Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 3 Dec 2019

Vol. 990 No. 4

Ceisteanna - Questions

It is proposed that we have just two groups of questions, with a total of 30 minutes for questions to the Taoiseach. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Biotechnology Industry

Micheál Martin


1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the role his officials have in implementing the bio-economy framework which was launched a year ago; and the actions that have been taken since. [47452/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett


2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the role his Department has in implementing the bio-economy framework which was launched a year ago; and the actions that have been taken since. [49141/19]

Brendan Howlin


3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the role of his Department in implementing the bio-economy framework. [50047/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

My Department co-ordinated the development of the national policy statement on the bioeconomy which was published in March 2018. This delivered on commitments given in the Action Plan for Jobs and the Action Plan for Rural Development and built on actions in Food Wise 2025.

The policy statement sets out Ireland's ambition to be a global leader in the bioeconomy and outlines a policy framework to underpin the successful development of the bioeconomy in this country. The policy statement identifies actions to expand the bioeconomy, including promoting greater coherence between the many sectors of the bioeconomy; strengthening the development of promising bio-based products and growing the relevant markets for them; removing regulatory constraints; and accessing funding available at national and EU level as well as leveraging private investment. The Government has mandated an implementation group, jointly chaired by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, to co-ordinate the implementation of the policy statement. The group is working in close collaboration with industry and other partners to bring forward further recommendations to develop the bioeconomy. The membership of this bioeconomy implementation group includes officials from my Department as well as from other relevant Departments and agencies.

The first progress report from this bioeconomy implementation group was published on 3 September 2019. The progress report highlights activities undertaken in the areas of policy integration and coherence, industrial and commercial development, progression of leading bioeconomy value chains and awareness raising and financing. Many of the recommendations identified in this progress report dovetail with the actions identified in Project Ireland 2040, Future Jobs Ireland and the climate action plan.

Detailed questions on development of the bioeconomy in Ireland are a matter for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, who have lead responsibility in this important area.

It is important to focus on the wider bioeconomy in order to take sustainability to a more strategic level and show how Ireland can both address the environmental emergency and provide the good, secure and sustainable jobs we require.

When the national framework document for the development of the bioeconomy was published 20 months ago it was welcomed, but it has to be said that there was much scepticism about the Government's intentions. Some 51 submissions were made in the consultation process, providing a long list of very specific proposals for action. However, the final framework focused instead on general statements of intent and certainly was not an action plan of the type the Government likes to launch in many other areas. It was published without an implementation plan and only the vaguest statements about specific Government funding or actions.

Last year, one company, Glanbia, spent more on one bioeconomy project than was spent on all Government-funded activities put together. Very important activity is under way in this area, much of it for several years. However the evidence indicates that there has not been a dramatic step change. Despite this, the Taoiseach still talks about having a vision for global leadership in this sector. It is similar to the target for electric vehicles, something which the Government is happy to talk about but fails to back up with any credible strategy or demonstration of the capacity to achieve it.

Can the Taoiseach tell us if the bioeconomy framework is being implemented? What specific targets has he set to achieve the stated objective of achieving global leadership in this field?

The bioeconomy strategy pays lip service to forestry and its importance to the bioeconomy, biodiversity, a circular economy, etc. However, the actuality of Government policy suggests that all of this is just lip service and nothing more. A report by Mr. Jim Mackinnon, commissioned by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, has come out just this month. Frankly, it is damning of Government forestry policy. It points out that there is no coherence of targets. The Government has three different targets. We do not have enough foresters or inspectors. There is no serious campaign to win people over to the value and virtues of forestry. There are problems with the excessive emphasis on the industrial model of forestry. There are huge backlogs in the processing of applications because we do not have enough people working in the sector. Most damning of all, this year there is a target, which the Taoiseach has announced on several occasions, of planting 8,000 ha of forestry. The actual rate of tree-planting this year is the lowest in 30 years, at 3,250 ha. There is a consistent pattern of the Government failing to meet its own targets by a long chalk when it comes to forestry. From the points of view of biodiversity, climate change and the bioeconomy, can we get more than lip service when it comes to an afforestation programme?

The constituency I share with the Taoiseach has seen the investment of billions of euro in plants in the Dublin 15 area which manufacture biological drugs. They are at the cutting edge of modern medical treatments which are particularly important for children with rare conditions and diseases. Regarding the bioeconomy, we know clean air is critical to the wellness of both adults and children. However, clean air is not in evidence on many days of the year, particularly in Dublin and other big city areas in Ireland. A bioeconomy project could provide clean air for the citizens of urban areas. The report talks about focusing on education, training and skills. Clean air in cities will require greening cities and neighbourhoods. Trees act like giant vacuum cleaners and clean the air.

Another key bioeconomy project is public transport. If we want to get people out of their cars and reduce the pollution they produce, we need a public transport system. At the moment, it is still unclear whether a public transport proposal for Dublin will involve cutting down thousands of trees in the city. This Government has a problem with producing joined-up ideas that make sense in the context of the fantastic potential of the bioeconomy. We are already aware of this potential with the investment in our own constituency.

If we are to have a proper bioeconomy we need a wider national land use plan, one which maps our approach to climate change and the biodiversity crisis and recognises that all different end uses are interconnected - what we do in forestry, how we restore peatlands and what type of farming takes place where.

That wider national land use plan would give us a better idea of what limits we can set in the bioeconomy area. We cannot have anaerobic digesters everywhere if it increases levels of ammonia or other pollutants. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Teagasc have opposed such a land use plan. They say we cannot tell farmers what to do. I am not suggesting that the plan should deal with the micro level. However, if we are serious about climate change, we need a wider land use plan. We also need it to get our bioeconomy right and avoid making the mistakes made in the North. Massive supports introduced in the North for the bioeconomy had serious pollution and other effects downstream. The bioeconomy must be framed within a land use plan.

Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the implementation group has the capacity to oversee all of this work in the future and meet the objectives that have been set in the bioeconomy framework? One of the guiding principles of the framework is the precautionary principle to prevent policies or actions causing harm and damage to the public or the environment. Last week, The Irish Times reported that air quality stations are not in place in the majority of towns where smoky coal is still burned. The Sunday Business Post reported over the weekend that the Government had stalled the roll-out of a nationwide ban on smoky coal as a result of legal threats from three private coal companies. Is this the case? Given that the European Commission has already signed off on Ireland's smoky coal ban, why is the Government not proceeding with the matter as planned?

I put it to the Taoiseach that re-municipalisation of the waste management system needs to be actively considered. There is widespread illegal dumping across the State. Enforcement is minimal or non-existent and our waste cycle is opaque at best. In truth, nobody really knows or can be exactly sure where their waste or recyclable materials end up. The sustainability principle is described as a core principle of the bioeconomy, yet we know that our waste management sector does not and will not meet the objectives set out in the policy framework. Surely it is time to start the discussion on bringing waste management back into public ownership.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. The bioeconomy plan is being implemented. To give some examples of the progress being made, we have significant actions across the bioeconomy policy framework, including the development of physical infrastructure and the creation of piloting facilities such as the Lisheen national bioeconomy campus and the Páirc na Mara marine project, as well as research capacity at the BEACON bioeconomy research centre. Two EU LIFE awards have been successful and were secured to aid the scaling up of small on-farm and larger industrial bio-refining activities. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has awarded funding for two bioeconomy related projects. The launch of BioConnect Ireland's regional and technology cluster in Monaghan supports bioeconomy development. The BEACON bioeconomy research centre signed a memorandum of understanding with the Technological Higher Education Association to develop bioeconomy related education activities in technological universities. The Irish Co-operative Organisation Society was also awarded EU Erasmus+ funding to develop training to support bioeconomy development by co-operative members and farmers. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, have co-funded two research projects on the agri bio circular, ABC, economy and bio-circle which are focused on regional bioeconomy development. The ABC economy project held two workshops with industry, regional and rural stakeholders in counties Tipperary and Monaghan in the second quarter of 2019 to assess value chain development and the sustainability of regional biomass supply chains.

I was also asked about funding. Funding of €14.2 million has been provided through Science Foundation Ireland, with €4.6 million allocated to the Lisheen project under the regional enterprise development fund. Funding is also being provided through Enterprise Ireland's regional economic development fund for BioConnect in Monaghan and Páirc na Mara in Connemara. Applications have also been received in the disruptive technologies fund to support industrial development of the bioeconomy. Two EU LIFE projects have been successful in securing funding to develop bio-refining to assist small-scale beef farming activities and industrial level bio-refining activities.

Funding opportunities also exist at EU level, including Horizon 2020 societal challenge 2 and the bio-based industries joint undertaking, a €3.7 billion public private partnership that focuses on the development, de-risking and scaling up of innovative technologies and bio-refineries. The European circular bioeconomy fund, ECBF, is being designed by the European Investment Bank, EIB, with the support of the European Commission via Horizon 2020. The fund will provide access to finance to innovative circular bioeconomy companies and projects of various sizes. ECBF management funds will raise funds from public and private investors with a target fund volume of €250 million, and aims for a first close in the first quarter of 2020. A proposal by the EIB to invest €100 million in the fund will be submitted to the board for approval.

On the issue of forestry, Deputies will be aware that approximately 11% of our land is now covered in forest, the highest level for 350 years. This is, however, very low by European and international standards. We have set a target in the climate action plan to plant 440 million trees during the period of the plan. There is a job of work to be done to convince farmers, landowners and communities to buy into that target. As I mentioned at the International City/County Management Association, ICMA, conference on Friday, I am very keen to encourage large landowners, not just farmers, to plant at least 1 ha of native broadleaf trees. We want to pay them to do it and this could form part of our reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy.

On the issue of air quality and clean air, Deputies will be aware that in cities the problem is closely related to diesel cars. Our policy solutions include making diesel cars less attractive to buy and run, increasing the supply of electric vehicles and investing in public transport. Deputies will be aware that in recent days I announced a €1 billion five-year investment in our railways. In many towns, smoky fuels are responsible for poor air quality. We know that smoky coal, peat and wood are equally bad when it comes to damaging air quality. This issue, on which I answered a question from Deputy Martin earlier, needs to be looked at in the round.

Deputy Ryan raised the issue of a land use plan. While it is not something I am familiar with, I will give it consideration. I have not heard any objections from Teagasc or the Department to that but perhaps that is the case. Part of our climate effort will involve land use change and forestry or LUCF.

The re-municipalisation of waste management is a matter for the local authorities. At least one authority has passed a motion calling for re-municipalisation. It is up to one or two authorities to try this approach and see how it goes. I believe they will find it very expensive and difficult to do. It would be interesting to see if any of the local authorities in Dublin want to give this a go. That would then allow other local authorities to see whether it is a good idea.

Departmental Staff Data

Micheál Martin


4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of staff employed in the Britain and Northern Ireland affairs section of his Department. [47453/19]

Mary Lou McDonald


5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [47642/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett


6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international division in his Department. [47832/19]

Joan Burton


7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and Northern Ireland division of his Department. [48843/19]

Brendan Howlin


8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and Northern Ireland affairs section of his Department. [48732/19]

Mary Lou McDonald


9. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the status of the work of the international division of his Department. [49040/19]

Paul Murphy


10. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the status of the work of the international division of his Department. [50372/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 10, inclusive, together.

The international, EU and Northern Ireland division of my Department covers work on all international, EU and British-Irish and Northern Ireland affairs within the Department, including Brexit issues. There are 26 staff in total, headed by a second Secretary General. Included in this are seven staff in the British-Irish and Northern Irish affairs division headed by an assistant secretary and 19 staff in an EU and international division, also headed by an assistant secretary.

The British-Irish Northern Ireland division provides advice to me regarding Northern Ireland affairs and British-Irish relations. This includes work to advance peace, prosperity and reconciliation on the island of Ireland, including assisting me in my engagement with the British Government in institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement and on restoration of the institutions, including the Assembly and the power-sharing Executive in the North.

The EU and international division provides advice and briefing on relevant matters, including my varied international engagements, for instance, meetings of the European Council and other EU summits, bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of EU member states and other countries, and international affairs more generally. The division also works closely with other relevant Departments, notably the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Augmenting this ongoing work is the Brexit preparedness and contingency planning unit, which assists a Secretaries General group overseeing ongoing work on national Brexit preparedness and contingency planning. The unit works closely with other divisions in my Department, including the economic division, and with colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which has overall responsibility for Brexit.

Should the Brexit withdrawal agreement be implemented in the next two months, as is highly likely, Brexit will be nowhere near finished. The Taoiseach has accepted on a number of occasions that we are facing into a hard Brexit when it comes to 80% of our trade with the United Kingdom. There are potentially years of negotiations ahead of us with regard to European Union-United Kingdom issues and bilateral matters.

During the past year, the Government has accepted our position that there needs to be a new approach to Anglo-Irish relations to replace the connections we had in the context of shared EU membership. One of the benefits of that membership has been the familiar meetings with British politicians and between our respective civil servants for nearly 50 years. That had a tremendous impact on developing close relationships, a common agenda in Europe and, critically, the peace process in Northern Ireland. I am surprised that, even though we have had some discussions on this issue, they have not gone beyond general statements of intent and a few comments about the British-Irish Council, which is in no way structured to be able to achieve the sort of engagement we need. When will the promised proposals for new working structures be presented?

The British Home Secretary announced the other day her intention of introducing a new visa waiver system for EU citizens entering the UK. This would require a landing card system and registration similar to the one operated by the US. While we can assume that the common travel area means that this will not apply to Irish citizens, it has serious implications for EU citizens entering the UK through Ireland. Equally, it is unclear whether this is covered in the withdrawal agreement, as the special economic status for Northern Ireland relates specifically to trade and commerce. Has this matter been discussed with the British Government?

Last month, I attended the Palestinian children conference organised by the Irish trade union movement. Throughout that conference, speakers outlined in stark detail Israel's human rights abuses of Palestinian children. The conference was opened by a young Palestinian boy who, at just 17 years of age, was already a former child prisoner. I commend Ireland's trade unions on organising the conference and on their long-standing commitment to the Palestinian people.

November marked the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, yet Palestinian children continue to endure systematic and widespread violations of their rights, including their right to life. Over the past 20 years, Israel has detained more than 12,000 children. The latest figures tell us that there are 185 Palestinian children currently in Israeli jails. More are imprisoned for stone throwing. Their basic rights to, for example, legal representation and parental visits are routinely withheld. Child detainees have been blindfolded and deprived of sleep, had their hands and feet restrained and been intimidated and assaulted at the hands of the Israeli military. Children detained and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system can be as young as 12 years. In some perverse way, these children consider themselves the lucky ones. In the past year alone, more than 27 Palestinian children have been killed and 2,000 injured during Israeli air attacks.

In January of this year, the UN warned that children's access to school on the West Bank is not safe. In a statement, the UN noted threats of demolition, clashes on the way to school between students and security forces, and teachers stopped at checkpoints. It also noted that the violent actions of Israeli forces and, on some occasions, settlers presented real and imminent dangers.

Has the work of the international division of the Department of the Taoiseach included a response to these human rights abuses endured daily by Palestinian children? What engagement has the Taoiseach had with the Israeli political leaders on this matter?

As well as the issue of Israel's abhorrent treatment of Palestinian children as described by Deputy McDonald, whose question I echo about what the Government will do to raise this ongoing and systematic denial of rights to children in breach of every sort of international law and standard, I wish to ask about what the Government is going to do to raise its voice and demand that the EU take action and impose meaningful sanctions on Israel over its continued expansion of illegal settlements, which are now spurred on by President Donald Trump's decision to throw out 20 years of US policy, never mind international law and the Geneva Conventions, by endorsing the expansion of those settlements, the most recent of which, and probably the first by-product of President Trump's dangerous shift in policy, is in the city of Hebron, where Israel is talking about a massive expansion. One young man has already been shot, which is just the start of the problems that will arise. Given that Israel flagrantly breaches the Fourth Geneva Convention on the transfer of populations and UN resolutions on the question of the expansion of settlements, where is the call from us to the EU demanding sanctions? All the words mean nothing if we continue to allow Israel to do this and breach international law and international human rights standards. Never mind refusing to imposing sanctions, Europe still extends Israel favoured trade status. What are we going to ask the EU to do loudly?

The new European Commission has been sworn in. We note that one of the Government's own Deputies is taking up a job with it despite serious questions over his use of fobbing in the House and whether the Taoiseach is standing over his appointment as an employee of a member of the Commission. Dr. von der Leyen has stated that her Commission is going to pursue an agenda of change, notwithstanding the fact that Brexit is still to be resolved. Has the Government held discussions with the Commission's incoming members, including its new President, regarding the pathway for the period after the British general election, which is less than ten days away? Does the Taoiseach foresee changes in the structure of the discussions? We have already heard that Ireland will not be particularly represented in further discussions in terms of having special access to the negotiations. A period of a further year has been set aside. What are the implications of that for relations between the North and South? What will be the impact of Brexit on the EU's agenda now that a certain amount of Brexit fatigue understandably seems to be setting in? How does the Taoiseach propose to ensure that the issues of the island of Ireland are kept foremost in the view of the incoming members of the new Commission?

Will the Taoiseach condemn the coup in Bolivia? Does he believe that any other term appropriately describes a situation where an elected president is forced to resign by the military, where the army is on the streets to protect the coup, shooting and killing protestors, where supporters of Mr. Evo Morales's party - Movement for Socialism, MAS - have been dragged out of their homes, where a MAS mayor is dragged through the streets, her hair is cut off and she is covered in paint, and where indigenous flags are torn off army uniforms and burned by crowds of the far right? The military has installed as replacement a woman, Ms Jeanine Áñez, who is a white supremacist, does not have a single indigenous person in her Cabinet, who has previously tweeted about dreaming of "a Bolivia free of indigenous satanic rights", who has said that the capital city "is not for the Indians - they belong in the high plateau or el Chaco", and who has recently signed a decree effectively giving permission for the armed forces to engage in whatever human rights abuses they want in trying to put down those protestors who are standing up against the coup. Will the Taoiseach speak out against this coup or will he effectively continue to endorse it by refusing to call it what it is?

Earlier, Deputy Martin asked about the future structure of British-Irish relations after Brexit. He rightly pointed out that after Brexit we will not be in a position to meet British Ministers in the way we do now, three or four times a year at Council of Ministers meetings in Brussels or more frequently at the European Council. One of the suggestions we are working on is to strengthen and restructure the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and use that Good Friday Agreement institution as a mechanism to ensure structured engagement between the Irish Government and the British Government. It is something I intend to pursue with the Prime Minister if he is re-elected or the new Prime Minister if there is one in the next couple of weeks. The matter of landing cards has not been discussed to my knowledge with the British Government but we will monitor any proposals as they develop.

With regard to Israel and Palestine, I have not had any engagement with the Israeli Government or Israeli politicians but I met the leadership of the Palestinian Authority when they came to Dublin. The Tánaiste is in Israel and Palestine this week and is continuing his efforts to deepen our engagement in the region and help to bring peace to the territories.

Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about meaningful EU action such as sanctions. The simple fact is that when it comes to issues such as defence and the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the EU only acts with unanimity and there will not be EU action given that the 28 countries are not unanimous in their positions on Israel. Some are very supportive of Israel and others are closer to the Palestinians. Without a move to qualified majority voting on foreign policy, I do not see EU-wide sanctions being imposed or action being taken.

I have met President von der Leyen twice and I hope she will be able to visit Dublin soon. We will be at the European Council next Thursday and Friday. I will be watching the UK results come in on Thursday and Friday at the European Council and it promises to be an interesting meeting. The next steps will really depend on the results of the UK elections. There is the possibility of a special Council in January or February to set out the EU's negotiating guidelines for the next phase of talks, which will be negotiations with the UK on the free trade agreement and security and political partnership, but that is all a few steps ahead because we do not yet know what the outcome of the UK elections will be next week. Michel Barnier will remain in the role as negotiator on behalf of the EU, and Phil Hogan as trade Commissioner will have a central role given that a huge part of the future relationship will be free trade.

With regard to Irish issues, I hope we will still have the team of me, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, in place for the next phase of discussions. It would be very much in the country's interest that this be the case, given the contacts and competencies we have built up over the past two and a half years in representing Ireland when it comes to Brexit.

I must be honest and say I have not been following the events in Bolivia closely but I absolutely condemn any military coups wherever they occur.