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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 9 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 4

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Yesterday, I told the Taoiseach that surging fuel prices required that the Government take urgent action to relieve the immense pressure people are under. I appealed to him to bring forward a financial resolution to cut excise duty on petrol and diesel and to remove it entirely from home heating oil. I am very glad to see that good sense has prevailed and the Taoiseach accepts the need to act. Unfortunately, the Taoiseach's approach as set out does not go far enough. It is very important we get this right for people. The proposal I put to the Taoiseach yesterday was to reduce excise duty so that we get the price at the pumps down to €1.75 per litre. The cut proposed by the Taoiseach does not get us anywhere near this point. In fact, hikes overnight erode the benefit of the proposed cut. In many places, prices per litre jumped to as high as €2.20. This means even following the Government's proposed intervention, people will wake up tomorrow and still pay €2 per litre. The Taoiseach acknowledged yesterday that this is not sustainable for people, and it is not. They simply cannot afford €2 per litre today and they will not be able to afford it tomorrow.

I am very disappointed to see the proposal does nothing to bring down the outrageous price of home heating oil. As the Taoiseach knows, it has doubled in the past year and last night the price shot up again. People now face prices of between €800 and €900 for a half fill of oil. This is crazy. It is very stressful for workers and families trying to heat their homes. The energy and fuel costs are a disaster for hauliers, school transport companies, taxi drivers and everybody. They expect the Government to act speedily and decisively. Will the Taoiseach recalibrate the intervention to make it fit the realities of the crisis and deliver meaningful relief immediately?

I have received hundreds of messages this week from people regarding the real-life impact of these hikes. I want to mention two of them, two women as it happens. Amy, who has young children, told me she now chooses between driving the children to school or having a hot meal ready for them. She describes what she is experiencing as torture. She told me she has spent €120 on diesel in the past eight days alone. She told me her son has a hospital appointment on Monday and she seriously does not think she will be able to afford to take him even though he really needs to go. Lorraine, who is in the process of saving for a mortgage, says it is costing her and her partner an extra €50 a week each for fuel. This is a total of €100 a week in total. She has calculated this at €5,000 a year just to travel for work. She describes her situation as soul destroying.

Ní théann an chéim seo sách fada. Ní mór dúinn an praghas ag na pumpaí a fháil síos go €1.75 an lítear, agus ní mór don Rialtas gníomh práinneach a dhéanamh chun costas ola téimh a laghdú. This is the day to get this right. We will work with the Taoiseach to get this right. We cannot have delay or half measures. The financial resolution has to get the cost of petrol and diesel down to €1.75 per litre and keep it there, by further cuts in excise if necessary. We need action on home heating oil.

The Government has decided to effect reductions in excise duties of 20 cent in respect of petrol, 15 cent in respect of diesel and 2 cent in respect of marked gas oil to take effect from Thursday, 10 March.

A drop. That is an insult. It is crazy. Two cent.

The Government has been working on this in recent days. No one in this House has a monopoly on knowledge of what is happening out there in the real world.

The Government does not know what is going on anyway.

The Government will not do anything unless it is put up to it.

Quite obviously what is going on here is the international-----

That is the only reason it is doing this. It was put up to it by us and Sinn Féin. It was not its own crowd that said anything about it.

With the greatest of respect, Deputy Healy-Rae, stop trying to seek glory for yourself and allow people-----

Any man who stands up here and announces 2 cent a litre off agricultural diesel is not living in the real world.

Deputy Healy-Rae-----

I am sorry. I apologise.

We can have this both ways. People outside in the real world want to hear-----

They do not want to hear about 2 cent.

They are not interested in the antics of Deputy Healy-Rae in terms of gaining profile for himself.

What about your antics?

I want to make this point and I will say it again. Everybody knows that global factors have caused the massive increase in the price of oil and the price of gas. Oil is an internationally traded commodity. We are price takers. The price increases have been beyond the Government's control and the control of most governments across Europe. The impact of the war in Ukraine has been stark in terms of the dramatic increase in the prices of oil and gas. Yesterday, Deputy McDonald said she wanted a 25 cent reduction in petrol and diesel. We cannot bring diesel down by 25 cent because of the energy directive. The reduction of 15 cent in respect of excise on diesel is the most that can be provided for when taken in conjunction with the diesel rebate scheme in the context of the minimum rates of excise established in the EU energy tax directive. The Deputy did not do her homework yesterday. She came in here and said she wanted it done now.

We want to reduce the pressure on people. That is why we are reducing excise duty on petrol by 20 cent and the duty on diesel by 15 cent. We would like to do more on diesel-----

Reduce the carbon tax.

-----but there are regulations and frameworks under EU law that do not facilitate such measures right now. We are working with our European Union colleagues to see whether we can introduce greater flexibility in that area. The same applies to VAT. Home heating oil is not subject to excise duty but is subject to VAT at 13.5%. If we reduced that rate, we would run the risk of having to move to a higher rate, 23%, once the crisis is over because we have a derogation with regard to VAT on energy. We want to protect that derogation, which keeps the VAT rate lower than it otherwise would be, for the long term. The objective facts are that, in 2020, we spent €3.4 billion on importing fuels into this country. This year, we are spending €6.2 billion. That illustrates the extraordinary change that has occurred. The price of home heating oil has gone up by €400 in one year because of global factors and nothing else. That needs to be acknowledged as the reality of the situation.

The Government is about to put up the price of home heating oil.

That is in the context of €400. The Deputy is the very guy who will be looking for retrofitting grants for people all over Kerry. He will be up here roaring and shouting about additional expenditure for this, that and the other.

Core Government expenditure has gone up by 5.5% this year. We have allocated approximately €80 billion in the budget. With this package and the package announced a month ago, we are already looking at an additional €800 million and we are only in March. This is funding to respond to this international crisis-----

The Taoiseach will be getting his marching papers.

-----which has driven oil and gas prices to exorbitant levels. We are going to continue to work to protect people, particularly those on the lowest incomes.

Can we please adhere to the time limits?

Amy cannot get her child to a hospital visit. I am not asking the Taoiseach to control international events through some miracle. I know he cannot control them. Neither can I. Nobody here can. I am asking the Taoiseach to do every single thing he can, and to do so quickly, to ensure that mothers like Amy, couples like Lorraine and her partner, workers and small businesses are not totally caught in the grip of the panic that is setting in because people simply cannot make ends meet. I put the proposition to the Taoiseach yesterday that he should cut excise duty on diesel and petrol and get the cost down to approximately €1.75 per litre, although I accept that people will still struggle with that.

You cannot do that.

The prices are growing at such a rate that people expect the Taoiseach to stretch himself and to stretch our European partners and to act in what is a crisis situation. By the way, we have been on to the Taoiseach since last September about talking to the Commission about VAT. He has not done that so he should not cry now. He should tell us how he can get these prices down and keep them down. Half measures will not work.

The problem is that Deputy McDonald operates on sound bites and not on substance and that she does not do her homework. That is the problem.

Look in the mirror.

She comes in here every day and just announces what should happen, as she did yesterday. She said it should happen now but it could not. You just cannot bring it down by more than 15 cent.

(Interruptions).

That is just an illustration of how ill-prepared she was and the lack of homework she did on the subject.

She is telling the truth.

However, we will do everything we can to alleviate these pressures. Since we came into office, we have increased the payments to those with low incomes on the fuel allowance by €1,239 a year.

You put up the price in September.

We have doubled those payments from approximately €630 to €1,239, if you take the €200 electricity rebate into account. What we have been doing to try to help people has been very progressive. I accept that, as the Deputy has said, we cannot cushion the entire blow to the public but we will do everything we can, right across the board. In the package announced a month ago, we reduced the cost of public transport-----

The Government is putting up the carbon tax again in May.

-----we provided a once-off grant of €125 to those on fuel allowance, we cut electricity bills by €200, we reduced the threshold for the drugs payment scheme to €80 and so on. The measures are significant but we understand fully that given the scale of what has occurred, it will not be possible to cover everything that has occurred so far.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the excise measures to cut fuel prices he announced last night. I welcome those measures but I want to ask him about his intentions with regard to some other measures that have recently been discussed. Cutting 15 or 20 cent off the price of a litre of diesel or petrol will really only bring us back to where we were two weeks ago with regard to prices. There is no indication that prices will stop increasing exponentially after those cuts are implemented. There have recently been reports that the Government intends to introduce a swing mechanism, that is, to implement a cut in excise duty if prices go above a certain level and an increase if they fall below that level. However, given how complicated the €200 electricity grant has proven to be, with measures that were announced in December not yet reflected in bills, you have to ask how long it would take to design and implement a swing mechanism. Perhaps the Taoiseach could update us on that.

At least for the short term, the Government needs to cap prices at the pumps at a maximum level and to reduce excise duty and VAT to sustain prices at that level. The Taoiseach said previously that VAT could not be reduced due to EU rules but peacetime rules should not apply during wartime. Extraordinary measures must be taken to try to insulate ordinary workers and families from Putin's price shocks. If prices are not capped, there is a further danger, which is the danger of price gouging. How can the Government be confident that cuts to excise duty will actually be passed on to customers? There were some anecdotal reports last night of prices on forecourts shooting up after the Government announcement. Having just begun to emerge from a pandemic, we are now in yet another unprecedented and perilous situation, that of war in Europe. The coming months will be very hard but we in this House have a duty to do all we can to ease the burden on ordinary workers, who are already struggling to cope with the increase in the cost of living.

I have a few questions. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether the Government intends to introduce a swing mechanism to moderate fuel prices? If not, will he advise as to whether the Government intends to cap fuel prices in the short term? Is the Government advocating a VAT cut as part of the EU response to this disaster and what actions is it taking in that regard? What has the Government done to guard against price gouging? Has there been any contact with the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission on this issue? Does the Government intend to take action with regard to the price of home heating oil?

These issues will be kept under constant review by the Government. The measures we have announced today will cost approximately €320 million. That is on top of the €550 million package we announced just one month ago. The €125 fuel allowance payment will occur next week and that one specific decision will benefit approximately 390,000 recipients. On the broader European issue, we are advocating for greater flexibilities with regard to what member states can do to offset the pressures on consumers and people more generally resulting from the war in particular. Prior to the war, issues relating to emergence from the Covid pandemic and restrictions on gas supplies, which may have pre-empted the war, were already driving prices up fairly significantly. Since the commencement of the war, prices have shot up even further. The impact of that has been very hard on people. We are trying to cushion that blow as much as we possibly can but there are limits to what we can do arising from existing regulatory frameworks that were adopted by everyone in Europe in peacetime. I take the Deputy's point about wartime.

In themselves, price caps cannot work. Oil is an internationally traded commodity.

Therefore, people will pay a price for it. We cannot expect a retailer who pays a wholesaler a certain price to just arbitrarily put a cap on a price. Likewise, all the way along the chain, people will not sell petrol at a loss. The issue of a price cap is being articulated without the obvious implications being fully thought through. It simply would not work because it is a market where we are price takers.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is there to monitor price gouging and can go after anybody where there is evidence of price gouging. The Deputy raised a fair point in respect of existing supplies procured prior to the increases in prices. That authority works independently and has its responsibilities and obligations.

This morning we had a preliminary meeting in advance of the informal EU Council meeting in Versailles over the next two days. This morning four countries engaged on the issue of energy pricing with the President of the Council. Particularly in the context of the war, these are issues that we will be pushing. We will be advocating for maximum flexibility in how we respond to the price pressure on people.

We know the Cabinet was given stark warnings last night about the risks to our economy as a result of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. These included the possibility that household gas and electricity might need to be rationed, that public transport services might be cut and that food prices could rocket even further. How likely is the prospect of gas and electricity being rationed? Is this something that could happen on an EU-wide basis? What preparations are being made to address that possibility?

My other question relates to the ESB's unprecedented profits last year of, I believe, €679 million. Last year, the Tánaiste said that if there were hyper profits, the Government should take a larger dividend. Is the Taoiseach considering that action as a means of raising more funding which could be used to subsidise prices for the consumer?

On the Deputy's reference to Government warnings and so on, I said last week that Secretaries General of Departments have been asked to carry out scenario planning for various potential scenarios. We do not envisage rationing of oil and petrol. We have oil and gas reserves. However, scenario planning can be carried out for varying scenarios and one can be worse than another. It makes sense for public servants to do this. We have asked Departments to outline the potential impacts on the country if this gets worse, if the war becomes more difficult. Clearly in the immediate sense, the biggest impact is the increase in the price of energy. We have an energy crisis now affecting supply and prices. The prices then feed into the broader economy. The other key area will be food because of the central role that Russia and Ukraine play as grain exporters. The prices of commodities, metals and food are rising significantly along with energy prices. I see those as the more immediate impacts.

The ESB also has significant debt; it has borrowed significantly to expand. Our focus with all energy companies at the moment is security of supply over the medium term.

Let me outline to the Taoiseach the composition of the price of a litre of fuel this morning. While it may vary around the country, the diesel pump price that I have been given this morning is €1.899 and it may be higher in certain parts of the country. The Government tax take is 96.58 cent, which is 50.86%. Taxes applied include excise duty, carbon tax and the National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, levy. The actual pump price for petrol this morning is €1.922, which also may be higher in parts of the country. All Government duties include excise duty, carbon tax and the NORA levy. The actual price per litre without those duties, which add 55.23%, is €1.0653. VAT is actually applied to the aforementioned taxes at 23%. Is that not right? VAT is applied to excise at 23% and then onto the base price as well. The 23% is added to the carbon tax, the NORA levy and excise duty. The Government should not be doing that.

The reductions the Taoiseach is reporting today are not reductions at all, are they? It is the equivalent of the tax on tax because the tax that is on the tax on a litre of petrol is actually 20 cent. That is the tax that is on the excise. That is the 20 cent reduction we are supposed to be getting. The tax on the tax on a litre of diesel is 18 cent. Therefore, the Taoiseach has 3 cent to play around with, but he is trying to tell the people that he is doing them a favour. I just cannot believe it. To be fair, Dick Turpin wore a mask when he robbed the people but the Taoiseach can sit here barefaced and tell them that he has done something that he believes will save them. It is time to be honest with the people and it is time to be transparent. The Government is adding tax on tax at a time when the most vulnerable and marginalised income earners in this country are choosing between heating and eating. The Government is adding VAT to excise duty, VAT to carbon tax and VAT to the NORA levy at a rate of 23% on petrol and diesel.

I have listened to the Taoiseach on the national airwaves all week saying that we are in unprecedented times requiring extraordinary measures. It is time he put those words into action and took an extraordinary measure to temporarily remove all excise duties and all VAT. He should not hide behind the EU. We are clear on what it says in Annex 3 about VAT. The Taoiseach has already heard it today. This is not an ordinary time; it is an extraordinary time, something the Taoiseach has mentioned all week in reference to taking in refugees from Ukraine. He should apply it now to our tax rate and save the rural people who cannot afford to go to work.

The Deputy's time is up.

They will draw the dole because they will not have to pay the extra for their children to go to school on the bus. They go free.

The Government works on behalf of the people. The revenues that the Government works with are generated by the people in the economy through taxes.

This is a tax on tax.

I did not interrupt the Deputy; I ask her to have the courtesy to allow me to respond.

It is a tax on tax.

All revenue in this country in respect of energy taxes has been well debated in this House and across Europe. There are energy directives that we cannot flout or ignore.

It has nothing to do with the energy directive.

All other countries are doing it.

The point I am making here is this-----

It has nothing to do with the energy directive.

I ask Members to let the Taoiseach respond.

Then ask him to answer.

He listened in silence to the questions. Members should have the courtesy to let him respond.

The fundamental point I am making is that revenue generated across the economy, be it income tax, VAT or whatever, is used to invest in services such as education, health, social protection and across the board. That is the bottom line. The Government has decided to reduce petrol by 20 cent a litre and diesel by 15 cent a litre. It is not possible to remove all excise duty as the Deputy has suggested. It simply cannot be done.

If the Taoiseach had brains-----

We are not all as intelligent as the Deputy is, clearly, based on what she is saying.

The point is that we cannot do it. I am going to be honest in saying that.

That is not being honest.

I am not going to pretend to the public that I can solve this-----

Is it tax on tax?

-----given what is happening internationally.

Is it tax on tax?

It is a reality that people understand. We need to make decisions and choices about how we use people's money to alleviate pressures. A month ago, we took a decision to use €500 million to particularly help those on fuel allowance and on low incomes.

There will be another half a million on it very shortly.

All people can expect the €200 cut to the electricity bill.

I bet another half a million will be there looking for that in a week or two.

Other expenditures will also arise from this war.

There are the medical card, housing assistance payment, free transport-----

Yes, there will be and we are being honest with people in saying that.

No, that is not being honest with people.

Deputy, please-----

The point is that more expenditure will be required. We are only in March and we have already allocated an extra €800 million in about five weeks because of the international crisis and the war. That is the reality. No government wants to preside over escalating energy and fuel prices. We want to cushion the blow for people, both for households, for whom we would do more if we could, and in respect of the price at the pump. However, this is an internationally traded commodity. That is a fact and we have to deal with that reality. I think the measures today will help people in bringing prices down somewhat.

As to what will happen over the coming weeks, the most important thing we can do as a country is to keep advocating a peaceful resolution and to get a cessation to hostilities and to the appalling humanitarian crisis, to which we have to respond and for which we need to allow expenditure.

Not removing the taxes is a measure we will all live to regret. Not doing so will increase the cost of the food the Government wants the farmers to produce up in the heavens and add to the cost of tractor fuel. Two cent a litre is a joke, but the farmers are not laughing. Not removing tax and VAT will drive inflation through the roof and drive the country head-on into a deep, dark recession that will make the 1980s look like a holiday. It would be funny except that the joke is on us. The Taoiseach has not addressed the fact that the Government is applying tax on tax and there is no real reduction here for anybody. Do not quote to me that it is a commodity. The Government has done nothing to safeguard us from the fact that the experts say the price of a barrel of oil will rise to $200 and the pump price could go to €3.50 a litre. What will the Taoiseach say to the people then? Today people are thinking prices should be reduced when in effect last night Diesel Card Ireland, DCI, and many other suppliers put fuel up by 15 cent a litre. That was notified to customers two days ago. This is what the Government cannot seem to take on board. It cannot seem to join the dots. It is time to get real. People will not be able to afford to go to work.

Please, Deputy. Your time is up.

We are very nearly at that point, so the Government can prepare another €350 million or maybe even €1 billion to add to the Social Welfare bill we will have for the people who will not go to work.

Your time is up, Deputy.

Instead they will draw the dole and avail of all that goes with it. It is time for extraordinary measures. It is time the Taoiseach listened-----

-----and worked for the people of Ireland. It is time for him to be brave and grow a pair Taoiseach.

With the greatest of respect to the Deputy, the Government is being honest with the people and will continue to be straight with the people about the crisis before us.

It is time for a change of government.

The Deputy needs to understand that there is a war on, which is the fundamental factor behind the exponential growth in oil and gas prices. As for our response to that, we are reducing the price of petrol and the price of diesel. That is what the Government is deciding right now. In addition, the Government has decided to give additional supports to people through cuts in electricity payments of €200, €125 for those on the free fuel allowance, a reduction in public transport fares, which will benefit 800,000 people-----

-----and other measures. We will work consistently on this to try to protect people and families.

The Taoiseach has no shame.

This is not of the Government's creation. The Deputy should be honest enough to acknowledge that-----

No. The Taoiseach should be honest and transparent.

Please, Deputy.

-----but her desire for the sound bite triumphs every time over the bottom line.

There is no sound bite. This is fact. It is in writing.

Everybody in the House realises-----

The Taoiseach is a disgrace.

-----the impact of this on people on the ground, and there will be other impacts, as I said earlier, in respect of food and so on.

Please. The time is up, a Thaoisigh. Thank you.

The way forward is through energy efficiency, doubling down on renewables-----

(Interruptions).

-----and dealing with the geopolitical situation.

We will have no energy.

The public looking in at this charade will not be impressed.

With the Government.

They expect us to do our business on their behalf in a positive, constructive and orderly way. Please do not make a show of us.

They want us to speak up.

Please. I call Deputy Connolly.

Baineann mo cheist lenár bpolasaí neodrachta. Ba pholasaí é a lig dúinn suíochán a fháil ar an gComhairle Slándála agus meas a shaothrú i measc thíortha an domhain. Ba pholasaí é a lig dúinn a bheith mar ghuth ar son na saoirse agus a bheith i measc tíortha a bhfuil a muinín acu asainn ó thaobh ár gcuid ionracais de. My question relates to our neutrality. I refer to the Taoiseach's comments, the comments of the Tánaiste and the Minister for Defence and various well-placed articles telling us it is time to get rid of our policy of neutrality. I stand here today without any hesitation in saying I am absolutely appalled and worried by those comments. The policy of neutrality is not a passive policy but a very active policy. One of the Taoiseach's predecessors, whom he has quoted, ironically in an article written by a Russian on the background to the non-proliferation treaty, said, "It was not only the persistence, skill and persuasiveness of Irish diplomacy but its strong motivation that, taken together, achieved the result recorded in these pages." That was the effort over numerous years by Frank Aiken, almost a single voice, with the help of good public servants, that eventually led many years later to the non-proliferation treaty in 1968.

Neutrality has been under threat by every single representative of the establishment for a long time. It happened with the Nice treaty, on which we had to vote twice, and then a declaration was made in Seville. It happened with the Lisbon treaty, on which we had to vote twice, and all the arguments that we made then came true and we eventually got a declaration on protocols. Fast-forward now to the middle of a crisis, where we should be using all our effort to help the Ukrainian people, with whom I stand in solidarity, and we are being deflected by various powerful voices that infantilise and demonise people, including Deputies, who dare to speak out. They tell us we should grow up, that we should be a voice for war and more death. I fundamentally object to that and to the pressure being put on that we would all speak with the same voice. I will not. That is not what I was elected to do, while still standing in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and doing everything possible to help them. Where is our voice for the diplomacy that should be taking place? It seems to be lost on the Government that it is meeting in Versaille and the last time an agreement was made in Versaille it related to a second world war. I ask that the Taoiseach confirm here today that he has no intention of getting rid of our policy of neutrality.

I am surprised that the Deputy seems to quote me as saying I want to get rid of neutrality. I never-----

I am sorry if I am wrong. Am I wrong? If I am, I am delighted.

The Deputy is wrong, and I think she knows she is wrong, but it did not stop her saying it, which is a disingenuous way to behave. Yesterday in the House I spoke on this. I referenced Frank Aiken and our policy and our proactive role in nuclear non-proliferation as well as the role of Fianna Fáil's Frank Aiken, the heroic work he did and how that would impact any debate on military neutrality. Our neutrality is a military neutrality insofar as we are not members of any defence alliance. It is up to other countries if they want to volunteer to be part of defensive alliances, which is what NATO is. From the Irish perspective, we stayed outside any military block. In the context of the Nice referendum, we inserted into the Constitution a provision which means we cannot join a European defence pact without a constitutional referendum. Also, over the years we have agreed a triple lock mechanism which means that the participation of Irish troops in any mission has to be under the auspice of a UN resolution, with approval by the Government and the Oireachtas. The point I am making is that, given what has happened in the appalling imperialist war of atrocities on the people of Ukraine, undertaken by Russia alone, people are questioning things and reflecting. That is legitimate in a democracy.

I am not diverting anybody because I did not raise these issues. They were raised on the left by Deputies Paul Murphy and Mick Barry. They have raised the issue of NATO consistently over the past three or four weeks and they were blaming NATO for the war before it started. They called NATO "warmongers". We should concentrate on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and on using everything to end the war and stop the appalling humanitarian crisis that is unfolding. Discussions are under way about humanitarian corridors. We need to get humanitarian assistance into the cities under bombardment because we are hearing of children dying from dehydration. We saw on the news last evening families not having access to proper food. That should be our immediate priority and I suggested a citizens' assembly well after this could be a meaningful way of having an informed reflection. That would include Ireland's unique role in nuclear non-proliferation and our role as peacekeepers, which has been a consistent factor in our independent foreign policy and has stood us well through the years.

I am not quite clear which side of his mouth the Taoiseach is speaking out of. If he is confirming that he is not in favour of changing our policy of neutrality, I welcome that and I apologise if I misinterpreted anything that was attributed to him. The people have spoken repeatedly, most recently in research by Amárach, and overwhelmingly have said we should stand by Ukraine and help it in every possible way with humanitarian aid, but we should retain our neutrality, not in a passive, negative way but in a positive way for peace in the world. That is what they are saying and have always said, including prior to the Nice and Lisbon treaty referendums. I am asking the Taoiseach to confirm that and he seems to have done so. On whether the citizens' assembly is the way to go, I am open to that and I do not mind. I want confirmation, which he appears to have now given.

The biased commentary in all the media, which has suggested we are bold children when we stand up and has demonised us, is not helpful to democracy. It certainly is not democracy because at this point we need people to reflect like Frank Aiken reflected, even though he made it clear he was for democracy and western power. We need a period of reflection and of thinking how to use our voice in the best way possible to promote peace and diplomacy. The Taoiseach should reflect on Versailles when he is there.

It is interesting to look at our history of neutrality. De Valera is regarded as the person who conceived the policy during the Second World War because of historical issues in our relationship with the UK. Nonetheless, during the League of Nations in the 1930s, he was deeply disappointed that force was not used against Italy when it invaded Ethiopia, the point being that we can never be neutral against despots and dictators who invade a country unprovoked and unjustifiably.

We are not politically neutral. We are members of the EU and we have consistently pursued a policy in that context on security and defence. We joined the Partnership for Peace with NATO in 1999 to develop interoperability of our military forces so they could operate with countries in NATO on peacekeeping or peace enforcement measures. We have participated in battle groups that have not been deployed. The triple lock applies if we are ever to participate in any mission of that kind.

In the context in the new world of cybersecurity, we are vulnerable. Who came to our assistance when we had a savage cyberattack on our health services? Poland, the UK and countries in the European Union. We have to acknowledge the world is changing from a security perspective and there are vulnerabilities in Europe that we cannot be blind to. That is why we need, at a later time, a more informed debate and reflection on it.

That concludes Leaders' Questions well over time, I am afraid.

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