Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 28 Jun 2022

Vol. 1024 No. 3

Ceisteanna - Questions

Departmental Projects

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [24328/22]

Cian O'Callaghan


2. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [29503/22]

Aindrias Moynihan


3. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Taoiseach the details of the second report on Ireland's well-being framework recently published by his Department. [30068/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett


4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [30724/22]

Paul Murphy


5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [30727/22]

Ivana Bacik


6. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [32139/22]

Ruairí Ó Murchú


7. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [34229/22]

Pa Daly


8. Deputy Pa Daly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the well-being framework for Ireland overseen by his Department. [32407/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.

The well-being framework is a programme for Government commitment to measure how we are doing overall as a country and a nation and to improve our understanding of quality of life in Ireland. It does so by bringing economic, societal and environmental impacts together under one framework. It also places a particular focus on equality and sustaining well-being into the future.

The Government published a second report on Ireland's well-being framework earlier this month, Understanding Life in Ireland: A Well-being Framework. This report reflects a second phase of work on the well-being initiative, testing and refining the initial framework which was published last year. This included further consultation, seeking feedback on what is important for quality of life alongside specific research, including on sustainability. The second report also outlines the longer term approach to embedding the framework into the Irish policymaking system over time. This includes the development of an analysis of the well-being dashboard, which will be reflected annually in the budget process.

As a first step, a report reviewing Ireland's performance across the 35 indicators contained in the Central Statistics Office's, Well-being Information Hub was published alongside the second report which provides a medium-term picture of quality of life in Ireland.

Feeding into the budget process commences this year. Last week the well-being framework was a theme at the national economic dialogue, with a specific breakout discussion chaired by the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath. The analysis will feature in the summer economic statement and as part of budget day documents.

The framework is intended to help inform policymakers in order that we can take a rounded view, based on evidence, of what determines quality of life in Ireland, beyond just economic growth.

Earlier this month the Taoiseach published the second report on Ireland's well-being framework and analysis of the well-being dashboard. That analysis identified a number of groups in Irish society that experience inequality across a high proportion of indicators. These groups include women, single-parent households, households on lower incomes, people with long-term sickness or disability, immigrants, non-Irish and households in rented accommodation. This represents a sizeable proportion of the population across all age groups living with social and economic inequality daily. It must also be noted that, despite the introduction of equality budgeting by the Government a few years ago, it is clear that little progress has been made. The at-risk-of-poverty rate after housing costs is 41.6% for those in rented accommodation, in comparison with 9.3% for those in owner-occupied accommodation.

Sinn Féin's emergency motion includes provisions to reduce and to freeze rents and to put a month's rent back into renters' pockets with a refundable tax credit.

The community and voluntary sector play a very significant role in the well-being of our communities. Due to changes in the tendering process for employment services, community-run job clubs are closing in several areas. These have provided invaluable support over many decades. These projects were funded 100% by grants and have no surplus of funds built up. They cannot pay out redundancy to staff. There is no grant funding to pay for these redundancies. This means there will be costly and expensive wind-up processes involving insolvency. This will impact very unfairly on staff and on the voluntary board members, who have given years of service to the communities over several decades. Will the Government provide grant funding to pay for these redundancies? This will be a less costly approach and would save time and money. Will the Taoiseach look into this and come back to me?

The well-being framework is about understanding and improving our quality of life by pulling together a framework of the things that are important to us across housing, mental and physical health, biodiversity and many other different measures. I understand the framework will be reflected annually in the summer economic statement and in the budget day documents. We are seeing that the summer economic statement is being advanced and the second report of the well-being framework has been published. Is it envisaged that the framework will be included in the forthcoming summer economic statement in July or later on in the budget?

Is slat tomhais atá sa chlár folláine seo agus, seachas a bheith gafa go hiomlán le cúrsaí eacnamaíochta, leagann sé amach na rudaí atá an-tábhachtach dúinn, ar nós tithíocht, sláinte meoin, timpeallacht agus gach rud eile seachas sin. An bhfuil sé ar aigne ag an Rialtas go mbeadh an slat tomhais seo in úsáid i gcomhair an ráitis eacnamaíochta samhraidh atá ag teacht sna seachtainí atá romhainn nó sa cháinaisnéis níos déanaí sa bhliain? Bheadh sé ina ráiteas an-láidir dá mba rud é go mbeadh sé amhlaidh agus go mbeadh an slat tomhais sin in úsáid go tapa.

The biggest obstacle to the well-being of hundreds of thousands of our citizens is the lack of secure and affordable accommodation or, for 10,325 people, including more than 3,000 children, the lack of any accommodation whatsoever. These people are now, in record numbers never seen before, in emergency accommodation or worse, as I pointed out to the Taoiseach earlier, where the local authorities, for the first time in my experience, cannot even offer emergency accommodation to families with children. This is shameful and makes a mockery, to be honest, of talking about well-being. Two and a half years into this Government and it has never been so bad. I am not exaggerating when I say I am overrun in recent weeks by families with children with nowhere to go.

If the Taoiseach is serious about looking at well-being and not just at economic figures, why can we not have the promised review of Housing for All, which we are supposed to have, and why can we not have the promised review of the income eligibility thresholds that are denying thousands any housing support at all?

Covid-19 has not gone away unfortunately, if you look at the case numbers, the hospital numbers, or at the number of people who are, tragically, dying every week. The Government, however, is acting as if Covid-19 is just gone away and is acting to remove a number of different supports from people from 1 July. On this Friday, for example, long Covid leave or special leave with pay is ending. People still have Covid and are still suffering the effects of long Covid but the Government is withdrawing that support. The Government has still refused to recognise long Covid as an occupational injury. In education, a circular has gone out from the Department of Education saying very high-risk individuals are no longer to be facilitated in respect of working remotely from 1 July but will have to return to the workplace, regardless of the fact they are recognised as very high-risk individuals. Will the Taoiseach act to stop these very regressive moves, recognise long Covid as an occupational injury, and not force people back into unsafe conditions they will regret?

I wish to raise with the Taoiseach the loss of face-to-face services and the curtailment of access to community amenities in public services. This is having a very significant impact on the well-being of communities, and in my constituency we have seen the continued closure of the Citizens Information centre in Rathmines. A public meeting I organised on this recently drew a huge crowd who were very concerned at the loss of this face-to-face service. Many people trying to deal with Government agencies find themselves unable to get any response, and facilities like Citizens Information centres are of great importance in this regard, as indeed are post offices. There is also great concern throughout the country about their closure. We have also seen the closure of jobs clubs and the tendering of local employment services, which is another example of the stripping away of public access to free services that deliver face-to-face engagement and which facilitate people in making contact with Government agencies.

Will the Taoiseach commit to ensuring the retention of face-to-face services and community facilities like Citizens Information centres that provide such an important point of contact and an important source of well-being for so many communities?

It is very difficult to talk about well-being if we are talking about situations where people are going to be evicted and forced into homelessness. I return to the issue I spoke about earlier, which is that people in housing assistance payment, HAP, tenancies, if they fall into arrears, are not given an opportunity to enter into a payment plan. People are being asked to pony up money, which can be up to €3,000. I have spoken about a number of instances where people were caught in a bad situation through absolutely dreadful circumstances beyond their control and were willing to pay this money, but unless they went to a loan shark, they were not able to provide this money straight away. All that happens in such situations is the HAP is not paid to the landlord, the landlord evicts these tenants, and these people then go back to homeless services in the county council. We are looking to find a solution for one candidate who is in a bad circumstance by seeking an additional needs payment. That is not how the system should be working. That is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The Taoiseach himself said that the well-being framework is an indicator of how well we are doing as a country. Kerry County Council homeless services is overwhelmed and has effectively run out of available homeless accommodation. Its own accommodation is full and the use of bed and breakfast accommodation, hostels and hotels are also maxed out for the 91 adults and 14 children who are homeless in the county. There are more than 2,000 qualified applicants on the housing list. The market has tightened recently and some providers have been lost to it. More and more families, however, are being issued with notices to quit and the ending of the eviction ban has had severe consequences. Will the Taoiseach intervene and do something?

Many workers and trade unionists in this country have been liking the spirited words of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers leader in Britain, Mick Lynch. Mick said last week there are more rich people than there has ever been and they have never been wealthier, and while they have full employment in Britain, they have falling real wages, which has to be addressed. He said people in full-time jobs are taking State benefits and are having to go to food banks to feed themselves. Anyone can work that out. You do not have to be a Marxist or a social scientist to work out that there is a problem at the heart of society.

I know the Taoiseach is not a Marxist, but we have full employment and falling real wages too. We also have workers going to food banks and have a massive wealth divide. Would the Taoiseach not agree there is a problem at the heart of our society too, a problem which his Government is completely failing to address?

The Taoiseach has just over two and half minutes for a response.

Mick Lynch’s father is a Corkman. No doubt that sense of fair play and value system emanates from that Cork influence. He supports Cork City football club to the present day. Just to let Deputy Barry know as well that my late father was a founder of the National Busmen's Union, so I know a thing or two about transport strikes, particularly growing up as a child. I am watching with interest what is transpiring overseas.

On the more fundamental issue of well-being, we should welcome the introduction of a well-being framework in respect of how we measure things in this country. Deputy Moynihan asked if the framework would be incorporated into the summer economic statement. It will be and it will be in the Budget Statement. It will also be integrated into all major decisions of Government.

It was Bobby Kennedy who once famously said that the problem with GDP as a measurement is that it measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile. In many ways this is the essence of the well-being framework. There are approximately 35 indicators and Ireland performs well in 20, including the lifelong learning rate, average weekly earnings and satisfaction with democracy in Ireland. Six indicators show negative performance, including net government wealth, greenhouse gas emissions and experience of discrimination. The performances of the other nine indicators are more nuanced. There are particularly positive indications in the knowledge skills and innovation, work and job quality, and safety and security dimensions. Only one dimension reveals a negative overall picture, which is environment, climate and biodiversity.

Housing does not come across and there is a reason for it. The dashboard goes through the issues on housing. The indicators state Ireland comes out relatively well in terms of trend over time and international comparisons, but this has to be put in the context of data availability and demand. It is far more nuanced. New dwelling completions have been increasing consistently over the past seven years and they will increase substantially again, but we need to be closer to 33,000 units a year.

One of the big issues in housing that people have referenced regarding the current situation in emergency accommodation is that, in recent months, the number of international asylum seekers has increased beyond prediction. This is separate from the Ukrainian situation. It is putting a strain on emergency accommodation that was not anticipated. The estimate in the report of Dr. Catherine Day in respect of direct provision was approximately 3,500. We will be well beyond that and the number could go to 9,000 or 12,000 before the end of the year. This is creating its own pressures. Within the European Union there are pressures. The Deputy can nod all he likes but there are other issues.

It is addiction that is doing it. In my area it is addiction.

We need to deal with other issues in terms of fast-tracking and getting accommodation in place in any way we possibly can.

If the questions take up all the time we cannot expect the Taoiseach to invent time in which to answer.

I had no time to answer.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Ivana Bacik


9. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the French President since his re-election. [24221/22]

Seán Haughey


10. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the President of the French Republic since his re-election. [24818/22]

Mick Barry


11. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the French President since his re-election. [26199/22]

Mary Lou McDonald


12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the French President since his re-election. [25806/22]

Ivana Bacik


13. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the special European Council meeting in May 2022. [29330/22]

Brendan Smith


14. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the French President since his re-election. [30062/22]

James Lawless


15. Deputy James Lawless asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the French President since his re-election. [30121/22]

Neale Richmond


16. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the most recent European Council meeting. [30514/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett


17. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the French President since his re-election. [30725/22]

Paul Murphy


18. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the President of France since his re-election. [30728/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 18, inclusive, together.

Following his re-election as President of France, I wrote to President Macron to offer him my warmest congratulations. I also had the opportunity to congratulate him in person when we met at the special meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 30 and 31 May. That meeting began with a video call with President Zelenskyy. We then went on to agree financial support for humanitarian, liquidity and reconstruction needs in Ukraine as well as a sixth package of sanctions, including oil, putting further pressure on Russia to end this war. We discussed the Commission's REPowerEU plan and how to fast-forward the green transition. We also discussed food security and were joined in our discussions by President Macky Sall, Chairperson of the African Union. We discussed a European Commission analysis paper on defence investment gaps in the EU, with all agreed on the need for more and better investments.

The European Council met again on 23 and 24 June, when we took the historic decision to confirm European Union candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, and to recognise Georgia's European perspective. We also discussed the ongoing impact of Russia's war on Ukraine and our commitment to continuing strong humanitarian, military, economic and financial support. We condemned Russia's weaponising of food supplies, which risks famine and instability. We discussed wider Europe, which was an initiative of the French President, including the idea of a European political community to foster political dialogue on strategic challenges across our region. We noted the recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe and called for effective follow-up by the Union's institutions.

In the margins of the meeting I met the President of Kosovo, Dr. Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, and assured her of Ireland's support for Kosovo's European perspective and urged further progress in the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue. Following the European Council meeting proper, we met as the Euro Summit where we heard from President of the European Central Bank, Ms Christine Lagarde, and President of the Eurogroup, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, on prospects for the European economy. Countries across the Union are experiencing the same challenges from rising energy and food prices as well as rising inflation and interest rates. These challenges are being fuelled by Russia's war on Ukraine. We agreed on the need to co-ordinate closely in our response and to return to the topic at a future date.

As we know, in February there were planned Russian naval exercises in Irish waters. These were eventually moved due to the campaign of Mr. Patrick Murphy and the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation who threatened to sail out to meet the navy. Last week the same organisation had a second victory when planned manoeuvres by the French navy were moved outside of Irish waters. The organisation, with which I have engaged closely, is raising legitimate concerns about the impact such military exercises will have on biodiversity, spawning grounds and sea life generally. The Minister for Foreign Affairs confirmed on Twitter that the French plans had been changed. Did the Taoiseach at any point discuss this with the French President during his recent engagement?

I am conscious Mr. Murphy, the producers organisation and Mr. Brendan Byrne, the CEO of the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association, have been drawing up proposals for a ten-year moratorium on military exercises by any foreign navy taking place within Ireland's exclusive economic zone. As a neutral country and as a country that wants to protect our own territory and the biodiversity of our seas this is a common-sense measure. Will the Taoiseach support it and will the Government work to implement it?

We know the French President, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, is a key player in future developments in the European Union. He is very ambitious for the EU, as his commitment to the Conference on the Future of Europe and the French Presidency of the EU have demonstrated.

In this context I want to raise the issue of enlargement. While welcoming the decision of the European Council to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, there was disappointment in the western Balkans and Georgia that their cases for accession were not advanced. Ireland rightly supports enlargement as a general principle. Enlargement promotes peace and stability in various regions and makes sense from a strategic point of view. The Taoiseach and German Chancellor Mr. Olaf Scholz have questioned the need for a unanimous decision-making when it comes to admitting new member states. The French President has spoken about a political community in the neighbourhood of the EU, as the Taoiseach has just said, without full membership, a partial integration into the EU, if you like. Would the Taoiseach agree that, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we need to speed up enlargement and give geopolitical considerations an increased weighting in this process?

France's Presidency of the Council of the European Union ends this month. President Macron's big idea during his term was the establishment of what he terms the European political community, a decision-making structure for political dialogue and co-operation on matters of common interest for European countries inside and outside the EU. He has emphasised in his public statements the inclusion of collective security and building this security architecture throughout the European Continent in the work of his new structure. What discussions has the Taoiseach had with the French President on his proposal? What has been the response of Council members? Has the Government taken a view on the matter?

I want to raise briefly the British Government's so-called bill of rights legislation that was rejected outright by parliamentarians attending last week's meeting of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. This legislation will radically weaken human rights protections for people living in the North. It is a deliberate attempt by the British Government to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. Will the Taoiseach and his officials continue to engage with their counterparts in the coming months on this urgent matter? What progress has been made to date?

Since 2016, other EU member states, including France, have been very supportive of Ireland's concerns and interests with regard to Brexit. We recall that the French Government and others at EU level were very supportive of investment in the PEACE programmes from the mid-1990s. At that time the investment was critical for economic and social progress on the northern and southern sides of the Border. Thankfully today, our Border region North and South is much less dependent on this type of financial transfer because the cross-Border economy and all-Ireland economy have developed so much since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. One of the areas of particular importance in my constituency and in neighbouring counties North of the Border is the agrifood sector.

This sector has grown on a cross-Border and all-Ireland basis. It is essential that the other member states of the European Union continue to support the Government in protecting that sector. It will be very vulnerable, should the British Government's decision to tear up parts of the protocol be implemented. It is absolutely ludicrous for the British Government to come up with the idea of two regulatory regimes for food; it is not viable. Who would certify the transfer of milk from Northern Ireland to southern processing units? A food chain, in the context of processing, cannot be broken.

The recent French presidential and assembly elections confirmed the absolute crisis in the cost of living that is sweeping Europe. Interestingly, even Macron's government, which is widely discredited among very significant layers of French people, some of whose disillusionment I am glad has led to success for radical left forces around the NUPES coalition but, more worryingly, has also seen a rise in support for what are essentially fascists on the French far right, has moved to control energy prices and limit energy price increases to 4%. It has also introduced new forms of rent control to try to link rents to people's ability to pay. We have made those proposals here and the Government has resisted. Why is it that even Macron's government, which is hardly radical, is trying to control key things such as energy prices and rents, while the Government holds out against doing that?

I wonder whether the Taoiseach has seen the pictures and videos from last Friday at the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Dozens of refugees fleeing war and oppression were crushed to death against the border fences. Others were beaten to death by the border patrol, all to stop them getting into the EU where they could claim refugee status. This was mass murder of refugees trying to flee persecution. NGOs are saying that at least 37 people have died; it could be more. Many more were injured trying to pass through. This is the responsibility of the EU. The EU recently announced funding of €100 million to Morocco to "support border management". To quote the NGOs, "This is a tragic symbol of the European policies to externalise the EU's border." The two-faced and racist border policies of the EU are on display for all to see. Why should black and brown people fleeing from persecution and war not have exactly the same rights as those correctly fleeing from so-called white or Christian countries such as Ukraine? Will the Taoiseach condemn the murder of refugees on the border of Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla? Will he condemn the fortress Europe policies that lead to these deaths?

The Deputy's anti-Europeanism is shocking, as is his consistent anti-EU position. He always seeks to undermine the Union, despite the fact that the Union, of any actor in the world, is the most humanitarian. It contributes most-----

I ask the Taoiseach to tell that to the refugees.

-----on humanitarian issues to the neighbourhood and all it gets is attack, attack, attack.

The European Union has murdered refugees.

Deputy Murphy has consistently attacked Europe; he does not consistently attack Russia.

Will the Taoiseach condemn-----

He does not consistently attack-----

The Deputy does not.

The Taoiseach has previously said in the Dáil that we do.

The Deputy always uses the opportunity to attack the European Union-----

-----whether it is on vaccines, helping Ukraine or migration.

Will the Taoiseach, please, talk about the refugees who died?

Of all the actors in the world, if one goes through any of the data and analyses them objectively, the EU does more than any other in trying to look after and provide for people. That is the reality of what is happening. With regard to Deputy Smith's point-----

Will the Taoiseach talk about the refugees?

With regard to Deputy Smith's points-----

Did he see the videos? Will he condemn the policies? He cannot just move on and say how great Europe is. Does he support an investigation into the murders?

I have the floor now. I have made my points.

The Taoiseach has not answered. He did not answer the questions at all. He just accused me-----

I have dealt with-----

No, the Taoiseach did not.

-----the Deputy's ceaseless propaganda against the European Union. He is consistently anti-EU.

What does the Taoiseach say to the families of people who have died because of fortress-Europe policies?

The Deputy should attack the authorities in which many of these reside-----

The EU is funding them.

-----that create an authoritarian regimes and conditions that makes life impossible for people.

It is EU policy to pay for Moroccan border guards to kill migrants.

Europe has a migration policy and frontier management. Every authority in the world has a migration policy and manages migration, but the bottom line is that this authoritarianism is undermining the world. It is creating-----

Killing Africans.

Here the Deputy goes again interrupting. Other Members have asked questions. The Deputy should have the good faith to allow me to answer other Members.

Did the Taoiseach answer the question?

The Deputy does not like the answer because he is a propagandist at heart and he lacks objectivity in every presentation he makes.

It is shameful.

Deputy Smith is correct about what is transpiring in respect of the decision that has been made on the dual regulatory framework. All of those involved in industry, manufacturing, the dairy industry and agrifood are saying this loud and clear. It is a form of economic illiteracy from the perspective of Northern Ireland that one would create such a dual regulatory framework because it does not allow for full traceability and it creates challenges for those exporting commodities. This has been pointed out to me by the interests concerned and I have pointed this out. Manufacturing in Northern Ireland is saying it has had the best time under the protocol. That needs to be said.

Deputy Haughey raised the western Balkans and I should have addressed that in my original comments. There was something of a breakthrough at the end of the meeting, when the Bulgarian Parliament removed its objections to North Macedonia, although it put some qualifiers into the motions that were passed. It now remains for North Macedonia to respond to that. I would welcome rapid acceleration for North Macedonia and Albania, in particular, which are more than ready to join having adhered to all the issues that were raised with them over a long number of years and, likewise, countries such as Montenegro. There were also good conclusions with regard to Bosnia-Herzegovina regarding criteria it must meet. The Commission will review, up to October, the degree to which Bosnia-Herzegovina responds to the various standards it has to achieve in respect of a number of issues. That is positive. I agree with the Deputy generally in that enlargement is important. I reminded members of the EU Council that it was back in 1990 during an Irish presidency, of which the Deputy's father was president, that the unification of Germany was accelerated. Many people at the time were against the unification of Germany following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United Kingdom, in particular, was concerned about it but that meeting in Dublin paved the way for German unification.

Other former members of the Soviet Union joined during the EU during the 2000s. It gave them, not just a home but an opportunity to grow and develop. That is why I believe in enlargement. Ireland, 50 years ago, joined the Union and it has been transformative for the Irish experience. We cannot deny others the opportunity to be part of the Single Market and a broader, standards-based approach.

Deputy Brady raised the issue of President Macron's idea. He has put forward an idea about on which we had a general discussion at the dinner on the night of the meeting. We are open to it as a country if it means broader dialogue with countries that are not members of the EU. However, we are very clear, as are many member states, that it cannot be a substitute in any shape or form for an enlargement process. It cannot delay the candidacy of countries that want to join the Union. The idea is that there would be a broader framework for dialogue on the Continent of Europe, which is important.

Deputy Bacik raised the moratorium on exercises. There was no need in the end because the Minister, Deputy Coveney, had been in touch with his counterpart. There is a fair point in terms of military exercises within the Irish exclusive economic zone , but we should look more ambitiously at marine reserves. I appeal to the fishing organisations to work with us on that in terms of areas where we can protect marine biodiversity. I certainly support work on a moratorium on military exercises that damage spawning grounds, biodiversity and marine life. We attended a summit organised by President Macron some months ago in respect of the marine economy and marine life. Fishermen and others are also raising legitimate issues.

I might not have gotten to everybody.

Church-State Relations

Ivana Bacik


19. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [24222/22]

Mick Barry


20. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [26200/22]

Bríd Smith


21. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [27831/22]

Mary Lou McDonald


22. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [29328/22]

Brendan Smith


23. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [30063/22]

Mick Barry


24. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [30713/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett


25. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [30839/22]

Paul Murphy


26. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with church leaders. [30842/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 to 26, inclusive, together.

Like public representatives generally, I meet church leaders informally from time to time in the course of attending official functions. The most recent formal meeting I had took place on 15 April 2021, when I met the leaders of the all-island Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church and the Irish Council of Churches. We discussed the ongoing contribution to peace building and the work churches undertake on an ongoing and daily basis at community level in Northern Ireland.

The church leaders and I recognised the remaining years of the decade of centenaries as profoundly important and sensitive moments in engaging with the shared history of these islands and agreed it is important to promote a sensitive, inclusive and respectful approach in the marking of those centenaries still to come. I briefed the church leaders on the Government's Shared Island initiative. Both the church leaders and I recognise the importance of dialogue, engagement and respect for all communities and traditions on these islands.

The Church leaders and I agreed the pandemic has posed challenges for all of our citizens in terms of their mental health and well-being and recognised the importance of faith to the spiritual and mental well-being of many people and communities. Thankfully, restrictions have been lifted and places of worship are now fully open.

An agreement with the Catholic Church on patronage was reached in March to cover five towns that currently have no multidenominational primary school provision and to cover the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway and encourage greater levels of divestment in keeping with parents' wishes. The proof, however, will be in how many schools change their status, given the Catholic Church remains the patron of 90% of primary schools in this country. We in Labour have consistently called for a citizens' assembly to address directly the role of religious institutions as patrons in our education and our health systems. Will the assembly on the future of education specifically address the question of religious patronage?

Given the wealth of church authorities - I am conscious of the massive wealth of the Carmelite order that owns the site at Terenure College, which is currently up for sale, for example - has the Government engaged with the church authorities on the provision of special classes and appropriate places for children with autism and additional needs? There is a huge need in the Dublin 6, Dublin 6W and Dublin 12 areas in this regard and there are immense amounts of wealth in church authorities and religious orders. Is there a way the Taoiseach and his Government can engage directly with them to see if some of those resources can be harnessed to provide the necessary places for children with autism?

A huge number of people came out on the streets of Dublin at the weekend to participate in Pride. It was a real celebration but it was also a protest against those who try to limit the progress of this community, including the progress of our transgender community. I put it to the Taoiseach that a society whose capital can host an event like that, a society that repealed the eighth amendment, a society that wants progress for women and a society whose young people want to see all these changes sped up is in contradiction with a society where so many of our schools and hospitals are controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, other churches and religious groups.

For example, how can meaningful and objective sex education for our young people be put in place properly when information can be vetoed on grounds of religious ethos? Is it not time for the Taoiseach to stop using the money message process to block our sex education Bill? Moreover, is it not time that the Government realised we are now in the third decade of the 21st century and we must move to separate church and State?

In November last year, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, wrote to six religious congregations to inform them of the Government's intention to establish the mother and baby institutions payment scheme. Individual meetings with orders to discuss their contribution to this scheme took place over the past few months. Will the Taoiseach confirm if similar discussions have been had with church leaders, and if so, has the State Claims Agency also attended these meetings? How hard is the Government pushing to ensure the orders contribute to the redress scheme and that the contribution adequately matches their ability to pay?

We know from testimony and State records that the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland were deeply involved in the operation of these institutions, all under the watchful eye of the State. The Taoiseach was a member of the Cabinet that signed off the controversial residential institutions redress scheme deal that resulted in religious congregations contributing just a fraction of overall costs of redress. That simply cannot happen again.

Some years ago, to my understanding there was considerable engagement at official and political level between the Government and church leaders of all denominations on the advancement of the peace process and the need to deal with the ongoing concerns of some communities. My understanding was that at the time, church leaders, who have an all-Ireland remit, were an important conduit on issues of concern to some communities, particularly communities with small numbers. In some cases those communities with relatively small numbers might not have had as much political engagement with Governments here, the Executive in Northern Ireland or the political parties as would have been desirable throughout the entire island.

Apart from the current protocol difficulties in Northern Ireland, there are also many areas where we need to see much more progress. I think specifically of educational attainment and the large numbers of people still without basic skills who have not been able to go to gainful employment. When dealing with questions of general deprivation and lack of educational attainment, it is important that every conduit be used to get the views and concerns of the communities that may be small in numbers but whose needs and concerns need to be addressed. Often, those communities are not as politically involved as they should be.

The overwhelming votes for marriage equality and repeal of the eighth amendment were a statement that people do not believe the Catholic Church should decide about people's sexual lives, their identities or women's right to control their own bodies, yet the Government continues to defer to the Catholic Church by allowing it to control much of our health service and most of our education system.

One of the most egregious failures to fully remove the power of the church over the people of this country is in the area of access to abortion for people with pregnancies where there are fatal foetal abnormalities. It is really shameful that because we introduced limits around 12 weeks and a requirement for two doctors to sign off on a foetus not being viable, many people struck with the tragedy of a wanted pregnancy that is not viable because of fatal foetal abnormality must continue to travel to Britain for abortions. That is the case.

Religious fundamentalists in the US have dealt a major blow to the rights of women and all oppressed groups through the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The opinion of one of the judges, Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment, indicates that contraception, same-sex marriage and even same-sex relationships are next to be targeted by the religious right. Transgender rights are also under attack, not only in the US but, increasingly, from the media in this country, despite the very widespread public support for trans rights.

In Ireland, the Catholic Church has cast the longest shadow over the human rights of women and LGBTQ+ people, presiding over a denial of contraception, abortion rights, gay and trans rights and same-sex marriage. The best way to defend the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people in this State is by finally separating church and State. Will the Taoiseach support the abolition of the three-day wait, the 12-week limit and the full decriminalisation of abortion? Will he kick the church out of our schools and hospitals? At a very minimum, will he support the passage of our objective sex education Bill through Committee Stage to ensure objective and LGBTQ+-inclusive sex education in all schools?

I thank the Deputies for their questions.

Deputy Bacik raised the issue of the role of the church within education. The situation has evolved significantly. I was one of the original supporters of Educate Together through measures I took with capital expenditure way back in the late 1990s to facilitate the purchase and acquisition of sites much more cost-effectively for Educate Together schools. That was followed through and we have a far more pluralistic and democratic system now. Plebiscites often happen and people vote for the type of school they want. Evolution is changing the very landscape of education as we speak. That will continue and I think we need to see more divestment and greater use of existing resources in terms of existing school buildings, for example. There is a whole issue there.

Some religious orders have also donated to the State without any compulsion. In Carlow, for example, the third level college has been offered to the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for use by Carlow Institute of Technology. Provided it is retained for teaching and education purposes, there are no strings attached. It is a fantastic site in the middle of Carlow. The site of the Presentation Sisters in Cork has been transformed and is home to the Cork Migrant Centre, community groups and a range of activities. Social housing was facilitated on that site a long time ago. Some religious orders donate their land for the use of social housing, for example. That needs to be acknowledged. There are others that do not, it has to be said. I was a bit struck when Dublin City Council recently recommended to councillors not to facilitate the zoning of church lands given the housing crisis we are in. I was not quite sure of the overall reasoning behind that. There needs to be balance. We need more amenity land in Dublin, certainly, but where land is next to services and we can get compact growth housing growth, I would have thought that we should use some lands for housing given the crisis we are in. Again, I will read up on that a bit further and in more detail.

In response to Deputy Barry, I support unequivocally the trans community and I am not sure we can lay all the blame on religion entirely. There are cultural issues afoot. I certainly think within education we need to develop far more sophisticated anti-bullying policies. We need to create a climate of tolerance. We do not need the toxic debates that have happened in the UK and elsewhere on this issue. We need to have a society-wide response, beginning in our schools. There are issues we need to analyse a bit more deeply. It is not all about who owns the school. It is deeper than that, unfortunately, in terms of the groupthink that goes on and the degree to which people are bullied and really have journeys and experiences that are very sad in many respects and that should not happen. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is developing curricula in relationships and sexuality education, RSE, at primary and post-primary level. That is extremely important. I have spoken to the Minister for Education. We need to really get those programmes modernised and updated to deal with LGBT+ issues. RSE needs to be modernised and updated but it is also important that the teachers who deliver the curricula are resourced adequately in terms of continuing professional development and that there is a lead person within the school to lead the programme within schools.

Yes, but there is the money message.

One of the issues historically has been delivery within the schools. Some teachers feel uncomfortable delivering the programme, particularly at post-primary level. I would argue that more work needs to be done in that regard. Legislation needs amendment also but the more critical issue is curriculum, the delivery of the curriculum, the capacity to deliver it and to develop a culture across the schools that is far more tolerant regarding trans issues, sexual orientation, and respect and consent more generally.

The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman has written to the religious orders involved in the mother and baby homes. I am sure he has kept Deputies up to date on any responses he has received. Let us call a spade a spade. The State will fund the payment scheme, largely, in terms of its overall cost. We want contributions towards it but the State is pressing ahead as requested by the Oireachtas.

Deputy Brendan Smith is correct that the last such meeting of the all-island Christian churches was April of last year. I made reference to this in my opening reply. That meeting included discussion of issues pertaining to Northern Ireland, particularly in the context of the decade of centenaries and how best to do that. We will arrange a further meeting.

Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy raised issues in respect of Roe v. Wade. I made the point earlier that Roe v. Wade involves two fundamental issues. In this country we have a referendum process, which is key. We also should not politicise the Judiciary ever. That is what has happened. The separation of powers has broken down to a certain extent in the United States. The degree to which people are appointed on their politics and how far right they are under the Trump Presidency was a factor. We need to be very careful that we need separation of powers. We do not politicise the Judiciary. That is the real lesson from Roe v. Wade. We have a Constitution that is far better in terms of referendum by the people.

Finally, on fatal foetal abnormalities, we need to be careful about that. We need to make sure that what we committed to in the referendum and the legislation is followed through both ways. We need to take proper account and have proper assessment. I know of a case where that went wrong. I am sure Deputy Boyd Barrett must know of it as well. It has been raised. On the face of it, the proper assessments did not take place. There was a baby that was fully healthy and the pregnancy was terminated; that happened. I have met the parents myself. These issues are never clear. Legislation is there for a reason and we should make sure it is followed through, including the need for two doctors to sign. That is very important and I would not be as dismissive of it as the Deputy seems to be.