Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses agricultural matters; and when it will next meet. [50203/19]
Vol. 991 No. 5
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses agricultural matters; and when it will next meet. [50203/19]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses agricultural matters; and when it will next meet. [51861/19]
3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses agricultural matters; and when it last met. [52727/19]
4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses agricultural matters; and when it will next meet. [53004/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
Issues relevant to the agriculture sector can arise, as required, at several Cabinet committees, including the Cabinet committee on the economy, which covers rural affairs; the Cabinet committee on Brexit, foreign and European affairs, which covers matters related to Brexit and trade; and the Cabinet committee on the environment, which covers issues relating to the environment, including climate action and biodiversity. Issues relating to agriculture are, of course, regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made. The Cabinet committee on the economy most recently met on Wednesday, 4 September. The next meeting will be scheduled for early in the new year. The Cabinet committee on Brexit, foreign and European affairs most recently met on Monday, 9 December. The Cabinet committee on the environment most recently met on Monday, 2 December.
With regard to agriculture matters being discussed by a Cabinet committee, farmers have come to Dublin again this week to protest. We have seen much of this around the country with protests at various large supermarket retailers and distribution units. This is a reflection of the real frustration among farmers, in particular, beef farmers, about the complete absence of a future for them. They do not see any possibility of the sector recovering from the terrible position it is in.
We welcome the establishment of the beef task force and the lifting of the injunctions against farmers, which was one of the obstacles facing the task force. This is healthy and a move forward. It is clear, however, that the pace of progress does not reflect the urgency of the situation. There is a fundamental flaw in the supply chain. Part of this is an absence of price transparency. The Irish Farmers Journal had sight of leaked documents that show eye-watering margins.
Three of the supermarket chains make up 75% of the retail market in Ireland and they can make more than 50% on the retail price of beef and other meat products. At present, farmers lose 70 cent to 80 cent per kilo on beef. This is a major problem and unless we can get to grips with it we will have a huge difficulty. I understand that the standard answer will be that the Government cannot interfere in the market and that it will have to let the market rule but, ultimately, a monopoly and what is, in effect, a cartel are in place. Earlier this year, the vice president of the Irish Natura Hill Farmers Association pointed out to the Oireachtas committee that there were, in effect, a monopoly and a cartel operating to the detriment of the farming sector. Does the Taoiseach agree that legislation needs to be put in place on beef price transparency? Sinn Féin has a Bill in this regard. Will the Taoiseach support it? Will the Government bring a new sense of urgency to the beef task force to ensure it delivers for the sector? It is not just about the price of beef, it is about the viability of an entire farming sector.
An issue in respect of which I - no more than anybody else - have tabled hundreds of parliamentary questions since I entered the Dáil in 2011, is forestry. Those questions date right back to the misguided plan to sell off the harvesting rights of Coillte. In the interim, there has been, at a rhetorical level, an improvement in terms of the Government's official policy on forestry, particularly its importance in the context of climate change. However, in terms of delivery, we are in a worse position than we have ever been. The rate of new planting actually got worse over the past six years, as did the situation in terms of the type of trees we grow, namely, one species, Sitka spruce. The forestry sector is commercially focused rather than based on understanding the need for a sustainable model that would contribute to a sustainable environmental future. The Mackinnon report that was produced recently confirmed some of the points that I and others have been making about this matter for a long time. We are not taking forestry seriously. Will anything improve on this front? We have a target to plant 8,000 ha of trees. We have had targets similar to this or even higher in the past ten years. We never meet them and we are now down at an all-time low of approximately 3,000 ha a year, which is dismal. Will we move from paying rhetorical lipservice to forestry and climate change to real delivery in terms of afforestation?
I am speaking as a member of the Fingal walkers. What is remarkable in walking all of the land of north County Dublin, which we have been doing on and off for 20 years, is the massive destruction of hedgerows and the development of super-large fields for grain growing in which there are no trees or hedgerows and everything has been chopped down to a height of 6 ft. The Taoiseach and I have knowledge of the area. It is clear that this may in the future be the pattern in the rest of Ireland. Farmers must try to make a living and they should be strongly supported by the Government in doing so but we have a problem with biodiversity. Last year, there were very bad fires in the forests around Killarney that resulted in significant destruction of trees and wildlife. In north County Dublin and, presumably, a lot of north Leinster, the EU is paying farmers to cut down hedgerows to make these very large fields, thereby completely destroying a significant percentage of the hedgerows, which are natural biodiversity corridors because, as has been stated, we do not have massive indigenous forests. We hope to have these but we do not have them at present. As the leader of the country, will the Taoiseach have a look at this matter in the context of how to address it? Obviously, the farmers' interests must be taken into account but so must our commitments in respect of biodiversity.
In recent weeks, the Taoiseach has rolled out what is already a highly negative campaign on his behalf and on that of his party. Who he thinks he is impressing with this is anyone's guess. One part of this negative campaign is the ridiculous claim that everyone who supported a proposal for more investment in public transport, including a major improvement in rural public transport services, is plotting and scheming to do down rural Ireland. The Taoiseach has stated this in the House and elsewhere. The Taoiseach even went to north Meath and said that the dastardly Fianna Fáil Party was going to scrap local roads by means of a sinister process called reprofiling. The pettiness is striking because even for what is a very petty Government, this may be the first time ever the Opposition has been attacked by a Government for quoting the Minister for Finance. The current Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and almost every other member of the Government has mentioned the fact that its own massive overspending has required reprofiling of capital plans. This continues apace. I hope the Taoiseach keeps the absurd attack going because all it does is reinforce how the Fine Gael Party is now so out of ideas that all it can do is continue to make up attacks against the Opposition. This is another example of the Government trying to distract attention from a crisis that has arisen on its watch. Farmers have been promised urgent action in respect of their income and the crisis relating to viability. This is another example of a slow and very limited response. No one is stating that the Taoiseach can go out and set higher prices. What is being asked for is urgent and co-ordinated action to address the fact the critical primary producers are getting squeezed by an unfair market. The beef task force was supposed to drive forward action. It was announced at the start of September but did not meet for the first time until the beginning of December. It is not due to meet again until next month. When will the pace of this work increase? What proposals have been prepared to address the continued weakness of sterling and the imminence of a less open trading regime with our largest market?
I thank the Deputies for their questions and contributions. I assure the House that the Government is deeply committed to fully supporting and developing Ireland's beef sector and to protecting the incomes of beef farmers. As we all understand, the Government does not have a role to play in determining the price that beef farmers get from factories. However, I would like to see an increase in the price being paid to farmers in order that they will receive a price in line with the EU average. At present, they do not. Certainly, I support greater transparency on price. In this context, I welcome indications from Meat Industry Ireland that market conditions are improving. This is being reflected in some price increases for farmers though not enough to date.
The Government provides significant financial assistance to the beef sector to encourage greater efficiencies and productivity. We have done this through a series of measures, including the €300 million beef data and genomics programme, €20 million for the beef environmental efficiency pilot in 2019, €78 million drawn down through the beef exceptional aid measure and the restoration of the areas of natural constraints scheme to €250 million. A total of €85 million in targeted schemes supporting sustainable beef farming is provided in budget 2020. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, €85 million has been set aside for beef farmers, with the possibility of further funding depending on the impact. However, the Government will work hard over the coming months to secure a trade deal with the UK that will continue to give our farmers free access to the British market, which is so important to them.
Particularly at this time of the year, the basic payment scheme is fundamentally important to farmers in order to maintain cashflow. The commencement of the basic payment scheme balancing payment will bring the total paid to more than 120,000 farmers under the 2019 scheme to date to €1.14 billion. The implementation of the agreement reached between beef stakeholders on 15 September is important in terms of providing immediate benefit to producers as well as the introduction of a range of strategic measures that seek to tackle structural imbalances in the sector. The agreement provided for an immediate increase in the range of bonuses. It increased the level of bonuses being paid on certain animals, as well as significantly increasing the number of animals eligible for bonuses.
The cumulative impact is that over 70% of all steer and heifers slaughtered are now eligible for a bonus on top of the basic price paid.
On forestry, Deputies will be aware that roughly 11% of Ireland is now under forest, which is the highest level in 350 years, but it is still very low by European standards. We have set the objective to plant an additional 400 million trees between now and 2030. There are good incentives in place for farmers and landowners to get involved in forestry but uptake is disappointing. I would like to see not only farmers but all major landowners plant an acre or a hectare of trees, ideally native trees. We are willing to provide financial assistance for them to do that. The planting of more trees, including native trees, will have to form part of the new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which will arise at European level in the next couple of months or year or so and the climate action measures being taken at European level through the European green deal.
On the issue of hedgerows, which was raised by Deputy Burton, I will have to come back to her with a more detailed reply. I do know that many hedgerows are protected but not all are. Hedgerows are, of course, habitats in their own right. They allow animals to travel and they act as corridors between habitats, as the Deputy mentioned. There are payments to maintain and nurture hedgerows under GLAS, but again perhaps we could enhance them. I think I have covered all of the other questions in my replies.
5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses environment matters; and when it will next meet. [50204/19]
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses environmental matters. [51529/19]
7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment will next meet. [51824/19]
8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that discusses environmental matters; and when it last met. [52732/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, together.
Following the reorganisation of the Cabinet committee structures in July this year, the Cabinet committee on the environment was established. It covers issues relating to the environment, including climate action and the implementation of the Government's climate action plan.
The Climate Action Plan 2019: To Tackle Climate Breakdown, was published on 17 June 2019. The plan contains more than 180 actions, broken down into 600 individual steps, which Ireland needs to implement to meet its EU 2030 targets and achieve its longer-term low carbon transition objective. Delivering such an integrated set of actions and policies requires a deep collaboration across Government with business, communities and also individuals. The work of the Cabinet committee on the environment is an important part of facilitating this collaboration and driving implementation of the plan.
The Cabinet committee on the environment has met twice since its establishment, on 30 September and 2 December 2019. It is intended that it will meet quarterly. There is significant work under way across each of the areas covered by the committee through Departments, agencies and a range of interdepartmental groups such as the climate action delivery board. These matters are also regularly considered at meetings of Government and in bilateral meetings with the relevant Ministers. At tomorrow's Cabinet meeting, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, will bring the heads of the climate action Bill for approval. The Cabinet committee is due to meet again early in the new year, where its focus will be on the delivery of actions due in 2020 and beyond, as well as unblocking any potential barriers to Ireland decarbonising its economy and society.
I want to raise with the Taoiseach the issue of the relationship of Government with the plastics industry in particular. Last month, the Corporate Europe Observatory published a damning and in-depth article exposing the Government's close relationship with the plastics industry. Much of the information in the article came from freedom of information, FOI, documents secured by journalist, Juno McEnroe, and my colleague, Lynn Boylan, former MEP for Dublin. Throughout the negotiations in Europe on the plastics directive, industry allies were consulted on the Commission's text. The industry was often rapidly informed of developments at EU level by officials, and the interests of the industry were put forward by the Government. It is clear from the FOI documentation that Government's relationship with the industry is much tighter than its relationship with the NGO sector. This is very alarming.
Repak is a company established and owned by the industry to operate the country's recycling schemes. Its members include companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever, which are two of the world's worst plastics polluters, and multinational retailers such as Tesco, Aldi and others, which generate huge amounts of plastic waste. The documents released show the officials contacted Repak regularly to run text by it when copying and pasting new legislative drafts of the EU directive. Officials were also interested to hear the views of the industry as part of informing Ireland's response to what were, in reality, modest proposals. New information on the position of another member state was also shared by officials with Repak. It is not only Repak that has the captive ear of Government. The Government proactively sought the views of industry representatives and groups on the Commission's drafts of the directive on single use plastic and passed their concerns to Brussels.
These documents undermine any faith that we could have in Fine Gael to put the people ahead of the corporate interests. That is the core of this issue. There are some big battles ahead, some of which will happen soon, in regard to environmental concerns. Can we be confident that Fine Gael has the capacity, capability and intent to put public interests ahead of short-term corporate profits?
It is absolutely freezing outside, and I think most people have felt that cold. We should bear this in mind over the next number of weeks because we have hundreds of thousands of people in this country affected by fuel poverty. For elderly people, in some cases it is life-threatening. There are hundreds of thousands of people in receipt of the fuel allowance. These are, in the main, people on very low incomes who are trying to heat their homes in the current freezing temperatures. This is a real social problem. It is also an environmental problem because people on low incomes and living in poorly insulated homes have to spend massive amounts of money to keep their homes and themselves warm. Often, they cannot do so but insofar as they try to do so, they are wasting huge amounts of energy.
This time of the year brings into sharp focus the need to do something dramatic and radical in terms of providing supports, grants, funding and assistance to people to insulate their homes or for the State to move in directly and have them insulated, thereby achieving two important objectives: one, keeping people warm who are freezing and, two, dramatically reducing CO2 emissions if it is done right. The annual cost of heating an A1 energy rated home is approximately €280. For those living in the lowest energy rated homes, which, in the main, are those on low incomes, that cost per annum can be €3,000. The people who are most affected by these issues have the least resources. The grants provided under the energy schemes are nowhere near sufficient to assist people on low incomes to insulate their homes. Those living in private rented accommodation and social housing, if they wanted to, cannot insulate their homes. The public schemes in this regard are abysmal. Will the Government address the issue of retrofit insulation and supporting people affected by fuel poverty and the cold to insulate their homes and thus also address a major cause of CO2 emissions?
I want to raise two issues in regard to the Cabinet committee on the environment and the work, or lack of work, on the part of Government in regard to the environment. I have repeatedly asked the Taoiseach about the electric vehicle target under the climate action plan and I have pointed out to him that to meet the target set of 1 million vehicles in ten years, almost every vehicle purchased from January 2020 would need to be an electric vehicle. The Taoiseach made that facile announcement regarding 1 million electric vehicles in ten years, with no research behind it. On the last occasion I raised this issue, I asked the Taoiseach if work had been undertaken at departmental level to underpin that target or give support to the idea that it was a credible target, and he said he would check it out. Has the Taoiseach checked it out? Is there documentation available that underpins the target for electric vehicles set in the climate action plan? I would appreciate some clarity on that issue. I would also appreciate if the Taoiseach would provide me with the documentation, which should not be any great secret.
On the smoky coal ban, the Taoiseach has tried to play partisan politics with this issue. It is legitimate for the Opposition and me, and I have been at this for quite a while, to ask, given the former Tánaiste, Mary Harney, was able to introduce a smoky coal ban in 1990, which we have had since, in Dublin and elsewhere without any legal challenge, why it is not possible for the Government to introduce a nationwide smoky coal ban. The Taoiseach has retorted by referencing legal advice, which, strangely, has been only half-published. I find this only gives succour to the vested interests outside of this State who want to maintain the distribution and sale of smoky coal here.
Notwithstanding the fact that our own indigenous coal manufacturers have invested millions in changing their manufacturing plants and developing facilities for smokeless coal, they have now been left high and dry. They were given commitments by previous Ministers that a smoky coal ban would be introduced nationwide and they prepared accordingly.
On the legal advice issue, why has the Taoiseach given succour to these coal merchants and companies by more or less publishing their letters or legal points as if they have total validity? I was involved in bans such as the smoking one, and one will be given advices and will see other advices, but one does not concede publicly. I argue that the public health requirements of our people should trump anything. There is growing evidence now that the problems are getting worse in many areas throughout the country, with very damaging implications for public health, respiratory health in particular. Professor Clancy and others have been long-time campaigners for this. They all say that the original ban brought in the 1990 had a demonstrable impact on health at that time. It is a neglect of duty.
The Labour Party motion will be debated later today and it is hoped it will be passed to ban smoky coal totally in this country. Is the Taoiseach aware that of the smoky coal that is sold, even in cities like Dublin where the ban is in effect, up to 60% is sulphur, so it is the most damaging kind of smoky coal? I do not know what kind of legal advice the Taoiseach has been quoting. I suspect some barrister was asked for an opinion and threw in a notion that there could be some contest. We have had the smokeless requirement in place in Dublin for more than 20 years. There has been no legal challenge.
What is the Taoiseach doing to stop the massive cross-Border trade in smuggling smoky coal? On a cold night at the moment in various estates in Dublin and towns throughout the country, one can taste the sulphur in the coal. This is causing up to 1,500 avoidable deaths in Ireland a year and is a misery for the children affected by asthma. I encourage the Taoiseach to meet representatives of the Asthma Society of Ireland because they will tell him the individual stories of the children who, on bad nights, possibly like tonight, are not able to breathe. It is putting massive pressures on children's health services. Who is the Taoiseach in hock to that he will not bring in a ban-----
The Deputy's time is expired.
-----right across the country on smoky coal?
I thank the Deputies. On the question regarding plastics, it is right and proper that officials and civil servants should engage with all stakeholders on any issue, whether it is industry bodies, unions, NGOs, or through public consultations, provided it is done in a transparent way and in accordance with the Regulation of Lobbying Act and the Freedom of Information Act. The lobbying Act was brought in by a Government of which I was a member precisely to regulate lobbying properly and make it more transparent, which had not been the case under previous Administrations, but not to try to ban or restrict it. Lobbying is part of a democracy and should happen in one.
The Government has taken the lead on plastics, first by banning single-use plastics from Departments. There are none in mine, and this is being extended across the public service, with a few exceptions where they may be necessary. We are strong supporters of new European Union proposals to introduce a ban on unnecessary single-use plastics in the Single Market. We are very supportive of that.
On fuel poverty, the fuel allowance, or energy allowance, as it is going to be renamed, will increase in January in a few weeks. We are going to use some of the proceeds coming in from the increase in the carbon tax to retrofit social housing, particularly in the midlands, with €40 million expected from that. This will allow us to retrofit and improve the energy rating of more social housing in the midlands, and this will be built upon in the years to come. There is also the warmer homes schemes and some other grants that people can apply for. We are increasing our effort in that regard all the time.
On electric vehicles, this query has been put into the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I have not received a reply yet, but I will pass it on to Deputy Martin as soon as I do.
On smoky coal, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, has announced an extension of the ban to 13 more towns, and this will kick in from September of next year, which includes towns that have some serious air quality issues. We have decided, however, against a nationwide ban as our best legal advice tells us that it could lead to the existing local bans, including the one here in Dublin, being struck down or it may require us to the ban the burning of wood and turf, as well, which we do not want to do.
This is not enough.
We have not published our legal advice on this from the Attorney General for exactly the reasons that Deputy Martin has said and we will not be doing so-----
The Taoiseach has.
It is not the Attorney General's advice.
-----precisely for the reasons that the Deputy counsels that we should not. I notice that Deputy Martin goes back to 1990 a great deal and the former Minister Mary Harney's ban on smoky coal in Dublin, as though it was yesterday. It may seem like yesterday to Deputy Martin, but it is actually not. It is a long time ago. A lot has changed in the 30 years since 1990.
The point is that there has been no legal challenge to it.
What we now know is the scientific evidence that tells us that burning turf and wood is as bad for air quality as burning smoky coal.
That is nowhere near the amount of coal.
That undermines any public health defence that may be made in the courts because the coal industry can say that if it is being argued that coal is being banned on public health grounds, it has scientific information that shows that burning turf and wood is just as bad for public health, and therefore the public health argument falls. That is the problem we are facing. We do not want to ban the burning of turf and wood in Ireland, particularly not in rural areas, which is why we have adopted a more proportionate and legally sound approach, which is to extend the smoky coal ban to the 13 towns that the Minister, Deputy Bruton, announced yesterday.
9. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the policy regarding the use of the Government jet in his Department [50346/19]
10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the policy regarding the use of the Government jet in his Department. [51614/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 10 together.
Requests for use of the ministerial air transport service are made by Ministers' private secretaries to my office and are dealt with in the first instance by the staff of my private office. Requests are examined by my staff with regard to the need for and purpose of travel, destination, availability and suitability of other travel arrangements, and other logistical details. Any necessary clarification or further information is sought at this point. All operational matters are settled directly between the office of the Minister in question and the Department of Defence or the Air Corps.
It is blindingly obvious that the bilateral meetings that took place in Zagreb, outside of the venue for the meeting of Fine Gael's European political party were brief, formal and a cover for those, such as the Taoiseach, who used official transport to claim that it was official business. Croatia, however, is a partner and ally of Ireland's in the European Union, and the fact that the Taoiseach met its President and Prime Minister formally is reasonable.
The more important question is what official resources the Taoiseach used at the meeting of his political party in Zagreb and whether he always fully respected the non-political nature of public servants by not involving them in meetings held at his party political conference. Will the Taoiseach assure us that all costs relating to those parts of the trip that involved being at the party conference, including personal transport, were paid for by Fine Gael? Equally, will he assure us that no public servants were brought to the party conference?
In a related matter, it was for this party that the former Deputy, Dara Murphy, was given leave to work for by the Taoiseach, because of which he was absent from his Dáil work. Perhaps Dara Murphy's good fortune was that, unlike Deputy Bailey, no opinion poll was done showing him to be a liability to Fine Gael. Will the Taoiseach tell us whether he has asked Fine Gael how much money it received to support Dara Murphy in his Dáil work? Every party gets political funding related to the number of Deputies it has. Does he think he will ask the party to return the money? This would be for the period that the former Deputy was working in Europe.
The Taoiseach's attempt to defend himself by going on a personal attack on others impresses nobody. These are legitimate questions that deserve legitimate answers.
On the Croatian meeting of the European People's Party, EPP, of which Fine Gael is a member, will the Taoiseach indicate the arrangements made by the leaders of the European People's Party in respect of appointments, given that the European People's Party, like the other party groups in the European Parliament, is fairly extensively funded by the European institutions and that it would be very strange for national appointments to the international desks of the party groups not to be known about and agreed to at the highest levels in national parties?
Will the Taoiseach enlighten us as to how the appointment of Mr. Murphy, while he was a Deputy, came about? Did the EPP advise Fine Gael, perhaps through the party secretariat, that the appointment would be made? Why did nobody raise a query as to how somebody could have two full-time jobs, one in this House and the other with the EPP? The latter is not an honorary job such as being a vice president or president of a party group. It is a full-time, active job.
Will the Taoiseach state whether carbon credits are used to offset his travel on the Government jet?
The rationale put forward by the Taoiseach is clearly not appropriate. Using the Government jet to attend an EPP meeting does not stand up to scrutiny nor does it wash with anyone. Even the most independent observer of the Taoiseach's decision to use the Government jet for this purpose would admit that it reeks of entitlement, which goes to the core of the matter. I understand from media reports that when the previous Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, was in office, he did not use the Government jet and always used commercial airlines to attend such meetings. Perhaps the Taoiseach will explain his decision to use the Government jet in this instance and in others. While I am sure he, like many of us, is fully aware of the sensitivities regarding the use of the Government jet, he seems to have ploughed ahead regardless, which seems to be the attitude of the Government in respect of many issues. It goes ahead and says, "Divil may care what the people will think." That attitude will come back to bite the Government, and hopefully soon. Will the Taoiseach confirm what role the former Deputy, Dara Murphy, had in organising the event? Was he central to it? Did he organise the attendance list for it?
I reiterate that the Government jet is used in accordance with a protocol set out in the Cabinet handbook, which has been extant for a long time. It is used within those rules and I assure Deputies that civil servants would not allow it to be used outside of them.
I visited Zagreb on 20 and 21 November. The programme for my visit included an official meeting with the Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovi. The meeting took place for more than a hour, included a press conference and was held in the Prime Minister's office. I also attended a reception hosted by our ambassador, attended by members of the business community and of the Irish community in Croatia, which took place at the ambassador's residence. Unfortunately, due to a technical issue that delayed my arrival in Zagreb, it was not possible for me to meet President Grabar-Kitarovi, which had been planned, although I look forward to meeting her on another occasion if she is re-elected. My meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr. Plenkovi, was especially timely as Croatia will assume the Presidency of the European Union for the first time in January. During its term of office, it will manage a number of files of importance to Ireland, including Brexit, the Union's budget for 2021 to 2027, inclusive, and the multi-annual financial framework. We also discussed enlargement, on which Croatia, as a Balkan country, has important insights.
While in Zagreb on 20 and 21 November, I also had the opportunity for an extensive range of valuable meetings and discussions with other European leaders, principally concerning the next steps on Brexit and the future relationship with the UK. My visit to Zagreb included meetings with the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk; the incoming President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen; President Anastasiades of Cyprus; President Iohannis of Romania; Prime Minister Ludovic Orban of Romania - not Hungary; Prime Minister Boyko Borissov of Bulgaria; Prime Minister Arturs Krišjnis Kariš of Latvia; Chancellor Merkel of Germany; the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of Greece; Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway; and the former Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz.
As a small member state with a similarly small administration, Ireland understands well the scale of the task involved in undertaking the Presidency. I offer the Prime Minister, Mr. Plenkovi, my full support and co-operation in that regard. For my meeting with him, I was accompanied by the ambassador and a small team of officials and advisers from my Department. No civil servants attended the EPP congress but security, of course, did.
On the former Deputy, Dara Murphy, I said yesterday what I was going to say about an inquiry, and I hope that inquiry can happen, as it should. The impression has been created that he was totally absent from the Dáil for two years, but that is not true. In fact, he was present for more votes in this calendar year than Deputy Micheál Martin was-----
That is outrageous carry-on.
-----and for the same number as the Deputy since the middle of July.
The Taoiseach is a nasty piece of work.
Those are the facts.
I am here every Tuesday and Wednesday, as the Taoiseach knows.
Rather than all the name-calling, the Deputy should not be so sensitive.
If the Deputy is willing to be critical of former members of my parliamentary party, he should at least be willing to account for existing members of his parliamentary party who are under investigation. It is reasonable to ask him whether they will be ratified as candidates for Fianna Fáil in the forthcoming election, and whether he will rule out considering appointing them as Ministers should Fianna Fáil participate in the next Government. The people would like to know, if they vote for Fianna Fáil, whether some of the Deputies under investigation will be rewarded for their conduct by being made Ministers under Fianna Fáil. It is reasonable for the public to ask that question and to want to know the answer.
Currently, there is no offsetting, but the climate action plan commits the Government to consider offsetting emissions from the use of flights. We are also aware that many people see offsetting as greenwashing, rather than a good step to take, but it will be considered.
11. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach his views on the EU reform proposals that President Macron is attempting to implement. [50348/19]
12. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his views on the EU reform proposals that the President of France is seeking to implement. [51615/19]
13. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach his views on the EU reform proposals that the President of France is seeking to implement. [53374/19]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 13, inclusive, together.
I engage with individual EU leaders, including President Macron, both bilaterally and in the context of my attendance at European Council meetings.
I visited Paris on 2 April 2019, when I had an exchange of views with President Macron on a range of global, EU and national issues of shared interest.
As part of our policy of strengthening our relationships with other member states, including in the context of Brexit, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, launched Ireland's Strategy for France 2019 to 2025, inclusive, in August.
The strategy aims to ensure that France and Ireland work closely together, both bilaterally and as partners in the EU, to build a shared and better future for all our citizens.
The European Council most recently discussed plans for reform at its meeting on 12 December, including a proposal for a conference on the future of Europe, as set in a presentation by the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli.
On foot of our discussion, we asked Croatia, as the incoming Council Presidency, to work towards defining a Council position on the content, scope, composition and functioning of such a conference, and to engage on this basis with the European Parliament and Commission.
I expect that President Macron's views on EU reform, as reflected in a Franco-German paper, will be raised and considered in that context and in further discussion at future European Council meetings.
It is worth recalling that the European Council adopted a strategic agenda setting out our priorities for the coming period in June of this year. I am, therefore, pleased that last week's European Council also made clear that priority should continue to be given to implementing that agenda and to delivering concrete results for the benefit of our citizens.
It is important to recognise that the strategic agenda reflected the outcome of this extensive consultation with our citizens, including in Ireland. As a result, the European Council's statement that the conference should build on the successful holding of citizens' dialogues over the past two years and foresee broad consultations with citizens in the course of the process is welcome. I expect the conference to contribute to the development of EU policies in the medium and long terms in order that we can better tackle current and future challenges together. It may also consider any institutional reform that can contribute to that goal. Ireland will continue to participate fully as the debate evolves.
We will soon have statements on the European Council meeting and most of the issues that could be raised in respect of this set of questions can be left until then. Nevertheless, I wish to raise two separate points.
The Taoiseach said yesterday that he will continue to block the legislation in the Dáil that relates to economic relations with the illegal settlements on the West Bank on the basis that this "is a sole competency of the European Union". The Tánaiste said the same thing this morning. The Taoiseach has indicated that EU policy is preventing action from being taken, but when I asked him whether he or the Tánaiste has lobbied for a change in that policy, he failed to answer. There is no public evidence that the either Taoiseach or the Tánaiste has made any representations or proposals on this matter. Does this not indicate that the legislation is being blocked on policy terms rather than on legal terms? In light of the failure of the Tánaiste's effort to achieve a breakthrough - he has said that he has a close relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu - will the Taoiseach tell us whether Ireland is proposing or supporting any new initiative in the face of the threatened West Bank annexations and the permanent statelessness of millions of people?
In recent weeks, Prime Minister Orbán has started to ramp up his efforts to limit freedom of activity in Hungary. His previous actions are well known. He has taken the appointment of theatre directors into political hands, he has reduced the rights of Opposition politicians in the Hungarian Parliament and he is imposing political oversight of curriculums in universities. These actions are a clear violation of basic democratic principles. The issue is whether anything is to be done. Is the Taoiseach happy that everything that can be done is being done in order to address the fact that an EU member state is drastically undermining core democratic freedoms?
I am confused because I did not realise that we were going to take a fourth group of questions.
I did not expect us to take these questions either.
We normally take three groups. Do we have time for this?
That is fine. The statements on last week's EU Council meeting will begin shortly. I would like to ask the Taoiseach about the focus on an area that is now being driven by one of the new vice presidents of the European Commission, Mr. Frans Timmermans. His responsibilities include climate change, which all of us in this House recognise as the biggest economic and social issue that we need to address. It is very difficult to address it on a global basis when the US is withdrawing from its commitments under the Paris accord. I would like to ask the Taoiseach about the most recent discussions. How does he envisage that the targets can be achieved without the full participation of the US in particular?
President Macron has been championing a united states of Europe. I ask the Taoiseach to comment on the Government's position on Mr. Macron's proposals, particularly in the context of Irish neutrality. Ireland is a neutral country. President Macron has indicated in recent times that he is very critical of the capacity of NATO. He sees very serious defects in NATO. As part of his vision for Europe, he has indicated that he would like widespread changes to be made to pension entitlements, for example. I am most concerned about the question of military alliances. He has spoken in a number of speeches about certain countries being part of a group that will go forward to the united states of Europe. As a neutral country, Ireland has very different interests. I know that Fine Gael has some alliances with individuals like President Macron outside of the EPP. Will the Taoiseach indicate whether Fine Gael remains committed to Irish neutrality in the context of European discussions? Will there be room in Europe for countries which are militarily neutral alongside countries which may belong to other defence arrangements?
To the best of my knowledge, we have not lobbied for a change in EU trade policy with regard to Israel. It is certainly something we can consider. It is unlikely that we will be able to find consensus at European level to take action of that nature, given that some member states exhibit strong support towards Israel. We have taken a very strong position on Jerusalem. I was very active at European Council level in asking that as part of our conclusions, we do not accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, or at least not until a two-state solution has been delivered. We have also taken very strong positions against settlement activity and the annexation of occupied lands. We have done that at EU level and at the UN and we will continue to do that. It is well recognised by the Palestinian Authority and by Arab countries that Ireland is at the forefront of the countries that support the Palestinian cause.
Deputy Martin asked about the rule of law in Hungary. The European Commission is empowered to take action with regard to the rule of law and takes such action. We are very supportive of the European Commission's actions in this regard.
We deeply regret the decision of the US Administration to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. I remind the House that the US has not yet withdrawn from the agreement. The policy of the US might yet change, depending on the outcome of the elections there next November. Notwithstanding all of this, it should be borne in mind that US emissions are coming down and that many US states and cities are taking climate action anyway.
I have never heard President Macron using the term "united states of Europe" and I have not heard him arguing for such a development. He is certainly a supporter of greater integration. We agree with some elements of this approach, but not others, depending on the circumstances. Ireland will continue to be a neutral country and will continue to be a non-member of NATO. We do not intend to participate in a European army if such an entity is established. We will be part of security. Our decision to sign up to permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, was endorsed overwhelmingly by this House. Ireland is a long-standing member of the Partnership for Peace. I think we can contribute to continental security and world security through what we do at the UN and what we do at the EU under the banner of PESCO and otherwise.