1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met the UUP or Alliance Party leaders recently. [39949/19]
Vol. 988 No. 3
1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met the UUP or Alliance Party leaders recently. [39949/19]
2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he has met or spoken to the leader of the DUP or the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland recently. [42305/19]
3. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he spoke to Ms Arlene Foster on 17 October 2019 before the EU Council meeting. [43558/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3 together.
I have had several recent engagements with the Northern Ireland political parties. Most recently, on 8 October, I spoke by telephone to Ms Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party. I also met with Ms Arlene Foster, MLA, leader of the DUP, in Government Buildings on Wednesday, 18 September. Previously, I met Ms Long, Mr. Doug Beattie of the Ulster Unionist Party and Deputy McDonald when I took part in the leaders' debate in Belfast on 6 August. The DUP and SDLP also participated. I last met Ms Michelle O'Neill in Dublin in June with the leader of Sinn Féin, Deputy McDonald. However, we spoke on the telephone last week. At each of the engagements, we discussed Brexit developments, the political situation in Northern Ireland and ongoing efforts to restore the power-sharing institutions. I emphasised the Government's full commitment to all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. The Government wants to see an agreement in place to secure the operation of the devolved institutions and we will continue to engage with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland, as the Tánaiste in particular has done regularly, to seek urgent progress in the period immediately ahead.
I do not believe anyone could question the fact that the political settlement in Northern Ireland is in a deep and sustained crisis. The failure to intervene to stop the various breakdowns and the decision not to intensify attempts to have the institutions restored in the past three years have caused immense damage. I have said time and again that the decision to collapse the Assembly and Executive was unforgivable. It betrayed the people of Northern Ireland and did not give them a voice at a critical time when there was an incredible threat to the future of the economic and social well-being of Northern Ireland. That, of course, was Brexit, which has added to the situation immeasurably. I hope the Taoiseach will join me in calling on people to tone down the rhetoric and examine the potential benefits to Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit and the arrangement being made of having access to the customs territories of both the European Union and the United Kingdom. In this context, will the Taoiseach detail what economic impact assessment has been carried out on the new arrangements for Northern Ireland and the new harder Brexit for Britain? Can we assume the Taoiseach has checked the economic projections of the move away from Ms Theresa May's deal? It needs to be said that the deal arrived at last week is worse than the withdrawal agreement of Ms May in terms of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic. This is because it implies a harder Brexit in terms of the Tory Party and Mr. Boris Johnson wanting to take Britain out of the customs union and Single Market. All the independent economic analysis is suggesting this will cause significant medium- to longer-term damage to the Irish economy. There are many doubts and there is much detail yet to be worked out regarding how the arrangements for Northern Ireland will work out on the ground and in concrete reality. There was a real sense from Brussels last week that Europe was at the end of its tether. The European Union was happy to do the deal on the basis that it wanted to move on to other issues and avoid having no deal. What was arrived at last week is welcome from the point of view of avoiding no deal but there are very serious questions arising over the nature of it in terms of the harder Brexit that is now in store for us as a result of Mr. Johnson's intentions to take Britain out of the customs union.
Yesterday, two members of the British Government informed the House of Commons that measures for the imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland had been prepared. This is again in the context of the proposed deal not being ratified by 31 October but it also appears to relate to the new Stormont restoration deadline, in late January. Can the Taoiseach indicate what discussions he has had with the British Government in the past two weeks on this matter? Has he made it clear that this kind of unilateral action on the part of the British represents a clear breach of its commitments to us and Northern Ireland in the overall peace settlement?
Regardless of the continuing political machinations in Westminster, Mr. Boris Johnson and the EU leaders have agreed on one fundamental principle, namely, that there can be no veto for unionists. While there is no such thing as a good Brexit — we have debated that here on many occasions and have collectively come to the same conclusion — and while the deal that was agreed last week between Britain and the European Union is not perfect, it does protect the island and its people from all the unimaginable consequences of a hard border. It respects the Good Friday Agreement and recognises the unique needs of the North economically and in terms of protecting peace.
With regard to the political institutions in the North, I want to be very clear. I will say this slowly for the benefit of people who really do need to hear it: Sinn Féin stands ready to govern; we simply need a willing partner in unionism. We have, as the Taoiseach will know, continually stated in public and private that the outstanding issues are resolvable but they do require intensive engagement on behalf of the DUP. I urge those who give out advice with regard to rhetoric to heed their own words.
As with everything in politics, where there is a will there is a way. Let no one in this Chamber be in any doubt that Sinn Féin has the will to get the political institutions back up and running. If the Members of this House were in any doubt that Sinn Féin is alone in the challenges it faces, I am sure their doubts were allayed when listening to the Alliance Party's rationale for not taking part in yesterday's faux sitting of the Assembly. Similarly, I am sure they also noted the SDLP Members entered the Assembly Chamber and very quickly walked back out. It was evidence, in itself, of why there can be no countenancing of a veto power for unionists on the Irish protocol, now or in the future.
We should take the opportunity to celebrate a major victory for women's rights and the LGBT community in the North.
It was the result of the decriminalisation of abortion and the changes that vindicated the right to marriage equality, which took place despite the bizarre attempts to block them by the dinosaurs - there is no other way of describing them - of the DUP and elements of unionism. That is a tribute to years and years of campaigning by people across the sectarian divide - Catholic, Protestant and people of no religion - fighting against a political establishment that has not sought to vindicate those rights. It is a demonstration of what real unity on this island can achieve. The move was significantly inspired by the repeal and the marriage equality movements in the South.
The DUP, which does not seek to restore the Assembly to deal with social welfare cuts, poverty or the housing crisis, has made a bizarre attempt to restore the Assembly in order to block equality for women and the LGBT community. We should celebrate what was a tremendous and historic victory despite the best efforts of the DUP. It has demonstrated what an odd bunch the DUP is and how out of touch it is with the new Ireland, North and South, Catholic and Protestant, that is emerging. This is something from which we should take hope and inspiration.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. Over the past two years, there have been several intense attempts to re-establish the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement; the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive and, of course, the North-South Ministerial Council. The North-South bodies continue to operate, as with the British-Irish Council meeting regularly. It will meet again in Dublin; I will be hosting it in Dublin next month. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Council, BIIGC, has been operating periodically as well. However, those strand one and strand two bodies - the Assembly, the Executive and the North-South Ministerial Council - have not operated now for about 1,000 days. There have been several intense attempts to get them going again. The Tánaiste has been particularly engaged in that work. Indeed, he will be in Northern Ireland tomorrow again, having been there, I think, probably every week for the past two years. Obviously, I have done it at Head of Government level as well both with Prime Minister May and Prime Minister Johnson.
Ultimately, the way strand one works is that, to have the Assembly and Executive functioning, one needs the largest party of unionism and the largest party of nationalism on board at the same time. That, regrettably, has not been possible to date. We have come very close on occasion and were particularly close in February of this year. We are not going to give up. It is complicated by, first of all, Brexit and, second, the possibility of elections in Westminster, which may happen in the next couple of months, but we will keep at it.
Deputy Micheál Martin asked about the nature of the future relationship between the UK and the EU, including Ireland, and its impact on east-west trade. There are lots of different published projections as to what things would look like in different scenarios, but they are only-----
There are ESRI ones as well.
They are all consistent.
Yes, they are consistent, but they are only projections. What I would say is that, if this current agreement gets through, we will have certainty about North-South trade, in that there will not be any tariff on trade North-South and there will be no checks on trade North-South. However, it does not give us certainty on east-west trade. That is really important for our economy, particularly the agrifood sector. Even beyond that, trade between Ireland and Britain is really important to our economy and really important to jobs. I think the nature of that trading relationship between the UK and the European Union is still to play for.
There is a difference in stated policy between former Prime Minister May and Prime Minister Johnson. Former Prime Minister May used to talk about having a trading relationship between the EU and the UK that was as close as possible. Prime Minister Johnson talks more about divergence, talks more about a Canada-type arrangement.
It is worse than the withdrawal agreement.
Not exactly because-----
For east-west trade.
-----the withdrawal agreement that we had with former Prime Minister May provided for a temporary backstop as a bridge to a future relationship, but it did not provide for a future relationship.
It was a UK-wide customs union for a long time.
No. Only in the backstop, which was to be temporary, never to be used and to be an insurance policy. There was a single customs territory. It is not the case that the UK Government argued for, sought or had in the Theresa May agreement a customs union. That is not correct.
In her Chequers speech-----
She actively opposed a customs union, in fact. However, we do have a new joint political declaration on the future relationship. That was agreed last week. Hopefully, it will be agreed by the House of Commons when it is ready to do so. In that new revised political declaration, we talk about having tariff-free and quota-free trade between the EU, including Ireland, and the UK. We also talk about there being a level playing field. From my own conversations with Prime Minister Johnson, he is very much a free trader. He does want to have tariff-free and quota-free trade-----
Is that why he is pulling the UK out of the largest free trade agreement in the world?
-----between Britain and Ireland and between the UK and the EU. I think that, if we can get past this current phase, which is the withdrawal agreement phase, the future relationship in trading terms and economic terms between the EU, including Ireland, and the UK is all to play for. One of the things that, if I have the privilege to continue to hold this office, I want to negotiate in the next couple of years is that FTA, with Commissioner Hogan and Commission President von der Leyen. That future economic partnership, as they call it, FTA or whatever one wants to call it, would provide for tariff-free and quota-free trade between the UK and the European Union, with a level playing field on standards when it came to the environment, health and safety and labour rights. I think that is an objective that actually is achievable. That would be my objective if we got through this phase of Brexit.
One of the people who really put Brexit into perspective for me was Deputy Noonan. I remember him saying to me a week or two after the referendum that some people saw Brexit as a severe weather event, a storm that we needed to weather and get through. He said Brexit was not a storm or a severe weather event, but a permanent change in the relationship-----
We all said that.
-----between the UK and the EU and, therefore, between Ireland and the UK. It will never end.
This is just a phase. This phase is the withdrawal agreement phase, in which we want to protect citizens' rights, ensure a financial settlement that is fair and make sure that we do not have a hard border between North and South. I believe that we will have achieved that if the House of Commons and the European Parliament ratify this agreement, but then we will go on to the next phase, that is negotiating the future economic relationship, that FTA, with the UK. It will be my objective, if I am negotiating it, to try to secure tariff-free and quota-free trade with a level playing field. That is exactly the right thing for Irish business, for Irish jobs and also for workers, health and safety standards and environmental standards.
Just to finish up on these questions, we have had no - at least I have had no - discussions with the UK Government in the past two weeks on a direct rule, but the Government's position on that is as it always has been.
4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on progress towards a Citizens' Assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin. [41985/19]
5. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on progress towards a Citizens' Assembly on gender equality. [42283/19]
6. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the preparations for the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality. [43149/19]
7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality; and when it will first convene. [43261/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.
At its meeting on 11 June, the Government agreed to the establishment of a Citizens' Assembly on gender equality and noted that a further Citizens' Assembly would subsequently be established to consider the best model of local government for Dublin and, in particular but not exclusively, the issue of a directly elected mayor and his or her powers. It was agreed that the assemblies would run consecutively, commencing with the assembly on gender equality.
The establishment of the first Citizens' Assembly on gender equality was approved by Dáil Éireann on 9 July and by Seanad Éireann on 11 July. The Citizens' Assemblies Act 2019 providing for the use of the register of electors to select members for both Citizens' Assemblies was subsequently enacted and signed into law by the President on 25 July. The membership of the Citizens' Assembly on gender equality will consist of a chairperson and 99 citizens entitled to vote at referendum, recruited at national level and randomly selected to be broadly representative of Irish society. A separate cohort of 99 citizen members will be selected solely from Dublin county and city for the Dublin Citizens' Assembly.
The Citizens' Assembly secretariat is now up and running. A secretary has been appointed and staff assigned. Dr. Catherine Day, the former Secretary-General of the European Commission, will serve as chairperson of the assembly on gender equality. Administrative preparations are well advanced with a view to convening a first meeting as soon as possible, but certainly before the end of the year.
I thank the Taoiseach. Regarding the position of women in Ireland, while the progress and advances have been significant, they have been lopsided.
On many occasions it is a bit like one step forward and two steps back. The idea of a Citizens' Assembly was first introduced to the Dáil by the Labour Party, when Eamon Gilmore was leader. It followed a period of examination and reflection by the Labour Party on how democracy could be made more meaningful and especially how very divisive debates could be addressed. Notwithstanding the advances, the equality position of women in Ireland at the moment is very disappointing. In particular, we have a lot of exceptionalism when it comes to officeholders. Women come and go but it seems men are there forever in the overwhelming majority of cases. For instance, we have never had a woman as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, as Minister for Finance or as Secretary General in the financial area and clearly we have never had a woman Taoiseach.
In terms of income and pensions, the Government failed to make any mention, for example, of the supplementary pension scheme, in which I was heavily involved, the purpose of which was to allow women, who are often lower paid and who have broken service in paid work because of rearing families and other family commitments, to get a supplementary pension. Such a scheme would give those women in particular an opportunity to supplement the State retirement pension, which might be the only income they would have to rely on in retirement.
In terms of a lord mayor of Dublin, it is clear there is a need for more local democracy in Dublin but that discussion must be a broad one. If we have a singular lord mayor we need to have a very clear idea of the role and whether the person will have the capacity to deal with housing or to be in some way responsible for the quality of planning in the city, which at the moment leaves much to be desired. How will we address the greening of the city and in particular the serious development of public transport that will encourage people to leave their cars at home and to use public transport?
I would like to know the timeline for both referendums and if the Taoiseach will have a discussion with Opposition parties and other interested persons on what should be the subject matter of the referendums. For instance, has the Taoiseach made up his mind on the position of women in the home?
I hope I will get extra time as well, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
Sometimes it is better not to hear these things.
Okay. I am sorry. There is no question that a Citizens' Assembly on gender equality will have its work cut out for it because there are so many issues such as the gender pay gap, the costliest childcare in Europe that often prevents women getting promoted and continuing in employment, precarious housing and jobs and the pensions Deputy Burton mentioned. She was also responsible for creating the inequality but we will skip over that for the moment.
That is pure rubbish.
It is difficult to have equality when women's lives and safety are also at risk. The Taoiseach agrees that according to the statistics there is an epidemic of violence against women. Of the 225 women who have been murdered since 1996, nine out of ten were killed by their own partners and 61% were killed in their own homes.
We signed the Istanbul Convention but we have only one in three of the recommended refuge spaces. In the budget, domestic violence was given €20 million in funding and greyhounds got almost €17 million. Domestic violence was given parity of esteem with a cruel industry. Funding for sexual violence increased by 10% but it was halved over the ten years of austerity. Calls to the rape crisis centres have increased by 25%.
There are only three refuges in the greater Dublin area that are operational right now. I was told that the refuge in Blanchardstown turns away up to 500 women and their families every single year and that many women have to be discharged into homelessness. The outreach the centres do, which is critical to give women support and counselling, for example, while attending court, could be expanded into the area of prevention. They could go into schools and speak in communities if they had the funding. The refuge in Blanchardstown could do with two apartments, which it has space for right now, but we need a hell of a lot more. I put it to the Taoiseach that he has not stepped up to the mark in his constituency and he needs to do it. Will he and the Minister beside him, Deputy Zappone, increase such services? We have a major homeless epidemic in the greater Blanchardstown area and that is compounded by women who cannot get into refuges and those who are in refuges who cannot get out of them because they have nowhere to go.
I would argue that much confusion is evident in the current status and operation of the new Citizens' Assembly on gender issues. What specific steps are left in terms of recruiting members, deciding agendas and beginning work?
The assembly model has been effective in providing a mechanism for deeper debate while the debate continued separately in the Oireachtas. For example, we had an extremely active and effective all-party committee on the eighth amendment. It is fair to say it was the originator of the specific proposal and policy that was put before the people and supported by them and that is now on the Statute Book. Perhaps it is narrower than some of the recommendations that came from the Citizens' Assembly, but both were important parts of the working out of the issue. Ultimately, the Oireachtas committee had to come to a decision, which it did. The three Fianna Fáil members on the committee were instrumental in arriving at the particular proposal that emerged.
The Taoiseach is aware that the recommendations of previous assemblies failed to progress where the process was simply that the report went to the Government and it took unilateral decisions on how to proceed, or not to proceed, with many of the recommendations and the issues discussed. What is proposed in terms of a parallel or follow-on process within the Oireachtas? What discussions has the Taoiseach had with the new chairperson to ensure that the assembly is able to be distinct from day-to-day politics and partisanship?
As the Taoiseach has noted, the resolution to establish a Citizens' Assembly on gender equality was passed in the Dáil before the summer recess. We are grateful to Members for supporting my party leader's amendment to the resolution that the assembly would include in its work consideration of existing structural pay inequalities that lead to women being disproportionately represented in low-pay sectors. That is extremely important. As we all know, when Fianna Fáil was last in government and it cut the minimum wage, the majority of workers impacted by that were women. We know they are disproportionately represented in low-paid employment.
The value of the work of the assembly will be in the opportunity to advance transformative change for both women and girls. That can only happen if the Government commits to implementing the recommendation of the assembly members. The Taoiseach originally committed to having the assembly up and running by the end of this month. Could he assure the House that the full assembly will begin its work by the end of this year?
In terms of the assembly on a directly elected mayor for Dublin, Sinn Féin supports both the proposition for the assembly and the officeholder. However, we hold the strong view that the establishment of a directly elected mayor should be created in tandem with wider and very much talked about reforms of local government. Crucial to the value of a directly elected major to the capital city will be the devolving of powers to the officeholder. Devolved powers must include significant policy areas currently controlled by central government, such as transport and waste management. The devolving of powers from central government to the mayor must be included in the considerations of the Citizens' Assembly. Without discussing the devolution of power, the Citizens' Assembly discussion on a directly elected mayor for Dublin would have very little value because it needs to discuss those far-reaching powers that are necessary. I encourage the Taoiseach to set out a timetable today for the establishment of this second Citizens' Assembly.
We have made much progress on gender equality as a country in the past few decades. We should not be embarrassed to acknowledge that, whether it is the repeal of the eighth amendment, new laws related to domestic violence, the ratification at long last of the Istanbul Convention, the reform of our divorce laws, gender quotas for election to this Dáil, or subsidised childcare for the first time in the national childcare scheme coming into effect in the next couple of weeks. That is important for men as well as women, but can be very important for women. Participation in higher education by women has increased dramatically in recent years, with better parental leave, and with parental benefit coming into effect in a few weeks for the first time. There will be improved maternity benefits. An initiative that I have been especially involved in is Better Balance for Better Business, to encourage private sector companies to ensure that more women are on private sector company boards. We have well above 40% female membership of State boards. I think more women than men were appointed to State boards for the first time last year. We are pursuing the national strategy for women and girls. A women's health task force has been re-established and that in many ways responds to a matter raised by Deputy Connolly earlier. Even though it is controversial, the advancement of 45 female-only senior academic roles in the higher education sector is a good idea, and it is being pushed forward by the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. It is fair to say that the Government has been very active in pursuing a gender equality agenda.
With regard to women's refuges, I appreciate that capacity is deficient. There are plans for some new ones or at least to increase capacity but I have to double-check that. We need to change the approach. If somebody is being domestically abused, experiencing violence in the home or being attacked by his or her partner, the partner should move out of the house, not the woman and the kids. We have changed the law to make that easier to make sure that the abusive partner, whether it is the man or the woman, has to leave the home, and not the person who is being abused.
They do not always have a choice.
I know that cannot be the case in all cases but it should be more common that the person who is perpetrating the abuse leaves the home and not the person who is the victim of the abuse.
The Taoiseach must not understand the concept.
With regard to areas where I think we will all agree there needs to be progress, one area is pensions. It is worth reading the facts and research about the State pension. The difference in the average State pension paid to a man versus a woman is approximately 2%. Pensioner poverty in Ireland is higher among men than women. When it comes to the State pension, there is not significant inequality anymore in what is paid to men and women, or in pensioner poverty. There is when it comes to occupational pensions, which comes down to the fact that, historically, women have tended to work in lower paid roles and have been in and out of the workforce. The solution to that is to press ahead with the Minister, Deputy Doherty's, reforms relating to lawful enrolment, making sure that everyone who is at work pays into an occupational pension and that their employer does so too. That is how we will achieve, over time, the closing of the pension gap. We are pursuing the pay gap with legislation to require employers to produce information on the gender pay gap in their company or workplace and to explain why there is a difference. We need to strengthen that legislation to make sure that it is not just a reporting mechanism and that things actually change. We want to pursue that in the coming period.
I have met Catherine Day on occasion but I have not met her specifically on the issue of the Citizens' Assembly. I will have to think about whether I should or not. The advice from my officials is generally not to do anything that might be seen to interfere in a citizens' assembly, which means not meeting the chair and not calling out to meet the members of the assembly. I did not do it previously but I met the chair afterwards to hear how it went and to get advice on how it might be done better in the future. Meeting beforehand might be seen by some as interference but I have not decided on that yet. It is intended to have the first meeting by the end of the year, to have a report within six months of the first meeting, and to have the Oireachtas consider the report.
8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the UN; if he held bilaterals; and the issues discussed. [39631/19]
9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the United States of America for the recent UN meeting. [39637/19]
10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meetings he held with business leaders while in the United States of America; and the issues that were discussed. [39894/19]
11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent United Nations climate action summit. [41986/19]
12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Los Angeles and his efforts to boost the film industry here. [42162/19]
13. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the United Nations General Assembly and United Nations climate action summit. [43150/19]
14. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent United Nations climate action summit. [43407/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 14, inclusive, together.
I travelled to the United States on 22 September for a five-day programme in New York and Los Angeles. My programme in New York centred on the 74th annual session of the UN General Assembly, where I joined Heads of State and Government from around the world for a series of engagements.
On Monday, 23 September, I participated in the UN climate action summit, accompanied by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. I outlined Ireland's approach to climate action, including the Government's commitments under the climate action plan, our intention to ring-fence any new carbon tax revenues for climate action and just transition, and the increased focus on climate action in our new policy for international development.
On Tuesday, 24 September, I attended the opening of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, which was led by UN Secretary General, António Guterres.
I represented Ireland at the high level meeting on the UN sustainable development goals, SDGs, on Wednesday, 25 September, where I outlined Ireland's approach to meeting the goals. This was the first meeting on the SDGs at Heads of State and Government level since the goals were first adopted in 2015, in negotiations brokered by Ireland and Kenya.
I met Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand, President Macron of France, King Abdullah of Jordan and other leaders at a meeting about the Christchurch Call to Action. This initiative is an alliance between governments, international organisations and tech companies, committed to doing more to remove online violent and extremist content. A shared crisis response protocol was adopted to ensure that all actors are prepared in case of future attacks. We have already seen the added value of these approaches following the anti-Semitic extremist attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany earlier this month.
While at the UN, I met several leaders to discuss Ireland's candidature for a seat on the UN Security Council, including Heads of State and Government of Serbia, North Macedonia, Egypt, Liechtenstein, Senegal, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Vice President of Indonesia.
During my time in New York, I took the opportunity to have bilateral meetings with European Council President Tusk and UK Prime Minister Johnson to discuss the latest developments on Brexit at that time. I also spoke with many other EU and non-EU leaders, discussing matters of shared interest.
I began the economic aspect of my US programme with a visit to NBC studios in New York, where I met senior executives to discuss NBC Universal's experience of production in Ireland and plans for future investments.
I then travelled to Los Angeles for a further two-day programme on 26 and 27 September. While in Los Angeles, I opened the new Consulate General of Ireland there, which is the latest in a series of at least 26 new diplomatic missions that we will open under the Global Ireland 2025 initiative.
I undertook several engagements focused on developing economic ties with the west coast of the US, especially in the tourism, creative and tech sectors. I had meetings with California's Lieutenant Governor, Eleni Kounalakis and the Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti.
I attended some events and meetings organised by Tourism Ireland, Screen Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. I met senior executives from leading US companies in the creative and tech industries, including Disney, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Hulu, Netflix, Skydance Media, SpaceX and Warner Bros.
I also met representatives of Irish companies who travelled to the US for the trade mission, including Ardmore Studios, Element Pictures, Troy Studios and Wild Atlantic Pictures.
I concluded my programme on Friday, 27 September with an event for the Irish Community at Loyola Marymount University, where I met with groups providing assistance to the Irish in the US.
I believe my visit to the Los Angeles area will help to highlight the growing opportunities for Ireland, and for Irish companies in the creative industries, tech and tourism sectors, which are significant growth sectors for our economy.
Previously when we discussed the Taoiseach's speech on climate change at the UN, he was incredibly sensitive about the idea that he was annoyed with an article criticising his main announcement as tokenistic. The Taoiseach said at the time that it was a shocking conspiracy theory to suggest that he sought the right of reply article which was carried the following week in the same paper. Because he seemed so upset about this, I would like to say on the record that I accept the Taoiseach's explanation that he received an unsolicited personal contact from the editor offering him space for an article. He will understand that this is the sort of attention that no one else here would be used to.
I also raised with the Taoiseach-----
I feel very sad for Deputy Martin.
-----the extensive commentary about the Government's target for electric vehicles. Everybody in the House supports an aggressive programme to increase the use of such vehicles. Some of us have even voted for important moves to rebalance in favour of a more carbon-neutral future. The issue is not whether we should try to maximise electric vehicle use but whether there is any substance behind the very specific target that underpins the current climate plan.
There is no indication, for example, in the budget for next year or in the projections for the following two years, that the Department of Finance is expecting to end the purchase of internal combustion engine propelled cars in the next few years. Nobody believes the figure of 1 million cars by the end of the plan is either realistic or has any substance behind it. That is an overall problem with the Government's approach because the Taoiseach has admitted the country is a laggard.
I recall that when the Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, took office in 2011, he, along with other Fine Gael Ministers, spent a number of years attacking the previous Government's climate change targets as being unrealistic and attempting to pull the then Government back from those targets. I recall Commissioner Hogan rubbishing a lot of what was going on at that stage with climate change policies. He did everything he possibly could at that time and in the run-up to that period to undermine the Green Party, for example. We have fallen behind over the past eight years and there has been little action on the climate change front. There is a dire need for some substance behind all the hype and high-flown rhetoric. We need to see reality and concrete plans that can be brought to fruition.
I was disappointed with other aspects of the budget. There were no imaginative ideas, bar the carbon tax, which was well-known and proposed by the Joint Committee on Climate Action. There was nothing else in agriculture and so on to try to move on quickly on the climate change agenda. Is a plan being prepared to try to reach the new goal of electric vehicles or is this another target the Taoiseach has no intention of fulfilling?
Over the past decade or so, approximately 3 million US troops have passed through Shannon Airport to prosecute disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have had rendition flights illegally kidnapping people for torture using our airports, and we have had the US military transporting support to Saudi Arabia to carry out its horrific attacks in Yemen. The US war machine visits destruction on human beings but it is also important to say the US war machine and war machines generally are among the greatest destroyers of the environment and have done extraordinary damage to the climate.
Some of the greatest opponents of this war machine have been US military veterans. I welcome to the Gallery two US military veterans who served with the US paratroopers and the marine corps, Mr. Ken Mayers and Mr. Tarak Kauff. They have essentially been imprisoned in Ireland for the past seven months because they have had their passports taken from them. They are not allowed go back to the US and they are awaiting trial for a protest at Shannon Airport on St. Patrick's Day this year. Incredibly, they are aged 77 and 82 years, respectively, so they are hardly a danger or threat to anybody, but the State prosecutor submitted to the judge who was hearing their case that they were a flight risk. I can tell the Taoiseach that wild horses would not stop Mr. Mayers and Mr. Kauff from going to their trial, because they want to put the war, the US military and the role of Shannon Airport in the US military endeavours on trial. They are more than willing to come back and will sign affidavits to that effect. Mr. Michael Finucane is representing them.
In a purely vindictive act, which might have been brought about owing to pressure from the American Government, and in a shocking move, the State prosecutor pressed the judge to take their passports off them. They have been separated from their families and friends for seven months and they will not be able to go home at Christmas. The Taoiseach has their solemn pledge they will come back for their trial because, as I said, wild horses would not stop them from attending that trial. I am asking the Taoiseach to ask the State prosecutor to withdraw that submission that they are a flight risk, because they are not, and to let them have their passports back so they can return to their families pending that trial. We have not even got a date for the trial. The Taoiseach can have signed and solemn declarations from them that they will come back and face that trial.
The questions were about the Taoiseach reporting on his visit to the United States.
I want to ask the Taoiseach about his discussions of climate change at the UN, which is concerning and worrying to people, not just in Ireland but around the world, for what it forebodes for the future of the world unless we get our act together. Had he an opportunity to examine initiatives relating to the reduction in air quality, which affects cities and towns right around the world? Does he or the Government feel inclined to take action to reduce air pollution, which is a major cause of asthma for children and older people, in Dublin? As we know from all the different scientific reports, it causes a serious reduction in quality of life, serious illnesses that cost the health services dearly, and is responsible for approximately four times more deaths in the European Union collectively than road accidents. Did the Taoiseach learn anything about how to green our cities and towns, encourage planting and encourage the creation and preservation of carbon sinks?
He also referred to the Irish campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. He has been courting many countries in the developing world for support. The people most likely to suffer from climate change in the developing world will be women and children. Women are the basic farmers in most developing countries. Without effective programmes to reduce and ameliorate climate change in the developing world, the lives of women and children, particularly young girls, will worsen. The wars of the future may well be resource wars, brought about by the impact of climate change. Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to raise that and to reflect on it? Ireland's aid budget has increased, which is welcome, but the Government could do an awful lot more, particularly on air pollution, in this State to support the elimination of air pollution on a global basis, and to assist small farmers, the majority of whom are women with dependent children, in developing countries.
We all agree the UN summit was an important event for political leaders but it was also an opportunity to debate and secure international agreement for the bold policy responses that will be necessary to tackle climate change. In his speech to the summit, the Taoiseach said leadership is required to take action and, again, we agree. Much like the Taoiseach and Deputy Micheál Martin, we can agree on some issues. However, the Taoiseach's big message to the summit was carbon tax increases and some woolly references to a just transition, the transformation of transport, electricity, buildings and food production systems. Carbon tax is not a big idea and has not proved effective. If a behavioural tax does not change behaviour, it is just a plain old tax. Worse still, it is a tax that will actively work against a just transition for the workers in micro and small businesses that the Government should seek to protect.
Last month was an opportunity to push for the big public policy changes that can, and will, protect current and future generations and to push for solutions that will challenge developed countries' economic models but will protect future generations from having to walk to school knee deep in water day in and day out. For example, did the Taoiseach and others engage on the provision of free public transport? He told the gathering that he wants Ireland to be known as a green country because of how we respond to the climate and environmental challenges facing our planet. If he is serious about that ambition for Ireland, his policy objectives need to radically shift. We need incentives and solutions to get people out of their cars and onto publicly-funded buses and trains. Any climate scientist worth his or her salt is pushing for this change in individualised public policy to collective responses. How prominently did the provision of public transport for citizens feature in the Taoiseach's engagement with leaders during the summit?
I am afraid we do not have any time left for the Taoiseach to respond. Members need to be conscious that if they consume all of the time asking questions, there will be no time left for a response.
Can we not have a brief response?
No, because we are way over time. I am sorry. In fairness, we should have regard to the order of the House.
I stuck to the time.
If people stuck to the allocated time, it would not be a problem.
There was a flow to it before the Ceann Comhairle arrived. There might be different styles.
I am sorry to stop the flow but I must adhere. Some of us will be here until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. and we would like to get the business done.