Dáil debates

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

2:00 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The delay in taking decisive decisions by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on a second runway at Dublin Airport has reached farcical levels. We know Deputy Shane Ross is no expert in transport matters. We all remember the 2010 article he wrote declaring that terminal 2 was a "white elephant, destined to be the most underused terminal in Europe". How wrong he was. It is a quotation Boris Johnson would have been proud of in its predictability, inaccuracy, etc. Boris Johnson had to go to Afghanistan in a hastily arranged trip to deal with his own runway problems at Heathrow Airport. I wonder where the Taoiseach plans to send the Minister. He has failed to advance legislation that is critical to the runway project, in particular, regarding the appointment of a noise regulator and the transposition of an EU directive that would enable Dublin Airport Authority to appeal planning restrictions on the project which make no sense given the enormous growth at Dublin Airport. Last April, the chief executive officer, Mr. Dalton Philips, signalled his deep alarm at Government delays overshadowing the project. He said the delay in bringing forward the legislation could be catastrophic and impact significantly on employment.

Dublin Airport has positioned itself as a global hub, yet the existing conditions attached to this planning permission would restrict the entire airport to 65 aircraft movements. It currently facilitates twice that number with one runway.

The Minister promised this legislation 22 months ago and designated the Irish Aviation Authority as the noise regulator. He got that wrong, as well as getting wrong the necessity for legislation by thinking a statutory instrument would do. The authority had started recruiting specialised staff but he had to reverse that and has now designated Fingal County Council as the noise regulator to deal with these legacy issues. This is a critical piece of infrastructure with an enormous impact on the Irish economy that indirectly supports 97,000 jobs.

Why the delay? Why the mess-up? The Minister has messed up and he has delayed both the nomination of a noise regulator and the initiation of legislation. What is the Minister, Deputy Ross, doing with the most critical piece of infrastructure before his Department? The Government has known about this since 2014 and there has been no action. Why is the Minister so indecisive on this issue? Why has he been so ill informed? Why has he failed to do the groundwork on all these issues? When can we finally expect the legislation to be published and passed in order that this project can get under way?

2:05 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue for our economy and for Ireland's connectivity around the world. The Government is 100% behind the DAA and its plans for a new parallel runway, the new north runway, at Dublin Airport. The project is contained in Project Ireland 2040, in black and white for anyone who needs to know where the Government stands on it. I would encourage the DAA to get started on building the runway. There is a Government decision supporting its efforts to do so and the legislation will be through these Houses and done and dusted long before the runway gets built. The legislation will allow Fingal County Council to become the noise regulator for the airport and the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport intends to bring the legislation before the House after the summer, which will give effect to the new regime, but there is no reason work on the runway cannot begin.

Dublin Airport is Ireland's gateway to the world. It takes approximately 30 million passenger movements every year and in the past decade has begun to provide direct flights to China, the Middle East, the west coast and Africa. It receives no taxpayers' money whatsoever and turns a profit, out of which it pays a substantial dividend to the taxpayer. It is also a very large employer in north and west Dublin.

It is also important to acknowledge the role of our other airports, which are important to our aviation policy. In Shannon Airport, for example, which has now been separated from the DAA, passenger numbers are up by 25% since separation and it is making a profit again. It has very exciting plans to develop its avionics and aviation services industry, of which the Government is also very supportive.

We are working very closely with Ireland West Airport, Knock, to advance its plans for further developments and we are in discussions with the European Commission on being allowed to give 90% grant aid for the airport's capital developments. Cork Airport has been increasing connectivity and is very important, as are the airports in Kerry and Donegal which have public service obligations, PSOs, from the Government to keep them going. That will continue as it provides access to counties that are not served properly by the motorway network. We are supporting Waterford Airport as best we can, though it does not have any flights any more. However, we think it is important that it is assisted in its efforts to encourage carriers to operate again between the south east and England.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I asked the Taoiseach specifically about Dublin Airport and about the performance of the Minister, Deputy Ross. If the Government was 100% behind the DAA plans, the legislation would have been passed by now. The Government has known about this for many years. The Minister got the wrong nominating body, no homework was done and there was no attention to detail. It is shocking in many ways, given the enormous importance of Dublin Airport not just to the Dublin economy but to the national economy.

I asked the Taoiseach to explain the delays and why the Minister has been so indecisive. He has a track record with DAA, going back to the articles which I mentioned earlier and I hope that does not inform his position.

Will the Taoiseach confirm whether he has met Fingal County Council officials on this? They will require significant resourcing of expertise to enable them to fulfil the functions that will be outlined for them in the legislation that he wishes to pass. His lack of engagement on this issue for so long, which is possibly the most important issue on his desk for the past number of years, is striking. He is an expert on judges, Garda stations and the portfolios of other Ministers but the portfolio on which he is least decisive and proactive is in his own, and it is is critical to the economy and its future.

2:10 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Deputy's time is up.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am talking about 2022 and not 2040 because this has been in the pipeline for some time and his failure to get the legislation through has worried and exasperated many people in the aviation industry for the past number of years.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is not all about Dublin. It is important that we acknowledge the essential role of our other major airports both in their regions-----

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The question was about Dublin.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is a Wanderly Wagon trip around the country.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

-----and in their counties as well. The Minister will bring legislation before this House after the summer which will give effect to the new EU regulatory regime. He will propose that the new runway project be subjected to the rigor of that regulatory examination. The delay occurred for two reasons. There was a need to get legal advice from the Attorney General and others as to whether this could be done by primary or secondary legislation. We had hoped that it could be done by secondary legislation-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It could not. Any junior infant could have told the Taoiseach that it could not be done by secondary legislation.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

-----but we had advice that it needs to be done by primary legislation. There were also discussions as to what would be the appropriate body to be the noise regulator - whether it should be the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, the CAR or Fingal County Council. It has been decided that it will be Fingal County Council. I do not know if the Minister has met with Fingal County Council officials but I certainly have and I do regularly, given that it is my own local authority.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Taoiseach better tell him.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister has not met them.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

What I would like to know from Fianna Fáil, the party that introduced the travel tax and did enormous damage-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The party that built the airport.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Order please.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

-----to Irish aviation, to our airports and to tourism, is whether it will atone for those mistakes by now supporting the Government legislation-----

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Fine Gael did not want terminal 2 and it did not want a second runway.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

-----and allowing us to fast-track it through the Dáil in the autumn.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We know that and the Minister is on the record as well.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Cuirim fáilte roimh Mr. Robin Newton. I also give a special welcome to Mr. Paddy Agnew, a former Deputy for Louth, who is in the Public Gallery. He was elected to the Dáil 37 years ago on an anti H-Blocks ticket. This is the first time he has been in Leinster House. I am sure everybody will extend a warm welcome to him. We are delighted he is here. It took him a while but he got here in the end.

It has been confirmed that in the first financial report of the year released by the Department of Health, the Health Service Executive, HSE, recorded a deficit of more than €100 million in January and February of this year. Based on that trend, it is likely that the half-year deficit will fall somewhere between €220 million and €300 million and it might be double that for the year as a whole. It is against that backdrop that I want to raise the scandalous spending on agency staff in our health service. Figures released to my colleague, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, show that every day in 2017 the HSE spent more than €800,000 on agency doctors, nurses and other staff to fill positions that have been left vacant. That is close to €300 million for the year a whole. That is, as the Taoiseach will agree, a colossal amount to spend on the hiring of temporary staff, which is always more expensive than directly employing personnel. It is a big strain on the health budget.

When we look at the roles temporary staff are filling, the extent of the problem becomes apparent. A total of €105 million spent on hiring agency doctors and dentists and that figure has doubled since Fine Gael came into office in 2011. Some hospitals' dependency on agency staff is mind-boggling. Letterkenny University Hospital spent more than €9 million on agency doctors, Midland Regional Hospital Portlaoise spent €8 million and University Hospital Limerick spent more than €5 million.

There is also a severe crisis in nursing. More than €64 million has been spent on hiring agency nursing staff. There is no doubt that these staff provide a necessary function but the reason hospitals are reduced to relying on such costly agency staff is that the Government and the HSE have failed to address the recruitment and retention crisis. Health staff and the unions have consistently reported working conditions, facilities, supports, training opportunities and pay as the causes of the crisis and until these issues are addressed, we will continue to squander large amounts of public moneys in the way I have described. This is bad for workers. It is certainly bad for patients because it compromises continuity of care.

In April a Sinn Féin motion was passed in the Dáil which called for the introduction of recruitment and retention measures based on realistic proposals and which prioritised pay. It called on the Government to work with the unions to draw up a roadmap to full pay equality. Having done nothing thus far, will the Government now commit to acting on that motion in order that our nurses and other health professionals get a fair deal and we can end this ridiculous and excessive use of public money in the health service?

2:20 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The HSE is overrunning its budget once again, as has been the case in almost every year that I have been in the Dáil, which is ten or 11 years at this stage. That is notwithstanding a substantial increase in the health budget, amounting to some €1.7 billion a year, since 2013. We are now spending more per head than almost any country in the world, and we have been spending more than the OECD average per head for 20 years now, including during the recession period. It should be obvious that the problems in our health service, which are real, are much deeper than finance and staffing numbers. Looking at nursing numbers, OECD statistics show that we have among the highest number of nurses per head and per bed in the world. However, nurses here are not deployed in the way they should be. Nurses spend too much time doing non-nursing tasks that could be done by people who have other qualifications and who do not have to be as highly qualified as are our nurses to do those jobs. There are major structural problems in our health service which have not been solved by extra staff and extra resources in the past number of years. We need to move on from that to much deeper levels of reform.

The Deputy is correct that agency spending is very high. However, in the broader context it must be noted that it counts for approximately 2% of the health budget as a whole. When one considers that payroll takes up approximately half of the health service budget, roughly 4% of the payroll budget is accounted for by agency staff. For every 25 people working in our health service it is likely that one is an agency worker. I contend that if one went into other workplaces, such as big companies, public bodies and perhaps even media organisations and saw 25 people working, there is a good chance that one of those 25 is working with an agency or is working on a temporary basis. That happens for many different reasons, including maternity leave cover, cover for temporary absences or extra staff taken on during periods when capacity has to be increased as part of a core-flex arrangement. In our health service there are many doctors who are no longer willing to commit to long-term careers in smaller hospitals. Those doctors want to work in big hospitals, where there are opportunities to do research and other things. That is a structural change we are just going to have to face up to in our health service in the future.

The Government has made many changes in this area. We have negotiated a new pay deal with public servants, including doctors, nurses, support staff, healthcare assistants and therapists, to restore pay. Pay restoration is well under way. There will be two pay increases this year, and another two next year, for all of our healthcare staff. We are also engaging with the unions on two other issues, namely, recruitment and retention of doctors and nurses and the two different pay scales for those who came into the public service after 2011 and 2012. As is always the case, the Government has to put the interests of patients and taxpayers first, which means ensuring that we do not deploy or spend more taxpayers' money than is necessary, as well as ensuring that any increase in the payroll bill actually results in better patient care and that the money goes to the patient and not just to the employee.

2:30 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am not asking the Taoiseach to do anything other than to engage in wise and prudent use of public moneys. If, however, it is his view that there is not a crisis in the recruitment and retention of medical staff, particularly nurses, I must inform him that there are lots of people working on the front line who would strongly disagree with him. I am putting the simple proposition to the Taoiseach that €300 million spent in a calendar year on the recruitment of agency staff does not represent good value for money. I am suggesting that there are things that need to be done to address that situation. This is a long-running problem. I have given the Taoiseach figures for 2017, but we could go back further and identify the same problem.

We have to decide that we are going to give our nurses, for example, a fair deal, that there will be full pay equalisation and that, having trained the best and brightest, we are not content any longer to allow them to emigrate, thereby losing all of their skill and expertise. Can the Taoiseach indicate in concrete terms how he proposes to address this situation? It is not just a case of how much money is spent. We could debate the overall resourcing of the health service on another occasion. I expect that we are on different sides of that argument. It is not just a case of how much money is spent, it is a question of how it is spent. Agency staffing is clearly not an optimum, desirable or prudent solution.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There are just over 10,000 doctors working in our public health service. That is the highest number ever. I accept that demand is higher than ever as well, but it is not the case that the number of doctors working in our public health service is falling. In fact, it is increasing and is its highest point ever. Nursing numbers did go down considerably of foot of the cutbacks during the recession. We have approximately 1,000 more nurses than we had this time last year, so, again, we are going in the right direction. That is not to dismiss for a second the fact that posts are unfilled or that we have serious problems with recruitment and retention in different parts of the health service. However, it would be factually untrue to say that the number of doctors or nurses working in our health service is falling. The number of doctors working in our public health service is at an all-time high. The number of nurses working in our public health service is increasing. We must able put it in that factual context. People are entitled to their own opinions; they are not entitled to their own facts.

I will describe what we are doing other than pay restoration, which is now very much under way, with two pay increases this year and two more next year - that is before increments. We have specifically given the Public Service Pay Commission the job of examining the issues of recruitment and retention, looking at where in the health service there genuinely is a recruitment and retention problem, where there is not, where it is the result of maldeployment and where particular incentives may need to be put in place for certain grades and professions. It is not an issue across the board. It applies in some places, some professions and some posts. If we really care about ensuring that taxpayers' money is well spent and goes toward patient care, we need to make sure that we have targeted recruitment and retention incentives, not blanket ones across the board whereby the money would not go to the patient.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is the Taoiseach aware that we are on the verge of one of the biggest experimental marine destruction journeys in Ireland, the UK and Europe? I am referring to the proposed mechanical harvesting of kelp in Bantry Bay, which is supposed to commence on Wednesday next. Last week, the company carrying out this mechanical harvesting issued a letter to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government saying that it is to commence mechanical harvesting of kelp - better known to all as seaweed - on Wednesday next, 4 July. While that date may be Independence Day in the USA, it is seen as doomsday for many who live near Bantry Bay, where 1,860 acres of seaweed will be mechanically harvested.

In the past 12 months, action groups have mobilised peacefully in west Cork to try to find a solution to this major issue. Hundreds have attended public meetings in Bantry. Some 13,000 signatures have been collected for petitions against this happening in Bantry Bay. As other public representatives have aided them in every way humanly possible, we have tried in that 12 months to get a meeting between the action group and the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, but to no avail. This begs the question as to what is going on here. In his reply to questions I raised some months back, the then Minister said that he did not know what impact this would have when completed but that the Government will know whether to grant further licences when the harvesting in Bantry Bay has taken place.

This means that the harvesting of Bantry Bay could well be an experiment that could have devastating consequences for tourism, for the livelihood of 50 inshore fishermen and our environment. It could also have a very negative impact on the habitat for sea life in the waters of the world famous Bantry Bay. This will not just affect Bantry Bay. It will have a knock-on effect on the Beara Peninsula as well as the Sheepshead Peninsula.

An advertisement for a licence was first seen in the local Southern Starand on a note at the local Garda station on 12 December 2009, stating the intention to occupy an area of the foreshore to harvest specific seaweed types. No one really understood what it meant. No information of it being a huge area of 1,860 acres was on the advertisement and there was no offer of meetings or information sessions on such an important issue for the public who live and work at Bantry Bay. There was no explanation either on how this could be mechanically harvested in the existing special protected area of the bay. The little advertising it got then did not raise any concerns in 2009. Now, almost ten years on, west Cork is very aware of what is going on and its potential outcome. The experts have requested the Minister and everyone involved to carry out a risk assessment prior to the commencement of works of the likelihood of kelp ever regrowing having been cut at 25 cm. The impact of climate change and the lack of a full risk assessment may leave Bantry Bay the worst example of experimental marine destruction in the whole of Ireland, the UK and Europe, as the mechanical harvesting of kelp is now banned in Nordic countries because of the devastation caused to the marine ecosystem, the wipe-out of shellfish and white fish stocks and the rapid growth of invasive species. I ask the Taoiseach to intervene immediately and call for all parties to step back until a full environmental impact study takes place.

2:40 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue which I know is of grave interest to people living in Bantry and the Bantry Bay area. It is an area I know well. I have had the pleasure of visiting Bantry House and the chamber music festival and I know the harbour very well from my time as transport Minister, although I do have to admit to not being fully briefed on this particular matter and I apologise for that. If the Deputy can give us a heads up a few hours in advance in future I will make sure I am briefed in time for the question. I am, however, advised by my Ministers that a court case is under way on this particular matter. A judicial review has been sought and given the fact it is a court or legal process I certainly cannot intervene in it. The Deputy will understand why I am not in a position to intervene if a judicial review is sought or under way. I am advised an environmental impact statement or assessment has been done, which I imagine should have answered some of the questions the Deputy has raised.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Taoiseach. I appreciate he may not be fully aware of this circumstance, but I saw the Minister of State, Deputy Daly, giving him plenty of prompts when I was speaking earlier. I wish he gave him plenty of prompts over the past 12 months because that is what was needed but, unfortunately, that is not the case. The Taoiseach said a legal case is being brought but I ask the Taoiseach to remember this is overcast by the company stating it is going ahead in spite of any legal case being brought against it.

For over a year the Government stood idly by when all experts were raising alarm bells. We are not talking about an acre of sea water, we are talking about 1,860 acres of potential destruction of the most stunning waters in the country in Bantry Bay. This is where the Taoiseach can intervene. Article 12.2 of the licence granted states that without prejudice to clause 12.1 the licence may be determined at any time by the Minister giving three months notice in writing, where the licence shall be deemed revoked and withdrawn without payment of any compensation or refund by the Minister to the licensee. This could have been stopped and it still can be. I ask all to come clean and give us the reason it has not been stopped to date. The 13,000 people cannot be wrong. Saving Bantry Bay now lies in the hands of the Government to make a decision before next Wednesday, 4 July. I sincerely hope it will not abandon the people of west Cork on this issue.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

With a court process under way I am loath to comment in much detail and it is not possible for me to intervene in the actions of a court. What we have to do when it comes to all of these issues is to balance on the one hand the need to protect our environment and on the other ensuring we promote marine rural employment and marine rural industries.

I am advised that the licence was the subject of a piece on a recent edition of the "Eco Eye" programme but that neither the Department nor BioAtlantis Limited was asked to contribute. They would argue that the piece in question did not accurately reflect all the facts of the case, including the extent of the area to be harvested annually or the provisions regarding sustainability inserted into the granted licence.

An environmental impact assessment was not carried out. Such an assessment is a mandatory requirement for a wide range of public and private projects - including those relating to motorways, airports, installations and the disposal of hazardous waste - under in annex 1 of the relevant directive. However, an assessment was not necessary in this case because the proposed project is not within a Natura 2000 site and is not of a class set out in the directive to which I refer.

2:50 pm

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Since Operation Pontus in the Mediterranean became Operation Sophia, the number of refugees landing in Italy has more than halved. For a considerable time, there has been serious concern that the price that the EU and Ireland are prepared to pay for stemming migration is the gross abuse of the human rights of migrants. The Irish office of Amnesty International has stated, "The Libyan coastguard is intercepting people in distress at sea and transferring them to Libya, where they are being held in detention centres and exposed to systematic and widespread human rights violations such as arbitrary detention, torture, rape and exploitation." The statement goes on to indicate that while Ireland is not directly sending people back to Libya, it shares responsibility due to Europe's joint actions to strengthen the capacity of the Libyan coastguard to intercept people and return them to Libya. Amnesty International has said that EU member states, including Ireland, cannot plausibly claim to be unaware of the grave violations being committed by some of the detention centre officials and coastguard agents with whom they co-operate. It has also argued that European Governments, including Ireland, stand accused of being knowingly complicit in the torture and exploitation of thousands of migrants and refugees by the EU-financed Libyan coastguard and officials running the country's detention camps. The UN human rights chief, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has also described the suffering of migrants in these camps as "an outrage to the conscience of humanity". Médecins sans Frontières has also supported, in various reports, the views of those other organisations.

In view of the human rights abuses in Libya I have outlined, will the Taoiseach order Irish vessels to cease all co-operation with the Libyan coastguard? Will his Government cease participation in the training and funding of the Libyan coastguard through Operation Sophia? In a reply to a recent parliamentary question, I was told that, on its tour of duty, the LÉ Niamhrescued more than 600 migrants, 294 of whom were put ashore in Italy. Will the Taoiseach tell the Dáil to what non-Irish vessels were the remaining more than 300 migrants transferred? Where were those transferred migrants put ashore in each case? Will the Taoiseach give an assurance that none of these migrants was transferred to the Libyan coastguard by the LÉ Niamhor to any other vessel to which they had already been transferred?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Deputy asked if we will withdraw from our mission in the Mediterranean in Operation Sophia. We will not do so. I am very proud of the work that our Naval Service and Defence Forces are doing in the Mediterranean, rescuing migrants from the sea and training the Libyan coastguard to do what a coastguard should be able to do, namely, secure its seas and do its work, at least in its own territorial waters. It is an operation of which we are part. We are very proud of our Naval Service for being part of it. That will continue. The Deputy asked if people were transferred to the Libyan coastguard. I am advised by the Minister of State with responsibility for defence that this was not the case and people transferred to other boats were brought to Italy. I will seek confirmation of that to ensure I am correct in that regard.

It is evident to everyone in Europe that we face a large amount of migration from the Middle East and Africa. The numbers have decreased very considerably in the past couple of years.

Anyway, it has had a huge effect. It has had a big effect on the politics of Europe. We see that from the elections in Italy, where a populist anti-immigrant government has been elected and in the countries of central and eastern Europe, where anti-migration governments have been elected. We cannot be in denial about the fact that this has changed politics. Public opinion in Europe is changing too. We see it evident in Germany, which was initially welcoming to millions of migrants. Now, public opinion is in a very different place in Germany and we cannot be blind to the realities of that.

2:55 pm

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is happening in Austria as well.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

This will be a major feature of the summit in Brussels this week. What is required is that we do three things. The first is that we co-operate with the source countries and transit countries. The second is that we step up border security on the Balkan borders and in the Mediterranean. The third is that we engage in burden sharing. We do that already. We have agreed to take 4,000 migrants from the camps in Italy and Greece. Approximately half of them have arrived. We will continue to accept more. I met some of them when they arrived - they were mainly coming from Syria.

When it comes to co-operation with source countries and transit countries, we have to bear in mind why people risk their lives to travel to Europe and to cross the seas in the way they do. It is because they come from countries that are badly governed or unsafe or where there is no economic opportunity. That is why it must be part of the core mission of Europe, when it comes to the Middle East and Africa, to try to build peace and security and bring about economic opportunities in the Middle East and Africa. We have seen how the power of the free market in Asia has lifted 1 billion people out of poverty in 20 years. We need to see that kind of power happen in Africa as well so that people are not forced to travel.

We need to step up border security as well because what is happening is terrible. People are travelling huge distances. Traffickers put them in dinghies and boats that are not seaworthy knowing full well that European navies and others will come to the rescue and bring them the rest of the journey. That is something that cannot be encouraged. None of us should in any way encourage human trafficking of that nature. The Libyan coastguard has a big job to do to deal with that.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Taoiseach is right about one thing anyway: what is happening is terrible. The detention centres, torture, rape and violation of human rights in these camps and detention centres in Libya are unacceptable. The United Nations, Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières all say that the Taoiseach, his Government and the EU are colluding in torture, rape and gross abuse of human rights. The Taoiseach is obviously in denial.

I note he failed to give an assurance that Ireland will stop training and funding the Libyan coastguard and, through the coastguard, the Libyan Government, which is torturing migrants in these camps.

The Taoiseach is Minister for Defence and, as such, he is responsible for this area of operations. In a parliamentary reply recently I was told that 139 suspected people smugglers or traffickers had been apprehended under Operation Sophia and that 545 boats were taken from criminal organisations. Were any of these boats or smugglers handed back to the Libyan coastguard? More important, were any of the refugees or migrants on these boats handed over to the Libyan coastguard or any other Libyan ships to be sent back to detention centres in Libya?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will double check so that I am sure, but I am informed that none of them was handed over to the Libyan coastguard and that they were taken to European countries.

The Deputy ascribed comments to those various organisations. I am not sure that they said that about the Government. One or two might have but they certainly did not all say that. It is very much our position as a government that the camps or detention centres should be run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, or the International Organization for Migration, IOM.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The UNHCR said it.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

That is very much the point I will make at the summit of European prime ministers later this week. Reception centres, where they exist, should be run by the UNHCR or the IOM so that we can be assured human rights are upheld and standards are protected. At the same time, we need to ensure we never equivocate on human trafficking. No one should do anything to facilitate these people smugglers and human traffickers.

I am afraid that some actors in this area are doing that. It might not be their intention but they are doing it.

3:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Before proceeding, I wish to join with Deputy McDonald in acknowledging the presence in the Public Gallery of Mr. Paddy Agnew, who is here with his wife. He was elected a Deputy for Louth in 1981 while he was still serving in the Maze Prison. Tá fíorchaoinn fáilte roimh an beirt agaibh.