1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [41650/20]
Vol. 1002 No. 6
1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [41650/20]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [43542/20]
3. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [43557/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on housing last met on 10 November and it is envisaged that the committee will next meet in January 2021. The committee operates in accordance with established guidelines for Cabinet committees and substantive issues are referred to the Government for discussion and approval. The committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of the programme for Government commitments on housing and related matters. Significant work is under way on the implementation of these commitments across Government Departments and agencies, including through regular discussion of these matters at meetings of the Government.
In addition to meetings of the Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I regularly meet Ministers, including the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to discuss particular issues. Notwithstanding the challenges posed by the pandemic, the Government has introduced a range of measures to address housing issues. Budget 2021 provides over €3 billion for the delivery of housing programmes next year, including funding for 9,500 social homes to be built as part of the overall delivery of 12,750 social homes next year. A total of €40 million was allocated through the July stimulus package to support local authorities to bring voids back into productive use and over 2,000 households will be accommodated this year as a direct result of this initiative. The budgetary provision will also fund other important housing supports and services relating to homelessness, Traveller accommodation, regeneration and programmes to upgrade existing housing.
In addition, the Government has introduced a number of legislative measures to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on tenants. Over the coming months, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will introduce legislation to put the Land Development Agency and the new affordable housing measures announced in the budget on a legislative footing.
There is just over a week until Christmas. I reciprocate the Taoiseach's good wishes and wish him, his family and all his colleagues the best. The winter weather is very much with us, as we have seen and felt over recent weeks. In recent months, there has been, unfortunately, a sharp rise in the number of homeless people on our streets passing away. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage does not seem to compile figures on the number of such deaths nationally but we know that the number of deaths in Dublin this year is more than 50, in comparison to 34 in 2019 and 35 in 2018. Will the Taoiseach tell the House why we do not have national figures? As the Taoiseach will now, concerns have been expressed in his own city of Cork and in other areas. Why do we not have national figures?
Any death is obviously a tragedy, no matter where it happens, but this sudden and sharp rise is really worrying. Some people believe it is in some way related to Covid-19 and people avoiding hostels and support services because they are afraid of getting sick while others believe it is down to a rise in addiction and overdoses. To be fair, it is probably a lot more complex than that.
Will the Taoiseach confirm that we will get national figures and that the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will investigate this rise and why it is happening now? What actions are being taken, outside of those we already know of? Has this issue been discussed at the relevant Cabinet committee? Will the Taoiseach confirm what sort of new supports are being put in place?
Over the past three years, I have repeatedly raised the plight of tenants in the St. Helen's Court apartment complex in Dún Laoghaire. They have faced four attempts by two different vulture funds that bought the complex to evict them using loopholes in the Residential Tenancies Acts. They tried to increase the rent by 60% at one point, they then used substantial refurbishments as grounds for eviction and are now using sale of the property for that purpose. They failed to evict ten tenants and are now trying to evict eight instead to circumvent the Tyrrelstown amendment. This is the shocking, cold and ruthless logic of a profit-seeking vulture fund. I was in the offices of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, with the tenants on Monday. Some of them are in there today. There is a similar case in Rathmines, an area with three Government Deputies, in which a number of tenants were successfully evicted by vulture funds after fighting this eviction for a year.
Why does the Government not close these loopholes and legislate to prevent this kind of vicious and ruthless profit-seeking logic at the expense of tenants, all of whom pay their rent? These are working people who will now face eviction in the teeth of Christmas and in the middle of a pandemic. Does the Taoiseach not think that is obscene behaviour which the Government has a responsibility to prevent to ensure that decent ordinary people who pay their rent are not dumped out on the street by vulture funds?
There are plans to build 25,000 new homes in the Cork docklands over the next 20 years. The question is whether they will be genuinely affordable. Will young people and people on low and even average incomes be locked out of the market? I saw an interesting snippet on the RTÉ news recently. A company in Castleisland, County Kerry, built 70 houses. As the company had difficulty retaining a workforce in the area, it sold 20 of these houses to its workers at cost price. This cost of €150,000 was reckoned to be more than €30,000 below the market valuation for such a house. That is a little indication of what can be done when the profiteering is cut out of the situation.
There is a lot of public land down in the docklands, including lands at the old Ford plant, at Kent Station which is counted as part of the project, at Tivoli Docks and at Camp Field. I could name many more. Imagine what could be done if we built public housing on public land, including social housing, council housing and cost-price housing that is genuinely affordable for young people and people on low and middle incomes. Instead, the Land Development Agency is talking about a 60:30:10 mix. Some 60% is to be sold at private market rates, which will inevitably mean that significant numbers of people will be locked out of the market. I ask for the Taoiseach's comments on that and for his position on the idea that public housing should be developed on this public land instead.
We have previously discussed the increased number of people experiencing homeless who have died on our streets this year. The Taoiseach has stated by way of response that unprecedented levels of resources are being targeted at the issue of homelessness. I suggest that it is the level of homelessness itself that is unprecedented. The State still does not fully recognise or record the scale of this issue. We know that the number of people experiencing homelessness is at least 20% higher than the number recorded by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We also know that there are more than 1,700 adults and children in direct provision, non-State funded emergency and transitional accommodation, and Tusla-funded domestic violence refuges. The State does not include these people in its homelessness figures, which is inexplicable. Will the Taoiseach consider moving responsibility for the management and publication of homelessness figures to an independent body such as the Central Statistics Office or the Housing Agency?
I also ask Government parties to support Deputy Ó Broin's Homeless Prevention Bill 2020, which places a legal obligation on local authorities and State agencies to put in place a homelessness prevention plan before a family becomes homeless. This will require enhanced and targeted resources from central government but it is absolutely essential. Government must enable local authorities to end the use of congregated dormitory-style accommodation, to expedite the expansion of the Housing First model, and to introduce adult safeguarding reviews across our services.
Deputies raised quite a number of questions there. Deputy Kelly, who put the original question, raised the issue of the deaths of people availing of homelessness services. That is a deep concern which is being taken very seriously by Government. It is important to note and respect the work of those in the homelessness services who have cared for these individuals and who were their friends. The impression that the majority died alone on the streets is inaccurate and unfair. It does a disservice to the work, care and companionship of those working in the sector. I know that was not the intention of Deputies. To give an example, Mr. Pat Doyle of the Peter McVerry Trust recently spoke of a homeless man who used the trust's services and who died of cancer in his own-door accommodation, having been cared for by the trust. That type of care is the hallmark of the trust's work.
The Dublin Region Homeless Executive and the HSE have jointly commissioned a detailed review of all recent deaths in homelessness services. In reference to the point the Deputy made on data collection, the Department of Health recently requested the Health Research Board, HRB, to undertake a study to collect data on deaths among people who were homeless at the time of death. The HRB is undertaking a one-year feasibility study to collect these data from coroners' records. Each case is different and there is a complex story behind every one. We should respect that. It is important to avoid speculation or simplification and get a clearer picture, based on evidence. I believe that is what Deputy Kelly sought in his questions.
It is also crucial that the Government lives up to its duty to protect our vulnerable and to tackle homelessness in our cities and our towns. The homelessness figures are still too high but they have decreased by 17% year on year. Some 6,000 people exited homelessness this year. I do not accept what Deputy McDonald has claimed is the real figure with regard to homelessness.
With regard to the docklands in Cork, there is a lot of private land in this area in addition to the public lands. A master plan is required. I am more interested in getting things happening there, getting capacity and getting houses built.
We may have done the Taoiseach out of some time there but, in any event, we will move on.
4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [41652/20]
5. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the role of the social policy unit in his Department. [41797/20]
6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of public service, justice and policing reform division of his Department. [43138/20]
7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the social policy and public service reform division of his Department. [43543/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.
The role of the social policy and public service reform division is to assist me, as Taoiseach, and the Government in delivering programme for Government objectives and public policies and services which help create a socially inclusive and fair society. Specifically, the division assists the work of the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, equality and public services, including matters relating to arts and culture, children, justice, policing reform and community safety, disability, social inclusion, gender equality, direct provision, the Irish language and sport; the Cabinet committee on education and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee implementation of programme for Government commitments in the area of education and further and higher education; the Cabinet committee on health and the associated senior officials' group established to oversee programme for Government commitments in the area of health, including implementation of health reforms, including Sláintecare and the development of mental health services; and the Cabinet committee on Covid-19 and the associated senior officials' group established to assess the social and economic impacts of the potential spread of Covid-19 and to oversee the cross-government response.
A policing reform implementation programme office forms part of the division. This office drives the implementation of A Policing Service for our Future, the Government's plan to implement the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. The division also assists the work of the Civil Service management board which oversees Civil Service renewal; has departmental oversight of the National Economic and Social Council; advances Dublin's north-east inner city initiative, including through supporting the work of a programme office, programme implementation board and oversight group; assists the delivery of public service reform through membership of the public service leadership board and public service management group; provides me with briefing and speech material on social policy and public service reform issues; and participates in relevant interdepartmental committees and other groups.
A couple of days ago, the Central Bank published its second interim report on differential pricing in the insurance market, showing shockingly how this is being dealt with. The practice is ripping off people. Yesterday, we published legislation to deal with this. We ask the Government to engage constructively with this legislation to deal with dual pricing, not just in the insurance market but across a range of entities relating to bills for communications service providers and other utilities. It is completely unacceptable and needs to be outlawed.
As part of the Bill, we are also proposing to create a regulatory standard for customer service. We all know about the scandalous way that Eir and Vodafone treat people. We are trying to push this agenda on very quickly. Will the Government engage with the legislation by supporting it, amending it or whatever? It is needed in a timely fashion to deal with dual pricing and the lack of customer service across a range of utilities where people are being totally ripped off and treated shabbily.
I wish to raise the case of Shane O'Farrell. This December will be the tenth Christmas for the O'Farrell family without Shane. As the Taoiseach will know, the circumstances that led to his death have been very well voiced in the Dáil and Seanad in recent years. In 2018, the Dáil voted in favour of the immediate establishment of a public inquiry into the death of Shane O'Farrell and this was followed by a unanimous vote to the same effect in the Seanad in early 2019.
Instead of acting on the instruction of both Houses, the previous Fine Gael-led Government announced the establishment of a scoping exercise. Nearly two years have passed, and completion of the final report has been delayed for the fifth time. When announcing the establishment of the scoping exercise the former Minister for Justice and Equality committed to the completion of an interim report within eight weeks on the commencement of the exercise. The family noted that the Guerin report took weeks to complete.
We are coming up to Christmas. The efforts of the O'Farrell family have been nothing short of heroic. They have the majority support of the Dáil and the Seanad. We need a public inquiry into the death of this young man. We all support that. When the Taoiseach was on the Opposition benches, he led the charge in calling for that inquiry. When will we see the outcome of that scoping exercise and when will we have that public inquiry?
I did not get an answer to my previous question about vulture funds being allowed to evict people. I would appreciate an answer on that because it is happening in the teeth of Christmas.
On public sector reform, the Government has thrown a considerable amount of mud into people's eyes in response to the demands of the student nurses and midwives to be paid for their work on placement, to be respected for the role they played during the Covid pandemic and not to be financially punished with the shocking fees they must pay, meaning they are actually paying for the privilege of being exploited.
The Taoiseach's explanations to date have not responded to this point. The majority of the student nurses and midwives are saying they will leave when they finish their training because they have been treated so badly in their four years and because they are facing into an understaffed and under-resourced health service. The two things are directly connected. They regard their exploitation and non-payment as students as a precursor of what they will face afterwards and, of course, that is the truth. That is why the nurses went out on strike last year. Our health service is in a perilous state and our healthcare workers' morale is on the floor.
That is why the Government should stop repeating this nonsense that it will somehow compromise their education to remunerate them during their training. It should remove the burden of fees from them. It would actually allow us to recruit and retain these student nurses and stop them flooding out of the country when we desperately need them to stay and work in our health service.
KPMG is taking €4.6 million from the Debenhams liquidation pot. It is taking this money to pay itself, and to pay for lawyers - in some cases for court actions taken against workers - for security, leases and warehouses where it has stored the goods that it smuggled out in the dead of night in order to cheat the picketing workers. If the Government had intervened after 50 days, as opposed to 250 days, it would have saved the vast bulk of this expenditure. In my opinion, that money should have been used to top up the workers' redundancy.
Does the Taoiseach accept that it was a serious mistake on the part of the Government not to have a serious intervention at a far earlier stage? Does he accept that those moneys could have been saved if that had been done? Even at this late stage, the €3 million that has been set aside for upskilling and training, not the most appropriate for many of the workers who are already in training and some already at the very end of their working careers, should be put directly in to top up the redundancies, as the shop stewards have demanded and asked for.
I thank Deputy McDonald for raising the case of Shane O'Farrell and I reinforce her message to the Taoiseach. On several occasions, the Taoiseach met Shane's parents, Lucia and Jim, who are among the most inspirational people one could meet. They are now facing their tenth Christmas without their beloved son, Shane. As Deputy McDonald said, they have been seeking justice for Shane and for the wrongs perpetrated on their family to be addressed. The previous Government announced a scoping inquiry, which has been subject to several delays. The most recent information is that the retired judge intends to complete his report by, I believe, 21 January.
On behalf of my neighbours, the O'Farrell family, and the wider community in Carrickmacross, I ask the Taoiseach to liaise with the Minister for Justice to ensure that the outcome of the scoping exercise is published and completed by that date in January so that we can move on to the implementation of the resolution of the Dáil and Seanad for a full public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Shane O'Farrell's death.
We will constructively engage with the Labour Party legislation which is designed to deal with the issue of dual pricing. I pay tribute to the Central Bank for its report which did not pull any punches. It is not acceptable for the insurance companies to conduct their affairs in this manner. We will constructively engage with the Labour Party on its legislation and on the customer service dimension and the necessity of public utilities to give optimal service to customers along with transparency in everything they do.
Regarding the case of Shane O'Farrell, I have met Lucia, Jim and the entire family on a number of occasions. I pay tribute to Deputy John McGuinness, who has been with the family on their long journey, and Deputies Brendan Smith and Niamh Smyth, along with the other Deputies in the House who have raised these issues consistently. I have been in touch with the Minister for Justice and I am anxious that the scoping inquiry be brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible, so that we can then take a decision regarding an inquiry in the context of the output of the scoping inquiry, its analysis and recommendations and whatever additional information and guidance it will provide us with.
On the points made by Deputy Boyd Barrett regarding vulture funds, he will have seen that I did not get a chance earlier to respond because my time was short. I will engage with the relevant Ministers on that issue. Any behaviour of a nature which deprives other people of their rights is unacceptable. I will pursue that issue in respect of the legal framework governing the management of estates and complexes to ensure that people's rights are not transgressed and that there is no exploitation of any loopholes in a ruthless and inhumane manner.
On the point made by Deputy Barry, liquidations happen, unfortunately, and liquidators get appointed. They work within the law and sometimes within the framework of the High Court. Governments cannot intervene legally in how a liquidator might undertake its business. In this case, the Government did not wait for 250 days, as the Deputy implied. The Government has taken an interest in this case from the beginning. We have always been very clear though that there are, unfortunately, legal constraints in respect of, for example, the liquidation process itself, and the Revenue having to fulfil its legal frameworks in getting its revenue back from all employers. The Department of Social Protection must do likewise to ensure the Social Insurance Fund is properly funded. There are no easy ways to circumvent those laws. It is dishonest and disingenuous to suggest that there are because there are not.
The Government provides statutory redundancy in all situations where private employers fall down, whether it is a liquidation or whatever the circumstances. The Government, therefore, has actually stepped up the plate here. It is extraordinary and probably a feat of the propagandistic strengths of the Deputies that they have created the impression that the Government has not done anything. It is actually the opposite. It is the private sector which has failed here. The State, through statutory redundancy, put forward €13 million for the workers-----
Taking it out of the-----.
-----which underpins the importance of such social provision, both in terms of our legislation and funding.
The stock in the stores has been used to pay.
The additional €3 million is again provided because we cannot just top up statutory redundancy for one case. There has to be consistency in its deployment across the entire system. The Deputy knows that of course, but that does not interest him in terms of how he pursues these issues.
I ask the Taoiseach to give a brief answer regarding the student nurses.
I am coming to that issue, but many Deputies have raised issues. I think I have dealt with the case of Shane O'Farrell, which was raised by Deputy Carthy. I have dealt with the issue of the student nurses on a number of occasions now. There is a review, which we want, and there is engagement between the Minister and the unions on this matter regarding the allowances. Fourth-year students are paid, as the Deputy knows. Regarding the first and second-year students, what I said yesterday and before that still applies. The Deputy has studiously ignored that for his own good reasons.
My view is that in the second wave of the pandemic there has been nowhere near the same impact on hospitalisation as there was in the first wave. The Deputy cannot say that the health service is under-resourced. An incredible level of resources has gone into the health service this year - €4 billion, of which €2 billion was for Covid-19 and €2 billion for additional services.
They are understaffed.
There is also an unprecedented ambition to recruit thousands of extra staff. This year alone, 1,400 extra whole-time equivalent nurses have been recruited-----
I thank the Taoiseach. We are now eating into the time of the next questions.
-----to the service and the entire graduate output of our colleges this year will be offered a job in our health service.
8. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach the details of his engagements with the UK Prime Minister on the shared island unit and the commitments made. [41790/20]
9. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Taoiseach if the shared island unit in his Department will conduct an economic appraisal to ascertain the benefits and challenges that a united Ireland will present. [42652/20]
10. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the infrastructure projects that will be prioritised under the shared island fund in his Department. [43144/20]
11. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the next steps to engage young persons in the shared island dialogue in his Department. [43145/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 11, inclusive, together.
On 22 October last, I set out the Government's vision and priorities on shared island during an online event at Dublin Castle. More than 800 people participated online, comprising a broad range of civil society, community, sectoral and political representatives from across the island of Ireland and in Britain. In budget 2021, the Government announced the shared island fund, with €500 million to be made available to 2025, which will be ring-fenced for shared island projects. The shared island fund provides significant new multi-annual capital funding for investment on a strategic basis in collaborative North-South projects which will support the commitments objectives of the Good Friday Agreement.
Our priorities for such investment are set out in the programme for Government and include working with the Executive to deliver key cross-Border infrastructure initiatives, including the A5, the Ulster Canal, the Narrow Water Bridge, and cross-Border greenways, including the Sligo to Enniskillen greenway; working with the Executive and the UK Government to achieve greater connectivity on the island, including, for instance, examining the feasibility of high-speed rail connections; working with the Executive and the UK Government on new investment and development opportunities in the north west and Border communities, including co-ordinated investment at the University of Ulster's Magee campus in Derry; and supporting a North-South programme of research and innovation, including an all-island research hub.
The Government is working actively, in partnership with the Executive through the North-South Ministerial Council, on these cross-Border investment projects, which are part of our shared island commitments in the programme for Government. Progressing these projects will be a key focus of our discussions at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary on Friday, 18 December. I look forward to continued constructive co-operation between the Government and the Executive to deliver these important investments for the island. I have also had constructive engagement with British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the Government's shared island objectives and commitments, and I have made it clear that we are happy also to engage on an east-west basis as we take this work forward.
As part of our shared island initiative, the shared island unit in my Department is developing a comprehensive research programme, working with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and other partners. My Department has also asked the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, to prepare a comprehensive report on shared island issues in 2021. This will provide valuable input from economic, social and environmental partners. An economic assessment of a united Ireland does not form part of the work of the shared island unit. As I have said before, our shared island initiative does not preordain any constitutional outcome under the Good Friday Agreement. Our focus is on working with all communities and traditions to build a shared island and shared future. I am aware of comprehensive work undertaken by the ESRI, and Professor John FitzGerald, on the economic implications of a united Ireland.
Strengthening social, economic and political links on the island and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland, North and South, are key objectives of the unit. On 22 October, I launched the shared island dialogue series to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue on all aspects of a shared future on the island. The first of the shared island dialogues took place online on 26 November on the topic, New Generations and New Voices on the Good Friday Agreement. More than 80 young people from across the island, representing different backgrounds and interests, participated in the event and put forward their ideas for a shared future. The dialogue is available online and the key themes and concerns raised by young people will inform how we progress the shared island initiative.
The dialogue series will continue on this basis over the next several months and will focus on important issues for people on the island in the years ahead, including the environment, health, education and economy, and on key civic concerns that are addressed in the Good Friday Agreement, including identity and equality. Throughout the dialogue series, we are seeking as broad a range of perspective and experience as possible and the active inclusion of voices that have been traditionally been under-represented in the peace process, including young people, as well as women and new communities on the island.
It appears from the Taoiseach's response that the shared island unit will discuss everything relating to cross-Border issues apart from the potential to undo the Border itself.
Does the Taoiseach accept that the Good Friday Agreement sets out the peaceful democratic route to reunify our country? It clearly sets out a mechanism. Those of us who want to see Irish unity need to convince others that it is in their best interests, that we will all be collectively better off in a united Ireland and that we will be able to reach higher to meet the challenges that face our country. The Taoiseach has said on a number of occasions that he wants to see a united Ireland at some point in the future. I put it to him, therefore, that he has a responsibility, along with those of us who share that aspiration, to convince others that it is in their best interests. That means we have to talk about it. We have to talk about all of the challenges that unity will bring, but also the benefits it will bring. It is my firm belief that a united Ireland makes economic sense, that we will be better off and that we will have the capacity to make all of the people of our country, North, South, east and west, better off. To do that, we need to gather the information because there will be some who will contend otherwise. I do not understand the Taoiseach's reticence and reluctance around carrying out an assessment of the economic benefits and challenges, if there are any, of Irish unity.
Will the Taoiseach step up to the mark? This is the big, national conversation of our people. This is the generation who can deliver a united Ireland. I am asking the Taoiseach to be part of that, as opposed to being part of the barrier to it.
The most pressing and urgent issue that we face on a shared island basis at this moment is the threat of Covid-19. The scenes in the North last night of ambulances lining up outside hospitals and massive overcrowding in the emergency departments because of Covid-19, frankly, had fairly alarming echoes of what happened in Italy early this year. That is a warning. Already, there are signs that in Border counties the high infection rate is spilling over. The parties in the Executive and the Government here should reconsider the importance of pursuing, on an all-island basis, a common, united strategy of eliminating community transmission, rather than the neither one thing nor another approach which is inevitably going to lead to further spikes and lockdowns.
I draw the Taoiseach's attention to a motion tabled by Solidarity-People Before Profit calling on the World Trade Organization, WTO, to follow the request of India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights and patents in relation to the sharing of vaccine technology to the world's poorest countries, 25% of whom we are informed today will not have access to the vaccine by the end of the year, which could completely undermine the global vaccine programme.
I reiterate the call for preparation for an orderly constitutional transition. Next year, we will mark a century of the partition of our island. My God, we know the heavy cost that has been carried by our people, North and South, for that disastrous, catastrophic event. We have an opportunity now to heal and rebuild and we need to plan for that.
I encourage the Taoiseach to raise again the issue of an all-island approach to Covid-19. Like everyone else, when I saw the ambulances lined up I was shocked and worried about the situation in the North. It was more reminiscent of times where we have seen ambulances lined up in hospitals in places such as Limerick. It is a reflection of the fact that we have under-resourced health services, North and South, and that this virus hits and when it hits, it hits hard. We are in real and imminent danger. I think we agree that the optimal approach is an all-island, harmonised approach. Deputy Alan Kelly might be interested to know the Executive is a five-party Executive. The decision-making is complex and politics can, and has, entered the equation but I would encourage the Taoiseach, as I have before, to encourage others to leave the politics at the door when we are dealing with this virus. This virus does not care about borders; it certainly does not care about green or orange. It is a real and imminent threat to all of us and the best way to keep everyone safe is to keep each other safe on an all-island basis.
In response to Deputy Carthy, I was a member of the Government that negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and I know well the extraordinary work that went into it from the then Fianna Fáil-led Government and the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, with Tony Blair and the late Albert Reynolds with John Major before that. I know how the agreement can evolve. It has always been a regret that the Deputy's party at different times sought to undermine that agreement. Even now, it should seek to work the agreement to its fullest.
Deputy Carthy spoke about me convincing others. If Sinn Féin really wants to convince others, it is time it stopped glorifying past atrocities.
I am talking about the future.
This is about the future.
It is not.
If we want to convince people that we should share this island, Sinn Féin needs to stop glorifying past atrocities.
The Taoiseach is still talking about the past.
Deputy Stanley raised the issue of Narrow Water, the terrible atrocity there and the British establishment needing to learn lessons. He was, in my view, referring to what happened to Louis Mountbatten and two young boys who were murdered at Mullaghmore and to others. I understand that Sinn Féin will never condemn that atrocity. I ask Deputy Carthy to do so. That would be a step to the future.
The Taoiseach needs to wise up.
I heard the mother of Paul Maxwell on Joe Duffy's "Liveline" two weeks ago talking about what happened. The people who detonated that bomb could see who was on the boat. I cannot get that image out of my mind. They pressed the detonator and killed young people in a merciless way.
Does the Taoiseach want to talk about a single act that took place, or the future?
What would really advance reconciliation and understanding would be if Sinn Féin, in an unequivocal manner, condemned that atrocity. I think Sinn Féin should do so. The endless attempt by it and others to glorify terrible atrocities in the past is holding back reconciliation in this country. Sinn Féin has a one-sided approach to history and a one-sided narrative. It is Sinn Féin's way and no other way.
The Taoiseach has spent two minutes talking about the past. I am asking him to talk about the future.
That is my answer. Sinn Féin needs to face up to that and deal with it. I do not know whether it is that Deputy Carthy knew people who were involved in that atrocity that he is reluctant to condemn it. I ask him to condemn it. It is a very serious issue.
That is pathetic.
We have had too much in recent times of Sinn Féin spokespeople saying different things to suit different agendas at different times. The overarching narrative has been that what Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA did in all circumstances was justifiable and so on. There is a lack of a candid approach in terms of having the guts to condemn an atrocity committed by the Provisional IRA. That, by any standard, was one.
I asked the Taoiseach about the future.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of the all-island approach to Covid-19 as did Deputy McDonald. As far as Covid-19 in the North is concerned, I have left politics outside the door in all my dealings with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I respect the two jurisdictions and I respect there are two chief medical officers. I am not sure Deputy McDonald has always left politics outside the door in relation to that issue because she sometimes sought to blame the Republic. In more recent times, there has been a more consensual approach in terms of the issue. What is happening in the North in terms of the incidence rate there, the impact on hospitalisations and the impact on ICU is difficult and concerning. As we see it, if one does the modelling, the numbers could increase from where they are now and result in a more severe impact on hospitalisations and ICU. We have to stand in solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland in relation to this challenge they now face, to do everything we can to be of assistance and to remain vigilant in respect of our own situation here. What this demonstrates, as I said earlier, is the exponential rate at which this virus can grow.
The European Union is committed to the COVAX initiative and to helping those countries that are not in a position to afford the vaccines. Ultimately, there will be a surplus of vaccines in Europe in the latter part of the year.
The WHO has its initiatives and they should be funded more effectively because we need a global elimination of the virus, and some countries are not where the more advanced countries are. We support, and have been supportive of, the various initiatives that have been designed to provide vaccines to the least well-off across the globe. We will continue to do that.
On the all-island front, our chief medical officers are working together, our clinicians have been sharing advice and both health systems have been sharing advice and observations. I said earlier that we will have a meeting on Friday. We are concerned about the high rates of Covid in the Border counties as well. The virus does not respect borders but there are two political jurisdictions, an Executive in the North and a Government in the Republic. We will engage with the Executive to see if we can collectively get the incidence down on the island of Ireland. We are at different stages of the virus now. The fact that the different levels of restrictions have not been aligned over the recent months has proved challenging. The six weeks of level 5 we initiated here worked in getting numbers significantly down. They are not as low as we would have liked but they are the lowest in Europe. We are entering into the Christmas period with the lowest numbers in Europe, which is something we should acknowledge. However, we have to be very vigilant and wear our masks. We have to socially distance and every contact matters. We must protect our loved ones, especially the elderly, our grandparents and parents. That has to be our objective in the Republic.