Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met; and when the Cabinet committee on Brexit, foreign and European affairs is next scheduled to meet. [41383/19]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee C, European Union, including Brexit, last met. [41979/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

Cabinet committee C last met on Thursday, 21 June 2018. Following a Government decision on 25 July 2019 on the establishment of Cabinet committees, Cabinet committee structures were reorganised. The Cabinet committee on Brexit and European affairs was established to ensure a co-ordinated approach in the areas of Brexit and foreign and European affairs, including Global Ireland 2025. The committee met for the first time on 10 September 2019 and is due to meet again shortly.

Given the particular significance of Brexit, it is important that Cabinet Ministers are all fully across what is happening. Consequently, over the past 12 months Brexit has been discussed more than 30 times at length at the full Cabinet level, where all formal decisions are made. Several other important EU and international issues, including the EU budget, the strategic priorities for the EU and Global Ireland 2025, have also been discussed at Cabinet level in recent months.

I also meet regularly - at least weekly - individual Ministers or groups of relevant Ministers to focus on particular issues, including those relating to Brexit and other EU and international issues, to agree on and ensure delivery of priorities and commitments.

I noted the Taoiseach's earlier comments on the need for politics in the North not to be defined simply as nationalist or unionist. Not surprisingly, he did not mention People Before Profit in his list of all-Ireland parties with-----

I still cannot work out whether People Before Profit is nationalist, unionist or "other".

I know it is pro-Brexit so I think it is unionist.

We declare as "other", and since the assembly was set up we have railed against the fact that it is a requirement to designate oneself in that way because it institutionalises sectarianism. We need concrete measures, not just aspirations. I have suggested to the Taoiseach - and we have gone to the extent of writing to him today - how we could concretise the effort to cross certain boundaries, specifically asking him to contact Wrightbus, a company in which 500 workers, Catholic and Protestant, have been threatened with redundancy. It looks as if that has now been overcome and a new buyer has come in. Given our need to decarbonise our bus fleet, we suggest putting an order in with Wrightbus for 500 electric buses to add to our fleet. This would help to decarbonise our fleet and would be a tremendous gesture, across the Border and across sectarian lines, of the value of co-operation, North and South, while also maintaining jobs and positively impacting the environment. It seems to me a very good suggestion we are making to the Taoiseach. He will receive the email today, but I would be interested to know whether he thinks we could do this, for both our own sake and the sake of challenging sectarian demarcation lines in a positive way that brings people together.

When the people of Catalonia cast their votes on independence two years ago, they were met by riot police. These were extraordinary scenes not only for the people of the region but for all of Europe. The brutality meted out by the riot police on behalf of the Spanish state was as unnecessary as it was horrific. Police seized ballot boxes and used batons and rubber bullets to remove voters from polling stations and injured hundreds of people. Election observers, including elected representatives from Ireland, witnessed at first hand this state brutality against young and old who simply wanted to cast their votes.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights articulates the right to free and fair elections as a fundamental right for all people. It states, "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government". That is the central proposition. Catalan leaders were imprisoned this week. They are elected representatives of their people. The referendum on independence in October 2017 should have been a triumph for democracy, no matter the result, but instead it became a battering ram to close down the call for independence and an opportunity to imprison or exile elected representatives who support independence. I am sure that, like me, the Taoiseach would condemn these actions. Nine representatives have now received lengthy prison sentences and are suspended from public office. By pursuing this course of action, the Spanish Government is undermining not only the stability of Catalonia, but also the values of the European Union itself.

Therefore, at the European Council summit tomorrow there must be an appropriate and proportionate response, one that is not simply about palming the prison sentences off as an internal matter for Spain. This is an issue that cuts to the core of democratic values right across the European Union, a union based on the rule of law, respect for democracy and respect for the right of the peoples of Europe to self-determination. I ask the Taoiseach to raise this issue tomorrow and to bring a very clear message on behalf of the Irish people that the behaviour of the Spanish state is not acceptable and that we stand with all peoples in defence of their right to free and fair elections and, crucially, their right to self-determination.

We will have a full session on European matters later, so quite a number of questions can be left until then. We have not seen the text of any proposals, and we have received no substantive briefings at any point in the past week. We must proceed on the basis of media reports.

I will address two specific points. The first is the overall Brexit agreement and the other specifically relates to Northern Ireland. Yesterday, I asked about the overall economic impact of Brexit, but I did not receive an answer. I would like to give the Taoiseach another opportunity to answer that as he may have been under time constraints yesterday. The proposal as explained by the British Government is that the United Kingdom, excluding Northern Ireland, wishes to adopt the hardest of Brexit options, amounting to it fully leaving the customs union and the Single Market and pursuing regulatory dealignment to attain competitive advantage. Over 80% of our trade with the United Kingdom will be hit by this hard Brexit if it materialises. Of course, there has been much focus on the North-South aspects in the exit agreement, but the large volume of trade between east and west is critical for small and medium enterprises and the agrifood industry.

Will the Taoiseach confirm if this is the case and the move from the May Administration to the Johnson Administration will prove to have been a move to a nearly complete hard Brexit? It is clear the former British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, envisaged a softer Brexit and she needed a customs union because she understood it was in the best interests of British manufacturing.

Is the mechanism proposed for Northern Ireland a so-called all weather process and does it answer the issue permanently? What is proposed to avoid the consent mechanism becoming a permanent source of instability that would keep alive the deteriorating position of the past two years?

I will pick up on Deputy Boyd-Barrett's comments on People Before Profit in Northern Ireland. He is absolutely correct that it is one of the three parties designated as "other" - these are the Alliance Party, the Green Party and People Before Profit - and it does this on the basis that it rejects sectarianism, which is good. I acknowledge that. It is also a party that campaigned for Brexit-----

It did not campaign for Brexit.

It at least advocated Brexit, which is regrettable. There are some in the radical left family in Ireland who advocate a socialist federation of England, Scotland and Ireland.

It is not People Before Profit but Solidarity. We have unionists in this House, which is interesting.

It is not the people we may think. I am pretty sure Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann or both get some of their buses from Wrightbus already. When any public bus company wants to get buses, it must go to tender. Not only is that the law under the rules of the European Single Market but it is also the right course of action. It is how we ensure we get the best product at the best price, which is right for taxpayers and people who use public transport. It would not be right for a politician to intervene and direct a State company to give any particular firm a contract for political reasons. I appreciate it would be a good political gesture-----

The Taoiseach might speak to the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring.

-----but it would be very wrong and it would probably constitute corruption.

I am not suggesting the Minister, Deputy Ring, is corrupt.

In socialist systems around the world, that form of corruption is normal but it is not normal in this State.

It is hardly corruption to try to save jobs in the North.

A politician directing a company to give a particular contract to another private company would constitute corruption. That is under law and it is not just my opinion.

It is not allowed.

Deputy McDonald raised the events in Catalonia, and this is an internal matter for Spain. We can have opinions and take stands on internal matters in other countries. The Government totally respects the constitutional integrity of Spain, but we firmly believe these matters should be dealt with through dialogue. We have seen independence movements in other parts of the European Union, including Scotland, and people have not been imprisoned for advocating self-determination, secession and so on. I have spoken to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez about this before and I will do so again. In my conversations with him I have told him a little about Ireland's historical experience in 1916, when there was a revolution. Most people at the time did not support independence, but the very heavy-handed approach taken by the authorities of the time radicalised people and helped give rise to independence. Sometimes acting with too heavy a hand against people making a proposition can end up helping those people. It is a conversation I have had with previous Spanish Prime Ministers and I will have it again. In no way am I suggesting that we do not totally respect the constitutional integrity of Spain and its unity.

No text has been stabilised for the Brexit deal. I have seen some draft texts but none has been stabilised and for that reason they are confidential, so governments, unfortunately, are not in a position to share them. We intend to have a briefing for party leaders today. I know some are travelling so arrangements will be made for those briefings, which we are happy to organise. We want it to be a briefing on a stable text rather than when things are changing, as they are currently. Those briefings will be provided.

What about the east-west aspect?

That is the east-west trade issue.

This is an alternative to the withdrawal agreement advocated by the former British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May. That seems to be the case from what has been made public.

Deputy Martin's analysis is correct and there has been a change in the position of the United Kingdom Government. The former British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, always advocated a relationship with the European Union that would be as close as possible, if we use her terms. British Prime Minister Johnson has taken a different view and it is more about dealignment. He envisages a harder Brexit and a relationship closer to the Canada model. At the same time, in our conversations he has said he wants a very close trading relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, with no tariffs or quotas. That will have to be teased out in the future relationship treaty and the free trade agreement when we come to it. For our part, we will certainly want a trading relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom with no tariffs or quotas. There must be a level playing field and we cannot have tariff or quota-free trade with a country that does not have similar or better standards with regard to the environment, health and safety and labour rights. British Prime Minister Johnson has said his intention for the United Kingdom after Brexit is to have world-class environmental, health and safety and employment standards. All that will have to be written down and teased out if we get to that point of negotiating a free trade agreement and a future relationship. I hope we do.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

3. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on national security last met. [39947/19]

Cabinet committee F on national security last met in April 2019. A new Cabinet committee on security has since been established that deals with matters relating to justice, defence, Garda reform and national security. This Cabinet committee was scheduled to meet on Thursday, 10 October, but the meeting was postponed as I travelled to England on that day to meet the British Prime Minister. A meeting of the Cabinet committee will be rescheduled for later this month.

The Minister for Justice and Equality recently brought the fifth report of the effectiveness and renewal group to the Government. The report outlines the extensive progress made by the Department during the period April to July 2019. This was a pivotal period in the transformation, where Department defined the detail of the new functional design, developed business planning and process maps, defined new roles and titles, and communicated new work assignments to staff. The report has been published on the Department of Justice and Equality's website.

Regarding policing reform, A Policing Service for the Future, the Government's four-year plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was published in December last year. Implementation of the plan is progressing, with the building blocks phase concluding at the end of the year. Two infographics on progress to date are available on the policing reform web page on www.gov.ie.

Following on the recommendations of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, the Government has established the national security analysis centre to co-ordinate across the relevant Departments and agencies in providing strategic security threat analyses to the Government. Following an open competition, the centre's director was appointed in July and the centre is bringing forward its work and establishing its business arrangements in close co-operation with the partner Departments and agencies.

On many occasions, core emergency management structures put in place by Deputy Willie O'Dea in 2007 have proven to be highly effective.

Thankfully, however, many of the more complex scenarios that the Office of Emergency Planning was established to prepare for have not yet materialised. In 2016, a review was undertaken of the structures and a new emergency management plan was written. In early 2017, the then Taoiseach told me that publication was imminent. What has happened to that plan?

In recent months, there have been worrying reports of paramilitary groups threatening violence in the event of different Brexit outcomes. So-called republicans and loyalists have apparently raised enough concerns that Prime Minister Johnson has been discussing this with people in recent days. What exactly is the overall security assessment of these groups? By the way, I do not hold that Brexit is an excuse or materially changes the motivation of these groups. They have been engaged in murder and mayhem ever since the Good Friday Agreement, killing soldiers and police officers and were responsible for the most recent murder of Lyra McKee. They have continued to plant explosive devices and so on. I am interested in the overall assessment of their current threat to peace on the island.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach about his considerations and the committee's consideration of national security. What is the Taoiseach's current evaluation of the state of the Army and its capacity? I was disappointed that there was no more significant reference to the Army in the budget. Some improvements were cited, and they were welcome. The Army is a significant support to the civil power but its strength is significantly below the target numbers set out in evaluations of what a force such as the Army should be in the Republic of Ireland. While I realise the Taoiseach is having a busy time with Brexit, has he had time to consider establishing a commission on the future of Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Army? It is a cause of considerable distress for all the families in the country whose members have given significant service to Óglaigh na hÉireann that so many people are walking away from the Army because they cannot even afford to buy a house. I put it to the Taoiseach that soldiers who serve one or two terms of duty, and certainly those who serve three terms, should be able to access a Government scheme to help them to fund the purchase of a house. Many members of my family served in the ordinary ranks of the Army. I find it shocking now to meet great-nephews and great-nieces who are interested in an Army career because there is a strong tradition of service in the family but realise they would have no chance of being able to afford a house on an Army wage.

Many members of the Naval Service are sleeping on a ship in Cork Harbour. That is not good for morale.

I realise the Taoiseach has inevitably been preoccupied with Brexit and we wish him well in that regard. However, in the context of this new security committee, does he not think it is time to have a full commission to examine the future of the armed services and the important contribution they make?

Deputy Micheál Martin acknowledged the good groundwork done by Deputy O'Dea in his time as the Minister for Defence in putting together some of the emergency planning structures. I wish to acknowledge that too. The Defence Forces, the Garda and other support services have responded to severe weather and other emergencies very well in recent years. Much of that had to do with the work done in recent years in establishing the national emergency co-ordination centre and ensuring that it was fully up and running. I fully acknowledge the role played by the former Minister, Deputy O'Dea, and previous Governments in putting many of those foundations in place.

The emergency management plan was mentioned. I will have to check up on that because I am not familiar with that particular document, which has not crossed my desk. I get security briefings all the time but I am not familiar with that plan. I will check and revert to the Deputy.

It was in 2016. In early 2017, the Government said publication was imminent.

Honestly, I will check up on it. It is not a document I am familiar with. Obviously, it should have happened by now, but I will come back to the Deputy on that.

The Deputy asked a question about security assessments. The current assessment of the risk of violence from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland is high. Indeed, we have seen violence in Derry and other places in recent months. The risk of violence in the Republic of Ireland is considered to be low in the most recent national risk assessment.

Everyone in the House will be aware that the Defence Forces are currently under-strength, especially the Naval Service and the Air Corps. It has been a real struggle to retain staff. Recruitment is going well, whereas retention is not going well because there is a much higher turnover than one would expect for defence forces. High turnover is a good thing because it keeps the Defence Forces young but when it is too high, we end up short-staffed, as is currently the case.

I am pleased that the Cabinet this week was able to authorise the return of two people to the Air Corps. Previously, it was not possible for people who left the Defence Forces, including the Naval Service or the Air Corps, to return to service. That is now possible and we have signed off on the return of the first two people seeking to rejoin the Air Corps. That is welcome and I hope it is a sign of things to come. People who try the private sector but miss life in the Defence Forces can now come back. I am glad that option is now in place.

The budget provides for a further increase in spending on defence pay and pensions as well as equipment. New ships have arrived and new aircraft are arriving. The Minister for State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Kehoe, will announce a five-year capital plan for investment in barracks, including accommodation, in the coming weeks. I expect that will be positively received.

Deputy Burton kindly acknowledged the fact that I am preoccupied with Brexit at the moment, but that does not prevent me from doing other things. I have spent a decent amount of time in recent months engaging with defence issues and the Defence Forces. I have been to the Department of Defence in Newbridge. I have met PDFORRA and the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers. I am pleased that RACO has approved the pay package on offer. I know it will want to build on that in the public sector pay talks next year. I am hopeful that PDFORRA will make the same decision on the pay package that has been offered when it ballots in November.

Over the summer, I spent two days with the Naval Service on patrol. I have been to the Curragh and I have also spent some time with the Army Ranger Wing. In addition, I have made various overseas visits with the Defence Forces.

Several people have suggested to me the idea of having a commission on the future of the Defence Forces similar to the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. Most people would acknowledge that the latter commission, which was chaired by Kathleen O'Toole, carried out good work. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, and I are giving consideration to whether we should have a commission on the future of the Defence Forces. It is easy to have a commission on something but we need to think through what the terms of reference might be, how it would work and so on. We already have a White Paper on Defence, which was put together under the Tánaiste, I believe, when he was Minister for Defence. The White Paper is still there and we would have to think through what a commission would do. Would it overturn the White Paper or build on it? To cut a long story short, it is something we are giving some thought to.

Legislative Programme

Joan Burton

Ceist:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach to outline the status of Bills under preparation in his Department. [42282/19]

The sole Bill being prepared by my Department is the national economic and social development office (amendment) Bill. This Bill will provide for the dissolution of the national economic and social development office corporate framework, which is no longer necessary. It also deals with related matters, including the transfer of functions to the National Economic and Social Council, NESC. Work is under way to prepare the heads of the Bill, but it is not a legislative priority for Government as it is merely a technical change that does not impact on the essential or day-to-day functions of the NESC.

One of the reasons there has been a great deal of support for the Taoiseach and the Government in the context of Brexit from parties across the House is that we had a model of economic and social structure and oversight that has allowed national debates on issues of national importance with the aim of progressing economic and social issues.

I am disappointed that more progress has not been made with this Bill. The Economic and Social Research Institute has made a significant contribution to the debate on how we should address the housing crisis. Bringing forward the Bill would give us the opportunity to relaunch social partnership and social dialogue, though I am aware that Fine Gael has problems with these. The outcome of Brexit is likely to be difficult for much of the United Kingdom and, in different areas, for Ireland. As a result, having a social partnership structure through a national economic and social development office, under the oversight of the Department of the Taoiseach, would offer us an opportunity to look at where we want to go and what kind of society we want to have. In particular, we could examine issues like working people being paid properly and moving to a living wage rather than just being paid a minimum wage, and providing training and education opportunities for young people and the 8%, 11%, 15 % and 25% of those who, in certain areas, are unemployed in an economy in which the overall unemployment rate is close to 5%. This would be an important focus for a national economic and social development office. Does the Taoiseach intend to bring forward this legislation or has it been permanently parked until there can be some agreement that it would contribute to national economic and social development?

As every Deputy knows, in the past few years the reality of hard drugs has hit more and more communities. In places where heroin was unknown, even during tough times, young people have been targeted by the ruthless gangs who promote addiction and destruction for their own profit. The Taoiseach will be aware of the report of the Blanchardstown drugs and alcohol task force on a new and devastating trend of gangs recruiting young children to sell drugs for them. Deputy Curran has published a Bill to target the savages who recruit children as young as eight to sell drugs. Notwithstanding the paucity of legislation coming from his Department, would the Taoiseach agree that this is a measure to which he could contribute and which he could help to accelerate in order to ensure that it is passed as soon as possible?

The policy adopted in 2011 to permanently abolish a highly effective approach to local development has directly undermined the focus on helping communities in which there are high levels of drug use. Deputy Burton is correct that the social partnership framework facilitated a targeted approach and that an all-agency approach, in which central Government took a major role, has been replaced by one which is more fractured and lacking in any real central leadership. The Taoiseach indicated how much he admires the work of the north-east inner city task force but that is what we had in many of the areas which suffered most acutely from drugs. Why is an approach with more dedicated funding and central leadership not being extended to other areas?

I have a positive suggestion in the context of something the Department could do, namely, take the lead role in the area of disability rights and services. Even today, two Deputies raised various issues of mental health and disability services on Leaders' Questions while carers were protesting outside about what they did not get in the rather miserable budget. This morning, two disability activists were removed from Connolly Station following their ongoing campaign to highlight the constant breakdown of lifts at DART stations, a matter I raised last week only for more lifts - ten in total - to be broken last weekend than ever before.l. The lift at Seapoint in my area has been out of service for months. The list goes on and there are many issues. Activists state that disability issues are dealt with by the Departments of Education and Skills, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Health but nobody takes the overview of driving through the commitment to equality as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Department of the Taoiseach is ideally suited to this role as it could afford it the importance and significance it deserves in order to achieve equality and real rights for people with disabilities.

Deputy Burton is absolutely correct that the broad policy consensus in Ireland regarding social, economic and foreign policy has been beneficial. It has been one of our strengths in recent years that the political parties are so similar in their outlook in those areas. This has given people, such as those who invest here, and governments in other countries a great deal of confidence in Ireland. Those to whom I refer know that even if there is a change of Government here, fundamental social, economic and foreign policy will probably not change all that much.

The reason the Bill has not been prioritised is that it is really just technical legislation designed to restructure NESDO-NESC, while having no impact on the workings of the National Economic and Social Development Office and the National Economic and Social Council. The Government can get through in the region of 40 items of legislation per year. The 40 we pick tend to be those we have to do for one reason or another or those which will make a positive difference in people's lives. Those we do not priorities are measures that would not have much effect on anything at all. This is a logical and sensible approach to prioritising legislation.

On the wider questions of social partnership and social dialogue, I would argue that the Government has relaunched a form of social partnership with the national economic dialogue, which was spearheaded by the then Minister, Deputy Howlin, but has been continued by this Government. In addition, the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEAF, allows Government to engage regularly in a structured way with unions and employers on issues such employment law, pensions and other things on which Government should engage with ICTU and IBEC, among others. We have tried to avoid going back to the form of social partnership that existed before the financial crisis, which we feel took decisions away from the elected Government and the elected Dáil and Seanad. While it was inclusive of some, it was exclusive of others and there was nobody there to represent the self employed, sole traders, the majority of small businesses that are not affiliated to IBEC, the taxpayer - though lots of people wanted to spend taxpayers' money - or consumers, even though there were many who produced things which they expected consumers to buy. That was the flaw in the old form of social partnership and I am pleased that neither the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government nor the Fine Gael-Independent Government decided to go back to it.

The north-east inner city partnership has been a very good and very successful project. I am not sure it would be possible to follow the model in all areas of deprivation around the country.

We had it before.

We did not. What is being done in the north-east inner city goes way beyond what was done in terms of community development under RAPID and other schemes. I have asked my Department, along with the Department for Rural and Community Development, to examine what we could do to learn from the north east inner city task force and apply it to areas of significant disadvantage around the country. We do not want to reinvent RAPID but we are considering an initiative that will enable us to learn from it, and from the north-east inner city task force.

What about Deputy Curran's Bill?

To which Bill is the Deputy referring?

The Bill aims to make it a criminal offence for gangs to use young people to sell drugs.

It provides for sanctions against those who use young people to deliver drugs, sell drugs or gain entry to complexes where they deliver drugs. It is a real problem in Dublin.

I know it is a problem but I am not familiar with the Bill. I will check up on it.

The Bill aims to sanction such activities. There is currently no such offence.

There is no such offence, but the Bill would provide for such a sanction. I ask the Taoiseach to give it further consideration.

I will. I am familiar with the issue but not with Deputy Curran's Bill. I will check up on it. If it is a good idea and the Bill is in good order, I am sure we can work with the Opposition to progress it.

On the question asked by Deputy Boyd Barrett, people often suggest that X, Y or Z be brought into the Department of the Taoiseach because they believe that would afford it more priority and more co-ordination. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It is a very small Department with only 150 staff. It is minuscule compared with the Department of Health or the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, for example. What would happen if something as important as disability was brought into such a small Department is that it would fall behind our core functions such as Brexit, European affairs, Northern Ireland and engaging with other Prime Ministers' offices. That would not be a good idea.

We have taken the right approach by having for the first time a Minister of State at the Cabinet table with sole responsibility for disability services at the Departments of Health, Justice and Equality, and Employment Affairs and Social Protection, thus co-ordinating all of the work that is being done. As we have a Minister of State with responsibility for disability at the Cabinet table, that is why we are in a position to do what other governments did not, namely, ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, increase the budget for disability to more than €2 billion for the first time, increase the disability allowance and have a real and meaningful programme to encourage and assist more people with disabilities to get into the workplace. All of those things that were done in recent years were aided by the fact that for the first time ever there was a person at the Cabinet table with sole responsibility for disability and co-ordinating that work.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.