Mary Lou McDonaldCeist:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the President of the United States of America. [14068/22]
Vol. 1021 No. 4
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the President of the United States of America. [14068/22]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to the United States of America. [16691/22]
3. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to the United States of America. [16694/22]
4. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the President of the United States of America. [17880/22]
5. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagement with the President of the United States of America. [20343/22]
6. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagement with the President of the United States of America. [20345/22]
7. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the President of the United States. [21270/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
I visited Washington DC for a programme of engagements, arriving on the evening of 14 March. On Tuesday 15 March, I met the editorial board of The Washington Post to share the Government's priorities and exchange views on current events, including the ongoing war and suffering in Ukraine.
I attended a lunch for Congressman Richard Neal to recognise his long record as a friend of Ireland and to mark the conferring on him of an honorary doctorate from Dublin City University.
At the unveiling of a newly commissioned bust of John Hume, sculpted by artist Liz O'Kane, I spoke of the former leader and civil rights campaigner and on his lasting impact on peace on this island.
I also attended a Tourism Ireland reception, marking the opening night of the 25th anniversary American tour of Riverdance.
The following day, my visit included a series of economic engagements in partnership with IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, and Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, including a women in business executive round table and a US Chamber of Commerce and Science Foundation Ireland event. During that event, I was pleased to present the SFI St. Patrick's Day medal to the Collison brothers for their achievement in building their business, Stripe, into a global success, and to Professor Donald McDonnell for his important work in developing new treatments for breast and prostate cancers.
On the same day, I spoke by phone with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. He expressed his gratitude for the support of the Government and people of Ireland, on which he was well briefed, and he expressed his condolences on the killing of photojournalist and camera operator Pierre Zakrzewski. I expressed our strong support for his country in the face of an unprovoked and unjustifiable war.
I also had a telephone call with Vice President Harris discussing Russia's brutal aggression in Ukraine. We also discussed US support for the Good Friday Agreement. This was in place of the traditional St. Patrick's Day breakfast which was cancelled as the Second Gentleman had tested positive for Covid-19.
As was widely reported, I attended part of The Ireland Funds 30th anniversary dinner but departed early as I received a positive result to a precautionary Covid-19 test.
On St. Patrick's Day, I had a bilateral meeting by video with President Biden. We had a substantive encounter, lasting approximately an hour. We discussed important aspects of the US-Irish relationship, including the increasingly two-way dynamic economic relationship between us and the need to improve options for young people, especially, to move between our countries with greater ease. I also raised with him the situation of undocumented Irish migrants in the US. We discussed the situation on the protocol and political developments in Northern Ireland, and the President reiterated his strong commitment, and that of other senior US political figures, to the Good Friday Agreement. On Ukraine, we exchanged views on the latest situation at that time, noting the bravery of the people of Ukraine in defending their democracy. We were both committed to supporting the strongest possible sanctions against Russia and the earliest possible end to the war.
I also met virtually with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Richard Neal, both of whom reiterated their commitment to implementation of the protocol and to the Good Friday Agreement.
Although I was not able to be present, I was pleased that President Biden continued the long-standing tradition of the shamrock ceremony in the White House, and that the Speaker's lunch continues to be an important annual fixture on the Hill.
Throughout my visit, I highlighted the strong cultural and two-way beneficial economic ties between Ireland and the United States, and thanked our partners in the United States for their ongoing support for the Good Friday Agreement, in all circumstances. The war in Ukraine was top of our shared agenda. I made clear that Ireland stands with the people of Ukraine and I welcomed our co-operation with the United States both bilaterally and at the United Nations in defence of democracy in Ukraine, and of their rights under international law.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Will the Taoiseach outline the progress he and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have made in recent years in advancing supports, protections and rights for undocumented Irish living in the United States? Government engagements with the diaspora when in the US are, of course, enormously important. However, they will be viewed by many as shallow if not matched by visible efforts to advance the needs and rights of Irish immigrants. There are, as the Taoiseach knows, tens of thousands of Irish people in America who need to regularise their status. Will the Taoiseach give us an update on works to achieve that aim?
Two 80-year-old US military veterans, Mr. Ken Mayers and Mr. Tarak Kauff, were yesterday acquitted of criminal damage at Shannon Airport and acquitted of trespass, although some headlines read that they were convicted. They were convicted for interference with the workings of the airport, which was a broader and more catch-all allegation. They were acquitted by a jury on counts of criminal damage even though they admitted criminal damage because their defence was that it was justified to prevent a greater crime, namely, the crimes of the US military, of which the accused were former members. The men had friends who committed suicide because of the terrible things they were forced to do as members of the US military in wars around the world. Does the Taoiseach think that the jury has something to tell him about the need to condemn US military action and to stop using Shannon Airport as a site for US military aggression around the world?
I ask the Taoiseach to make a clear statement of criticism and condemnation of the US for its threats against the Solomon Islands.
The Solomon Islands has done a security deal with China, which could allow China to establish a military base in that country. Obviously, we are no friends of the authoritarian Chinese regime and do not recommend such a course but it is clearly the choice of a sovereign government. This was the response of the US ambassador:
Of course, we have respect for the Solomon Islands sovereignty, but we also wanted to let them know that if steps were taken to establish a de facto permanent military presence ... then we would have significant concerns, and we would very naturally respond to those concerns ...
When asked whether that could include military action, the ambassador refused to rule it out. The biggest imperialist global superpower on Earth is threatening a very small country of less than 1 million people, saying that if that country does not make decisions in line with its interests, it could face military action. Will there be condemnation of that?
I thank the Taoiseach for reporting on his engagements with the President of the US. I commend him on his strong words condemning the recent Russian video purporting to show a nuclear attack on Ireland. I am conscious, as we all are, that the war in Ukraine was a significant backdrop to the Taoiseach's visit to the US and was the subject of many of his engagements. I also note his conversation with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. Given the recent developments and the growing evidence of Russian complicity in war crimes and atrocities in Bucha, the east of Ukraine and elsewhere, and given that so many of us have called for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador, did the Taoiseach receive any briefings from US intelligence in the course of his engagements in the US on the activities of Russian intelligence agents based in the Orwell Road embassy here? The Taoiseach previously reported, in response to a question I asked, that the Government had moved to expel four senior Russian diplomats from the embassy here but quite a number remain. Can the Taoiseach give us any information from US intelligence about their actions here?
I welcome that the Taoiseach raised again with President Biden the need to make progress regarding immigration reform. The E-3 visa Bill was previously stopped in its tracks at the last minute by one Senator objecting. Irish advocacy groups estimate that there could be up to 10,000 people in the United States whose position has not been regularised, who are referred to as "the undocumented". We know how precarious that position can be when a pandemic hits. Those people are working hard, contributing to society and rearing families in many instances. It is very important that this issue is kept on the agenda.
One other issue I would like to see kept on the agenda is the need for President Biden to appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland. That intense contact and the development of bilateral relations will be for the benefit of the people of both Northern Ireland and the United States.
Democracy as a form of government in the world is under threat. Authoritarian regimes pose an ongoing challenge to the liberal democracies of the West. We have witnessed a rise in global populism and the so-called strongman leader. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, ordered by Vladimir Putin, has highlighted this conflict in a very stark way. Recognising the threat to liberal democratic values in the world, President Biden hosted a democracy summit last December. The President has talked about the battle between democracies and autocracies. We are very clear as to what side Ireland is on. We advocate free trade as well as a rules-based international order and the use of multilateral diplomacy for solving disputes. Does the Taoiseach agree with President Biden's analysis of the geopolitical situation? While the recent results in the French and Slovenian elections demonstrate the strength of democracy in those countries, does the Taoiseach agree that we can never become complacent about the merits of the liberal democratic system?
An overturning of the Roe v. Wade judgment could open the door to abortion bans in half of all American states. The victims of such a counter-revolution would, in the main, be working-class women and poorer women and women of colour in particular. How many will be driven to the backstreets? How many will have their health endangered? How many will die? An overturning of Roe v. Wade could even threaten rights to same-sex marriage and birth control. In the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights for blacks, LGBTQ people and women were won on the streets. There needs to be a return to the streets now in massive numbers to defend abortion rights. I know this is not an issue the Taoiseach will have discussed with the US President at their most recent meeting but is it likely to be on the agenda of their next meeting? This has implications not just in the US but worldwide.
We consistently raised the issue of the undocumented with the President and with many political leaders in the US. I was somewhat taken aback by Deputy Ó Broin's use of the word "shallow". This has been a consistent approach by the Irish Government with different levels of the American Administration to get a change in what is fundamentally a policy issue for Capitol Hill, for Congress and for the Executive. Over the years we have sought an Irish-specific visa scheme. The bipartisan reintroduction of the E-3 visa Bill in Washington in mid-March was a very welcome development. That is something we will be keeping a very watchful eye on to see if we can, in that context, deal with some of the issues pertaining to the undocumented.
Through my own political career I have been very anxious to create legal channels for migration between Ireland and the United States, given our historic friendship. As Minister for Foreign Affairs, I was involved in agreeing the working holiday authorisation agreement between the US and Ireland, which resumed on 1 November last year. The J1 programme has been a tremendously successful part of the Irish-US bilateral relationship, with 150,000 Irish third level students and young people having participated in the programme over the past 50 years.
I raised the issue of the undocumented with President Biden. He has demonstrated his commitment to immigration issues, including possible pathways to citizenship for the undocumented, in his U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. Our embassy in Washington and the network of consulates across the US continue to engage with political leaders from both side of the aisle and at all levels to see if we can get an innovative solution to address the legal issues facing the Irish undocumented in the US. However, in recent times those on the Hill have not looked specifically at one country or ethnic group alone. They tend to want a comprehensive solution. There has been significant opposition to migration and immigration reform in the US. Our emigrant support programme penetrates very deeply and engages with many Irish and diaspora organisations in the US for a range of projects. When I visited New York in September, I saw great evidence of that and met all the groups involved. I went to the New York Irish Arts Center, which we have been supporting since 2008. I was involved in initiating Irish grant aid towards the Irish Arts Center, which has now been dedicated and will provide a wonderful forum for Irish and Irish-American art, drama and theatre and so forth.
Regarding the points raised by Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy, I would agree with Deputy Haughey that President Biden is correct in identifying a growing number of authoritarian regimes that are out to undermine democracy. I do not believe America is out to undermine democracy. I do not see America as an imperial power in the sense Deputy Paul Murphy does. In the middle of a war, when the Russian Federation has launched a very immoral and unjustifiable war on Ukraine, the US is doing everything it possibly can to defend the people of Ukraine and to give measured and balanced leadership in respect of that.
We are out of time and must move on to Question No. 8.
I did not------
Question No. 8, please.
I am sorry but-----
Can I take a few minutes?
If the Taoiseach wants, he can take five minutes from the next group of questions. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The courts have taken their decision about the two gentlemen Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to. On the Solomon Islands, Deputy Paul Murphy has outlined his distaste for the Chinese authorities getting a presence there. Again, it is a far cry from what is going on in Ukraine.
The US is threatening military action.
From our perspective, the world is becoming a more dangerous place because of the work of authoritarian regimes that do not subject themselves to elections on a regular basis.
Does the Taoiseach think that is okay?
On Deputy Bacik's question, we did not receive any US intelligence regarding operatives operating in the embassy during my conversation with the President. We discussed cybersecurity and the threat that represents for Ireland and for both private and public sector entities working in Ireland. We also discussed the need for a collaborative approach in order to repel cyberattacks and develop stronger resilience against cybersecurity threats.
We had an informed discussion on the war in Ukraine, among other issues. He was particularly appreciative of the Irish humanitarian response and the number of displaced persons who we have received from Ukraine, as well as other initiatives, including sanctions and support for Ukraine's European perspective.
Deputy Brendan Smith raised the issue of the undocumented. Our consulates and the embassy in Washington are doing everything possible to encourage representatives to progress migration reform, but it is a factor of US democracy and the US political system at the moment that migration reform is not easy. We were close some years ago. There was one vote in the difference on the E-3 visa. We hope that we can get that back on the agenda. The Speaker and others say they are determined to get that done and we will continue to pursue that.
Deputy Haughey raised the issue highlighted by President Biden since he became President, that there is an essential struggle in the world to preserve and underpin democracies. The war in Ukraine is a wake-up call to people that enough is enough.
Is that what they are doing by backing the Saudis?
When Crimea was invaded-----
Preserving democracy by supporting the Saudis.
I remember raising the issue of the invasion and the partition of Crimea in this House. There were very few takers here, particularly among Sinn Féin or among People Before Profit.
That is not true.
The Taoiseach will find us on record speaking out against it.
That is absolutely not true. It is rubbish.
I mean generally. People indulged and were soft on Russia for too long-----
-----across the House. I accept that it was maybe not Deputy Boyd Barrett.
Members of Fianna Fáil met Putin. We never met Putin.
I accept that about Deputy Boyd Barrett.
The Taoiseach's old boss met him.
It was interesting that people at the time, including Sinn Féin, believed that-----
A few of the Taoiseach's old mates are doing business there too.
-----the Russian Federation was attacking fascists in Kyiv. That is on record in statements made at the time. The attacks in Salisbury and in London are signs that many countries tolerated the Russian approach across the world for far too long. It will pose significant challenges over the next number of years to the rules-based order and the capacity to engage in free trade and to have free media operating in many countries and democracies.
Saudi Arabia especially.
We have to be very strong on that and we cannot become complacent in this country or in any European Union country. There are constant attacks through social media and a range of fora to undermine democracy. I just do not share the Deputies' anti-Americanism to the same degree that they articulate it. We have to agree to disagree.
We are just anti-war.
It invariably finds manifestation in attacking the US more than anywhere else.
Some wars are good and some are bad for it.
The Taoiseach will not criticise the US.
It is always whataboutery with the Deputies.
The Taoiseach will not criticise the US.
It is not whataboutery. The Taoiseach is saying "what about".
If there is any attempt at all to attack the Russian Federation or others, the Deputies' immediate response is whataboutery.
No. We condemn it.
Deputy Barry raised an important point which did not form part of the discussion with the President. That is fundamentally a matter that the American Legislature will have to get to grips with. The Deputy is correct that it will pose significant challenges for many working class people in the USA.
8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagement with the British Prime Minister. [17582/22]
9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [18413/22]
10. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [18416/22]
11. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the UK Prime Minister. [20346/22]
12. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with the British government and Prime Minister. [21059/22]
13. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [21793/22]
14. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [21794/22]
15. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister. [22025/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 15, inclusive, together.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit London ahead of St. Patrick's Day. It was a positive opportunity to engage with Irish community representatives and business leaders. I met with Prime Minister Johnson during my visit. We discussed the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the profound global security, economic and humanitarian consequences. Having just come from a meeting of European Union leaders in Versailles, I emphasised the strength and unity of the European Union response. The Prime Minister and I welcomed the close collaboration between the EU, United Kingdom and other partners to hold Russia to account, to provide support to Ukraine and to address the humanitarian needs of its people, noting that in an uncertain world, the European Union and the United Kingdom are key partners, underpinned by shared values.
We also discussed political developments in Northern Ireland, looking ahead to the Assembly elections this month. We emphasised the need for the two Governments to work closely together to ensure a return to the full operation of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. I highlighted the importance of ongoing engagement between the European Union and United Kingdom on issues relating to the Northern Ireland protocol and the importance of reaching durable, practical solutions for people and businesses in Northern Ireland. My visit to London also gave me a positive opportunity to engage with a range of business and community groups and to participate in London's St. Patrick's Day festival and parade.
Boris Johnson has again been sabre-rattling, with threats to suspend unilaterally parts of the Irish protocol through legislation. We know that these statements have everything to do with the British Prime Minister's political woes, but the reality remains that the Conservative party is fundamentally reckless and cares little about the North of our country or its people. The Nationality and Borders Act is a case in point. Not only is the legislation an affront to Britain's international obligations, but it will be very damaging to the North's economy and society. The legislation also undermines the Belfast Agreement and the common travel area and creates significant restrictions of freedom of movement on the island. Will the Taoiseach give us more detail about his engagement with Boris Johnson, whether they discussed these two Acts and what additional efforts the Taoiseach and his officials will make in advance of the opening of Parliament on 10 May?
The Taoiseach mentioned the Assembly elections in the North. People Before Profit is one of a few parties in this House that is also represented in the North, with an MLA in Belfast West. We run candidates across the constituencies and will hopefully challenge for new seats in Derry, with a bit of luck. People on the doorsteps are talking about the cost of living and the same issues that the Taoiseach's Government has failed to deal with, including the spiralling cost of living, energy prices and unaffordable rents. Despite the attempts of the DUP in particular to divert people's attention back along the same old failed sectarian lines, people are talking about the need for action on the cost of living and rent controls, which we have being calling for North and South and which have been resisted by those in government both North and South. Actual rent controls would make rents affordable. There should be windfall taxes on the profits of energy companies and actual controls on the price of heating and energy fuel.
Does the Taoiseach agree that that is actually what is really concerning people and that Governments both North and South are failing to address the concerns that affect people, whether Catholic or Protestant or in the North or South, including the cost of living and housing? Did he discuss with Boris Johnson the need to have a radical shift to address those issues in the way that People Before Profit candidates are campaigning for in the Assembly elections?
Did the Taoiseach raise with Boris Johnson the question of debt cancellation for Ukraine? The UK holds 4% of voting rights at the International Monetary Fund, IMF, which is the biggest holder of Ukrainian debt. It is due to pay over €2.5 billion this year, which is equivalent to 16.5 million average pension payments in Ukraine. In exchange for this money, the IMF imposed conditionalities on Ukraine, including liberalisation and promotion of foreign trade, the removal of price controls on essential commodities, the reduction of subsidies on essential goods, cutbacks in public services and the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. People understand what IMF programmes do. They are not in the interests of ordinary people. The indebtedness of Ukraine is a consequence of the oligarchisation of Ukrainian society and the failure to tax the rich.
It is odious debt; it is not the debt of the people. It is a huge burden on the ordinary people of Ukraine in terms of the conflict with Russia and the attempt to repel the invasion but also in the context of rebuilding of the country. This is why there is a demand from social movements in Ukraine and from the largest trade union there for the cancellation of the debt. When I asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, about the matter, I received quite an incredible response to the effect that "debt forgiveness by the IMF risks impairing the Fund's financial integrity". Will somebody please think of the IMF's financial integrity and that fact that it is going to be in some way undermined by taking the absolutely necessary step of cancelling Ukraine's debt?
I ask Deputies to be conscious that we have four more speakers and there are three and a half minutes on the clock. Do we want to add additional minutes onto this question and take from the next, in order for the Taoiseach to respond?
The Northern Ireland Assembly elections will take place on Thursday. I had the pleasure of canvassing on Saturday in Belfast South with Matthew O'Toole and Elsie Trainor of the SDLP, along with Claire Hanna, the MP there. The concerns that so many people share in the North are about what will happen after the election takes place and, in particular, what approach the DUP, which is likely to remain the largest unionist party, will take regarding the return of the power-sharing Executive. Has the Taoiseach had any discussions with the British Prime Minister about how the Governments here and in London will address this matter? What concerns has the Taoiseach raised with Boris Johnson about the potential for the British Government to, depending on how the elections in Stormont on Thursday turn out, introduce legislation to undermine or diminish the Northern Ireland protocol?
As the Taoiseach is aware, the 48th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, which took place on 17 May 1974, is approaching . There were many dark days on our island during the era known as the Troubles, but that was darkest day of all because 33 innocent people were murdered and hundreds were badly injured. Sadly, nobody has been brought to justice for those horrific crimes. The Taoiseach will recall that in 2008, 2011 and 2016 this House unanimously passed motions calling on the British Government to give an independent legal expert access to papers relevant to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Sadly, the British Government has not responded to the legitimate requests of a sovereign parliament. This inaction on the part of the British Government is absolutely reprehensible.
For many years, the Taoiseach will have heard me express concerns about the Belturbet bombings of 1972, when two young innocent teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly and Patrick Stanley, were murdered. Some time ago, I put on the record of this House information given to me by the University of Nottingham which showed conclusively that state forces in Northern Ireland colluded in the transport of the bomb from County Fermanagh to Belturbet on that fateful night. Families have waited for decades to try to get to the truth. In the Taoiseach's next engagements with the British Government and Mr. Johnson, these issues must be top of the agenda. We must try to ensure that the truth is obtained for the families involved, who continue to suffer and grieve so much as a result of the actions of murderers operating on behalf of paramilitary organisations and some within British state forces.
There is no doubt that Brexit and issues relating to the Northern Ireland protocol have caused serious problems for the Northern Ireland peace process over the past six years. They have also caused problems for British-Irish relations. We should enjoy an harmonious relationship with our nearest neighbour, for so many reasons, but this has not been possible in recent years. As we are aware, the Northern Ireland Assembly elections take place tomorrow. Does the Taoiseach agree that it is vitally important that an Executive is formed fairly quickly once the election results are declared in order that normal politics can resume in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland? Will he engage with the British Prime Minister on this matter in order that the British and the Irish Governments can, if necessary, intervene as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement? In addition, would the Taoiseach agree that the Northern Ireland protocol issue needs to be resolved, once and for all, in the interests of the peace process and to ensure that normal British-Irish relations can be restored?
I thank the Taoiseach very much his reply. By way of a supplementary question, when does he next intend to meet with the British Prime Minister? Does the Taoiseach believe that the formal arrangement of a monthly or fortnightly phone call between him and the Prime Minister is imperative? We are entering the final few hours of the election campaign in Northern Ireland. I would like to believe that everyone in this Chamber very much hopes to see an Executive established quickly. That is going to require the direct involvement of the British and Irish Governments. I ask the Taoiseach to consider that we would finally get formalised - not ad hoc - meetings between him and the British Prime Minister, and that such an arrangement be extended to include meetings between all Irish Cabinet Ministers and their British counterparts?
I have a brief follow-up question on that. We all want the Executive up and running. We all probably thought that some of what happened in the context of undermining the Irish protocol was possibly a sop to unionism. We believed that there were bigger fish to fry for the British Government and the European Union. The fear is that the British Government is willing to enter into a game of chicken. We need to know what interactions the Taoiseach has had with Boris Johnson in dealing with this, and with the Nationality and Borders Act. As was stated previously, we need a formal set-up to ensure that any issues which exist are dealt with. Obviously, it must be stated absolutely explicitly to the British Government that this is not workable and is utterly ridiculous.
I thank the Deputies for their comments. Deputy Ó Broin raise the issue of the Nationality and Borders Act, and the recent leaks or articulation around Brexit and the protocol. We decided not to take the bait entirely, given that people in Northern Ireland are in the midst of an election. I was anxious that we would allow the election conclude without us wading in, so to speak, because that could be misconstrued. That said, we are very clear that the protocol issue can be resolved between the United Kingdom Government and the European Union. There is a landing zone there, and, in my view, there has been for quite some time. I believe that European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič has made very strong and valiant efforts to reach a compromise. He did not produce a fait accompli, but he did produce significant advancements on the EU position which should, I believe, have been received more generously by the British Government. The discussions continue. The Foreign Secretary is now in charge of the British perspective in the context of engaging with Maroš Šefčovič. I anticipate that after the election an indication will emerge fairly quickly as to whether a desire to get an agreement is there or not.
In my view, it is very clear also that the protocol is benefiting Northern Ireland. Anybody I have met, be it business or political, is very clear that they want to maintain access to the European Single Market. Along with access to the market in Great Britain, this puts Northern Ireland in a relatively advantageous position for inward investment and also for indigenous companies to export, to develop and to grow. The Nationality and Borders Act is not acceptable. It would be very damaging to Northern Ireland. Whoever conceived of this genuinely does not understand the island, or its impact on Northern Ireland. We have made representations in this regard and will continue to do so
Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. With regard to the cost of living, I must disagree with the Deputy. We have been far more advanced in responding to the cost-of-living issues than perhaps the Executive in the North has. We have responded with €2.1 billion in measures to mitigate the rising cost of living. The personal income tax package is worth €520 million. The social welfare package is €550 million. In the budget the fuel allowance will increase the weekly rate so that €114 is paid to eligible households over the course of the winter. An additional lump sum of €125 was paid to 370,000 households receiving the fuel allowance in mid-March, and a further €100 will be paid in the coming weeks. There has been a 55% increase in the 2021-22 fuel allowance. We have reduced the excise duty on petrol, diesel and green diesel, saving motorists between €9 and €12 each time they fill their tank. We have reduced VAT from 13.5% to 9% on gas and electricity bills from the start of the month until the end of October. This will result in an estimated annual saving of between €50 and €70 for households. Households are now seeing the €200 energy credit appearing on their bills.
We will reduce the annual public service obligation, PSO, levy from €58 to zero by October. We will reduce caps on multiple school transport fees for children, as well as reducing VAT on kerosene, which is the main type of home heating oil in Ireland, to 12%. We did not do that because of the impact on the wider Exchequer, given that we would have to do something about a whole range of other goods and services. We did take other measures as well, however, in terms of transport fares coming down.
On Deputy Paul Murphy's question, I met with Prime Minister Shmyhal from Ukraine recently when he stopped off in Shannon. He was actually heading to the United States to meet members of the Washington Administration and representatives from the IMF. There are different mechanisms than the one the Deputy put forward in terms of debt cancellation that the Ukrainian Government is exploring with the IMF and others. Ukraine will need the support of many member states to ensure that is current budget is supported and that there are continued supports for it on the current side and on the reconstruction side.
Deputy Bacik raised the concerns about the position after the election. Again, my view is that after the election, all political parties should take their seats and work towards the establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive, irrespective of the result. The electorate want people to fulfil their mandate, take their seats and set up the Executive.
I appreciate the comments made by Deputy Brendan Smith regarding the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. The views of this House were unanimously expressed in a motion in the context of appointing an independent person who would have independent legal access to the documents and work done at the University of Nottingham. I have raised the broader issue of legacy consistently with Prime Minister Johnson during our bilateral meetings, not just in March but prior to that. We have written to him to express our deep concern at the approach set out in the British Government's July command paper and to emphasise that any decision to proceed with UK legislation on that basis would have negative consequences for reconciliation for victims and for political stability in Northern Ireland. That remains our position. We do not favour unilateralism in the context of legacy. We believe the British Government needs to respond to the views and concerns of victims, primarily in relation to the legacy issue, and follow through on the Stormont House Agreement, which was agreed in 2014 between both Governments and the parties. That is the way forward. It is a comprehensive framework.
Deputy Haughey is correct in terms of the impact Brexit and the protocol are having on British-Irish relations. We need to get the issues resolved in order that we can have a more dynamic post-Brexit relationship on a whole range of fronts. We have many discussions on the way in terms of joining the shared island initiative, with an east-west dimension in respect of research projects, for example. I think it would be well-received by all communities in the North if there was that east-west dimension. The British Government has indicated support for research hubs on the island, which we are supporting through the shared island funding.
To answer Deputy Richmond, we do meet regularly. The meetings are formalised and have set agendas. We continue to engage as issues arise.
I thank the Taoiseach. We have a final set of questions.
How much time is there for them?
16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [17581/22]
17. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [18412/22]
18. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [20037/22]
19. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [20081/22]
20. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [20347/22]
21. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [20348/22]
22. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing will next meet. [20606/22]
I propose to take questions Nos. 16 to 22, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on housing has met three times to date in 2022. The most recent meeting took place on Monday, 4 April, and the next is planned for Thursday, 12 May. This committee oversees the implementation of Housing for All and the delivery of programme for Government commitments regarding housing and related matters. Housing for All is the most ambitious housing plan in the history of our State, backed by the highest ever level of investment with more than €4 billion in annual guaranteed State investment in housing over the coming years. The plan contains a range of actions and measures to ensure more than 300,000 new homes are built by 2030. This figure includes 90,000 social homes, 36,000 affordable purchase homes and 18,000 cost-rental homes.
On 7 April, the Government published the third quarterly progress report under Housing for All. It shows strong progress towards the fundamental reform of the housing system, setting the course to significantly increase the supply of housing and provide a sustainable housing system into the future. Of 213 actions in Housing for All, a total of 135 have either been completed already or are being delivered on an ongoing basis. Data from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, shows that despite the disruption caused by Covid-19, a total of 20,433 new dwellings were completed in 2021. Some 5,669 homes were completed during the first quarter of this year, representing the highest number of quarterly home completions in the State for many years. In particular, there is a significant pick-up in apartment development. There is also a strong pipeline indicated for 2022, with more than 34,000 commencements in the 12 months to March 2022. This data shows that our Housing for All strategy is working in its focus to provide sustainable homes for people in the right places and we are confident that the target for delivery of 24,600 homes in 2022 will be met.
The plan also contains measures aimed at addressing capacity issues in the construction industry, promoting viability and driving down the cost of construction over time. Under the plan, Government has also implemented a number of measures to make homes more affordable to buy or to rent. We are also continuing to support our most vulnerable, namely, those experiencing homelessness and who have more complex housing needs. The situation arising in Ukraine and our commitment to house those fleeing the war makes the delivery of Housing for All more important than ever. It also raises challenges such as inflationary pressures and supply chain issues, which will need careful monitoring to ensure we stay on track to deliver targeted housing supply. The Cabinet committee will maintain focus on this delivery.
The facts on the ground paint a very different picture from the one the Taoiseach has painted. Let us take his city of Cork. Since he became Taoiseach, rents have increased by 15% to €1,400 per month. Average house prices in Cork have increased 20% under his tenure to €320,000. Homelessness is up an astonishing 26%, which is the highest it has ever been and higher than the high point of September 2019. Social housing need is approximately 7,000 households yet the Government's housing plan will only meet approximately 45% of that through to 2026. The latest affordable housing figures just agreed with Cork City Council are going to provide just 75 affordable homes to purchase per year in the Taoiseach's city for the lifetime of this Government.
The Taoiseach's legacy will be the highest house prices and rents in the history of the State, a shrinking private rental sector, high homelessness levels and a failure to meet social and affordable housing need, and that was before we had the Ukrainian refugee crisis. I urge him to put aside the misleading briefings that he is being given, reflect on the failure of his housing pan and put in place a new housing plan that means no person or family is left behind.
The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage made very reckless, irresponsible and somewhat bizarre comments on the rising homelessness situation at the weekend when he suggested that it was to do with the number of European Economic Area, EEA, and non-economic area refugees - which, by the way, is everybody in the world - coming into the country, but not Ukrainians. I find this a bizarre statement for him to make. This seems like reckless deflection but with a potentially dangerous subtext, which some on the far right, worryingly, have already tried to pick up on. The Minister needs to be completely disabused of his notions. The reason the homelessness figures are going through the roof is because we had an eviction ban and a rent increase ban that were effective during Covid-19. Then, the Government removed those things, and the situation has gotten worse since then. The vast majority of people - and they are the ones coming into my clinic week in, week out - who end up in homeless services do so because they are evicted by landlords on grounds of sale when they have done absolutely nothing wrong, or because rents are absolutely astronomical and they cannot afford them, and the housing assistance payment, HAP, limits will not reach to those levels. I appeal to the Taoiseach and the Minister not to engage in dangerous deflection tactics and admit that they need to bring in things like an eviction ban to prevent evictions and control rents to make them affordable.
I thank the Deputy. I suggest that Deputies please limit their contributions to one minute to allow the Taoiseach to respond.
I agree with the comments to the effect that there is no place for reckless scapegoating and deflection. New rents have increased by 9% over the last 12 months. Homelessness has increased by 22% in the same period. House prices are about to reach record levels, surpassing their Celtic tiger peaks. Analysis by Dr. Lorcan Sirr and Mr. Mel Reynolds shows that the number of new homes available to individual buyers last year fell to just 5,698, the lowest number in several years.
Home ownership levels are in freefall under the Government. We desperately need more homes that are affordable; instead, build-to-rent is dominating the supply of new housing, especially in Dublin. A total of 82% of all residential schemes that went for planning or got planning permission in 2020 in Dublin city were build-to-rent schemes. Despite this, the Planning Regulator has told Dublin City Council it must drop its plans to curtail build-to-rent because it conflicts with national policy.
Is it now national policy to allow build-to-rent to dominate the supply of housing? What is the Government doing to enable local authorities to curtail the dominance of build-to-rent?
To follow up on what I raised on Questions on Policy or Legislation, the issue of the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme not allowing for payment plans needs to be brought to the Minister and his Department and rectified. Otherwise, people are going to be put in incredibly difficult circumstances, having to make an instant repayment of arrears. Between that and the fact they will be facing homelessness, we are making a bad situation worse.
Along with that, will the Taoiseach update us on the issue of dealing with vacant properties from the point of view of it being one of the solutions to the housing issue? Where do things stand in respect of an audit of State land to determine what is suitable for building on?
I raise the issue of housing adaptation grants and the discretion of local authorities to sort out issues. It is Government policy to keep people in their homes as long as possible. I am working with a 103-year-old lady, who has an excellent family. She had some minor work done in the past two years to have her home’s roof and heating fixed, and she came to me a few weeks ago about getting her windows and doors refitted because of the cost of heating and her age. The council has told me it will not carry out any more works, but I have told the council this lady is 103 years old. If she had been living in a nursing home in recent years, it would have cost thousands of euro, and keeping people in their homes is part of our Government policy. I ask that discretion is given to local authorities. It is the same with housing adaptation grants in respect of children with disabilities, including autism. Again, there is no discretion there and this has become one of the biggest issues I have faced in recent months.
The other issue I raise relates to modular builds, which the Taoiseach and the Minister have spoken about. Will the Taoiseach update us on it? Many of these builds can be completed within 11 days and it is important we get them done as quickly as possible.
Reliable sources working in homelessness services in Cork city tell me a significant influx of people from Cork county is currently in search of emergency accommodation. Bed and breakfast operators that previously catered for people are providing less and less accommodation, seemingly for two reasons. The first is that as we move towards the summer season, these operators are deciding to prioritise tourism and, second, an increasing number of bed and breakfast providers are being booked by the international protection accommodation services, IPAS, to accommodate refugees from Ukraine. The State must stop pitting refugees against other homeless people. Solutions need to be provided that will benefit the victims both of the housing crisis and of Putin's war. Will the Taoiseach please look into the local issue I have raised and take steps to ensure this problem is resolved?
I disagree with the assessment made by Deputy Ó Broin regarding housing policy, and I have not seen from him or his party a substantive policy response to Housing for All. It just does not exist. Housing for All is a very comprehensive and substantive document, with a suite of measures that will take time. There is no doubt Covid-19 has been a key factor over the past two years, which the Deputy ignored for obvious reasons. Construction was closed twice, in 2020 and 2021, for three or four months each year, which slowed construction, but it has rebounded quite well. The issue is we need to build about 35,000 houses, between the private and public sectors, every year over the next ten years. The more we can accelerate, the better. It will mean all house types - social, affordable and all other types - will have to be facilitated to meet the needs that exist. I am very clear about that.
To me, the biggest challenge now is the war on Ukraine and the inflation that has emerged coming out of Covid, in terms of the imbalance of supply and demand, which has been exacerbated by the energy crisis caused by the Ukrainian war but also by the impact of inflation more generally and on commodities. As we all know, builders are now talking about much higher increases in the cost of materials for building. The cost of building any building, including homes, is increasing because of the cost of materials, and even tenders for State works are being received in much smaller volumes because of the concerns arising from the inflation that has occurred because of the war.
Notwithstanding that, a range of schemes have been introduced to increase and help affordability and to promote the building of cost-rental and affordable homes. Capacity and resources have been given to local authorities to build up their in-house resources to enable them to do much more, on both the affordable and the social housing fronts. There is no other way but to build more houses and have greater supply across the board. Given that the population continues to increase and has done so significantly in the past decade, that imperative of increasing supply still stands. We do not have the luxury as a country of trying to oppose various other schemes, types of buildings, mixes of developments on certain sites and so on. We just do not have that luxury because we urgently need a significant ramp-up and increase in the supply of houses across the board.
To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett, multiple factors underpin the homelessness issue and it is not simple, nor as simple as the Deputy presented. I take on board what he said, but about six rental Acts have been brought in. One of the features of the rental situation has been the exodus of small landlords, with one or two houses, from the market. It is a market the Deputy and others say is very lucrative, yet many landlords have left it in the past two to three years. That is a challenge.
Deputy Barry referenced that some people are using their properties, whether bed and breakfast accommodation or whatever, for other purposes, all of which takes from the housing market. My point about the smaller landlords issue is that we must balance all measures to ensure we continue to get supply into the market, both for rent and for house-building. That is the key. Furthermore, we have to have private sector investment as well as public sector investment. Public sector investment is being provided for, with €4 billion a year being provided by the State through various means for house construction. In addition to that, we will need up to €5 billion or €6 billion from the private sector to get the level of house construction we require. That is why I referenced build-to-rent, for example, and other issues. The primary focus of the Government is social housing and affordable housing, and to get as much private sector development as possible on top of that in order that we will get a broad mix.
Deputy Ó Murchú raised the HAP issue. As I said in response to him earlier, we will talk to the authorities about that and the background to it.
On the housing adaptation grant, there is always some degree of discretion with local authorities and I will discuss that further with Deputy Murnane O'Connor. The modular builds will take much longer than 11 days, depending on quality and so on, but that has been initiated.
I think I have largely dealt with Deputy Barry's points. I do not accept his point about pitting refugees against those on the housing lists. We are not doing that at all. The vast bulk of Ukrainian displaced persons have been in hotels and various other forms of accommodation sourced by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the Red Cross through the pledging situation.
Will the Taoiseach look into the issue that has arisen in Cork?