader, Ms Naomi Long, and Mr. Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP. I had the opportunity, the night before, to engage with the convenor of the Green Party of Northern Ireland.

The meetings provided an opportunity to engage with the Northern Ireland political parties and to hear their views on the latest Brexit developments and the current political situation in the North. We discussed what could be done to get the institutions in Northern Ireland functioning again, and I once again emphasised our commitment to all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and our continuing determination to secure the effective operation of all its institutions.

The Government wants to see an agreement in place to secure the operation of the devolved institutions, and will continue to engage with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek urgent progress in that area in the period immediately ahead.

On Brexit, I outlined to each of the Northern Ireland parties the Government's position, shared by the European Union, that the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation, and represents the best way to secure an orderly Brexit while avoiding a return to a hard border.

It is 764 days since Sinn Féin collapsed the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly because of a heating scheme. While the inquiry into that scheme showed that Sinn Féin was more deeply involved than it admits, to the extent that its Minister of Finance took instructions from a secretive internal party structure, many other reasons are now being cited for the refusal to re-establish the democratic government of Northern Ireland. The DUP is clearly wrong and in breach of its responsibilities in its opposition to important equality measures, but there is no indication that the sheer gravity of the Brexit threat is getting through to those involved in the talks. It is quite extraordinary that, at a moment of great peril for Northern Ireland, it has been without a functioning Executive and Assembly for over 760 days.

Most people of goodwill will have seen the latest discussions and reacted with despair. Can the Taoiseach tell us exactly what is being done to try to break this cycle of failing talks? When we talk to the parties the only issue we hear about is the assigning of blame. Is it still the policy that nothing will happen until after the Brexit issue is resolved? The Taoiseach will be aware of the extremely bad signal which last week's decision to delay a major project in the North due to the re-profiling, to use his phrase, of Government expenditure. There are shades of Narrow Water bridge debacle in this. At a moment when we should be speeding up cross-Border projects, which have broad support, we are actually delaying them. Who in Northern Ireland did the Taoiseach inform of this proposed delay before it was announced?

Does the Taoiseach see any prospect that powersharing will be re-established in Northern Ireland in the foreseeable future, or did he get the impression that both Sinn Féin and the DUP are committed to not being involved in the Executive and not allowing the Assembly to recommence its work? Was a border poll discussed with any of the parties during the Taoiseach's meetings? Did the DUP outline to him the legal changes it wants to be made to the backstop, or is it simply rowing in behind the British Conservative Party position? Does it have a separate position on Northern Ireland? It would be interesting to know that. Was there any discussion about the type of changes it wants to see that would mean it might support some kind of withdrawal deal? I am talking about the withdrawal deal that has been negotiated or any variation of it, if available.

The president of Sinn Féin has recently stated that the next Chief Constable of the PSNI should come from outside the force. Does the Taoiseach agree with that proposal? Is he aware of whether other parties, such as the Alliance Party and the DUP, share that view? Was there any discussion about policing in Northern Ireland? Policing has been supported in Northern Ireland for a long number of years by all the parties, and it seems that may be about to change. Can the Taoiseach tell us about his discussions on that issue?

One unfortunate mantra the Taoiseach has continued to trot out, which we have just heard from Deputy Micheál Martin, is the notion that the renewable heat incentive scandal was some sort of little Mickey Mouse issue that should not have been of concern.

I did not say that.

The Deputy implied it.

I did not imply it.

The Deputy did imply it. That was my take on it.

The Deputy's take is incorrect.

It is the same attitude the Government seems to have. It is treated as if it was a small issue that the parties should get over, as if there was nothing important about it. Eamon McCann was the first Assembly member to call for an election over this issue because we were talking about hundreds of millions of pounds. It is an absolutely shocking scandal. It took place in the context of a raft of austerity measures that were agreed under the Stormont House Agreement, including the now notorious universal credit scheme and PIP social welfare assault on people in the North, plans to sell off state assets and to axe thousands of public service jobs. It was a vicious austerity campaign. We should not imply, whatever one might think about restoring the-----

-----institutions-----

-----that somehow we sacrifice the need to deal with scandals like this. Frankly, it is the Northern equivalent of the national children's hospital in its scale.

We are not collapsing the Dáil.

If Deputy Micheál Martin wants to make an argument about the institutions he should make it, but------

We are not collapsing the Dáil.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. We should take the scandal very seriously. There were very good reasons to challenge an Executive that was responsible for such huge scandal in terms of the expenditure of public money.

Some 764 days ago, when the Executive was brought down, it had fallen into massive public disrepute.

Of course Deputy Micheál Martin and others would know that if they were actually organised on the ground, as some of the rest of us are, and if they enjoyed an electoral mandate from the communities that said they would not tolerate the likes of the renewable heat incentive scheme. An inquiry is under way and it will report. When it makes its findings, I imagine we can all reflect on that.

There was an agreement last February to put the institutions back up. Unfortunately, it was not to be. I believe the next round of talks must succeed but for us to have a real prospect of success and for success to be arrived at, we need answers. By "we" I do not mean political parties but that citizens need answers to the outstanding issues. This means the DUP and the British Government must stop blocking rights that citizens elsewhere in Britain and across this island openly enjoy. This is not rocket science - no one is being asked to split the atom. This is actually straightforward.

I am keen to reassure Deputy Burton that policing is still very much supported in the North of Ireland and that the Northern Ireland Policing Board and other mechanisms carry out scrutiny and oversight. I wish to advise the House that last week it came to light that the PSNI had failed to disclose sensitive information to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland as it is obliged to do under law. The information related to several killings, including those of five people at Sean Graham bookmakers on the Ormeau Road in February 1992. The killings in question involved weapons supplied to loyalist paramilitaries by British agents and included the active participation of British agents. All of this is established and accepted public fact. I met the families yesterday, a Cheann Comhairle, who are awaiting but who will now not receive a report from the ombudsman. I could not overstate the distress and anger they feel.

Time is up, Deputy.

I could not underscore more strongly the fact that this turn of events has again dashed and damaged confidence in the PSNI. The families want to meet the Taoiseach. They look to the Taoiseach for his support and as the Taoiseach who has said famously that no citizen will be left behind in the North of Ireland.

Let the Taoiseach answer then, Deputy.

They have been left behind. They want to meet the Taoiseach. Will the Taoiseach meet them?

The Deputy will know by now that it is not my practice to organise meetings in the Chamber. Anyone who wants to meet me can seek a meeting in the normal way and it will be considered in the normal way.

Talks were held last Friday in Belfast. All the major parties attended. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was there, as was the Tánaiste. I was not present but the Tánaiste briefed me and advised me that little or no progress was made, unfortunately, in the talks. However, he said the two Governments would continue to engage about a process into the future that might allow progress to be made.

My own view is and has been for many months that the current environment, notwithstanding the reasons for the collapsed Northern Ireland Executive two years ago, is a difficult one to facilitate restoration of the institutions. Brexit has created extraordinary uncertainty. In the absence of a withdrawal agreement being ratified, it will be difficult to get the institutions back up-and-running. Frankly, the fact that the Conservative Party and the British Government depend on the votes of the DUP in Westminster to continue in existence creates a problem as well. This is because it does not allow the UK Government to play the role it would have played in the past by putting pressure on unionism and all parties to get back around the table and come to an agreement. These are two new dynamics that did not exist in the past when institutions broke down. They are two very unwelcome dynamics. Perhaps they will not be dynamics forever and perhaps they are not insurmountable either way.

I wish to clarify again that the A5 road is not delayed as a consequence of re-profiling by Government. It is delayed because of legal challenges in Northern Ireland and the fact that there is no Minister to sign off on the project. Once it gets back on track, the Government will be more than happy to provide the €25 million that we had intended to provide this year, because the road was supposed to start this year. If the road starts this year, I would be happy to be present at the sod-turning. I may even bring the cheque with me, but we are not going to pay €25 million to the Northern Ireland authorities for a road that has not even started when it was supposed to start this year.

It is a project to which I am highly committed and one in which I believe. It will connect Derry to Dublin, will help us to develop Derry and Letterkenny as a new urban growth centre and is very much part of Project Ireland 2040. It will help with the development of the north west. It will be beneficial not only for the western half of Northern Ireland but for people in Letterkenny, Donegal and Monaghan. It is a project I am keen to see started.

Thank you, Taoiseach. We are going to have to move on.

Departmental Operations

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

21. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic division of his Department. [5374/19]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

22. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the economic division of his Department. [6556/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

23. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the economic division of his Department. [7979/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

24. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A on the economy last met; and when it is expected to next meet. [8224/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 21 to 24, inclusive, together.

The economic division in my Department assists me and the Government in developing and implementing policy to deliver sustainable and regionally balanced economic growth and quality jobs, as well as to promote effective planning and delivery of infrastructural developments, including housing.

The Cabinet committees and associated senior officials groups backed by the division help to implement policies in these areas. Cabinet committee A deals with issues relating to the economy and the labour market, competitiveness, productivity, rural development, the digital economy and pensions. It last met on 12 November and the next meeting has not yet been scheduled. Cabinet committee D works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery and ongoing development of policy across the areas of infrastructure investment, housing and climate action. It provides political oversight on Project Ireland 2040. It last met on 31 January.

The economic division also leads Ireland's participation in the annual European semester process. It prepares the annual national risk assessment, which provides an opportunity to identify and consider potential economic risks and challenges on a structured basis. The 2018 report was published in July. The 2019 national risk assessment process will commence shortly. The division is also responsible for liaison with the Central Statistics Office.

The division is leading the preparation of the Future Jobs initiative in partnership with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation. Future Jobs is the Government's new economic initiative to ensure we are well placed to meet future challenges facing the Irish economy. Future Jobs will drive our development as a resilient, innovative and globally connected economy capable of coping with technological and other transformational changes ahead. It is aimed at enhancing productivity, labour market participation, innovation, skills and talent and the low-carbon economy. My note states that it will be launched in the next two weeks but it will not, although I hope it might go to Cabinet in the next two weeks.

A unit with the economic division works with the Minister of State with responsibility for data protection to help ensure a whole-of-government approach to data protection and broader digital issues. In this regard the unit provides the secretariat to the interdepartmental committee on data issues and to the Government data forum. The division is currently leading the development of a new overarching national digital strategy in collaboration with other relevant Departments to enable us to maximise the societal and economic benefits from digitalisation. That will be published in the first half of this year.

The division provides me with briefing and speech material on economic and related policy issues. Given its role, the division works closely with colleagues in the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, as well as other Departments that have lead responsibility for specific policy areas.

The division contributes to work across my Department and the wider Civil Service in response to the challenge posed by Brexit. In particular, the division is currently working with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other Departments on no-deal contingency planning. This is a priority task as long as there is a risk of a no-deal outcome.

A TASC report was issued today, which in a sense is referring to developments in the economy like digitalisation. This is increasingly producing people who are earning significant amounts of money, as well as significant numbers of workers who are on low pay. Some of them are on very low pay and they have few guarantees in their work or work status.

Does the Taoiseach believe we should move from having a minimum wage to having a living wage as part of the economic policy of this country?

Would Fine Gael support a move from a living wage, which has now become fairly well-established? In the context text of how rents and costs have moved for people on low incomes, it is patently not sufficient to allow people to afford the astronomical rents that are now a feature of life not just in Dublin but increasingly throughout Ireland. Even where two people in a couple are working, it is extremely limiting in terms of being able to aspire to purchasing a house. This is a major change in society.

The Taoiseach has often spoken glowingly about digitalisation and its future but has he considered at any point what is going to happen to the people in lower-income employments who have very little way of improving their wages and salaries unless the Government moves? The Government has given 20 cent increases in the minimum wage in recent years, which, in the context of things like rent, goes nowhere towards meeting the needs of workers. Today's TASC report shows that this is now making Ireland, notwithstanding a very good social welfare system that compensates for much, much less equal than it ought to be.

I too raise the TASC report published this morning. It shows a disproportionate share of national income accrues to richer groups in society and consequently a lower share to the less well-off section of society. The report finds that the bottom 40% of the State's population receives just 22% of the national income while the top 10% receives almost 25%. It does not take a genius to work out that we live in an unequal society in respect of income levels and take-home pay. The TASC report finds that insufficient pay is the primary cause of that inequality. The report's author, Dr. Robert Sweeney, said this morning that if one wants to really reduce inequality in the future we have to tackle low pay.

We know with housing, because we have been told time and again, that quite outside of those who find themselves in emergency accommodation or find themselves on homeless lists, we have a hidden hardship, a whole hidden generation of people who sleep in their Ma's box room or who sofa-surf and we have more who will never have the aspiration of owning their own home and more who struggle to pay the rent. There are more people who are in work but who are worried that if anything goes wrong or another bill arrives on the mat, their domestic situation goes under.

Will the Taoiseach adopt, as policy, the payment of a living wage and to move from minimum wage payment, as our floor or our threshold? That would be the right thing to do.

The interview with Owen Keegan, CEO of Dublin City Council, the biggest local and housing authority in the country, in The Sunday Business Post on the housing and homelessness crisis was, to some extent, very revealing, to a large extent, absolutely shocking, and, to a significant extent, absolutely unacceptable. I want to know what the Taoiseach thinks of his comments. They come as part of a pattern of trying to normalise homelessness and, incredibly, victim-blaming, suggesting that somehow homeless services were "attractive" to people because we had so many of them and they were so good. The implication was that people want to get into homelessness services. I have never met a person who wanted to get into homelessness services and who was not in absolute dire need. He also made very alarming statements about the wider policy remit of local authorities, of the State and of the private market. Does the Taoiseach agree or disagree with this? The head of the biggest local authority in the country, someone who is appointed by Government, said:

Housing supply is going to have to be delivered by private sector, even if we end up renting a significant number of units. We will only ever built a small proportion.

He went on to say that social mix is not happening because, in many cases, the 10% we were supposed to get-----

I thank the Deputy whose time is up.

Does the Taoiseach agree with that? A small proportion-----

The Taoiseach will not have time to answer if the Deputy does not give him a chance.

It demonstrates a rotten attitude by the authorities that are supposed to be dealing with this housing and homelessness crisis. Mr. Keegan admitted that the private sector was failing but then went on to say that we have to rely on the private sector and that our homelessness services are so wonderful they are acting as a magnet. It is not on.

We are going to have to change this from Taoiseach's questions to statements to the Taoiseach. I call Deputy Micheál Martin.

The Taoiseach will remember that one of the five communication priorities for Government which he announced early last year was the promotion of the national children's hospital. He put in place a special budget in his own Department for this matter. When challenged on this in the Dáil, he repeatedly said that advertising of the children's hospital and the national development plan, NDP, in general was essential, because the public needed to be informed about what was being done with their money. Depending on what timeline one starts from, there is an overspend of anything up to €400 million if it is last year, and nearly €700 million more from the Taoiseach's time as Minister for Health. In terms of delayed projects and the need to completely revisit costing assumptions, can the Taoiseach tell us when he intends to update the list of claims and projects he published last year for the NDP? On the health capital plan alone, a combination of health capital inflation and new specifications on safety and technology will apply to the entire acute hospital building programme, not just to children's hospital. At best it is insulting to the public to claim that nothing will change in the NDP and that everything will be done as promised. The attempt to only talk about re-profiling this year is the exact opposite of the openness that he has repeatedly promised and which justified huge marketing budgets. Can he give us a simple commitment to publish immediately an updated national development plan list of projects and timings? I can list a whole range of projects for which we are still waiting timelines. One gets the sense that there is a real lack of precision on what was announced last year.

On the last question Deputy Martin asked, there is a tracker on the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's website which tracks all the projects, the timelines, when they are happening, which ones are running ahead of schedule and which ones are running behind and are not. The Deputy made a valid point in that construction inflation will not just affect the national children's hospital and will, of course, affect other projects. As it happens, road projects and water projects are all coming in on budget or even below budget. I am not entirely sure about the schools projects but I believe they are fairly okay. Road and water are okay. It would be wrong to assume that the national children's hospital is going to be the only project where construction inflation is an issue as it may well be an issue for other projects. There is provision for a review of Project Ireland 2040, and the mid-term review also. It may well be the case that we have to make adjustments over the course of it, and that was always intended.

I note Deputies mentioned the TASC report, and I will come to that in a second, but the most important survey released today was one produced by the CSO, which is an independent body and not a think-tank. The labour force survey was out today. The good news is that 2.3 million people were in work in Ireland at the end of 2018, which is a record high. Unemployment is down to 128,000 people, which is a ten year low. More than 1,000 new jobs were created every week, the vast majority of which were full-time. Deputies may be interested to know that it also showed that the number of people who are self-employed had actually fallen last year. The narrative we often hear from the Opposition is that there is a drift towards self-employment and that all the new jobs are part-time jobs, but the opposite is actually the case.

Almost all of the new jobs are full time and the numbers in self-employment are actually going down in raw numbers and percentage terms of the full workforce. It proves the inaccuracy of the claims made throughout the course of last year by some elements of the Opposition. The biggest increases which should not surprise people are in services and construction.

In terms of the TASC report, I had an opportunity, not to read it yet, but to listen to one of its authors speak on radio and to skim over it earlier today. It confirms that the levels of poverty and deprivation in Ireland are falling and have been for several years, that income inequality in Ireland is about average and less than in most English speaking countries and about average when one compares-----

That is after social welfare payments-----

That is correct.

It is gross income that is-----

Please allow the Taoiseach-----

I do understand these things. The Deputy does not need to lecture me. The Deputy is correct - it is income inequality in take home pay after transfers are taken into account.

It is very severe. That is our point.

We have been told, Deputy, that there is to be no lecturing of the Taoiseach.

I would not dream of lecturing the Taoiseach. I would not be able to.

I am only repeating his words in order that we fully understand.

It points out also that in terms of income inequality, it has been broadly stable for a very long time in Ireland. Therefore, the narrative that inequality is widening and that poverty is getting worse in Ireland is not correct. The TASC report, CSO data and EUROSTAT data all bear that out. It points out, as Deputy Burton rightly pointed out, that the tax and welfare systems are highly progressive, with the richest 10% paying about 80% of income taxation, and that the taxation system is funding a welfare system that distributes so well that this is a country that is no less and no more unequal than developed countries in the rest of the world. If one looks at the report, it indicates that Ireland has a real issue with low pay but not actually in cash terms. The minimum wage is now the second highest. If one compares pay levels across the public sector and the private sector with the exact same for people working in other countries, pay levels here are actually higher, but they are low relative to the fact that we have a lot of people in Ireland on high pay rates, particularly professionals and people who work in the multinationals. It is a more complex picture than perhaps is understood by Deputies, at least judging from their comments. The minimum wage has increased considerably in recent years, I think by about 25% under the Government.

It is done on the basis of recommendations made by the Low Pay Commission. The United Kingdom already has a living wage, but it is actually lower than the minimum wage here.

It renamed the minimum wage.

The key is not what one calls it, be it a "minimum wage" or a "living wage", because that is not-----

What is important is how one calculates it. I firmly believe that if one calculates it, one has to take into account the views of trade unions that represent working people and those of the public, but one also needs to take into account the views of employers and small business owners. One of the problems with the living wage as it is calculated in Ireland is that employers are excluded from participating in the calculation. Their views are not taken into account. That is a mistake because one always has to bear in mind the impact on employment, which is particularly important in the Border counties where employers are competing with much lower wages on offer in Northern Ireland. Whether one calls it a minimum wage or a living wage does not bother me, but a system that excludes employers from any involvement in calculating it is wrong-headed.