Thursday, 14 December 2017
Over the course of discussions today and tomorrow, the European Council is expected to give formal endorsement to the move from the first to the second phase of negotiations on the United Kingdom's departure from the Union. Although we hardly need it, we had another reminder last night of how divisive this issue is in the UK with an embarrassing parliamentary defeat for its Government. One consequence of this vote is that the timeframe for agreeing a deal is potentially compressed even further, even though it was already tight.
Fianna Fáil broadly welcomes last week's deal as it pertains to the island of Ireland. However, given the vastly different interpretations being put on that deal, we must accept that the most difficult Brexit negotiations are still ahead of us. The putting into effect of the commitments secured last week as part of a final, legally binding written agreement will be a major challenge. The clock is ticking and with the UK set to leave the EU in just over 15 months time, the imperative in the coming months will be to achieve as much certainty as possible for Irish businesses trading with the UK. It is generally accepted that there is less than a year to agree a transition agreement and the framework of a future relationship.
In her speech in Florence last August, the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, called for a transition period of two years. Given the level of complexity involved across different sectors and the amount of detail that must be worked out as part of that process, two years is nowhere near adequate or realistic. If one takes the aviation sector, for example, where forward planning has to be done many years in advance, it is clear that the business community must be afforded a long lead-in period to whatever the new trade arrangements will be. Will the Tánaiste confirm what length of transition period the Government will seek as part of the phase 2 negotiations? Will he give an assurance that throughout the transition phase, however long it is, the UK will remain part of the Single Market and the customs union and that the terms of trade, on both a North-South basis and an east-west basis, will remain unchanged and unimpeded?
On the question of what can be achieved in phase 2, the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, has said that while an agreement on a future relationship can only be finalised and concluded once the UK has become a third country, the EU will be ready to engage in preliminary and preparatory discussions with the aim of identifying an overall understanding of the framework for that relationship. People will want to know what this means in practice. Is it the Tánaiste's understanding that there will be no talks at all on the details of a future trade deal until the UK leaves the Union in March 2019? It is undoubtedly the case that the EU stood by Ireland in phase 1. What reassurances has the Government received that the same solidarity will apply in phase 2 on the critical question of trade, given the enormous economic exposure of the State to changes in that area?
First, when people see the text of the guidelines agreed by leaders, which are to be published tomorrow morning, they will clearly see the determination on the EU side to ensure there is no slide-back from the commitments that were made in phase 1. This applies to issues of particular Irish concern, as well as other issues. It is very clear in the wording that the negotiations in the second phase will not proceed or continue unless there is clear evidence that the commitments which were made in phase 1 will be followed though and given legal effect. I expect to see the EU develop, early next year, a draft withdrawal agreement which offers reassurance that the commitments made under phase 1 will be implemented.
I agree with the Deputy that we need to give businesses certainty as soon as we can. While I have very strong views on what I would like to see as the outcome of the phase 2 process, regardless of that outcome, businesses need time to adapt to any new realities. I have said a number of times that if there is a significant difference between the trading environment today and the trading environment post Brexit, then we will need a number of years to allow businesses to adapt to that change. We need time, too, to negotiate the detail of a new trade deal. Any expectation that the full detail of a new trade partnership or arrangement will be concluded in full and be in place by next October or November, as some parties are suggesting, is simply not realistic. What is possible by next October is to have a framework agreement within which we can set the parameters for a new trading environment between the United Kingdom and the EU. The Government's position is that we want this framework to deliver an environment as close as possible to the status quo, with no barriers to trade between the EU and the United Kingdom.
In the absence of agreement, and if the British Government decides to pursue the course of action it has outlined many times, namely, to leave the Single Market and customs union as well as the EU, there will, of course, be problems to address. Such an approach would mean that some of the commitments made in phase 1 in the context of those decisions will be triggered and will have to be part of any withdrawal agreement.
I expect the transition period will take longer than two years. There is nothing in the guidelines that commits the EU to a specific time period, although there is a recognition that the UK has requested approximately two years. An agreement on that matter will be part of the discussions early next year.
The Government is right to guard against any potential backsliding away from the deal that was announced last week. Translating it into binding legal text in a draft written agreement would be an important step in that regard.
What has been said over the past number of days makes that even more important. I am seeking to clarify the Government's position on the question of the transition period. Ireland is now, hopefully, about to commence the phase two negotiations. The Tánaiste has said that he favours a transition period of up to five years. Perhaps the Tánaiste will clarify this and confirm it as the formal position of the Government as we enter into the phase two negotiations. However long the transition period will be, is it the EU and the Government's position that the UK would remain within the Single Market and the customs union during that period so there is a defined transition window? We know what we are working towards but while that window is open, firms and businesses could have that certainty. My key point is to clarify the Government's position on the duration of the transition period as we go in to these negotiations.
The Government and I believe that the longer the transition period, the better. That period will need to be closer to four or five years than two years. The time that is needed for a transition period will also be determined by the approach of the United Kingdom towards these negotiations. If the UK wants to negotiate a Canada style free trade agreement, it will take a number of years. If the UK wants or chooses an option that keeps the United Kingdom much closer to the Single Market and the customs union in the future, it may not involve as much change, and therefore may not involve as long a transition period.
Let me be very clear that the transition period, however long it is, or the adaptation period as some people call it, will involve Britain remaining as part of the Single Market and customs union as it is today. The guidelines will be crystal clear on this at tomorrow's meeting. The full EU acquiswill apply. The only difference will be that Britain will not have a presence within the EU institutions as it has today. Everything else remains intact. This will give certainty during that period for businesses operating between Ireland and the UK.
Today and tomorrow, the Taoiseach will attend the meeting of the European Council in Brussels. We are all aware that this meeting is absolutely crucial to our economic, political and social future. The Government has decided to endorse the joint report from the EU Commission and the British Government and last Friday morning the Taoiseach described that report as “rock solid and cast iron”. While acknowledging the positive language in the joint report, Sinn Féin warned that it fell far short of what is needed to truly protect the national interest, North and South.
Sinn Féin also cautioned that the commitments made were not legally binding and that the Government needed to be very careful in its dealings with the Tory Government. Over the days that followed, our caution was proven to be well founded. The British Government spokesperson on Brexit, David Davis, went on television last Sunday and stated that the joint report was merely a “statement of intent”. Senior officials from the Department for Exiting the European Union at Westminster have already rowed back on the British commitments. They have claimed that full alignment will only apply to six areas of North-South co-operation as set out in the Good Friday Agreement. The looseness of the joint report was further highlighted when, on Monday the EU Commission confirmed that the joint report is not legally binding. They described it as “a deal between gentlemen”. This is hardly the language of rock solid and cast iron agreements. The backsliding the Tánaiste referred to earlier has already started.
We are left with a set of contradictions. The first is the claim that there will be no hard border in Ireland, but Britain is leaving customs union and the Single Market and wishes to drag the North of Ireland with them. The second contradiction is the claim that there will be no denudation of rights for citizens, but Britain is leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The third contradiction is the claim that there is no threat to the Good Friday Agreement, but we are facing the biggest social and political rupture to impact on our island in generations. There is a huge square to be circled here and relatively little time in which to do it.
I met with cross-community sectoral groups in Belfast last Monday. I can tell the Tánaiste that they are feeling far from assured, clear or certain about their future. We have clarity only on one aspect; that nothing is cast iron or rock solid. The Tánaiste referred to negotiating guidelines and the possibility of a draft withdrawal agreement being published next year. I want to ask the Tánaiste about a more immediate concern. Will the Tánaiste indicate whether the Taoiseach will seek additional assurances from the British Prime Minister and our EU partners before allowing the talks to move onto phase two? Will the Tánaiste seek these assurances over the next two days? Will any such assurances be put in writing and published? Will these assurances be legally binding?
I would caution against taking a line from some political commentary as outline facts. What we have in writing is what people should look at and see. This is the commitment the British Government has made to 27 EU countries, not only to Ireland, and to EU institutions at the most senior level. Those commitments are cast iron in my view and in the view of the EU negotiators and the EU institutions within the EU Union at Council and Commission level. The Deputies have seen very strong commentary in response to the ambiguous comments that were made last weekend, which created concern in Ireland and elsewhere. David Davis has subsequently clarified those comments and unfortunately Deputy McDonald has chosen to not quote him in that regard. Rather than trying to raise unfounded fears, we need to reassure communities living in the Border regions. This is what the Government is trying to do. We received very clear assurances in writing last week. As of tomorrow morning we will also have clear reassurance in the EU guidelines around how the EU is going to approach phase two to make sure the commitments will be honoured in full. The wording on that in the first paragraph of the guidelines will be very clear to ensure no back sliding from the commitments made last week. If that was to happen, it would prevent phase two from going ahead. It is not a question of whether phase two can be completed in the absence of the commitments being honoured; it would not progress at all if there is no evidence to show that the phase one commitments are being faithfully translated into legal terms as quickly as possible.
I share some of the concerns of many people in the Border counties. It is the Government's job to make sure we can reassure people on the basis of what has been agreed, in black and white and in writing. We intend to ensure that the hard won negotiating successes of last week in respect of the wording agreed between the British Government and the EU task force is factored into the phase two process so that we can provide reassurance for people who live in the Border counties, and to reassure the many others on the island of Ireland who are concerned about it.
The remarks I have made to the Tánaiste are based in full on exactly what he has secured in writing. I have simply reflected to him the fact that no sooner was the ink dry on those agreements and assurances that the British side was rowing back, or backsliding to use the term from earlier. I am not seeking to cause a difficulty for the Tánaiste, I am seeking to get the very assurance that he says he also seeks. The Taoiseach will attend the EU Council and it is clear that matters will now advance to phase two. This fact is not being contested.
Will the Taoiseach ask for additional assurances over the next two days? Will any such assurances be legally binding? Will any such assurances be contained in the conclusions of the European Council? Under no circumstances should the fate of this island, its economic, political or social well-being, be left to whims of the British Conservatives and the vagaries of whatever position it might or might not take on any given day. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that it would be irresponsible to allow a scenario like that to play out. Will the Taoiseach ask this of the Council and will we have, by close of business tomorrow, legally binding assurances which would be welcomed across the island?
The European Union works on the basis of rules, treaties, precedent and negotiated agreements. What does not work is negotiation where a third party changes mid-stream or does not follow through on commitments made in writing. We have had very strong messaging this week from the European Parliament, from European institutions, from the General Affairs Council, from Michel Barnier himself in terms of the task force, all saying the same thing about what the EU side understands was agreed last week. Let me be very clear, Ireland's strength is being part of the EU team, 27 countries acting together, ensuring that we move ahead together. We will not look for bilateral agreements with the UK in the context of the broad negotiations-----
What we will look for and get is a very strong set of guidelines tomorrow which will ensure that if phase 2 is to progress, the commitments made during phase 1 will be fully followed through and, where appropriate, will need to be translated faithfully into legal terms as soon as possible.
Recently, there has been great recognition and support for those men and women who have had the bravery to find their voices to highlight their experience of abuse, incidents of sexual assault, rape and pressure on them to perform sexual acts in return for favours. Some of those who have come forward recently with their stories and allegations tell us that those incidents occurred before they were 18 years. Many allegations involve high profile figures from the political world, film, theatre and music and we have seen similar revelations in Ireland. The victims who have made allegations recently are in a place in their personal lives where they can confront what happened to them because they know that today they will be believed and they have a good chance of getting justice. That is such an important part of the recovery process but I want to remember those who were not believed and those who did not get justice or support for one reason or another. Because they did not get justice, they continue to suffer every time an allegation of abuse is made, when they relive that abuse.
In March 2015, I raised the issue of those who made accusations against their swimming coach with then Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny. I raised it because they never had justice. There were 27 allegations of indecent carnal knowledge of minors, which took place some years ago, against this individual who was their coach. I can imagine the bravery of those who came forward over 20 years ago when it was a very different atmosphere. In spite of the great efforts of An Garda Síochána, that came to nothing, there was no justice. Some weeks ago I watched the RTÉ documentary made in 2006 in which some of the victims told their stories. The journalist in the documentary followed the individual accused of the abuse to America where he has been living. Recently, through the work of an investigative journalist, Irvin Muchnik, through freedom of information requests, through a court hearing and through a settlement, it has become obvious that mistakes were made both in the US and Ireland. Irvin Muchnik sought to find out why American authorities allowed George Gibney into the United States and why Irish authorities and Irish individuals facilitated that.
An interesting thing to emerge from the settlement was that, through a freedom of information request, the US authority on citizenship and immigration services, a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security, released four pages relating to George Gibney and withheld 98 pages. I am asking that in light of that court hearing and settlement, that the appropriate officials in both this jurisdiction and the United States have a conversation in the hope that justice might finally be realised for those victims.
In common with the Deputy, the Government wants to see justice for victims of all cases of sexual abuse, including this case. I understand that the person referred to was the subject of an investigation in the early 1990s, as the Deputy said, before they departed this jurisdiction for the United States. As a result of judicial review proceedings in 1994, the State was unable to extradite the person due to the time lapse between the occurrence of the alleged offences and the making of the complaints by the injured parties. More recent investigations were conducted in 2003 by members of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation. These investigations resulted in no prosecutions being directed.
The Deputy will understand that there is a limit to what can be said on individuals who have not been convicted, even where they have been accused of terrible crimes. In general, An Garda Síochána is responsible for the protection of the public and there are robust and well established procedures for dealing with persons who may pose a threat to others.
This morning, after the Deputy raised this issue with me earlier, I read an article in yesterday's edition of The Times on the case, which suggests that new evidence may come into the public domain in coming days. We will note that with interest and act on it if we can but I am also conscious that this may be subject of a future legal action and want to be careful about what I say.
This is a case we will continue to follow closely and the Deputy's questions about the circumstances which facilitated George Gibney moving to the United States need to be clearly understood. This morning is the first time my Department or office has had any correspondence on this issue. We will follow it closely and provide the Deputy with any information that may come to light.
I will make three points on this. First, although there is a contrast between then and now in relation to the atmosphere for victims to speak out, the common denominator is how perpetrators use their position of influence and power to manipulate young people. Second, I do not think time should be a factor here. Yesterday, we had an exchange about the hooded men, which occurred almost 40 years ago. We know people involved in Justice for the Forgotten, regarding the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, who are waiting for 43 years. The victims of George Gibney are still waiting today. We should respect them in the same way that we respect other legacy cases. It should be the same for the victims of George Gibney.
With the help of Oireachtas staff, I have been drafting legislation which I hope will be supported when it is introduced in 2018. The legislation would see that Ireland, like Australia, would do its best to limit the ability of those holding Irish passports who have been convicted of child sexual abuse from travelling to countries which have lax or no child protection laws and guidelines, but where there is a thriving industry in both child prostitution and the use of children in pornography.
As I said, I do not want potentially to prejudice any case that may be taken in future. Unfortunately, sometimes time is a barrier in bringing successful convictions. I do not want to say that is the case in this particular instance, because I do not know, but the State will do all it can to try to bring individuals to justice who have been accused of sexual abuse. It is important to say that in this case there was no successful conviction. A case was taken but it was not concluded. As a result, we need to be careful about how we speak about the case in the context of any possible future case. Because of what I read in yesterday's paper, I expect new material or evidence may come into the public domain.
We will have to see where that takes us as regards the investigations of An Garda Síochána.
The housing capital budget under Rebuilding Ireland for 2017 was last week increased by the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, by €100 million to €1.4 billion. However, an answer to a recent parliamentary question confirmed that the total spend on additional social homes from all sources since 1 July 2016, in the form of acquisitions, Part V, local authority builds and approved housing body builds, was €583 million. This would indicate that only approximately €500 million has been spent out of €1.4 billion for building and acquiring new units in 2017. Can the Tánaiste tell the House where the remaining almost €1 billion is going? In June this year, in a reply to a parliamentary question the Minister, Deputy Murphy, pledged that 2,284 units would be delivered in 2017. I have gone through the quarterly report for Rebuilding Ireland, which was published last week, to identify every single unit which was completed or site-finished in the first three quarters of 2017 and it is clear that only 809 units of the 2,284 have been completed.
In the UK the quantity spent on rental assistance is about five times that of the housing capital budget. As the Government here is clearly not building enough houses, is it the Government's intention to move further towards the UK model? If it is, there are serious health warnings. There is no point drifting towards an entirely rental-oriented approach to housing when, at present, fixity of tenure is completely inadequate and when a lack of inspection or an enforceable standards regime results in the horrific living conditions we saw on "Prime Time" last month. The fact that one in three tenancies in the State is financially rent assisted is just adding pressure to further rent increases for all, making Dublin simply an unattainable place to buy or rent.
I am concerned about the inept governmental policy response to date. The incoherence of all this policy implies that what may have happened is that Rebuilding Ireland, launched last year, was rapidly abandoned as a plan by departmental officials without them telling the Tánaiste or the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. The Tánaiste is now defending a plan which is not there or, if it is, is certainly not working. Where is the €1 billion going? Given the new numbers, why can the Tánaiste not accept that Rebuilding Ireland is not succeeding and will not succeed in effectively tackling the housing crisis?
This is territory in which I am personally very interested. It is going to be some time before people see the full benefits of Rebuilding Ireland but we have dramatically increased funding for social housing and there is a multi-annual commitment of almost €6 billion to add 50,000 new social housing units to the national stock, which would be a 30% increase over four or five years. That takes time and it is not just measured in new builds. Next year, we will see 3,800 new build houses and 600 private sector-built social house units purchased under Part V, 600 voids returned into use, 900 acquisitions of existing homes and 2,000 long-term leases. It is a combination of a series of different approaches that are realisable. Going from building 200 or 300 social houses to building 7,000 or 8,000 in the space of one year is not doable.
While we build up capacity to dramatically increase the number of social housing units that are being delivered through local authorities, approved housing bodies, AHBs, and the private sector under Part V, there is a significant reliance on supporting people in the rental market. This year we will see about 21,000 social housing solutions put in place, many under the housing assistance payment, HAP, which is an improvement on previous support programmes for the rental sector. We know this puts pressure on the rental sector, which is why there is a need for rent caps at present, which we introduced last year. Some 65% of rental properties are in rent pressure zones and the tenants in those properties cannot be asked for an increase of more than 4%, despite the pressures of the market.
We have very significant pressures in the housing market, both in rental properties and those for purchase, because of a dramatic lack of supply, supply which has not been delivered for nearly a decade. Over time, we will solve that by increasing supply in the private sector, the affordable sector and social housing and by ensuring we bring a lot of vacant properties and sites back into use by using methods with which I am sure the Deputy is familiar. People cannot expect this problem to be solved overnight and we have to ensure that while the new strategy and the significant funding behind it builds a capacity in the construction sector to significantly increase delivery of housing, we try, in the meantime, to manage a rental sector that is under significant pressure .
It is hard to believe the figures the Tánaiste is giving for next year when the figures the Government has given for this year show that, of a target of 2,284 houses, only 809 were delivered. There is a huge disconnect between the narrative and reality. The harsh reality is that 8,000 people are homeless. The tragic reality is that 3,000 of them are children and the stark objective reality is that Rebuilding Ireland simply is not working. There were only 809 builds in 2017, of which 303 were direct local authority builds in 18 different authorities, meaning 13 local authorities did not complete a single house in 2017. Of the 98 completions in Dublin, 76 were rapid builds for families on the increasing homeless list, which leaves a grand total of 22 units in the greater Dublin area for a waiting list of 40,000 people. How is the capital housing budget being adequately spent if the greater Dublin area only saw 22 units built in the first nine months of this year? It is time to think outside the box and for the Government to accept that Rebuilding Ireland is not working. This is an emergency and a crisis. Surely an objective analysis of the Government's response should be results-driven. The results speak for themselves and they are appalling. It is time for a new direction and a new plan.
It is working. I will give the Deputy some statistics because those supplied by the Deputy are simply not true. At the end of the third quarter of 2017, 12,300 social housing units were advancing through various stages of delivery. There were 3,700 homes across 190 sites under construction nationwide and 2,000 in the final stages of contract award in a further 90 schemes which will move to sites shortly. The idea that there were 22 new social houses in Dublin is nonsense.
If the Deputy looks at what is happening in the private sector, she will see a 48% increase in commencements and a 50% increase in planning applications. The fast-track planning changes we have made for housing estates of over 100 units is getting huge interest from developers and is putting An Bord Pleanála under pressure to deliver results. We are seeing a sector gearing up again to deliver significantly more homes, which is what we need, and we are seeing the local authority and AHB sectors also gearing up significantly, with a lot of money behind them coming from the State. For the first time in many years, money is not the obstacle to social housing delivery. Capacity is the obstacle.