Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 10 Nov 2021

Vol. 1013 No. 6

Ceisteanna - Questions

Anglo-Irish Relations

Alan Kelly


1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the UK Prime Minister. [47882/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the British Prime Minister. [52216/21]

Brendan Smith


3. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent engagement he has had with the UK Prime Minister. [52554/21]

Seán Haughey


4. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he had recent discussions with the UK Prime Minister. [54307/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the British Prime Minister. [54393/21]

Paul Murphy


6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the British Prime Minister. [54396/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

I participated in the world leaders' summit at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, COP26, in Glasgow on 1 and 2 November. I had an opportunity to engage briefly with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Johnson, during the summit, and we agreed to meet in the near future. I also attended a number of events hosted by him during the summit.

I spoke by telephone with Mr. Johnson on 20 July in light of the cancellation of our meeting planned for the previous day for Covid reasons. The Prime Minister and I had a good discussion across a wide range of issues on how we can refresh the bilateral relationship for the post-Brexit era. We also discussed the Northern Ireland protocol and I stressed the importance of utilising the EU-UK framework for issues related to the protocol. We exchanged views on the Covid-19 situation, especially in regard to the Delta variant. I also raised legacy issues, including serious concerns at the British Government's proposals and the impact they would have on victims and families.

Previously, I met with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Chequers on Friday, 14 May. On that occasion, our discussions focused on ways our two Governments can continue to work together to support all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and promote peace and prosperity on both a North-South and east-west basis. We also discussed implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol and legacy issues.

Last weekm the Taoiseach stated it would be reckless and irresponsible for the UK to trigger Article 16. As we all know, tensions continue to rise. A meeting between the EU negotiator, Mr. Maroš Šefčovič, and Lord Frost on Friday ended without any form of agreement. It is reported today that face-to-face talks are taking place this week between senior Irish and British Government figures. The Taoiseach might outline to the House in detail what that involves and who is taking part in those discussions.

Discussions between Irish and EU officials to plan a response should the UK trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol have also been held. The Taoiseach outlined to us his discussions and meeting with Prime Minister Johnson which, it seems, were not of much value. In relation to the Taoiseach's discussions with US President Biden, will the Taoiseach outline what was said and what, if anything, was helpful?

There is a real risk in the coming period. We all know that this dispute will end up in an all-out trade war. Unfortunately, the odds on that are growing all the time. Obviously, there are worries in relation to unrest in Northern Ireland, which is the last thing we all need. What are we doing collectively to minimise tension and conflict in the North? How will the approach of the Governments change? Will the approach change or will other tactics be employed, working with the EU, over the coming weeks?

I will meet the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Louise Haigh, who will address my party's conference on Friday night. I will express our views from our side of the House to her.

The Taoiseach has reported that he raised the issue of legacy with the British Prime Minister in May and July. Can he confirm that he raised the issue in his exchange with Boris Johnson at last week's conference?

Will the Taoiseach elaborate on what contact has been had with the British Prime Minister over the past two weeks in respect of plans that are at an advanced stage, we understand, to introduce amnesty legislation - a Statute of Limitations - in the coming weeks? I know the Government is opposed to the legislation and while that is welcome, it is not enough. I am eager to hear what political and diplomatic moves and pressure have been used in respect of the British Government. I ask that the Taoiseach be as specific as possible.

We await the triggering of Article 16. Received wisdom seems to be that matter is also imminent. How advanced are the Taoiseach's plans on a response to that triggering?

It would be a mistake for anyone to try to overstate or ratchet up any sense of crisis or tensions on the streets. We have had limited incidents. They are regrettable and unacceptable but the vast majority of people from all communities and perspectives support the protocol and do not wish to see a triggering of Article 16.

As we have heard, last week the Taoiseach told the Dáil that the triggering of Article 16 would be irresponsible, unwise and reckless. It certainly looks as though that is about to happen. Is that the Taoiseach's understanding of the position? It is totally unnecessary and will be seen as a hostile act. It would add to political instability in Northern Ireland and cause economic disruption on the island of Ireland. The breach of trust would further damage relations between the EU and UK and it would lead to a deterioration in British-Irish relations, which are at a low ebb at present. If the UK triggers Article 16, the EU is sure to retaliate in some way. Tariffs could be imposed by the EU. There could be a trade war. Ultimately the trade and co-operation agreement could be suspended and in 2022, we could be back to the possibility of a no-deal Brexit again. This is in nobody's interest. We need calm heads and to be solution-focused. Ireland within the EU would have a big role to play in formulating the EU response. Procedures are in place for the triggering of Article 16. A month's notice must be given and the provisions of Annex 7 would kick in. The triggering does not abolish the protocol, as we know.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about his personal relationship with Boris Johnson. I know the Taoiseach's policy is to engage directly with political leaders and to build up personal relations with them. How would the Taoiseach characterise his personal relations with the Prime Minister now? As he has been critical of Opposition leaders in the past for not consulting and engaging with dialogue, I would be interested in his response. Will the Taoiseach impress on the Prime Minister, the next time he meets him, that he has to engage with the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement? Both Governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. They have to act impartially. The peace process is fragile. It needs the two Governments to support and engage with it and the ensure the full implementation of all the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.

I would not be jumping over myself to have a personal or political relationship with Boris Johnson to be honest and I am certainly no fan of his but did the Taoiseach discuss with him the differing strategies on dealing with the Covid pandemic? The one thing that I will give him a little credit for, and on which I think that the Taoiseach should take a leaf from his book, is that in the UK, you can get free antigen tests - as many as you want or need - as part of the effort to screen for the presence of Covid-19 whereas here in Ireland it costs €100 to get 20 tests. I heard a public health doctor suggest that the reason the Government may be slow in making antigen tests available and using them as a weapon to deal with the pandemic was because of cost.

It is costing billions.

Okay, then let us make them free as they are doing in the UK. I am not saying that Boris Johnson has been top of the class in dealing with the pandemic but this is a measure which many scientists and public health people are saying could be part of dealing with Covid. The UK policy of giving them out free to people when they need them, and as many as they need, is a good policy that we should follow.

I thank all the Deputies for their helpful suggestions and perspectives. Deputies Kelly and Haughey referred to my remarks last week on the protocol, which still stand. We have been here before. The meeting we had in May was comprehensive and lengthy. We had subsequent meetings with the European Commission. In the autumn the situation was on a good track with the European Commission looking at the overall situation and coming forward with a package of quite far-reaching proposals. In particular, European Commissioner, Maroš Šefčovič, went to the North and met all the interests, parties, industrial stakeholders and so on. He did listen and came back with a comprehensive set of measures, which were not a fait accompli in themselves but were the basis for further negotiations with the United Kingdom Government. It is very regrettable that in advance of publication of the Šefčovič package, Lord Frost announced the issue around the European Court of Justice, ECJ. One would have formed the view that it may have been an effort almost to torpedo the Šefčovič package before it was published but I do not think it had that impact. The Šefčovič package is strong and substantive: it deals with sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, matters, customs and the supply of medicines, which were the legitimate issues that people on all sides raised in relation to the protocol.

I met all the parties in Northern Ireland last month to go through all this with them. That was immediately in advance of the publication of the Šefčovič package. I had Maroš Šefčovič before that, as had the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Discussions are still ongoing. I would sound a note of caution that we do not automatically assume that anything will be triggered. It is important that we do not fall into a self-fulfilling prophecy. My view is very strong that I do not think there is a need to trigger Article 16 and it would be wrong to do so. Deputy Haughey mentioned two words, namely, trade and trust. Trade would be disrupted. Access to the Single Market is important to people and businesses in Northern Ireland and is having a beneficial impact. Any triggering of Article 16 could jeopardise that access in the shorter term. What is important now is that we double down on dialogue and engagement. That is what is happening and with the legacy issue.

Taoiseach, we have gone way over time.

Ministerial engagements with counterparts are happening but the opportunities will be taken in the context of those engagements to raise those issues and to point up the primacy of continuing dialogue between the European Union and the United Kingdom.

I am sorry, we are going to have to conclude.

On legacy, if I may say, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council is still considering this. We met again on 24 June. Our Government met the British Government and the Northern parties in a process of intensive engagement. I raised this with the British Prime Minister. They are in no doubt as to our position on this. The British Government will have had a good hearing from all the parties and will now be in no doubt that there is almost unanimous agreement outside the British Government on its direction of travel.

I thank the Taoiseach. The next group of questions has a lot of questioners. If we can limit the supplementary questions to a minute, we may have a chance for the Taoiseach to-----

I did not get a chance to reply to Deputy Boyd Barrett's question.

Well I am sorry, Taoiseach but there is not time. My apologies.

The Taoiseach can throw his response into his answer on this next question. We need antigen tests on public transport.

I never doubted the Deputy's ingenuity to get his point of view across no matter what the context is. The Deputy must have done a good leaving certificate.

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly


7. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport will next meet. [48290/21]

Cian O'Callaghan


8. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport will next meet. [52454/21]

Gary Gannon


9. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport will next meet. [53405/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deal with transport will next meet. [53057/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport will next meet. [54394/21]

Paul Murphy


12. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport will next meet. [54397/21]

Cormac Devlin


13. Deputy Cormac Devlin asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that deals with transport issues; and when it is next due to meet. [54497/21]

James Lawless


14. Deputy James Lawless asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that deals with transport issues; when it last met; and when it is next due to meet. [54498/21]

Mick Barry


15. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with transport will next meet. [54651/21]

I again have to agree absolutely with Deputy Devlin. It has been completely and deliberately spun in a different direction by Deputies; for what reason I do not know. The three key priorities are BusConnects, DART+ and MetroLink. All three of those key projects in the national development plan, NDP, are being moved very quickly by the Minister. They will be brought before the Government, some before the end of the year, and in January or February next year, with a view to getting the planning application for MetroLink in particular, early in 2022.

That is the start date but, as Deputies know, all the environmental impact assessments and all the preliminary work have started already. Major work has already gone into MetroLink and we have to get it ready for planning. As public representatives, the most effective thing we can do is to collectively get behind it when it gets into the planning process. That will be challenging because Deputies will come to the House saying different things when we get to that stage.

They are begrudgers.

It is equally important to point out that under the strategy published yesterday, and Deputy Kelly raised the point about emissions and so on, implementation of the full measures will reduce transport emissions in the greater Dublin area by 69%. This is very significant because further investment in DART and Luas, which are already fully electric, is how that reduction will happen. It will also be as a result of the complete transition away from fossil fuels for buses within 13 years, although I would like to see that happen faster. Acceleration of investment in walking and cycling infrastructure will also deliver substantial greenhouse gas reductions. That is the agenda.

There are a whole range of other projects, such as the rail line to Navan and so forth, that are provided for in that plan.

We are running out of time.

Deputy McDonald raised the issue of school transport in respect of Carrigaline Community Special School. It was a very good announcement and decision that we, together with the ETB, got that school up and running so quickly, which was necessary. The ETB and Bus Éireann should ensure there is proper school transport. I will engage with the Minister and the parties involved in the development of that school, which is providing good quality education for the children who needed access to special education in what has been a challenging context for quite a number of years. We have put a particular focus on facilitating access to this school for the children involved.

I take Deputy Cian O'Callaghan's very fair point on Irish Rail and access issues. I will work with the Minister in making this an absolute requirement across the board in respect of that issue. Deputy Boyd Barrett raised it also.

I will revert to the Minister on the issue of more funding for the electric vehicle, EV, taxi system. I have no issue with more funding to facilitate more utilisation and take-up of electric vehicles by taxi drivers.

I have dealt with the issue raised by Deputy Paul Murphy. We are not cutting public transport initiatives. Some €165 billion over the next ten years has been allocated in the NDP, at a ratio of 2:1 in favour of public transport over cars.

Cabinet Committees

Michael Moynihan


16. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that deals with agriculture; and when it is next due to meet. [48297/21]

Alan Kelly


17. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with agriculture will next meet. [54409/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that deals with agriculture; and when it is next due to meet. [54209/21]

Jackie Cahill


19. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with agriculture will next meet. [54506/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


20. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that deals with agriculture; and when it is next due to meet. [54562/21]

Paul Murphy


21. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that deals with agriculture; and when it is next due to meet. [54565/21]

Mick Barry


22. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the Cabinet committee that deals with agriculture; and when it is next due to meet. [54652/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 16 to 22, inclusive, together.

Issues relevant to agriculture are discussed, as required, at a number of Cabinet committees, including the Cabinet Committee on Economic Recovery and Investment, which last met on 30 September and will next meet on 22 November, and the Cabinet Committee on Environment and Climate Change, which last met on 3 November 2021.

The agriculture sector is the largest indigenous industry in the country and has a key role to play in the economic and social vibrancy of our towns, villages and rural communities, as well as in achieving our decarbonisation targets for 2030 and 2050. The Government works closely with all stakeholders in the sector on key challenges facing the agriculture sector.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 16 to 22, inclusive, together.

Afforestation will play a key role in climate change mitigation; the Minister has acknowledged this. It has been a huge cost for us to have missed our afforestation targets in Ireland in recent years. Over the past five years, we have missed planting targets by more than 15,000 ha. Had this area been afforested, these forests had the potential to remove 5.4 million tonnes of carbon. This is a major missed opportunity.

Furthermore, afforestation for 2021 will be approximately 2,000 ha, which is well below where we should be. Simply put, as the Taoiseach knows, not enough licences are being granted to plant land and increase our current record low levels of afforestation. The Taoiseach also knows we are now in the planting season. Last week, forestry workers were outside the gates of Leinster House protesting because they want to get to work. I stand in solidarity with them. If the Department can only administer a 2,000 ha programme, what changes will we see to immediately address the licensing crisis to ensure future targets are reached? How will farmer confidence be restored and meaningful afforestation be incentivised?

I will return to the matter of the Mercosur deal. Despite recent protestations by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on the deal, it is worth reminding ourselves that the Government agreed to the negotiating mandate for that deal, which included beef. Throughout the negotiations Sinn Féin called repeatedly for beef to be taken out of the negotiating mandate but no action was taken by the Government on that. We warned consistently that this deal was incompatible with the EU's climate action commitment. In fact, the outworking of some of this deal would be utterly destructive to the planet and to climate.

When the deal was done, we again called on the Government and the Opposition to reject together this deal outright. Fianna Fáil agreed with us at the time, yet the position articulated by the Taoiseach was not reflected in the programme for Government agreed with Fine Gael. The only reference to the deal is an economic and sustainability assessment. Last week, the Taoiseach told us that the Mercosur deal is not reconcilable with the climate objectives of the European Union. As that is absolutely the case, my question is straightforward. Has the Taoiseach or the Government informed the EU Commission of Ireland's opposition to Mercosur?

It is essential that forestry, particularly afforestation, is incorporated into the new environmental scheme proposed under Pillar 2 in the next five-year Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, programme. Last time around, participants in the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, were prohibited from planting their land during the five-year programme. If we are to have availability of land in the next five years of the CAP forestry programme, it is essential that the environmental scheme formulated in the next CAP provides farmers with afforestation measures that will allow them to qualify for that scheme. We have only reached 25% of our afforestation targets this year. Land available for afforestation has to be part of this new environmental scheme.

I also ask that the requirement for a thinning licence should be removed from the legislative process. Thinning is just a tool to get a crop to reach its correct maturity. It is ridiculous to have a requirement for a thinning licence. It is holding up the issuing of licences and further clogging a licensing system that is under pressure.

In the past ten days or so, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of the attempt by Coillte, the State forestry company, to sell off Killegar forest in Enniskerry. Despite-----

The Deputy has done well there.

We have done well. I am glad to say I got a call from Coillte yesterday informing me it had decided to abandon the sale. Coillte tried to suggest that the sale was not finalised. I will inform the House that there were for sale signs all around the forest when I went there. Killegar forest was being advertised on an estate agent's website so Coillte had planned to sell it. Intervention and public outcry stopped it.

When Coillte phoned me, I was told it was considering selling because access problems were impeding the Killegar's commercial viability. That points to one of the big problems with forestry in this country, which is that Coillte's mandate is all wrong. It is linked to commercial viability rather than the expansion and protection of the forest estate, issues such as biodiversity and supporting farmers in developing afforestation as a viable livelihood rather than a problem for them. The Government should consider revisiting the Act governing Coillte and changing Coillte's mandate in that context.

Despite signing a pledge to cut global methane emissions by 30%, the Taoiseach has made it clear that he aims to cut them here by a mere 10%. He has indicated that he aims to make up for the shortfall in methane cuts by delivering instead on carbon cuts. Does the Taoiseach accept that he is not comparing like with like? Methane breaks down in the atmosphere more quickly than carbon and methane cuts, therefore, have added value from the point of view of combating climate change. Does the Taoiseach further accept that his low methane reduction targets for this State represent a blow to this country's climate change ambitions and are effectively a surrender to the agribusiness lobby and the big dairy farmers?

There were a number of questions there. Deputies Kelly and Cahill raised the issue of afforestation and issues with the licensing of forestry operations because of changes to the appropriate assessment procedure, due to European Court of Justice and Irish law rulings relating to environmental regulation. We are addressing these issues robustly. I am not happy with the low level of planting over the last decade. It is not where we should have been and we are not where we should be today. In the context of what Deputy Boyd Barrett said, I think we do need commercial forestries but, in parallel with that, we also need native woodlands to be planted and policies and incentives that would facilitate the growth of native woodland. Those policies need to be developed and will be developed. I am very taken by Deputy Cahill's point about the environmental schemes, such as the new Pillar 2 environmental scheme, and that we would look at the aspect of forestry in that context. Obviously it will have to be sustainable and in the context of an environmental scheme. We have to move much more comprehensively, faster and more flexibly on the growing of trees in this country than we currently are doing. That is the bottom line.

The Taoiseach should look at Coillte's mandate in that regard.

Coillte also has a strong agenda in terms of biodiversity and we will be engaging with Coillte in that respect. There is a legitimate argument about the nature of the trees that have been grown over the years but we have to follow through on commitments made. One of the difficulties is that many involved in farming have lost confidence in the programme because of the series of objections and the difficulties in felling and getting licences and so on. The system has to be overhauled. Additional resources have been put into the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, including ecologists, forestry inspectors and additional administrative staff. A team of 27 ecologists has been recruited to deal with licensing, which is an increase from only two 18 months ago. There were only two ecologists dealing with this 18 months ago and there are 27 now. Licensing this year will be significantly up on 2020. We have issued more licences to date this year than in the whole of 2020, with 3,045 this year compared to 2,592 for all of 2020. Some €723 million of carbon tax funding will be allocated to a flagship agri-environmental climate measure. That is in addition to the Pillar 2 scheme to encourage farmers to farm in a greener, more sustainable way. That is carbon tax funding that Deputy McDonald is against. I do not know how we are supposed to do all these things if we do not have some funding. Deputy Boyd Barrett and Deputy Barry are against it-----

Are you against the carbon tax?

I am against carbon tax-----

That is my point. About €723 million has been allocated-----

-----on people. Put it on the corporations.

-----which will help us deal more effectively, and with capacity, with the agenda around climate change. There is a lot of either delusional thinking or just pure politics at play-----

Tax the data centres.

-----in people's attitudes to this agenda because we cannot do it without this. First, the science tells us we should do it. The scientists say it is the right way to go but we also need that funding to change direction in areas like forestry, agri-environment schemes and so on.

Tax the data centres.

In terms of the requirement for a licence for thinning, that is a fair point. I will discuss that with the Minister in response to what is required. As I said earlier, we are looking at measures that might facilitate low-level planting and low-volume planting without having the same bureaucratic necessity that is currently there.

That is badly needed.

The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, are looking at that and whether amendments can be brought forward to facilitate that on farmland as well. I am very impatient and intolerant of this whole area because Ireland is a place where we can and should be growing far more trees than we are growing. Doing so creates a carbon sink, ultimately. It is probably the ultimate guarantor we have in terms of emissions and getting Ireland's contribution to climate change right. I take the overall point that the mandate of Coillte has to be a very clear one. In addition to its work on the commercial side, it has a strong mandate and it must now be part of the solution to climate change by addressing that issue through land use strategies and through the forestry sector. That is something we are very committed to.

Deputy McDonald raised the Mercosur agreement. I have articulated at European Council level Ireland's position on Mercosur because of the continuing deforestation of the Amazon region by the Brazilian Government. I have made that clear. As the Deputy knows, the European Union conducts trade negotiations on behalf of the European Union. Individual states do not. I am intrigued by the Deputy's constant invocation of Mercosur. I understand why she is doing that. For me, it is not compatible with climate change. Of late, the Commission and the European Council are saying that trade agreements more generally have to be in line with the climate change objectives of the European Union. One of the biggest issues on the agenda of the European Union is climate change and that will manifest itself in the Fit for 55 package. There will be a lot of negotiations around that. Challenging issues will arise out of this in the fullness of time but we have made very clear, and I have made it consistently clear at EU Council meetings, our position on Mercosur. Other countries want Mercosur to happen. I believe generally in trade. That is why I supported the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, that is, the Canadian treaty, which Deputy McDonald opposed. She continues to oppose it, as do other Deputies in the House. Yet, CETA has led to a massive increase in the growth of exports from Ireland, from small to medium-sized Irish companies to the Canadian market. I do not know why people are against it or why people oppose-----

Then you have not been listening.

I think you are wrong.

Well I think you are wrong.

Through the Chair, it is an extraordinarily anti-enterprise strategy that would deny Irish companies the opportunity to export such goods and services to Canada and generate jobs at home in so doing.


From an enterprise perspective, the level of opposition to CETA borders on the illiterate at times.

The Opposition needs to be called out from time to time on its anti-enterprise strategies.

There is nothing wrong with our literacy.

I thought the Taoiseach said I must have done a good leaving certificate.

I did. What I meant by that was that even though the subject matter or the title of the essay might change, you would still write a very relevant essay.

Written answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.18 p.m. and resumed at 3.18 p.m.