Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

In 2012, the then Government led by Fine Gael promised to provide high-speed broadband to 100% of homes and businesses by 2020. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources at that time, Pat Rabbitte, had humble expectations and estimated the cost at €350 million. In 2013, the tendering process began and his successor, Alex White, announced a new strategy, with the cost estimated at €500 million. In 2016, the Government announced it would deliver high-speed broadband to 85% of premises of premises by 2018 and 100% by 2020.

As we know, the tendering process has been very difficult and a bit of a nightmare. SIRO withdrew because of Eir's decision to expand its offering to 300,000 more premises. There was a debacle in October with the resignation of the former Minister, Deputy Naughten, because of a series of meetings and dinners with the final remaining bidder, Mr. David McCourt of Enet. Enet was subsequently taken over by the State-backed Irish Infrastructure Fund, IIF. Eir had previously announced its withdrawal from the process. The situation in October and November was a bit of a mess. The incoming Minister, Deputy Bruton, stated that he would bring a recommendation to Cabinet within weeks regarding the Enet submission, notwithstanding that Enet had fundamentally changed its composition. From my perspective, it looked like a new consortium. It is the remaining bidder.

Meanwhile, many tracts of the country are without a technology that is essential for new industries, businesses and the daily activities of life and commerce. In November, the Taoiseach estimated that approximately 540,000 homes or 1 million people were without high-speed broadband. New figures released by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, today indicate that, for example, only 58% of people in County Leitrim have access to broadband.

It has been a tortuously slow process, with numerous promises made and not fulfilled. The only activity has been in the private sector. When will the Government make a decision regarding the remaining tender submission by Enet? The Taoiseach indicated before Christmas that the cost would be a multiple of what was originally estimated. Is there a current estimated cost of the Enet bid were it to be accepted by Government? To what degree is it impacted by the recent statement by Eir that it wishes to bring fibre to an additional 80,000 homes and the proposal by Imagine to bring wireless technology to 500,000 homes? Will the size of the intervention area be reduced even further, leading to higher costs?

We have made significant progress in the past three years in providing high-speed broadband across the country. When this Government took office, only approximately half the premises in Ireland - homes, businesses and farms - had access to high-speed broadband. That figure now stands at approximately 80%, so significant of progress has been made. The Government has worked with the private sector to deliver that. However, that still means approximately 500,000 households, businesses and farms, mainly in rural Ireland but some in urban Ireland, do not have access to high-speed broadband. For the 20% without access, it is all the more annoying and frustrating and it will become a greater problem into the future as so much commerce and so many public services and workplaces go online and take advantage of these technologies.

The national broadband programme has changed significantly in recent years due to the development of technologies and the fact that the private sector has provided broadband in large numbers of areas, including parts of rural Ireland that would have been the more profitable parts of the national broadband plan, NBP, while other factors that have driven up the cost over the years. As things stand, there is one remaining bidder. That bidder has not yet been designated by the Government as the preferred bidder and some due diligence is still ongoing in regard to the tender. We have received the tender.

As the Deputy pointed out, the cost is many multiples of the original estimate. However, it is a very different situation from the national children's hospital, for example, as we have not yet taken the decision to designate the remaining bidder as the preferred bidder nor have we signed any contracts for the project. That decision is yet to be made and we want it to be very transparent. It cannot be made at this stage because due diligence is still being carried out. An international review panel is assessing the cost-benefit analysis and making sure the project makes sense in that regard, while it is also being examined by consultants in regard to deliverability. In addition, some work needs to be done by the Government and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

As the project will be much more expensive than anticipated, we must consider how the public finances can bear that. Obviously, the events of the next couple of weeks will tell a story in regard as to where we will stand in terms of the public finances.

On the more recent announcements, it is welcome that Eir will upgrade fibre in our cities and towns, bringing fibre to many more homes. However, that will not impact on the NBP because the Eir investment is only in towns and cities. The service being offered by Imagine is also welcome but it is wireless broadband and not fibre to the home. We again do not anticipate that it will impact on the intervention area.

I wish to raise two issues. The Taoiseach is saying that further due diligence remains to be done and the cost will be multiples of what was originally envisaged. I note that in response to a question by Deputy Dooley last week the Minister, Deputy Bruton, stated that he wanted to meet the two additional companies. Given that in October we were told a decision would be made within weeks, is there now a significant question mark over whether the plan will be rolled out?

The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, made clear to Deputy Cowen that the extra costs would impact on other projects in the national development plan, NDP. He stated that the Government would have to move capital around within the plan, which would impact on other projects. Notwithstanding sensitivities relating to the tender process, can we expect some precision regarding the costs of the Enet submission if it were to be accepted by Government?

When can we expect a decision from Government? The Minister, Deputy Bruton, has consistently said that a decision would be made in the coming weeks. However, he has been saying that since early November and it is now almost March. The House should be given an indication as to when a recommendation will go to the Government and a decision made. In addition, there should be a precise public indication of the likely cost of the NBP, as now envisaged.

My objective is to be in a position to make a decision on this matter before Easter. I am not in control of all the factors but the plan is to be make a decision before Easter. Due diligence is still under way by the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Communications, Climate Action and Environment. As I mentioned, because the cost will be many multiples of what was originally anticipated, it will impact on the public finances. The events of the next couple of weeks will help us decide whether we can bear that impact on the public finances.

The impact in 2019 will be minuscule but there will be a significant impact in 2020, 2021 and thereafter. This project will take the form of a public private partnership and its cost will be spread over approximately 30 years so I do not believe it should involve a decision for this Government alone. The impact will also be experienced by future Governments. This is quite different from other projects that are in the news at the moment. That is why we want to be transparent about it and why we will want to consult the Oireachtas on it.

On 12 February 1989, 30 years ago, Pat Finucane was shot 14 times in front of his wife, Geraldine, and their children as they sat down for Sunday lunch in their Belfast home. Pat was an intelligent man and a committed and dedicated solicitor. He defended his clients and exposed human and civil rights abuses in the North. Pat was highly effective and highly respected. He was very good at his job and, for that, he was murdered.

The people who killed Pat were agents of the RUC. The information used to kill Pat was provided by British military intelligence, and the guns used to murder him were supplied by RUC agents. As the Taoiseach knows, Pat's family has campaigned long and hard and with great dignity for a public inquiry into his killing. I pay a special tribute this afternoon to Geraldine and the whole family for never backing down in the face of British Government intransigence and denial.

The Taoiseach will be aware that the Finucane family have been in the British Supreme Court over the past year to try to compel the British Government to fulfil its obligation to hold a public inquiry, as agreed at Weston Park in 2001. This morning, that court has ruled that previous inquiries into Pat's murder did not have the capability to establish salient facts into his death and, as such, it has found that an inquiry compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights into Pat's murder has not been held and that none of the previous inquiries has satisfied Article 2 obligations.

The continued refusal by the British Government to honour its commitment to hold a public inquiry into Pat's killing is one of the many broken commitments of the peace process. The withholding of information on the part of the British Government and the absolute disregard shown to victims in the courts are features of many cases. The Finucane case is not unique. It must stop.

At Weston Park in 2001, the British Government agreed to a public inquiry into Pat's murder. This has not happened. That agreement must now be honoured immediately, and the Irish Government must act to secure that. The Taoiseach will recall that this is not just a matter of a commitment in his programme for Government but it is also the stated will of the Oireachtas. Will he join me this afternoon in stating clearly the British Government should immediately fulfil its obligation to hold a public inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane? Will he relay that demand without delay to the British Government, including the British Prime Minister?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. The short answer to her question is "Yes". Needless to say, I never had the opportunity to meet Pat Finucane. He was killed over 30 years ago but I have read about him and know he was an honourable man. He was a lawyer and a human rights activist long before people even used that term. I had the opportunity in recent weeks to meet Geraldine Finucane and her family. Geraldine made a real impression on me, particularly her dignity and steely resilience in seeking justice and truth for three decades.

The House will be aware that this morning the UK Supreme Court issued a judgment stating the UK was acting within its power to decide not to hold a public inquiry. It also found, however, that the inquiries held to date, including the de Silva review, were not adequate and not compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Government and I believe that finding is very significant. The position of the Government is that the British Government should now honour its commitment to carry out a public inquiry, in accordance with the Inquiries Act 2005, into the murder of Pat Finucane, the solicitor and human rights activist. The British Government should keep the promise made by former Prime Minister, David Cameron, in Weston Park in 2001 and accept the judgment of the Supreme Court today. It is the honourable thing to do. It would be the right thing to do and I believe the British Government should do so. I will certainly raise it in my meetings with the Prime Minister, and the Tánaiste will do so with his counterparts as well.

I thank the Taoiseach very much for that. I echo his sentiments as regards the honour of Pat Finucane and the effectiveness of his legal and human rights activism. Above all, we must acknowledge today the great dignity and resilience of Geraldine Finucane and her family. Incidentally, I do not know any single person who has met Geraldine Finucane who was not greatly impressed by her, as the Taoiseach clearly was.

As he said, the ruling this morning asserts the prerogative of the British Government to do the wrong thing and to break its word, but, more important, it sets out very clearly that the de Silva review was not compliant with Article 2 and that there has not been a full and proper investigation into the murder of Pat Finucane. At Weston Park, it was very clearly agreed, between two sovereign governments and all parties, that such an inquiry would happen. I warmly welcome and acknowledge the fact that the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, will now vigorously pursue this matter. I hope the British Government will, on this occasion, move away from its position of denial of the truth to the Finucane family and that this inquiry can proceed without delay.

I am aware that, over the coming days, the Finucane family and British Government will want to consider this judgment in full and in detail, as will the Government here. Our position is that an independent public inquiry under the terms of the Inquiries Act, allowing for the subpoena of witnesses and the discoverability of documents, should now be held. That political commitment was given by former Prime Minister David Cameron at Weston Park in 2001 and it should be honoured. The UK Supreme Court decision today is significant in finding that the de Silva review did not honour that commitment. The only way it can be honoured is through a full public inquiry under the Inquiries Act. The Irish Government will call for that. I will press my counterpart, Prime Minister May, to honour the commitment made by her predecessor. The Tánaiste and other Ministers will also take it up.

The Taoiseach might recall that last week I asked him and the Minister for Justice and Equality what steps are being taken in response to an appalling shooting and murder in my constituency. That dastardly crime was the latest in a litany of gun murders, which include tragic victims recently in Swords and Leixlip. The Minister for Justice and Equality told me in January that the Garda's Operation Hybrid had resulted in 86 arrests and the seizure of 91 firearms, including machine guns and assault rifles. I welcome the work of the Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau in the investigation of gun crime but the number of firearms seized in almost four years seems low by comparison with the number of reported crimes. There is a significant number of unsolved gun crimes.

Are there further actions the Government and An Garda Síochána might take to prevent firearms entering this country, perhaps alongside our EU partners, by targeting the manufacturers of guns in Europe and elsewhere and addressing the issue of traceability? Do we need to strengthen greatly, with the support of Interpol and Europol, the sanctions for importing and using guns and use our extradition powers to apprehend any criminals outside the jurisdiction who are directing crime in this country?

The Taoiseach might remember that, in 2006, the then Minister, Michael McDowell, who is now a Senator, introduced a weapons amnesty before implementing the Criminal Justice Act, which imposed a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for illegal possession of guns and a sentence of up to life imprisonment for possession with intent to endanger life.

While shootings and murder have the most shocking impact on communities, some districts of Dublin Bay North have also suffered greatly from burglaries, car theft and related joyriding, illegal dumping and serious nightly drug-fuelled, anti-social and criminal behaviour.

There are also regular reports of intimidation of households and vandalism of public facilities, including DART stations. We often hear those reports at the Dublin metropolitan region, DMR, north joint policing committee. A persistent request from our constituents who live in the north fringe of Dublin city and the south fringe of Fingal is for a new Garda station at the centre of this rapidly-developing area, which is destined to be home for 50,000 or 60,000 people.

I received comprehensive replies from the Minister for Justice and Equality and Commissioner Drew Harris regarding the provision of a new police station. The Minister informed me that it is the Commissioner's job to allocate resources, delineate Garda boundaries and so on. Commissioner Harris outlined the actions he has taken and referenced the capital investment and Garda modernisation and renewal programmes. We know from Garda sources that a new district headquarters is being planned for the north DMR and its location in this burgeoning north-south fringe would be best.

The Taoiseach, in his reply, will probably refer to the 21,000 Garda personnel, including 15,000 members, promised by 2021 but is community policing not the Cinderella service in all of this? In jurisdictions such as Sweden, New Zealand and Japan, local community police officers are the core of active policing.

Why have the Fine Gael Governments since 2011 left An Garda Síochána well behind other EU police forces when it comes to the most up-to-date IT assets and modern policing technology methods? We are tired of hearing of deficiencies in PULSE and IT systems and, for example, the late delivery of the hand-held devices for the traffic corps.

I made an error in my earlier reply. The commitment made at Weston Park in 2001 was, of course, made by former the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and not David Cameron, one of those who succeeded him. The position of the Government is the same. The United Kingdom Government made a commitment in 2001 at Weston Park to carry out a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act into the death of Pat Finucane. The Supreme Court decision shows that the reviews carried out to date were not compliant with that commitment and it is our strong view that the commitment should now be honoured by the British Government and we will be pressing it to do so.

I am obviously aware of the incidents that have taken place in recent days - the shootings at the M1 retail park in Drogheda, in Corduff in my constituency and in Coolock in Deputy Broughan's constituency. The Government is working with the Garda to improve its resources and capabilities to deal with all forms of crime, particularly violent crime. For many years, there was little or no investment in the Garda as a consequence of the recession this country experienced. In the past three years, however, we have been investing in the force again. The number of gardaí has been increased to over 14,000, the largest in a very long time. There are more civilians involved in the organisation, which frees up gardaí to carry out front-line policing work, and there is real investment in new Garda stations throughout the country. There has also been investment in IT and vehicles. Such investment will continue.

Where new or refurbished Garda stations are located is something that has to be worked on by An Garda Síochána, the OPW and the Department of Justice and Equality. It depends on the availability of sites and other operational matters and it is best done in that way.

The Garda has made some important progress in tackling the insidious threat of organised crime and there is ongoing contact between the Department of Justice and Equality and An Garda Síochána to ensure that a successful and proactive approach is taken. Deputies are aware that a number of arrests have recently been made in the United Kingdom on foot of investigations into the supply of drugs and firearms in Ireland and the United Kingdom. These arrests resulted in several court appearances, while others who were arrested and released are under investigation. These investigations are being led by the UK National Crime Agency and supported by the Garda and the UK police. I acknowledge the co-operation between the two forces and commend those involved in the operation.

I also note the work of An Garda Síochána in securing a number of convictions in the Gareth Hutch murder case over the course of the year. The House is aware that Operation Hybrid was established to co-ordinate the response to violent crime in Dublin and to alleviate concerns about community safety, particularly in the inner city and on the northside, where there is significant support from armed support units.

When will the working group report on alternative responses for personal possession of drugs? It was due to report to the Government by the end of 2018 and we now hear that it will be the end of the first quarter of this year before the report is completed. At many of our joint policing committees and other meetings with An Garda Síochána, we hear that virtually all crime is now drug-related. What consideration is the Government giving to decriminalisation, along the lines of the Portuguese, Uruguayan or Canadian models, or those adopted in many states in the US?

It must be remembered that the Government and the previous Fianna Fáil Government slashed Garda numbers and retrenched across health, housing and education. This had a desperate impact on vulnerable communities and the development of the north fringe, south fringe and Fingal areas of Dublin city was held up for almost a decade. It is now proceeding again but surely an integral part of any plan for a new urban district is a public security presence. Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister for Justice to liaise with the two planning authorities to ensure that the new Garda divisional headquarters will be in that new city, as it were, on the northern boundary of Dublin?

I will ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to contact the Garda Commissioner about that matter. We should allow the Garda Commissioner, the OPW and the Department to work together to establish where the best, most practical location is for that new headquarters. I imagine other people will have different views as to where it should be located and everything will have to be taken into account and consideration.

I am not sure if it is the case that all or most crimes are now drug-related.

That certainly would not be the case, for example, when it comes to sexual assaults, domestic violence and crimes of that nature. It probably is the case in the context of murders and burglaries. A huge number of burglaries are now, and always have been, drug-related.

The work of the group chaired by Mr. Justice Garrett Sheehan is ongoing. We expect the group to report in the next couple of months. It is examining whether decriminalisation of possession of small amounts of drugs or narcotics might be the way to go for Ireland. It would not involve legalisation but it would involve decriminalisation, thereby focusing Garda resources on those who are involved in pushing, selling and distributing drugs, rather than those who possess them. It would move away from a criminal-justice approach to minor possession towards a healthcare approach. I favour that but it needs to be worked through.

I welcome to the Public Gallery the students and teachers from Coláiste Bhaile Chláir in County Galway who are here for a tour of Leinster House.

Hear hear. Come on Galway.

They are future voters.

I raised an issue with the Taoiseach on Leaders' Questions in September 2017 about Apple's plans to build a data centre near Athenry, County Galway. My concerns proved well grounded in light of Apple's subsequent decision not to go ahead with that development. At that time, the Taoiseach agreed that planning issues and delays in the courts undermined the case for future investment in Ireland and stated that the Government intended to act on the matter. We still have in place a planning system which is riddled with flaws and which is ultimately costing us jobs and losing us money. This is an issue for the entire country but recent experiences in Galway have certainly led us to the conclusion that the system is well and truly broken.

Prior to that we had a long saga of efforts to solve Galway city's crippling traffic problems frustrated by planning difficulties that lasted for decades. Something in the region of €14 million was spent on previous plans to build an outer bypass of the city, all of which proved to be money down the drain because it got nowhere. The current N6 ring road project will have countless more millions spent on it with no guarantee that we will get the right decision and a road built. This issue is causing massive headaches for road users in Galway and also for homeowners who cannot sell their houses and landowners who are being affected by the current plans.

The most recent fiasco relates to Galway Hospice being refused planning permission for a brand new facility on the grounds of Merlin Park Hospital. This is a much-needed facility for which there is massive public support in Galway. It was granted planning permission by Galway City Council. That was appealed to An Bord Pleanála and an inspector recommended that it be granted.

However, in one of those curious decisions, the board of the planning authority ignored the inspectors' advice and refused the permission. When will there be a major overhaul of our planning laws to eliminate costly delays? The refusal of planning permission for these projects is costing companies millions of euro and charitable organisations, such as the Galway Hospice, thousands of euro, money which was raised through fundraising by hard-working people in Galway. It is costing the Government and the taxpayer millions of euro trying to get projects through the system.

The system is broken and not working. There has to be a complete review of the entire planning system to make it easier to get planning permission. I am not calling for a free-for-all. However, there has to be a simpler system for getting planning permission, one which would not result in millions of euro being spent only for permission not to be granted at the end of the day. The old system is giving Ireland, and certainly Galway, a bad name. First, there was the city bypass which should have been built by now. Then there was the Apple centre which should be open by now. Now we have a situation with the Galway Hospice. This will have a negative effect on inward investment. It already has with Apple.

Will the Taoiseach give a commitment, as a matter of urgency, that there will be a major overhaul of the planning system?

When it comes to planning, our approach is driven by Project Ireland 2040, which was launched in Sligo over a year ago. This is a 20-year spatial plan which is linked to a ten-year €116 billion investment in our public infrastructure. The plan’s vision is to achieve, for the first time in Ireland, balanced regional development. That means the population of our cities, like Galway, Limerick, Cork, and Waterford, as well as other urban centres such as Athlone, Drogheda, Dundalk, Letterkenny working with Derry, and Sligo, will grow at a much faster rate over the next 20 years than Dublin. It is aimed to have three quarters of population growth happening outside the Dublin area. To make that possible, we need to, as the Deputy touched on, make sure the transport infrastructure can be built and is in place while social infrastructure around healthcare and education can be provided.

While the Deputy touched on several projects which have become stuck in the planning process or the legal process, we should not forget those which have been delivered. For example, the Gort-Tuam motorway, the M17-M18, the single largest transport infrastructure investment in the west in the past five years, connects Gort and Tuam by motorway, forming part of our vision for the Atlantic economic corridor linking up Galway, Limerick, Shannon and Cork. Another step was made on that road only last week when work started on the N4 upgrade to Sligo. We also have plans for BusConnects in Galway to improve bus services in the city, which is essential. The latest plans for the Galway ring road are with An Bord Pleanála. We anticipate oral hearings in the coming months.

The three projects referred to by the Deputy failed planning for different reasons. The data centre for Athenry went through planning reasonably efficiently through Galway Council and An Bord Pleanála. The hold-up was in the courts in and around a judicial review. That case is still in the courts. Apple has pulled out of the project but the Government is still pursuing the case on a point of law because we still want the data centre built in Athenry, if not for Apple then for somebody else.

It is definitely the case in my view that too many of these important projects which get through planning end up stymied in the courts. We need to change that. Part of that is around appointing more judges. It will also require a more efficient court process. Some of the change will be legislative as well. For example, we have amended the strategic infrastructure Act to include data centres. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, will bring forward a planning Bill in the next few months to change the law around judicial review. It will make it a little less easy for people to call for a judicial review of planning decisions, reduce the notice period and require people have proper locus standi before taking such cases. We must always balance, however, the understandable desire on our part to get projects built with the right of individuals to object, to say the impact on their communities could be too harsh, and to take into account the impact on the environment.

I appreciate some changes have been made in an effort to ease the way for certain types of projects to get planning permission. However, that is not enough. We still have good projects supported by the majority of people being endlessly bogged down in the complexities of our current planning system. It is costing us jobs and money. We all know by now how Apple announced plans for a data centre in Denmark around the same time it announced plans for one in Athenry. The Danish one is up and running while a second Apple centre in Denmark is due to commence operations in the second quarter of this year. Two months ago, Google announced plans for another large data centre in southern Denmark. Economists predict it will bring a boost of €740 million to the Danish economy during construction.

There was little chance of Ireland ever being considered for that project in light of Apple's experience here. The Taoiseach should make no mistake. All other major global companies are well aware of Apple’s debacle. Who knows what decisions relating to investments may have been revised as a result? With the uncertainty of Brexit, we cannot afford to lose out on any opportunities to boost the economy. We need an immediate and complete overhaul of our planning system before it can get better.

It was of enormous regret to me and the Government that the data centre in Athenry did not go ahead. I still hope it will go ahead sometime in the future, maybe not by Apple but by some other company.

Google pulled out.

We should not make the mistake of thinking that what happened in Athenry is the norm. It is not. Data centres have been and are being built all over Ireland for other companies such as Amazon and Facebook. It has not deterred other companies from investing in Ireland or building data centres here. It is understood that the Apple centre in Athenry was an exceptional situation and not a failure of the planning process. In fairness to the council and to An Bord Pleanála, it was in the courts that it got stuck.

I accept we need to make reforms to the planning system in several areas. There needs to be greater use of the strategic infrastructure Act to fast-track planning. Reforms to the Planning and Development Act will come before the House in the next few months. I know Deputy Grealish will want to make an input into that. It will perhaps make it less easy for people to take judicial reviews and also ensure our court processes work much better. It is not just about the employment of additional judges but also about cases being managed much better.