Ceisteanna - Questions

Government Communications

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service. [25544/21]

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service. [27891/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service. [29780/21]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

4. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service. [29783/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

The Government Information System, GIS, co-ordinates cross-government communications and comprises the Government press office and the Merrion Street content team. GIS co-ordinates communications for cross-government programmes such as the State's response to Brexit and Covid-19. The team also manages press conferences and media briefings both for the Department and in support of cross-government programmes. GIS manages the Government of Ireland identity and a communications capacity building service for public servants, including training and development and a monthly communications network meeting. The Merrion Street team manages content for the Department's gov.ie website as well as the Merrion Street social media platforms.

Much of the Government's communications yesterday focused on returning to work and supports for business, but pillar 2 of the recovery plan, as it is called, includes a number of commitments that fall well short of people's lived experiences. It seems that, increasingly, there is a disconnect between Government policy objectives and the outcomes experienced on the ground. No amount of spin, whoever is spinning, can hide the fact that the Government announced yesterday its intention to close the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, scheme and reduce supports gradually for people who are out of work as a direct consequence of Covid.

We know from research published last month that young people have been hardest hit by unemployment and reduced employment opportunities and progression from Covid-19. A study published today using CSO data tells us that almost three in five of those aged between 18 and 24 were unemployed in March. That is a shocking situation. Therefore, it makes it all the more incredible that in the neighbourhood in which I live, in Cabra, Dublin, the Dublin education and training board, ETB, has decided to end the provision of further education courses at Cabra Community College. This decision was made with no consultation or alternatives offered. It is disastrous and myopic and it will fail the people, and the young people in particular, of not just Cabra but the entire district of Dublin 7. I ask the Taoiseach to raise this matter urgently with the Minister, Deputy Harris, with a view to having it reversed.

There has been significant spend on public information campaigns during the pandemic, although we can all accept there was a necessity for public health reasons. The Department of An Taoiseach roughly estimated that €20 million has been spent since 2020. For example, €1.4 million was spent on online advertising, with a further €500,000 in 2021. Up to the end of April, €8.3 million was spent on broadcast media, of which €1.4 million has been spent thus far this year. Some €6.2 million was spent on print media, of which €1.3 million was spent in 2020, and so on and so forth. The Department has provided me with a long list of spending on this issue. There has been a considerable spend on merrionstreet.ie as well.

Who decides what gets advertised, where and how it is advertised and where the spend is going? Who is making the final decisions? Is it Department officials or political advisers?

The second question is important, given the Taoiseach's history in terms of money being spent by Governments on promoting projects. How much of a budget, if any, does the Taoiseach expect to commit to advertising the economic recovery plan which was published yesterday? I would be shocked if there was an advertisement put out, considering the history in terms of the strategic communications unit, much of which I agreed with.

Will there be any advertising campaigns during the Taoiseach's time in government for political decisions made as regards the recovery plan or anything else? I presume not. I presume the Taoiseach will stand over what he said in opposition - I apologise; he was supporting the previous Government - regarding projects and political decisions in that they will not be promoted in a political way by his Government.

As we speak, advertisements on the radio are inviting people to check out the Government's website on the national recovery programme and all the announcements being made. However, a couple of announcements are absent, about which I have repeatedly asked the Taoiseach. More importantly, the groups affected by the pandemic and public health measures and whose incomes and livelihoods have been decimated as a result have repeatedly been asking about them. It appears there is nothing in all the announcements for these groups.

The first of those groups is made up of the taxi drivers, who the Taoiseach met in the last week or two. Last week, for the second time, they were outside here in large numbers protesting and looking for a financial package of support to help their industry which is on its knees and will remain so as long as music, entertainment, tourism and all those areas continue to be severely restricted.

The other group is made up of the musicians. The music and entertainment business assistance scheme, MEBAS, was announced, but I was talking to musicians last night who have been campaigning on this and they said the eligibility criteria, once again, will mean the vast majority who need help will not get it. The musician I was talking to said he was not joking when he said he was having bread and jam for dinner and saving a banana for tomorrow, because he did not have the money to eat. That is how economically decimated musicians who work in pubs and clubs have been. He said, once again, despite all the promises, there is little or nothing in the economic recovery plan for the musicians and, of course, the Government is threatening to cut the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP.

The Government information spin machine has been trying to prepare the ground for a reintroduction of JobBridge, a JobBridge 2.0. Rather than debating it in the Dáil, we saw it mentioned in one of the Sunday newspapers. There will be substantial opposition to any attempt to reintroduce a JobBridge scheme, even through the backdoor. The plans yesterday refer to a new work experience placement programme with a target of 10,000 participants. For the Government to think it can trick people into accepting the bringing back of JobBridge under another name shows there is a plan to return to austerity and keep wages extremely low, despite what the Taoiseach has said publicly.

JobBridge was about exploitation. Even the former Minister of State, John Halligan, admitted it was widely exploited by employers. I lead a campaign called ScamBridge, which outed one scheme after another, exposing the reality of what they were, in that people were working for €1.25 per hour. The Government was ultimately forced to abolish it because of public outrage. We do not need another so-called job activation scheme. We do not need these schemes to force people to work for free. Instead, we need the creation of real, quality, green jobs.

On Deputy McDonald's comments and views on the recovery plan, today hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation, guest houses and hostels are opening. This is evidence the Government's strategy is working, in terms of reopening society and the economy and getting thousands of people back to work in construction, retail, personal services, hairdressing and childcare, which we are keen on doing. We are also providing substantial resources to provide additional job opportunities, in particular for young people. It is all about getting opportunities for young people, in terms of training and jobs.

Deputy McDonald consistently accuses other politicians of being disconnected. One gets the sense, in recent times, Sinn Féin is disconnected from reality. The Government will have borrowed €40 billion by the end of this year, in the middle of a pandemic. It is substantial. Up to €8 billion has been spent so far on the pandemic unemployment payment. Sinn Féin does not believe in raising revenue anywhere. It is just not real, in terms of what is coming from the Opposition side.

I do not know whether the Deputy has members on the education and training board, ETB. The Minister for Education cannot intervene in every ETB, but we will check that out, in respect of Cabra. I do not know the background of why Dublin City ETB has taken that decision.

On Deputy Kelly's question, it is Department officials who make decisions on the allocation. We all accept the campaigns informed citizens of all stages of restrictions, as they were introduced and, subsequently, lifted. That had to be done. Public information campaigns were used to communicated with citizens on the supports being made available by Government throughout the pandemic. Campaigns included information on business and well-being supports, postponement of the leaving certificate 2020, school reopening and the job stimulus plan.

Campaigns also encouraged key behaviours necessary to control the virus. Campaigns communicated the reopening plan in the summer of 2020 and the national framework for living with Covid-19. These are public information notices and there will be some of these notices on the recovery and resilience plan. There will not be any political advertising, but there will be public information, in respect of any new schemes which have come in, or any changes to existing schemes, which is public information citizens need to be able to access in a clear and concise manner.

Some of the campaigns have been innovative, particularly in respect of young people, because young people have lost out the most in the pandemic, in terms of opportunities and the quality of life. That has come back from research and in that context, we have refocused some advertising campaigns to connect with young people on a range of issues pertaining to the pandemic.

On the various schemes, we will continue, for example, the employment wage subsidy scheme. It has been extended to the end of the year. People and businesses need to know that. People need to know about the Covid-19 restrictions support scheme and the restart grant, which is very significant, in terms of doubling the rate for three weeks. That is all about real jobs. It is about making sure we protect real jobs in the economy and enable people to get back.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, there will be a package for taxi drivers, which the Minister, Deputy Ryan, has been working on. I met with the taxi drivers on a range of issues. The music and entertainment business assistance scheme, MEBAS, has been announced and I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. I do not know whether Deputy Boyd Barrett has related that question to the Minister, who has been committed and persevered and worked hard to support the arts through a variety of schemes, including supports for artists, not just in terms of pandemic unemployment payments, but also initiatives which endeavour to protect different types of artists and musicians in different situations.

The MEBAS is one such announcement. Work is ongoing on a pilot scheme recommended by the recovery task force, in respect of basic income for artists, which would be groundbreaking. That is where we are. I do not accept Deputy Murphy's point. Again, for him, it seems it is all about the campaign. As far as I am concerned, it is about creating jobs and providing solutions to issues people face in their daily lives, not trying to exploit the challenges and problems on a continuing basis.

There is a campaign against this, that and the other. I do not get any sense of coherence as to how we create jobs in this society. Deputy Paul Murphy's position is very anti-enterprise and anti the creation of real jobs in our society and economy.

Economic Policy

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the national reform programme. [28373/21]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the national reform programme. [28375/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the national reform programme. [25953/21]

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

8. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the national reform programme. [27892/21]

Mick Barry

Ceist:

9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the national reform programme. [29773/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 9, inclusive, together.

The national reform programme is an important element of the European semester, the annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination which takes place among EU member states. As part of the semester, each member state prepares and submits a national reform programme to the European Commission each April. This provides an overview of reforms and policy actions, including in response to country-specific recommendations. Preparation of the national reform programme is co-ordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach with input from relevant Departments and agencies.

For 2021, in line with guidance from the European Commission, Ireland's national reform programme has been integrated into our national recovery and resilience plan. The national recovery and resilience plan is required to access funding under the EU's recovery and resilience facility. Ireland is expected to receive €915 million in grants in 2021 and 2022, with a further set of grants to be allocated in 2023. A draft of Ireland's national recovery and resilience plan was submitted to the Commission by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on 28 May 2021. The key aspects were also included in the Government's economic recovery plan published earlier this week.

I am on the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, which deals with a lot of these and with reports and commentaries on the Irish economic situation. It is an interesting fact that groups like the IMF, which we do not associate with left-wing ideology, have said a number of things. One is that income supports should not be pulled too early. Despite that, the Government has given an arbitrary date to pull income supports from people whose income and livelihood have been devastated by Covid and the pandemic measures the Government has taken.

I repeat the point about the musicians. There is no clear timeframe for musicians and the Government will cut their PUP. They are eating, as one reported to me last night, bread and jam for dinner. There is a problem. They say the onerous character of the eligibility criteria for MEBAS means the majority of musicians will not qualify.

Another thing various bodies commenting on the Irish post-Covid period have said is that we have to really invest in education and retraining. I have repeatedly raised the question with the Taoiseach of psychologists and the fact they have to work unpaid on placement and face shocking fees, such that it is almost impossible for people from a working-class or modest-income background to get a doctorate in psychology. Can we do something to reduce the burden of fees and stop the situation where they have to work for nothing on placement across the health service?

This national reform programme talks about climate action but, like so much else from the Government, the talk and the actions do not add up. At the same time as the fine talk, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has given the green light to Irish Cement to start burning a million tyres a year in its cement kiln in Limerick city. How on earth in this day and age can it be acceptable for big business to burn tyres in the city, right beside a school, a public park and people’s homes? There are major climate implications and serious health risks, especially if something goes wrong, as has happened repeatedly in the past in this factory. This plan should be resisted. Limerick Against Pollution has done great work campaigning against this over the years and the people of Limerick should not accept this. Together with the climate movement, they should organise protests and civil disobedience to stop these tyre-burning plans and protect our planet.

It also incidentally highlights a severe lack of accountability of the EPA, which has, for example, special exemptions from lawsuits despite many recommendations that it should not have such. Will the Taoiseach intervene and ensure this dangerous project does not go ahead and that there is a proper review of how it was given permission in the first place?

Ireland’s national reform programme is to be integrated into the Government’s national recovery and resilience plan. The aim, as I understand it, is to mitigate the economic and social impact of Covid and make our economy and society more sustainable, resilient and better prepared for the challenges ahead. On that basis, what provision does the national reform programme intend to make for tackling poverty or committing to the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights?

Yesterday the Taoiseach was asked to report on his recent engagements with the social partners and we could summarise the Taoiseach's update as underwhelming. Despite establishing a social dialogue unit in his Department, it appears its only engagements have been with the Labour Employer Economic Forum. In its submission to the national reform programme last year, Social Justice Ireland recommended an implementation mechanism for the European Pillar of Social Rights be established involving social and civil society partners. Has the Taoiseach considered tasking his new unit with this work? Crucially, Social Justice Ireland called for this implementation of the pillar to be progressed in ways that are legally binding, aiming for equal opportunities and access to the labour market, fair working conditions and social protection and inclusion. When we look at the current and historic barriers to equality of opportunity for people with disabilities, carers, young people from areas of disadvantage or the Traveller community, it is clear we need brand new thinking and new approaches in tackling inequality.

I will make three points. First, yesterday we got the national recovery and resilience plan. The Government will have to reconsider what it is doing in relation to PUP, particularly for those in the arts and entertainment industry and a number of others sectors which will not survive if the Government continues with this cut. I think the Taoiseach knows that. It is also an opportunity to reform the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and make it more substantial. Transforming EWSS into a short-term work scheme would ensure we have a support system in place for future downturns. Yesterday was not the first time we have heard about plans to link unemployment payments to past work PAYE and PRSI contributions. This is a standard model in many EU countries. However, will there be PRSI increases or changes in the budget to fund this? It is a valid question.

Second, the general scheme of the local property tax was published today. There is not one mention of the equalisation fund. What is the Government's stance on that fund? There are 20 local authorities depending on €133 million. I presume it is staying and it is standard. Are there any changes the Taoiseach needs to notify us of?

My final point is slightly off-topic but concerns reform. I understand it is to be announced that the leaving certificate results will come out on 3 September. That gives colleges and students no time. Some colleges are back a couple of days later. Is it accurate that the leaving certificate results will be out on 3 September? How are colleges and universities meant to deal with Covid issues and this issue as regards orientation and students getting accommodation if the results only come out then?

On the points made by Deputy Boyd Barrett, we are not pulling supports early; we are extending them. Notwithstanding the fact Deputies thought we would be ending them at the end of June, we are not. We are extending the pandemic unemployment payment until September and, with reductions, from September right out to February. By then we will have reopened our economy and society. We will be getting people back to work and giving supports to people to get back to work and create new jobs.

The EWSS alone supports 315,000 workers and it is being extended to the end of the year. The Covid restriction support scheme, CRSS, has also been enhanced in terms of the restart payment of three weeks at a double rate. That is significant. A new business resumption support scheme is being introduced. Commercial rates are being waived for another three months. The reduced 9% VAT rate will be kept going until September 2022.

All of that is about jobs. Deputy Boyd Barrett does not mention any of it. He comes in here and says nothing is being done.

The Deputy does actually. He says nothing is being done and he ignores the very substantive allocation of resources to protect jobs and to create jobs. I must put that on the record. There is a variety of support schemes. The Minister will continue to work with all those involved in the arts and music industry because we realise it has been severely hit and needs help and support. We are very committed to doing that. A number and variety of schemes have been provided.

There will be a new youth employment charter for young jobseekers; 50,000 education and training places are being rolled out; €114 million is being provided to SOLAS for a recovery skills response programme; and there is an action plan for apprenticeships extending to 2025, which will increase the number of apprentices registered to 10,000 per annum by 2025. So far, the response to the grant for the apprenticeship incentivisation scheme has worked very well and we have had a significant increase in apprenticeships, which is what we want. We want more of that.

It is a very extensive and good plan. The recovery and resilience plan we have submitted to Europe is good. It is good on the green economy, which again has been dismissed by Deputy Paul Murphy and others. It is good on education and work activation, which is important. I know, as I have experience of this. As far back as when I was Minister for Education and Science, we ran an 18 month technician training programme with Intel, Hewlett-Packard and other companies, where they provided a six months internship for people after 12 months in institutes of technology. People who were long-term unemployed got satisfying, lifelong careers from such an interventionist programme.

A range of such programmes is now in place to help people reorient and get new jobs. It is an action-focused plan, which will yield results. It will also yield results in terms of infrastructure. The investment in education is quite significant and takes up a large share of the recovery and resilience element of the funding and also the broader measures the Government is taking in particular to get people back to work and to get people opportunities in employment. As I indicated, we will work with musicians.

In terms of Deputy Paul Murphy's question, as Taoiseach I do not intervene in planning applications around the country, nor can I operationally interfere with the Environmental Protection Agency's assessments in respect of specific proposals and applications. I know it is a major issue of concern for people in the region, but the idea that I can individually go in there and just stop something is a classic overly simplistic presentation by the Deputy. He knows that full well.

In response to Deputy McDonald's question about the social dialogue unit within my Department, we are engaging, not just with the LEEF, but as I said yesterday I had quite a lengthy and very constructive engagement with the environmental pillar, for example, in respect of issues pertaining to climate change, climate change legislation and the circular economy. I am meeting shortly with the agricultural pillar. I have also met separately with Social Justice Ireland. What we need is delivery right across the system – delivery in housing at every level. The one thing that is holding us back is constant analysis, re-analysis and second guessing of this project and that project. We need action at all levels. I cannot understand how it is taking three and four years for housing projects to get through councils and then they get voted down again and they get delayed for another three years, all the while people shout and roar in here about a housing crisis.

The same applies right across the board in terms of getting things moving, for example, on climate change. We are against property tax and carbon tax, yet we want funding to do X, Y and Z all of the time. There are always equations. There is revenue and there is spending. The carbon tax is ring-fenced to deal with fuel poverty, for example; it is also ring-fenced to enable environmental projects in farming and it is also there to retrofit housing, which ultimately in the long term will help families with their fuel bills. However, that funding must be raised and ring-fenced if we want to really put meat on the bone of climate change. Sinn Féin and the far left will oppose all of that because they are opposed to tax on this, that and the other. I do not know where they think we are going to broaden the tax base to sustain real change in climate and housing. They are against everything and they oppose everything, and they keep calling for more and more spending. What is being presented consistently by Sinn Féin and the far left in this House day in, day out is economically incoherent. They cannot have it both ways all of the time, in particular in a situation when people do it differently when they are in government.

Deputy Kelly referred to the EWSS. Its fundamental objective is to protect jobs at the moment, and it has done that very effectively. It is a generous scheme as well. Many have commented on its effectiveness. We are establishing a commission on welfare and taxation to deal with the issue the Deputy identified in terms of PRSI. We do need to move to a situation where if someone is made redundant that there would be a pay-related dimension to that and he or she would not suffer a huge reduction in salary.

I thank the Taoiseach.

That is something we should work on.

We must move to Question No.10.

What about equalisation and the leaving certificate?

The Exchequer will provide funding for the equalisation fund, but we believe that providing 100% to each local authority is the right thing to do.

And the leaving certificate.

And the psychologists as well.

Departmental Functions

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international and European Union division of his Department. [28067/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and international division of his Department. [26505/21]

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

12. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and international division of his Department. [26508/21]

Paul Murphy

Ceist:

13. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and international division of his Department. [26511/21]

Gino Kenny

Ceist:

14. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and international division of his Department. [26514/21]

Gary Gannon

Ceist:

15. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international and European Union division of his Department. [29412/21]

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

16. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the EU and international division of his Department. [29456/21]

Mick Barry

Ceist:

17. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the international and European Union division of his Department. [29772/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 17, inclusive, together.

The European Union and international division of my Department works on all aspects of European Union and international policy within my Department, including issues relating to the European Union and the United Kingdom relationship.

The division assists me in my role as a member of the European Council and in my other European Union engagements. It provides advice and briefing for meetings of the European Council and other EU summits, multilateral events, and for bilateral engagements with Heads of Government of EU member states, the United States, and other countries. It works to ensure a strategic and coherent whole-of-government approach to cross-cutting European Union policies and international issues generally, including, in the context of Ireland's membership of the UN Security Council, matters such as global peace and security, international and sustainable development, and the external dimensions of climate action.

The division also supports the work of the Cabinet committee on Europe and oversees the implementation of the Global Ireland 2025 strategy, which is progressing very well. Ireland's footprint is now quite extensive, not just within Europe but across the globe.

Last week the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in Gaza and the occupied Palestinian territories, including east Jerusalem. During the special sitting of the council, the UN heard how Israeli forces had targeted homes, medical facilities, media centres, Covid-19 testing centres, schools, and a police station. It also heard that there is no evidence that any of these buildings that were targeted and destroyed had a military function, as had been claimed by Israel.

The motion passed last week by the Dáil marks the most explicit and united call by any parliament in Europe against the annexation and the illegal Israeli occupation. Important as the motion is, it will mean nothing to the people of Palestine if we do not use our collective voice to demand action from the international community and Europe to hold Israel to account. It is the Taoiseach and the Government who have the greatest responsibility in this regard.

The Government's action must include progressing the occupied territories Bill and using our seat on the UN Security Council to progress the positions, aims and ambitions of last week's motion within the European Union. I ask the Taoiseach to set out for us when the occupied territories Bill will again come before the Oireachtas and be put on the Statute Book and how he plans to advance the positions adopted by the Dáil in our motion in the coming weeks and months.

Last week, the Government unfortunately voted against my amendment seeking to impose sanctions on Israel of the same sort we imposed on apartheid South Africa. I think that is a mistake and I think history will ultimately vindicate the view that this is an apartheid state and that it should be treated in the same way as apartheid South Africa.

Beyond that general proposition, I want to give the Taoiseach a specific instance he should investigate of the apartheid policies of Israel, which is that of Irish passport holders or European Union passport holders who are Palestinian, who cannot travel through Israeli airports to go to Gaza, the West Bank or Jerusalem. The Taoiseach can and I can, but somebody with an Irish passport who goes to Tel Aviv to try to get to Gaza will be turned back and told he or she has to go by Egypt. That is apartheid against our citizens who happen to be Palestinians. What is ironic is that Israelis get a visa waiver to come here or anywhere in Europe. Even the United States does not extend that privilege to Israel precisely because it discriminates against Palestinian co-citizens, but we do. They are discriminating in an apartheid, racist way against our citizens while we are giving a free pass to Israelis. Europe does not give that free pass to Palestinians coming into Europe, so Europe is practising apartheid against Palestinians by denying them the same freedom of access without a visa that it allows to Israelis. That is apartheid and racism, and I would ask the Taoiseach to do something about it.

There was quite a bizarre story a couple of weeks ago which illustrated a very important point about the position of Ireland in the world and the role it plays in terms of supporting and facilitating US imperialism. It was the story about the massive US air force jet landing at Baldonnel. I and many others asked a whole bunch of questions about it and what emerged was that the pilot had landed there because he wanted to go and see the Cliffs of Moher, and he had gone down low, had been facilitated by air traffic controllers, had taken a picture and so on. It highlighted the fact of relatively significant numbers of US military planes stopping in Ireland. As I asked and did not get a clear answer, I will have to presume this plane was not inspected for weapons. Perhaps the Taoiseach can provide information if, in fact, it was inspected. We also do not know, or the question was not answered, whether this plane was involved in recent military actions or military exercises, or what it was en route to do. It highlights the point of Ireland being used as a war port by the US military en route to the Middle East. Clearly, all uses of Shannon Airport, Baldonnel and anywhere else by the US military should be ended.

It is over a week since the Ryanair plane was forced to land in Belarus, which led to the detention of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. The US now joins with the European Union in imposing sanctions on Belarus over its campaign to crush critics of the President of Belarus and its diversion of the Ryanair aircraft so that anti-Government activists could be arrested. I want to get an update on what actions the Government has taken in regard to this issue, both as a nation and within the EU. My colleague, Deputy Howlin, raised this in the Dáil yesterday. We also need to know if Russia was involved in this hijacking and we need to put questions to the Russian ambassador. Where are we at in regard to proposed sanctions? There was an awful lot of activity on this a week ago but there seems to be less now.

The second issue is in regard to the EU directive on the minimum wage which is being proposed. Where are we at in this regard? If enacted, it would be a very important endeavour and would oblige member states to take measures to boost coverage to a target of 70%. What steps has the Government taken to push this through? Is the Taoiseach supportive of it? What are the timelines around it? Will the Taoiseach update the House on where he thinks this is going? Will it be enacted? Will the Taoiseach support it?

The Chinese regime wants to erase the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong Kong has been the only Chinese city where public commemoration events have been held and not banned; for example, 180,000 people attended the event in 2019. This year, the event has been banned by the Hong Kong authorities, acting on behalf of the Chinese regime. Those who dare to attend face five years in jail and those who publicise the event face a year. Last week, when I asked a similar question, the Taoiseach said that concerns would be expressed through EU channels. This week, I want to ask him will he separately make direct representation to the Chinese Embassy here in Dublin to register opposition to the repression in China and Hong Kong, to the show trial of the 47 election candidates and to the banning of this Tiananmen vigil?

In regard to the range of questions on the Middle East, Deputy McDonald correctly raised the issue of the appalling violations of human rights in Gaza and East Jerusalem. The Irish Government has been very consistent and very strong in regard to this issue, both at the UN Security Council and in terms of our engagement at European level. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has pursued these issues robustly in all fora.

We have supported the collective, united approach from the Dáil in respect of the terrible violence that occurred between Israel and Gaza. We have condemned the launching of rockets by Hamas from Gaza into Israel, which should be condemned and I think all Deputies should condemn that. It is a wrong thing to do and has caused death as well. Equally, or more so, there is the wholly disproportionate response by the Israeli defence forces. The high number of casualties is shocking, particularly the number of children who have been killed and entire families have been literally wiped out by Israeli forces. When they bomb Gaza, given its high density, that is what they know is going to happen. It is unacceptable morally for Israel to do that.

The other key point I would make in respect of what Deputy Boyd Barrett has said is that Israel does place enormous restrictions in terms of access into Gaza. When I visited Gaza some years ago as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I had to go in through Egypt. I was the only Foreign Minister who managed to get into Gaza in the aftermath of the war at that time, in 2009, because I was facilitated by the Egyptian authorities. I saw at first hand the destruction the violence had caused at that stage. This is a repeated cycle of activity – bombing, destruction, then international support comes in from the European Union and others to rebuild, to be followed by another cycle of destruction. It is extraordinary what the children and families have to go through. Without the United Nations through UNRWA - the United Nations Relief and Works Agency - the European Union and others, the lives of those in Gaza and the West Bank would be extraordinarily poor and deprived, notwithstanding the extraordinary challenges they face right now and on a daily basis.

The Irish Government wants to try to work towards an international resolution, and people can have different approaches. Deputy McDonald raised the occupied territories Bill. We are being advised that, legally, that is not compatible with European law, and that is the advice we received. That said, we have supported legal avenues to differentiate between settlements and Israel, for example, by joining a case before the European courts last year on the labelling of certain goods produced in settlements.

The programme for Government also states the Government will "honour our commitment to recognise the State of Palestine as part of a lasting settlement of the conflict, or in advance of that, when we believe doing so will progress efforts to reach a two-state solution or protect the integrity of Palestinian territory." Fulfilling that commitment is something the Government is keeping under active review.

On what is happening in East Jerusalem, Irish officials have been and are on the ground monitoring it closely in co-operation with EU partners. Ireland provides humanitarian assistance, legal and other supports to specific developments to improve the situation of Palestinians. We fund a number of civil society partners that are active on human rights issues which impact specifically on Palestinians in East Jerusalem including in relation to evictions. We have always consistently and strongly opposed settlements and we will continue to do so. We believe them to be illegal under international law.

I welcome Deputy Kelly raising Belarus, the only Deputy to do so today. It is a very serious issue in how it reflects how authoritarian leaders believe they can do anything now and get away with it in undermining the human rights of journalists or individuals who are living in the capitals of European countries such as Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega. Ireland, along with our European colleagues, will introduce sanctions. Last week's European meeting agreed on concrete steps to protect our citizens, including the introduction of new sanctions. We have called on all airlines to avoid Belarusian airspace and we are commencing work to ban Belarusian airlines from EU airspace. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, supported calls for transparent, independent investigation at the special meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization on 27 May. We have concerns for Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega and we call for their immediate and unconditional release. There was a debate in the House on that yesterday. We will continue to work on it. We believe a strong response is required. This is not acceptable and it crosses a line.

The situation in China has been raised. As I said earlier, we consistently raise these issues relating to the Uyghur community and the restrictions on freedom of religion and belief, arbitrary detention, widespread surveillance, forced labour, forced sterilisation and birth control in general, both individually and along with our EU partners and the wider international community.

I am sorry Taoiseach, we are out of time for this.

I will just conclude on this quickly. We raised the matter at an international stage at the UN Human Rights Council on 15 March. Likewise, the EU has made a number of very clear statements on the situation in Hong Kong, including most recently on 11 March. Again, it is a matter of regret that fundamental freedoms, democratic principles and political pluralism that are essential to Hong Kong's identity and prosperity are under increasing pressure by authorities. We are working with our EU partners to do everything we can to raise these issues. The matter has been raised by the Minister for Foreign Affairs with the ambassador of China in Dublin during his 30 May meeting with the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi.

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