Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The British Prime Minister said today that he will be tabling proposals to the European Union shortly on alternatives to the backstop and dismissed the non-papers disclosed on RTÉ news last night as more or less redundant at this stage. The Taoiseach met the British Prime Minister twice recently, on 9 and 24 September, and has also had telephone contact with him. I met the Taoiseach and other party leaders on 15 September but at no stage was there any reference to these non-papers or their contents, particularly with regard to customs posts. In the Taoiseach's discussions with Mr. Johnson, were these non-papers referenced or discussed? What is their provenance? The Taoiseach stated to the British Irish Chamber of Commerce on 5 September that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, there would be checks on goods and live animals but that these would, in as far as possible, take place at ports, airports and business premises. He said that some checks may need to take place near the Border and that the Government was working out the details with the European Commission. On 17 September, the Tánaiste said that he did not expect checks to be near the Border. The Taoiseach had said that they would be near but I do not think the Tánaiste will do to the Taoiseach what he did to the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, in respect of the issue. Nonetheless, the checks would have to take place somewhere and that remains to be clarified.

We need to remind ourselves that the talks are on the terms of the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, with a full trade deal presumably to be negotiated between the two subsequently. The need for an insurance policy in the exit deal negotiations is key in order that there will be no reintroduction a hard border between the North and the South.

The key issue in the ongoing negotiations is whether Northern Ireland will remain within the EU customs union unless or until a full trade deal that removes the need for the insurance policy is negotiated. It comes down to customs, and the comments of Arlene Foster in that regard are somewhat unhelpful. It is easy to rule out things; it is much more difficult to create solutions and resolutions to complex issues. We always have to be careful about leaks, their timing and the motivation behind them. I did not believe we would see any serious British proposals until after the Conservative Party conference. We await those proposals. There has been much megaphone diplomacy and we need to be conscious of that. The Good Friday Agreement has been badly damaged by the collapse of the institutions and would be damaged further by regulatory divergence if that was to occur, and by the reintroduction of a customs infrastructure. These are serious and profound issues. Were the Taoiseach and Tánaiste aware of the existence of these non-papers prior to yesterday evening's disclosure? Did they discuss them with Boris Johnson during their meetings and communications with him? Will the Taoiseach confirm what is the Government's position on discussions with the European Commission regarding a no-deal Brexit, particularly in light of the various statements he and the Tánaiste have made in respect of checks, where they will take place and what they will involve?

In answering the Deputy's question, I am conscious that I will be talking about non-papers that I have not seen. I do not mean that as a double negative. I have not seen them. I was aware of their existence, which was public knowledge and was commented on in the newspapers in the past week or two. Essentially, the UK provided non-papers to the EU task force on the basis that they would be kept confidential and not shared with member states. They were not shared with member states. I welcome Prime Minister Johnson's words earlier today, when he disowned and distanced himself from those non-papers. Had he not done so, it would have been hard evidence of bad faith on the part of the British Government.

In December 2017, the British Government promised Ireland and the European Union that there would be no hard border as a consequence of Brexit and no physical infrastructure or associated controls or checks. We expect the British Government to honour that commitment, made in good faith in the withdrawal agreement. People in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland do not want a customs border between the North and the South. No British Government should seek to impose customs posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland against the will of the people in both places. I was especially interested in what businesses in Northern Ireland have to say. They speak much more eloquently than me about this. The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium stated that the British Government has not been listening to Northern Ireland businesses. The Freight Trade Association stated that what has come to light contradicts all of the advice it gave to the British Government. The Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland stated that these proposals were a disgrace. Manufacturing Northern Ireland rejected the proposals out of hand. I ask anyone in the British establishment who thinks that this is a good idea to listen the voices of Northern Ireland - those in business, farmers and people in general. Both they and we are saying "No" to customs posts between the North and the South. No British Government should try to impose on Ireland a solution opposed by people in the North and the South.

In my meetings with Prime Minister Johnson, he spoke on occasion about not having checks at the Border, which raises the obvious question of where they will be if not there but we never got into the details. When the Government talks about checks, it is in the context of them being necessary if there is no deal.

If we face a no-deal Brexit on 31 October and if the UK decides, and it will be its decision, to leave the European Union without a deal and operate on WTO rules, there will need to be checks at ports, airports and perhaps at business level and near the Border. That is the reality of the situation, but that is in the context of no deal. We have never been in the position of signing up to checks as part of a deal.

The Taoiseach needs to be careful in welcoming everything Boris Johnson said this morning because he made it clear, saying "we will make a very good offer" blah, blah and so on, but he said there would be a difficulty in keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union because one of the basic things about being a country is having a single customs perimeter and a single customs union. While he is dismissing the non-papers, his essential message today is that he wants to keep Northern Ireland out of the customs union. All of us in this House are agreed that Brexit makes no sense economically or for those in business or in farming in Northern Ireland and that it will damage the economy all around, but it seems very clear that the Prime Minister is sticking to his idea of not wanting, as part of the exit deal, any provision that would ensure and guarantee that Northern Ireland would remain within the European Union customs union. Does the Taoiseach accept that seems to be Mr. Johnson's position right now or does he have evidence to suggest that he may be willing to compromise on that point?

The Deputy's assessment is correct that it is his view that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union whole and entire, to use his own language. That means the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaving the customs union. However, as I explained to him when we met in New York, there is a reason we came up with the deal we did after two years of negotiations with Prime Minister May and her Government. The backstop provides for a single customs territory. It does not provide for Britain or Northern Ireland staying in the EU customs union; it provides for what is described as a single customs territory. That satisfied our demand and desire that there not be customs checks North and South, but also the concerns and desires of many unionists that there not be any customs checks east-west. A single customs territory was designed specifically to meet that need. That is why we ended up with the backstop and why it is the best solution. Having the entire UK within a single customs territory avoids the need for customs posts North-South and east-west. I explained to Mr. Johnson that we spent two years going up and down all of these rabbit holes and that we came up where we did because we needed a solution that avoided customs posts not only on the land border between North-South, but between Northern Ireland and Britain and between the Republic of Ireland and Britain. Very often those who were not part of negotiating an agreement do not know why those negotiations reached a certain point, but this is why we reached that point.

I raise the issue of the dangerous overcrowding in our hospitals. Today's figures from the INMO are really shocking. As of this morning, there were 610 patients on hospital trolleys. That includes 81 people on trolleys in University Hospital Limerick, 58 people on trolleys in Cork University Hospital, and 50 people on trolleys in the Mater, in my own constituency in Dublin. The list goes on and on. Behind these figures are people who deserve better treatment and decent healthcare. This morning 610 families were worried sick about loved ones, whether parents, grandparents or children, lying on trolleys in a corridor instead of on hospital beds, where they belong.

I have told the Taoiseach on many occasions that his health policies are not working but it is clear that he does not listen. This September was the worst September on record with regard to hospital overcrowding. Some 10,641 patients went without a hospital bed. That is 10,641 families who had to see a loved one suffer the indignity of a hospital trolley. Landing in a hospital for whatever reason can be a very frightening experience but to find oneself in hospital to be told that one has to make do with a trolley only worsens the anxiety one experiences.

The INMO is absolutely scathing in its assessment of the current situation. It says chronic hospital overcrowding is placing massive strain on nurses and seriously worsening patient care. It says chronic hospital overcrowding is beyond unsustainable. All of this is on the Taoiseach's watch. It is a direct result of the policy choices of his Government. There is no point in coming in here time and again talking about supposed progress and success around the edges of what is a crisis. That is just not good enough. Publicity initiatives around Sláintecare are not good enough either because it has to be implemented in a way that makes a noticeable difference on the front line. Patients and their families are at this stage tired of the Government's ready-steady-stop approach.

Fianna Fáil might be well prepared to stand aside and allow this to continue but we will not. We cannot any longer tolerate a health service dragged into a perpetual state of crisis by the Government's policies and inaction. There are 610 people lying on trolleys today. There are 610 families worrying about them. Can the Taoiseach tell them whether he is finally going to take action that will actually work?

I acknowledge that overcrowding in our hospitals was indeed very severe this morning. I apologise to the patients and staff affected and also their loved ones, who deserve much better than to have to wait for a hospital bed. It is worth pointing out, however, that the vast majority of people on a hospital trolley this morning will be in a proper hospital bed before the evening is out.

During the first half of this year, we saw encouraging reductions in the numbers of patients on trolleys year on year but there has been a deterioration since June. It has been getting steadily worse since then, regrettably. Part of that is down to an increase in the number of people attending our emergency departments, but there was also an increase in the first half of the year when we had fewer patients on trolleys, so that does not explain it fully. When I spoke to the Minister for Health about this matter this morning, I learned that action is being taken. We are adding more beds to our hospital system. In fact, every year since 2012, we have added extra beds to the hospital system, reversing the policy of the previous Government to cut the number. We have been investing in the fair deal over the past week or two, recognising that there is a real problem in that area. I am informed by the Minister for Health that the fair deal waiting time is now down to about four weeks, and that is helping us to reduce the number of delayed discharges. Additional funding has been freed up for transitional care, allowing patients fit to leave the hospital to go into convalescence. Investment in primary care is ongoing to reduce the number who need to be admitted in the first place.

I am glad the Taoiseach has apologised to the patients and their families. That is the very least they deserve. More than an apology is needed, however. Those patients and others, and any families who finds themselves in this situation, actually want change and a solution to this matter. The Taoiseach comes in here as a matter of routine and recites the actions he claims to have taken and numbers of beds and so on but the reality is that the system does not have the capacity necessary to deliver the care that the patients need.

Today, Sinn Féin launched its budget proposal for 2020. In it, we include additional hospital beds, recruitment of additional nurses and midwives, and pay equalisation for consultants. All of these measures are well within the Government's fiscal capacity. Can the Taoiseach, in addition to apologising to the families and patients, give an absolute guarantee that there will be sufficient investment in our health services in the budget next week so we do not have to endure these scandalous figures time and again?

I outlined the actions taken. They are not claims; they are real. The Deputy can check them for herself. More money is being invested and spent in our health services than ever before. Per capita, the level is one of the highest in the world. More beds have been added to our hospital system every year since 2012. In recent weeks, there has been extra investment in the fair deal and convalescence to get more patients out of hospital. There has been an investment in primary care.

Over 120 primary care centres have been opened throughout the country, including in the Deputy's constituency and in mine. They are dealing with GPs to improve the kind of chronic care they can offer in the community. When the budget is introduced next week, there will be another significant increase in resources for the health service-----

-----and beds too. If this was down to more beds, more staff and more money, we would have solved it a long time ago. We have never spent more money in our health service. We have been adding extra beds for seven years. We have never had more staff. It takes a lot more than additional resources. That is a simple solution. If simple solutions worked, they would have worked by now. The concern I have with the Deputy's proposals is that the budget plans released by Sinn Féin today involve a €5.5 billion increase in spending. The country simply cannot afford that as it heads toward dealing with a potential no-deal Brexit in a few weeks. Sinn Féin is proposing to part-finance its plans through €2 billion in new taxes on savings, incomes, inheritance and just about everything that moves. That is not what people need as we head into a no-deal Brexit either.

I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that fire safety should be an absolute priority, particularly in all buildings used by the public and by children. Representatives of the community centres in Huntstown and Hartstown in Dublin 15 have written to politicians because considerable sums of money are needed for fire safety works if these invaluable centres are to remain open. Childcare, bingo, youth clubs, Zumba and martial arts are among the facilities and activities provided at these community centres. They are even places of worship. Both of them are in the constituency shared by the Taoiseach and me. I doubt that they are unique. This must be a national issue. The communities of Hartstown and Huntstown have rallied in the past and they will do so again. They took the initiative to establish these centres in the first place, when they organised "buy a brick" campaigns and collected weekly donations. A silver lining to this cloud has been the emergence of younger activists who want to keep these community centres open for their children.

There is only so much bag-packing that can be done, and there are only so many "strictly" events, 5 km races, race nights and quizzes that can be organised. I suggest that at a certain point the State must step in and acknowledge the vital role played by community centres. Margaret Thatcher once said "there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women ... and people must look after themselves". Is this the Taoiseach's maxim too, or does he appreciate the role of community centres in society? Huntstown community centre provides breakfasts for vulnerable children who attend the school next door. People in the centre help five homeless families to wash their clothes and to get hot meals in the coffee shop. Nobody asked them to do this. Nobody is giving them extra money for doing it. They do it because the housing crisis is hitting hard and they see the need for these services. They get no extra money for plugging these gaps, which stem from Government failures.

The voluntary and community sector was savaged during the recession. Approximately 16,000 jobs were lost. The local community development programme was cut by 35%. I have spoken to a community manager who was notified by email of a cut of €32,000 in 2010. Does the Taoiseach agree that it is time for the State to give some of this money back? It has to be pointed out that many of the works needed now can be attributed to the shoddy building regulations that were overseen by Governments led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. In 2014, work was done on Huntstown community centre to insulate its crèche. The authorities at the centre have now been told that this could ignite and emit toxic fumes in the crèche. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs had a fund for fire safety with less than €1 million in it, but that fund has now been closed. As the Taoiseach is aware, school buildings in our community have had to close because of a lack of fire safety. I ask him to do this properly for community centres. Will he establish an audit of all community buildings? Will he fund that audit? Will he set up a national fund from which community centres can draw down funds to enable these works to be carried out? People should not have to pack bags to raise money for fire doors.

I am very much aware of the issues with fire safety in Hartstown and Huntstown community centres, which are in the constituency shared by the Deputy and me. Some community centres, particularly many of the new ones, are owned and controlled by local authorities, whereas many of the older ones are privately owned. One of them belongs to the Archdiocese of Dublin. In other cases, they are owned by charities.

The Department of Rural and Community Development, under the Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, is engaged in this. I understand we have been able to find funding for Hartstown to allow it to carry out its fire safety works. I am not sure if the issue has been entirely sorted, but the work was being done a few months ago. I will look into Huntstown The idea of having a national fund for community centres is a good one. It does not exist and, given the establishment of the Department for Rural and Community Development, it is something we could consider.

I am glad the Taoiseach thinks it is a good idea and has accepted that it will be needed because the issue will arise in community centres around the country. It is not possible for all of them to contact Deputies, get involved in individual fundraising and draw down individual amounts of funds. Significant amounts of money are involved. Each centre needs €120,000. As I said, significant funds have been raised by the local community, but that well can only be dipped into to a certain point before it runs dry. I am asking the Taoiseach to make it very clear where community centre fundraising groups and management committees need to go.

The Minister, Deputy Ring, has agreed to supply funds for Hartstown, but it has not yet been made clear how much will be provided, or when or how. The matter is still very much up in the air. Huntstown is at an early stage. These community centres, like most, are not run by local authorities and are not in DEIS areas. Rather, they are in ordinary working class communities where people have done things for themselves and they now need the Taoiseach to provide a commitment that the Government will not let the centres close and will help them by making the pathway by which they can get funds very clear.

I understand the amount for Hartstown has been settled, but I will check up on that. As the Deputy said, Huntstown is at an early stage and still needs to be worked on.

Funds are available. There is a €1 billion fund for rural development and a €2 billion fund for urban regeneration. Local authorities have community funds, funded through the local property tax, rates and so on. I appreciate that this is an issue which has arisen, and I am sure community centres around the country need not just fire safety but other works, and it not clear to which fund they should apply. That is a genuine problem and that is why the Deputy's suggestion of establishing a dedicated fund for community centres, perhaps under the auspices of the Department of Rural and Community Development, might be a sensible way to go forward.

There is great concern in the midwest region the about the long-term viability of Shannon Airport in County Clare. The airport is an iconic institution in the midwest and an essential driver of regional development. Air access is critical to regional development.

Shannon is an essential piece of infrastructure for the west and midwest, both from a tourist and economic point of view. In addition, it is the first port of call for emergency transatlantic landings and is, therefore, an essential part of aviation infrastructure. Shannon Airport, having gained its independence, has not been supported to perform as well as was envisaged. This is having a knock-on effect on the long-term economic stability and sustainability of the midwest region.

There has been a decline in passenger numbers this year, after modest growth over the past few years. Unforeseen events such as the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX have ended Norwegian transatlantic services. There is, of course, uncertainty around Brexit which is having a disproportionately negative effect on the midwest region as Shannon has connectivity to London but not to a European hub such as Frankfurt or Paris.

Shannon lacks strong Government support in promoting it as a gateway to the west and the wild Atlantic way, but also as a counterbalance to the unhealthy dominance of Dublin Airport. The greatest challenge facing the midwest is that Dublin Airport now commands, or will soon command, a 90% monopoly of aviation traffic in an already congested airport and city. As Shannon loses its connectivity, this damages the economic development of the west which is contrary to project 2040 which sets out a target of 75% growth in regions outside of Dublin.

The Government needs to step in to promote and protect Shannon Airport. If that involves changing its status or putting in place other mechanisms to allow it to develop and attract investment, that should be considered. A mechanism needs to be found to support new routes into the region. Tourism Ireland needs to dramatically improve its focus on marketing and supporting the development of new routes into Shannon which would benefit tourism, foreign direct investment and indigenous exporting industries in the area. Has the concern for the future of Shannon Airport and, by extension, the mid-west region filtered through to the Government? If so, what actions is it taking to ensure balanced regional development in the west by supporting the airport?

As the Deputy is aware, I am a very strong supporter of Shannon Airport which has a special place in my heart because I was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport when we decided-----

-----to make it independent and debt free.

Does the Taoiseach use it much?

I thought he was going to say he started it.

We established Shannon Airport as a debt-free independent airport with its own board and governance. I am very proud of being part of that. As the Deputy is aware, the industrial zone around the airport is doing very well, with a significant number of jobs having been created there in recent years. Indeed, the first aircraft maintenance hangar to be built for many years is under construction there. The zone around the airport is doing quite well.

Passenger numbers rose by approximately 6% last year, to 1.9% but, for reasons outlined by the Deputy, they are down this year, which is of concern. At the time of the airport being made independent, I set a target of reaching 3 million passengers. We are currently very far off that level. We need to examine how we can support the airport to develop new routes.

We must be mindful that there are other airports of we must take account, such as Cork Airport, which is having a good year but had bad years in the past, Ireland West Airport Knock, which is doing well, and Waterford Airport, which is keen to get flights again. Dublin Airport receives no Government or State support.

It is given money by Tourism Ireland.

On the contrary, the Government takes one third of its profits in dividends to pay for services across the country.

We need to see if there is something we can do, particularly for Shannon Airport. Although it has very strong routes to the UK, including Heathrow in particular, and North America, it lacks a route to a significant continental hub such as Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam or Copenhagen. If that could be achieved through marketing supports, it would be of real benefit to the airport. In so doing, we need to ensure we get it right. More flights to Malaga, Faro or Mallorca would be of little economic benefit to the region. If one provides route supports to an airport, one must ensure it does not cannibalise another. It is of no benefit to the country as a whole for a route to be moved from Cork Airport to Shannon Airport.

I am interested in this issue. I have been in touch with the chairman of the airport and recently met her in Limerick. We are examining proposals in regard to how we could, in a meaningful way, assist the airport to get more routes.

The Taoiseach could start by getting rid of the chairman.

I acknowledge that many positive things are happening within the Shannon Group but, unfortunately, the airport is not thriving. What can the Government do to establish a route to a European hub? That is essential for Shannon's connectivity. I do not agree that the board is doing a poor job. It needs to be strengthened rather than abolished or replaced. There have been several calls in the mid-west to replace the board. It is doing significant work but needs to be strengthened, particularly in regard to aviation policy.

I take the point that the Government is not promoting Dublin Airport, but the current economic environment is such that Dublin has a dominant position within the Irish aviation industry. That needs to be countered by a change in Government policy. I ask the Taoiseach and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, to examine how a change in Government policy could support Shannon Airport. The existing policy is not doing so.

The existing policy is to not support Dublin Airport. It receives no Government support. In contrast, the Government takes one third of its profits to invest in services all over the country.

Tourism Ireland give its routes support funding.

However, we support regional airports like in Knock, Waterford and Kerry. Cork and Shannon airports operate as semi-State companies on a commercial basis. In terms of getting to a solution, which is what we both want, to try to secure a mainland European hub route for Shannon, what can be done? The Government and the airport acting together can eliminate airport charges. Airports can do that to incentivise an airline to establish a new route. They can waive charges for up to five years. The Government can come in with marketing supports to make it more attractive for an airline to open that route. These things have been done in the past and I believe they can be done again. However, there are two crucial things to bear in mind. Ultimately, a new route only succeeds if there is sufficient demand. Many routes fail because there just is not sufficient demand and the Government cannot create demand where it does not exist. We also need to make sure that we do not use taxpayers’ money for displacement, subsidising a new route that is just a route move from Cork to Shannon or from Knock to Shannon. That does not make any sense.

Local authorities can get involved. I visited Knock Airport recently and I was enthused at the fact that not just Mayo County Council but seven local authorities in the region got behind that airport, not just with words but with money. I saw that in Waterford also with three local authorities, not just in Waterford, getting behind that airport with money. I encourage the local authorities in the mid-west to consider what has been done in the south east and at Knock and do the same.

That concludes Leaders' Questions. Leanfaimid leis an gcéad phíosa gnó eile.