Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 27 Apr 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 2

Ceisteanna - Questions

Government Communications

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [12672/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett


2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [17987/22]

Paul Murphy


3. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [17990/22]

Ivana Bacik


4. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [17878/22]

John Lahart


5. Deputy John Lahart asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [20341/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

The Government Information Service comprises the Government Press Office and the Merrion Street content team. The Government Information Service has the following responsibilities: to provide the Taoiseach and Government with press office support; ensure strong collaboration and co-ordination among press and communications officials in other Departments and agencies; co-ordinate, support and amplify communications on key Government priorities, such as Housing for All, Brexit, the shared island, Covid-19 and Ukraine; and lead the development of Government communications, support and encourage capacity-building in the area of communications and engagement across the civil and public services, and manage the Government of Ireland identity and unified web presence of www.gov.ie.

Sixteen months have passed since the Taoiseach first tasked the outgoing Secretary General of his Department with overseeing the investigation into the leaking of the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation Final Report to the media. The Secretary General will be taking up his new position shortly. Can the Taoiseach confirm the status of the investigation, if it has been completed and if he intends to publish its findings and recommendations? It will be important for the Taoiseach to communicate the report's outcomes and recommendations to survivors and their families in the first instance. The leaking of the report was deeply hurtful, disrespectful and wholly inappropriate. In effect, the leaker put headlines ahead of people's dignity and rights. Survivors and their families are entitled to a formal conclusion to this sorry episode.

I want to record my party's disappointment over the Government's decision to retain the deeply offensive mandatory information section in the birth information and tracing legislation. Over the Easter break, the Irish Association of Social Workers added its voice to the call to remove this regressive provision from the legislation. It has described it as a discriminatory and unnecessary measure that will cause further harm to those affected by forced family separation. There is still time for the Government to act. In that spirit, I urge the Taoiseach and his Government colleagues to support the Opposition's amendments to remove the provision from the legislation.

It is now five months since Second Stage of our Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) was passed unanimously. The Government did not oppose it. The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Damien English, said:

The Government supports the objective of this Bill. I assure the Deputy that my officials and I will work with him to determine the best approach to achieve these objectives.

He also said officials from the Health and Safety Authority and his Department would like the opportunity to meet me before Committee Stage and that he would call me that afternoon. I am still waiting for the phone call and the meeting.

We do not need to pass the Bill because the Government could do what is desired by regulation. We would be happy for it to use regulations to establish standards for clean air quality. Short of regulations and in terms of information, why is the Government not promoting ventilation and filtration among businesses, schools and colleges? Covid is still with us and killing people. We need to do everything we can to be as safe as possible and to have as little disruption to society as possible. The most obvious and scientifically clear things to do are wearing masks and having ventilation and filtration. Why is there no Government messaging around these key issues?

On information from the Government, the latest figures from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, show rents have increased by an average of 9% across the country. The increase is much higher in some areas. The average rent in Dublin is now almost €2,000 per month, or almost €24,000 per year. As the Taoiseach knows, a significant number of people renting are in low-paid or minimum-wage jobs. Annual rents in Dublin are now in excess of the gross annual earnings of people in minimum-wage jobs. They are utterly unaffordable. The number of people becoming homeless is increasing month after month. This is mainly a result of unaffordable rents in the private rental sector. The Government was not even remotely close to meeting the targets it set for the delivery of social, affordable and cost-rental homes last year. Does the Taoiseach honestly think people will be able to continue to afford these unaffordable rents, let alone the hefty rent increases? What action is the Government going to take to stop these rent increases?

On Deputy Mac Lochlainn's question, the inquiry is not completed. We have to await the recommendations that flow from it.

On the mandatory provision in the Birth Information and Tracing Bill, the Deputy has to accept that the Bill represents a dramatic advancement on previous Bills circulated in previous Dáileanna regarding this issue. It represents a transformative approach to giving everyone full access to their records. The legal advice is that it was necessary to include the provision, even though it is light enough compared to what was in previous Bills. In my view, the legislation is very progressive and gives the access required in terms of people's right to their birth information. In fairness to the Minister, great progress has been made by way of the Information and Tracing Bill, the burials legislation, the payments scheme legislation and the new centre for archiving, memorialisation and research in respect of all institutional abuse, but also in terms of the revitalisation of the inner city.

On Deputy Paul Murphy's point, we have appointed Professor John Wenger to the Covid oversight group with a view to giving a higher profile to ventilation in meeting the ongoing challenge of Covid-19. I accept Covid-19 has not gone away. We need to take this opportunity now to determine the optimal way, in the business sector but also in schools and public State facilities, to use ventilation to combat Covid-19 and, perhaps, other infectious diseases. I will talk to the Minister of State, Deputy English, about the legislation Deputy Paul Murphy has produced. The idea behind the Covid oversight group we have established is to give a more multidisciplinary approach to the next phase of Covid-19. One of our challenges might be next autumn and winter. Coronaviruses tend to become worse during the winter because we are more indoors. I am very anxious that the new oversight group consider this and come back to the Government with recommendations regarding it. That is one additional element we can perhaps do better on in the next phase, although the expertise will be particularly important. The Deputy will recall that HEPA filters were identified as the holy grail for what could be done in schools but others say they are not necessarily as effective as we might have thought. Therefore, we need more expertise on ventilation in public facilities and schools. I will talk to the Minister of State, Deputy English, in that regard. I am not sure but within existing health and safety regulations there should be provisions for regulations. I will consider this in terms of Deputy Paul Murphy's legislation.

On Deputy Cian O'Callaghan's point on rents and the RTB index, the index relates to new tenancies in the first instance, but the figures are very worrying. I accept that rents are too high in the country. Particularly for younger people coming into the market, the burden is extremely onerous. As far as I am concerned, housing represents the single greatest social crisis facing the country. Covid-19 did not help in that we closed down construction fully in 2020 for three to four months and again in 2021 because of the Alpha variant. That said, there has been a significant rebound in housing activity.

There were 35,000 commencements between March 2021 and March 2022. I believe we need to be at 35,000 per annum annually. In addition to that, we have to bring in other forms of housing. The Minister is introducing the shared equity scheme to help people purchase houses. Cost rental is coming on stream. I would argue that the cost rental initiative could perhaps be over time the most significant intervention we could make to enable people to have access to rental accommodation at an affordable level at scale. At the moment it is not at scale. A critical mass of cost rental housing is not available at the moment. The Minister has identified it in Housing for All and is very clear it will be a significant part of the rental situation into the future. That will be important.

On the supply side, there is cost rental, social housing and private housing. We have to look at the private housing side as well as private investment. People will, at varying times, criticise landlords and institutional investors. We need all strands of housing to work to deal with this issue. There has to be room for private institutional investment. Landlords are leaving the market at the moment. If we compare the numbers this year with last year, they have gone down again. We need far more social housing. We want to deliver 9,000 social housing units this year. That will be done through approved housing bodies and local authorities.

The only constraint we have at the moment will be the increase in the cost of building materials and inflation in the housing sector. That is coming back to us. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is examining the public tender situation in terms of existing tenders and people tendering for various projects to make sure they are flexible enough to accommodate the extraordinary surge in pricing and the shortage of materials arising from the imbalance between supply and demand due to Covid-19 and the war on Ukraine, which will have an impact on us from now until the end of the year. That would be my biggest concern in respect of the housing situation, namely, inflationary pressures and the impact on the supply of building materials throughout the country. That could have an impact in respect of housing supply. We are very determined to get to the 9,000 social housing figure in 2022.

In terms of private housing development, I am determined we will see more pick-up in the sector. The skills have come back. Apprenticeships in construction trades have increased significantly. We need to maintain that momentum. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has done good work in the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on the skills side and has worked with further education, including SOLAS and the technological universities, on the provision of apprenticeships for construction.

A figure of 35,000 commencements illustrates a significant momentum beginning to build. The only possible constraint on that will be inflationary pressures arising from the war on Ukraine and the imbalance between supply and demand arising as economies emerge from Covid.

On homelessness, we need a deeper analysis. The Deputy has a particular interest in homelessness. We need a deeper analysis of the components that make up homelessness in the modern era. There are challenges in terms of new arrivals and so on that will put pressure on emergency housing. It would be worth having the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage look more deeply at the situation because it is now a factor in the increasing levels of homelessness. There are different component elements to the homelessness figures. The initiatives that have been taken and the interaction between the Minister and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, involved in homelessness is bearing fruit, in terms of Housing First policies, which are having a significant impact and are the way to go into the future in respect of the homelessness issue. We need to understand what we are talking about when we talk about homelessness. It has many more different facets in the modern area than it would have had in previous times. That will continue. That is the way it is within the European Union. We have to accept those realities. We have to make sure we get families out of homelessness as quickly as we possibly can.

Cabinet Committees

Mary Lou McDonald


6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Europe will next meet. [17583/22]

Ivana Bacik


7. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Europe will next meet. [17879/22]

Seán Haughey


8. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Europe will next meet. [20342/22]

Brendan Smith


9. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Europe will next meet. [20344/22]

Mick Barry


10. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Europe will next meet. [21272/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 10, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on Europe oversees the implementation of programme for Government commitments in regard to the European Union and related issues. It generally meets in advance of a meeting of the European Council. The Cabinet committee discusses the agenda for European Council meetings as well as other programme for Government priorities in respect of the European Union. It last met on 7 March, ahead of the informal meeting of the European Council in Versailles on 10 and 11 March and the regular meeting of the European Council on 24 and 25 March. It is envisaged it will next meet in advance of the regular meetings of the European Council on 23 and 24 June.

The Taoiseach will know very well the severe impact of Brexit and the trade and co-operation agreement between Britain and the European Union on our fishing communities and the significant loss of income that will now lead to a further major decommissioning of fishing vessels in Ireland. How on earth can we justify the approach of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, referring to European Union directives in asking the masters of fishing vessels to turn blue whiting for human consumption in markets not just in west Africa but also Ukraine, into fishmeal to feed salmon? This is an affordable form of protein and nutrition and it is processed in factories in Killybegs, which creates jobs. The Taoiseach is aware of this. Deputy Doherty has brought this to his attention, yet it still goes on. In recent days, 100,000 tonnes were turned into fishmeal. I ask the Taoiseach, along with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, to intervene urgently with the European authorities to get this sorted out. This is not a European issue; it is an Irish issue.

I want to raise with the Taoiseach the suggestion by the British Government that it is considering introducing legislation that would unilaterally suspend parts of the Northern Ireland protocol. I heard the answer the Taoiseach gave to Deputy Richmond yesterday, when he said he would prefer not to comment at this time as the campaigning for the assembly election is taking place. I will leave it at that for the moment.

I wish to ask instead about the ongoing horrific situation in Ukraine, specifically the issue of war crimes. It is abundantly clear to everyone at this stage that Russia is using illegal methods to defeat the Ukrainian population. Civilians, including children, are being targeted and killed. Illegal bombs are being deployed. Schools, medical facilities and train stations are being blown up. President Zelenskyy has said that genocide is taking place in his country. This needs to be investigated by the International Criminal Court, its investigators and others on the ground in Ukraine. The European Union needs to address this particular matter and assist and support efforts to prove that war crimes have taken place and to bring about prosecutions of those responsible for these actions. I hope that is something the Taoiseach could call for at the next European Council meeting in June.

Would the Taoiseach be prepared to say something at this stage about the decision of the Russian authorities to stop gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria and the efforts of the EU to reduce dependency on Russian gas?

As we are all aware, for quite a number of years the people of Ukraine were subjected to very serious military aggression by Russia on the border. Sadly, since the end of February, we have witnessed daily on our television screens the horrors being inflicted on an independent and sovereign country by an evil regime in Russia.

Sadly, we have seen suffering and loss of life and millions of people displaced. I was glad that at the most recent meeting of the European Council there was a very strong and firm commitment by the European Union expressing its unity of purpose, along with partners such as Britain, the United States and other members of the international community. It is important that sanctions are imposed and that they have a major adverse impact on Russia. It is also important that the European Union continues to show solidarity with the refugees. I compliment the people of this country on their support for people fleeing war and horror and victims of an evil regime. Despite those challenges and the situation currently faced by the European Union and the international community, it is still important that the European Union progresses and accelerates the candidacy of Ukraine for membership of the European Union, as the Taoiseach stated, and, similarly, speeds up the membership applications of Georgia and Moldova. Like Deputy Haughey, I recognise that energy costs and supplies are having a significant impact on households and businesses and we need further measures at European Union level.

Last Sunday, an extreme right-wing and racist candidate won 42% of the vote for the French presidency. France is a nuclear power and the second most powerful nation in the European Union. There needs to be debate and reflection as to why this was the case. France is often portrayed as a society with a strong tradition of revolution and left-wing politics but it is also a country with a history of imperialism, the racism that goes with that, and right-wing traditions. Le Pen, like her father before her, taps into those traditions. The cost of living was a significant issue in the campaign. In France, as in Ireland, the crisis has been addressed at Government level merely by piecemeal measures that have failed to seriously relieve the suffering of the people. The failure of the self-described extreme centrist, Macron, left an opening for both the far right and the radical left. Another factor was how Le Pen's opponent was widely, and in my view correctly, seen as a president of the rich or the 1%. Malcolm X once stated, "You cannot have capitalism without racism." The far right cannot be seriously combated by a more moderate right which upholds that system which funnels wealth upwards and leaves the majority to scrap among themselves for a limited number of services, houses and jobs. To really fight the radical right, one needs a radical left that is prepared to challenge that system and unite all of the oppressed in fighting for change. That is the key lesson of the French presidential election. What is the view of the Taoiseach in that regard?

I ask the Taoiseach to comment on what has been dubbed "CatalanGate". This is a very serious scandal in the Spanish state involving a significant number of Catalan politicians and activists, including the Catalan President, legislators and every Catalan MEP who supported independence for Catalonia, being targeted with mercenary spyware. This happened either directly or through suspected off-centre targeting that involves spouses, siblings, staff or parents. The fact that the targeting coincided with political events, namely, the referendum, raises clear suspicions in respect of who would benefit from it and suggests that it was being done by the Spanish state. At least 65 individuals were targeted. The office of the Spanish Prime Minister has claimed it was not aware of the operation but according to the group that produced the spyware programme, known as Pegasus, it is sold exclusively to governments. That, among other reasons, implies the Spanish state was responsible. Does the Taoiseach agree this would represent a very serious infringement of the democratic rights of people to campaign for Catalan independence? Does he agree there should be an official inquiry to determine who authorised the hacking?

Deputy Mac Lochlainn raised the issue of the impact of Brexit on fisheries, which was significant because the approach of the Government of the United Kingdom to the fishery negotiations left it until the 11th hour. A no-deal Brexit would have been ruinous and had appalling consequences for our fishing industry. Brexit has led to a reduction, particularly in terms of the pelagic fleet, because of decommissioning and so on but, in fairness to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, he has worked with the industry and the Department to try to achieve the best possible outcome in terms of the allocation of funding to the industry in respect of that and also the other issues that continue to arise in respect of regulatory frameworks governing the weighing of fish, for example, and all of that. There have been challenges and Commission investigations. We want to work with the fishing industry to develop a stronger relationship with the European Commission in the fullness of time and to have the proper regulatory frameworks in place and be in a position to develop the industry because it is a very important industry in our coastal communities. I will speak to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, regarding the specific issues the Deputy has raised. I know he is working on them.

Deputy Haughey raised the issues of the Northern protocol and the horrific situation in Ukraine. As I stated yesterday, it is important that all Governments adhere to international agreements and work with like-minded Governments on any issues of concern. I am conscious of the electoral cycle at the moment. There is an upcoming election to the Assembly and the Executive and I would prefer to hold back comments on those general issues until after the election.

As regards Ukraine and the International Criminal Court, we have allocated €3 million in additional funding to strengthen the resources of the court. We believe war crimes have been committed in Ukraine - there is no question about that - and the people responsible need to be brought to account. I met the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Denys Shmyhal, in Shannon last Wednesday and assured him of our strongest possible support for Ukraine, including providing supports for those who have arrived in Ireland having had to flee their homes. I also made clear my support for Ukraine's application to join the European Union and for the further sixth round of sanctions against Russia. We have joined 40 countries in referring what is happening in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court and we will look at other ways that we can get accountability for these heinous crimes.

The European Union has provided €1.5 billion of a package of European peace facility support for the Ukrainian armed forces. Ireland is contributing its full share of €33 million, which will go towards non-lethal elements. Discussions on further sanctions continue, particularly with regard to banning imports of oil from Russia. We will continue to support the widest possible sanctions. Ireland has frozen more than €1.2 billion of Russian assets as of 22 April and the European Union amended existing sanctions to better facilitate humanitarian access and work in Ukraine, including by the International Committee of the Red Cross, UN agencies and certain humanitarian organisations. The Government has provided €20 million in humanitarian aid through the UN and NGO partners in Ukraine and neighbouring countries. A deep and dedicated Ukraine civil society fund of €2 million will specifically support Irish NGOs responding to the crisis. Deputy Brendan Smith also raised issues relating to this.

The Russian invasion is also now putting immense pressure on global food and nutrition security, driving up prices for essential food and agricultural commodities. The worst impact will be felt by the poorest counties as well as those that are reliant on imports for their food security. As I stated earlier in the House, energy, food and a migration crisis are part of the war effort of the Russian Federation and that is designed to put pressure on European member states or, in other words, to take the pressure off the Russian Federation ultimately, but that will not happen. I agree with Deputy Brendan Smith that we need to accelerate the application by Ukraine for membership of the European Union and I have articulated that, as well as for other countries in the neighbourhood, such as Georgia and Moldova.

In response to Deputy Barry, I would maybe argue a bit differently - that what we witnessed in the French election was the triumph of the centre. I think President Macron stuck to his principles and values. I do not see him as a right-wing leader at all, which Deputy Barry more or less asserted that he is. I communicated my strongest and warmest congratulations to Emmanuel Macron on his decisive victory in the French presidential election. I think he has been a strong leader of France and within the European Union as well. I think it was important for the European Union that he was elected because he is a committed and passionate upholder of the values of the Union. He is, in my view, genuinely a principled leader. That is something I would have to say. There are challenges, including the whole area of misinformation and disinformation and the growth of right-wing politics across Europe and the world. There are many factors responsible for that and I take the Deputy's point about cost of living and so on being a dominant element of the election. The radical left also did reasonably well in the first round of voting.

Deputy Paul Murphy raised the Catalangate issue. The Spanish Government has made clear it was not involved. The Pegasus software has been used widely across the world. It is a matter for the Spanish authorities and political system to deal with. I will seek to be briefed further on the matter but that is the current situation in regard to it.

Cabinet Committees

Mary Lou McDonald


11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met and will next meet. [14067/22]

Ivana Bacik


12. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met; and when it will next meet. [16209/22]

Cian O'Callaghan


13. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met and will next meet. [20036/22]

Mick Barry


14. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination will next meet. [21271/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 14, inclusive, together.

The Government co-ordination committee last met on Monday, 25 April and is scheduled to meet again on 9 May. The committee generally meets in advance of Government meetings to review the activity of Cabinet committees, review the agenda for that week's Government meeting, discuss political priorities and review implementation of a specified element of the programme for Government.

I am a member of the committee, with the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party. The Secretary General to the Government, my chief of staff and the chiefs of staff for the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party also sit in on meetings.

The Taoiseach was in Derry recently for a number of engagements. He met with a cross-party delegation of councillors from Donegal, Derry and Strabane. At that meeting, the issue of the funding of City of Derry Airport was put to him. It was welcomed by those present that he said he would look at the shared island initiative as a potential source of funding. Why is this so essential? A total of 40% of the passengers who use City of Derry Airport are from Donegal. It has connections to London, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and a number of other locations in Europe. It services a population of half a million. As the Taoiseach knows, the geography of Donegal means that people in Inishowen, Letterkenny and Finn Valley use City of Derry Airport and those in the rest of the county would use the airport in west Donegal. We have not seen the delivery of the A5 project. It has been a heartbreaker that the whole project just has not come through. We do not have a rail connection from the fourth largest city, with half a million people, to our capital city of Dublin. There is no motorway, no rail connection and, for the past ten years, no air connection.

This project is essential and I appeal to the Taoiseach to work with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to whom, as well as to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, I spoke in this Chamber last night. I made the same appeal to them that they work together with the Taoiseach, through the shared island initiative, to deliver funding to the airport. That would mean we can get this region of half a million people to connect to Dublin Airport and the rest of the world. It is not just about commuting to Dublin. It is about connecting to the rest of the world and ensuring tourists and the rest of the world can connect, through Dublin, on to Derry and into the north west. It is vital. It is about equality of access. I know the Taoiseach understands this but we really need the issue to be tackled once and for all. It has been ten years of delays and we need it sorted out.

Serious allegations have been made about a conflict of interest on the part of a member of An Bord Pleanála. Minutes from a meeting of the board show that, on 9 March, the deputy chairman of the board presided over a three-person board meeting that rejected a strategic housing development planning application. Both the Irish Examiner and The Ditch website have reported that this member of the board failed to declare a conflict of interest, as shown in the minutes, even though he has a 25% stake in the company that owns a site just 50 m from the site of the planning application. Given these serious allegations, An Bord Pleanála, at the very least, should make a comment on them and respond to them. Does the Taoiseach think it is acceptable that An Bord Pleanála has had nothing at all to say about this? Will he call on An Bord Pleanála to respond to these allegations and make a comment?

On Friday week, 6 May, parents and children will take to the streets of Cork, Dublin and Enniscorthy to demand services for children with disabilities. A public meeting in Cork on this issue was recently told by a primary school principal that 60 therapists have been cut from Cork schools since the introduction of the State's seemingly misnamed progressing disability services scheme. The meeting also was told many heartbreaking tales of children who had to wait and wait for assessments of needs, those whose parents were forced to pay, and pay big, to go private and those who have been left behind because their parents simply cannot afford to pay. In recent days, the Minister for Health has intervened in a row between the Minister of State with responsibility for disability services, Deputy Rabbitte, and the HSE on the issue of her right to meet directly with district managers of these services. The parents and children who will march on Friday week will care far more about service delivery and results than about who is meeting whom at senior level. What hope can the Taoiseach offer these parents today as they polish up their marching boots and prepare to take to the streets in just nine days' time, which is something they should never even have to consider given the pressures on them?

It has been reported by The Ditch website that former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, agreed to lease land he owns to Energia for a solar farm development seven months after leaving ministerial office. Energia began consulting with planning officials in February 2021, with Deputy Bruton having been Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment up to the previous June. Energia made €45 million in profit last year and, last month, it announced price increases of 15%. Recently, Deputy Bruton dismissed any suggestions that energy companies should absorb higher costs to protect households from higher energy costs. On 19 October 2021, Deputy Bruton asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, when a price for selling back solar energy to the grid will be put in place. That was eight months after Energia's consultations with planning officials had begun, but Deputy Bruton did not declare any interest in the potential solar farm development taking place on his land. It is not in the register of Members' interests and he did not declare it orally at any stage. Does the Taoiseach agree there is an issue with the declaration of interest and that Deputy Bruton should make such a declaration of interest, if the story is accurate, so that people understand this?

First, on Deputy Mac Lochlainn's point, I had a very worthwhile visit to Derry recently and met with the North West Regional Development Group. I think it is a very progressive group that leaves politics outside the door and its members do a lot of good work in terms of the economic and social development of the north west. We had a very good meeting in respect of commitments North and South and, in particular, how the shared island unit can be of assistance in the development of the region. We announced at that meeting a €5 million allocation to local authorities North and South to prepare feasibility studies and bring proof of concept to many projects that potentially could become a pipeline of projects.

The specific issue of City of Derry Airport was raised by the group. I will engage further with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on the matter. We would be interested in working on it with the aviation authorities and airlines to get a service going. It would be a good idea to get a service going between Derry and Dublin because there is the issue of connectivity generally around the north west. The Minister has commissioned, and the shared island unit is funding, an all-island railway feasibility study. We are prepared to fund the A5 but it seems bogged down in planning issues. I take Deputy Mac Lochlainn's point about the connectivity issue, that if you can get a flight to Dublin, you can get flights across Europe and the world more generally. I would be anxious to work with all concerned to see if we can advance that. I am very struck by the cohesion within the north-west region. The group was chaired by the DUP, and all political parties were represented. The group has been working for quite a long time on economic and social issues, health, education and so forth. I had a very good visit to Altnagelvin Hospital. Previous governments have put €19 million into the cancer treatment centre in Altnagelvin. I saw the cardiac cath labs there, which are available to people in the north west, Donegal in particular. It just makes a lot of sense to try to support such groups, and the shared island unit stands ready to do that.

In respect of the issue Deputy Cian O'Callaghan raised about An Bord Pleanála, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will examine that. There may be issues there that need to be examined further or clarified. I think it would be in everybody's interest if the situation were clarified. I will ask the Minister again about the issue Deputy O'Callaghan has raised.

In response to Deputy Barry, there was a meeting between the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, the principals of the schools and Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan a number of weeks ago. There has also been a meeting between the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, and the principals of Cork schools, I understand, in recent days on this issue. I have long been of the view, even before I became Taoiseach, that progressing disability services should not dilute resources in special schools in respect of therapists. My understanding is that following a recent meeting between the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, the principals, or a representative of the principals, and the disability managers, work will now progress between the principals and the disability manager in respect of posts that were lost as a result of the application of the progressing disability services model as to what number of posts there were prior to the application of that model. My view is that they should be restored. I also intend to convene meetings with the HSE more generally and the Minister of State in respect of disability policy and the retention of therapists within special schools.

Progressing disability services was promoted a long time ago, many years ago, probably due to absences of resources. It has taken a long time to progress, but the model the HSE has put forward is the idea that there is a central assessment and treatment centre and that one provides as broad a range of services to the broadest range of people possible. One of the challenges with that is that, historically, special schools had multidisciplinary teams. They had therapists, teachers and so on. I have always been consistently of the view that progressing disability services should not dilute what the special schools had. There is a pilot project in primary schools, which was brought in over two or three years ago, for which I advocated strongly, whereby schools hire therapists within primary schools with a view to having that multidisciplinary team in situ. That is a model we should explore further. We need to stand back and reflect on these initiatives and these policies because the parents concerned are understandably angry about the loss of access to therapists, as are the schools. Equally, however, in respect of the provision of disability services more generally, we need to examine other issues with the delivery of services through the section 38 and section 39 bodies. There needs to be a broader examination of that.

My understanding is that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has now initiated a process with the schools in Cork and the disability manager in the HSE with a view to trying to rectify the situation in the best interests of the schools and the principals. I will ask the Minister of State about the matter again. I will come back to the House on that, and I know that the Minister of State is anxious to progress it. I am not clear that the number of therapists is 60, but we will work on the numbers. The idea will be to try to restore things back to the situation pre-application of the model.

Deputy Paul Murphy raised issues regarding Deputy Bruton. I am not familiar with the full details Deputy Murphy has articulated, and I believe these are matters for the House more generally to consider in respect of Members registering their interests. I have always found Deputy Bruton to be a public representative of the highest integrity. Again, I am not familiar with the specifics of what Deputy Murphy has asserted in the House this morning. I believe there are mechanisms within the Oireachtas itself to deal with issues of that kind.

I welcome our visitors. They have come in just at the end of Taoiseach's questions. Gabhaim buíochas leo. Tá fáilte rompu.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie.
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 2.07 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.07 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 2.07 p.m. and resumed at 3.07 p.m.