Tuesday, 11 December 2018
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Yesterday people were riveted by the extraordinary scenes in Westminster Parliament as the British Prime Minster, Theresa May, deferred a vote on the Brexit withdrawal treaty because, in simple terms, it was clear she faced an overwhelming rejection of the treaty by parliament. To be fair to her, in her speech she made it clear that she did not seek to renegotiate the backstop or the UK-wide customs union she had sought in the first instance but rather she was seeking reassurance and clarity as to when or if ever it would have to come into play. Overall, however, the impact of yesterday's decision by the Prime Minister has been to create greater uncertainty and political instability, particularly uncertainty as to the future and the particular nature of Brexit that will ultimately emerge.
While many seasoned commentators, and I include myself among them, felt at the end of the day that a no-deal Brexit would not emerge, I believe we can be no longer be certain of that. The scale of the opposition to the deal yesterday was quite significant in itself. Therefore, a significant period of political and economic instability and uncertainty lies ahead. It is in that context that we as a country must be prepared for any eventuality. We have been saying for quite some time that it is our view, in accordance with Government data and information, that the country is not prepared for Brexit, particularly for a no-deal Brexit. The briefings to the House have confirmed, for example, that the majority of firms likely to be strongly impacted do not even have a Brexit plan in place. Nearly 40% of key exporters will fear severe difficulties at the exchange rate to which sterling fell this week. Half of exporting sectors have taken limited preparatory steps with Irish owned businesses being the most exposed.
Government financial aid is delayed and is so far having a negligible impact. One can go through the various schemes that Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia and others have put forward. The take-up has been very low. One can look at that in a number of ways. I know the Taoiseach's perspective. It suggests that people were hoping everything would be all right on the night and that there was a lack of real engagement on behalf of many. Has there been discussion with the EU about the utilisation of cohesion funding and structural funding as potential state aids to help small and medium enterprises, SMEs, that rely heavily on the British market, especially the agrifood sector? The Tánaiste outlined this morning that he was bringing a memo to Government. He called it central scenario planning. Will the Taoiseach commit to the House that he will publish the plans about the country's readiness and preparation for Brexit? The public deserves to know about the content of the plans and their implications. The success of any preparation plans depends on buy-in from all concerned.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. We should not forget how we got here. The United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union and its Government set out some hard red lines, that it would leave the customs union and the Single Market, that there would be no freedom of movement, and that they would not accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The agreement which we came to, after almost two years of negotiation, is supported by 28 Governments. We came to that agreement by drawing it around the red lines set by the UK Government. No other agreement can do that. The UK-wide backstop is there at the request of the UK Government, as the Deputy rightly pointed out. Our original proposal was for something different, with a Northern Ireland-only backstop, which would not apply to Great Britain. Before the UK set out its red lines, there were other options such as "Norway plus", where the United Kingdom would remain in the Single Market and customs union but not in the European Union itself. The agreement we have come to was crafted around the UK's own red lines and contains elements that it wanted, specifically a backstop that would apply on a UK-wide basis and not just to Northern Ireland, which was the original proposal of Ireland and the European Union.
It is essential to point out that the backstop is not just an Irish issue. It is a European issue too. It is there to give us the enduring guarantee that there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland but it is also to protect the Single Market and make sure that the open Irish Border does not cause the European Single Market to be contaminated. That is why there is resolute and overwhelming European support that the backstop has to remain part of a withdrawal agreement. It is not just an Irish issue but an issue for Europe too, and the integrity of the Single Market which we are all part of.
We have always based our plans on a central case scenario, which is that there would be a deal. We have been doing contingency planning for a no deal scenario. We now need to increase the contingency planning to execution for no deal. That includes putting in place measures for both the central case scenario and the no deal scenario. That involves acceleration of the recruitment of customs officers. We have 200 in the recruitment process already with a panel of 3,000, so we can do that. It also includes recruitment of veterinary officers and health officials. It means putting in place infrastructure in our ports and airports, specifically Dublin and Rosslare, and introducing enabling legislation. Some of that will be done through Brussels and some will be done here in the Oireachtas in the first quarter. Some 70 Commission notes have been published already. We will publish information as we go and will provide briefings to Opposition parties.
Firms which do not have action plans should develop them. Those that have action plans should begin to implement them. There is Government support, whether through seminars, loans or advice. We have had discussions with the European Commission about state aid and what state aid may be available to companies in the case of a no deal scenario. Those discussions are already under way and we have some proposals under consideration as to what could be offered in state aid. That would not kick in unless it was absolutely necessary.
Will the Taoiseach publish the central case scenario plan, which is a terrible name for a plan? The Taoiseach might consider changing it on publication. The public needs to be engaged by this plan. I have always been of the view that the public should have been engaged a long time ago. There is a view that people should be told the terrible implications of Brexit that might cause undue alarm and panic. People are sensible. If we want them to buy-in and engage they should know what the implications are. I never agreed with the decision to suppress the Revenue plans, for example, which were eventually published and the world did not collapse. I ask the Taoiseach to commit to publishing the central case scenario and contingency plans, including the planned expansion of facilities that is required at Dublin Port and Rosslare.
Politics should no longer get in the way of genuine national engagement in preparing for Brexit. If a no deal scenario does not arise, all the better. The problem with Brexit is that the Tory Government created the red lines and that British politics, currently, is in capable of squaring the circles. This is essentially where we are.
In that context, the uncertainty demands that as a nation we are properly prepared. All the data from the agencies, including the most recent from AIB, state that SMEs are not prepared. For whatever reason, they are not prepared to the level that they should be. I ask that the Taoiseach publish the plans, which in itself could help to create a consciousness among the public to get engaged.
There are 70 Commission notes, which are available. There are 15 sectoral seminars being held at Commission level and these will conclude around 10 January. We have the central case scenario plan.
It has been shared with the stakeholders group. We have no difficulty publishing it. We can make arrangements to do so but it is not what the Deputy thinks it is. It is much less detailed than the Deputy may believe it is.
In terms of no deal, we should all be very aware that everybody wants to avoid a no deal scenario, including in Britain, Ireland and the European Union. The United Kingdom has the power withdraw the threat of no deal from us, its own people and from the European Union. It can do so by revoking Article 50 or, if that is a step too far, by seeking an extension to Article 50. The power exists for the United Kingdom to remove the threat of no deal from its own people and from its economy, from ours and from Europe, should it wish to do so.
As we know, yesterday the British Prime Minister shelved her plan for her so-called meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement because it was likely to be defeated by a significant margin. As we are all aware, this heightens the prospect of a no deal scenario or a crash out Brexit, which nobody in their right senses wishes to see happen. I know that this matter was discussed at Cabinet this morning and that the Tánaiste has brought forward a paper. It is important that the Government puts the maximum possible information into the public domain regarding the specifics of its sectoral contingency plans.
There is a bigger issue. Whatever the contingencies in the here and now for individual sectors, there remains questions around no return to a hard border, no hardening of the Border, the protection of citizens' rights and the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. Those matters, it should be remembered, are the reasons a backstop was crafted in the first instance. I have repeatedly made it clear to Mrs. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, that in the event of a crash out or a no deal Brexit it will be incumbent on her to put the question of the constitutional future of the North to the people by way of a referendum. I believe we are on course to such a referendum in any event, but a crash or no deal scenario makes it an immediate prospect. It is time for the Taoiseach and the Government to articulate that same position.
If the people of the North are to be disregarded and have their futures toyed with by a British Parliament that does not have a clue what it is doing and has absolutely no regard for this country, they must have their say. This is a reasonable position. It is the only sustainable and serious position and it is one that all parties in the Dáil should support.
The European Council agreed in April 2017 that all of the island would be afforded membership of the European Union in the event of national reunification. Amid all the toing and froing, the chaos at Westminster and talk of hard borders, soft borders, deals and no deals, it is a fact that uniting our country would end the need for a backstop, definitively and permanently. The debate on unity is well under way, particularly in the North. Notwithstanding sectoral contingencies, what is the big contingency plan? My suggestion is that it should be the Government preparing contingencies and plans for a constitutional transition and a unity referendum.
To answer the Deputy's first question, we have no difficulty making plans public at the right time and as they are developed. However, it should be borne in mind that contingency plans happen at two levels. There are the contingency plans happening at European level, led by the Commission, and those that are specific to Ireland, which are led by the Government. The plans in Brussels will not be finalised until the middle of January but we are happy to make them public as we move forward. Indeed, it will be necessary to make them public because it will require the recruitment of staff, which must be made public, infrastructure at ports and airports, which will have to be tendered for and thus be made public, and legislation. In some cases it will be simple legislation to add words such as "and the United Kingdom" beside the European Union and to make exceptions for the United Kingdom in certain circumstances. Again, that must be made public because we will be asking the Oireachtas to enact that legislation. It will also involve business supports, many of which are already well known. Additional supports around state aid might be necessary after 28 March. These things must be done in consort with Brussels. They must all be done together and they must not contradict each other. We will be happy to make them available as time passes. We have already briefed the Brexit stakeholder group, on which the Deputy's party is represented, on much of this so there will not be many surprises.
On the Deputy's central question, I disagree with her assessment. I heard the Prime Minister's speech yesterday in the House of Commons in which she gave a robust defence of the backstop. She accepts that there must be a backstop as part of the withdrawal agreement, that there can be no withdrawal agreement without one and that a backstop is necessary to give us the insurance policy we need whereby should Great Britain ever pursue a hard Brexit, there would not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland as a consequence. We have been at pains to emphasise all along that special arrangements for Northern Ireland where they relate to, for example, agriculture regulations, industrial products or goods are not constitutional matters. At the heart of the Good Friday Agreement is an acceptance that we only pursue our political objectives in Britain and Ireland by peaceful means, that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom until the people there say otherwise and that there are special arrangements for Northern Ireland. The fact that there are special arrangements for Northern Ireland reflects its unique history and geography. They are not a constitutional threat. The Deputy introducing demands for Irish unity and a Border poll into the debate at this time is disruptive and destructive to trying to achieve what we seek, which is ratification of this agreement by the House of Commons in January.
I do not know if the Taoiseach missed what happened at Westminster. I am not disputing any of the information. I am conversant with the Good Friday Agreement and I know what Theresa May said yesterday. Incidentally, she raised the prospect of Irish unity. I am sure the Taoiseach heard that part of what she said. In this instance we are discussing the contingency planning for the prospect of a crash and no-deal Brexit. The Taoiseach will not convince me or anybody else that recruitment of customs officials and veterinary officers is the answer to that existential crisis, a political and economic earthquake. I am putting to the Taoiseach the logical position that ultimately, to protect the island not just in the short term but also in the long term, the required course of action is to work for the removal of the Border - democratically, peacefully and with the express consent of the people, as per the Good Friday Agreement.
Take that as read. I put it to the Taoiseach - I am hoping he has more than the kind of superficial or glib analysis he has offered up here today - that we need a forthright, strong and grounded analysis on how we are to protect this island and all of our citizens in the medium to long term.
It is imperative, therefore, that the Taoiseach prepares for a referendum on unity. As head of Government, the correct thing for him to do is put it to Theresa May, as I have done, that in the event of a crash not of our making we will not be the collateral damage of a Tory Brexit, we will protect the national interest and we will prepare the ultimate and only real contingency plan, which is for constitutional transition and a referendum on unity.
If I did not know the Deputy better, I would almost suspect that she secretly hoped we did end up with a no-deal scenario so that she could exploit the economic damage here to the benefit of her party and stir up any amount of trouble in Northern Ireland. We take a different approach.
Our objective is to get that deal ratified by the House of Commons. That is what we will be working on over the next couple of weeks; giving the UK assurances that it may need but never compromising on the basic fundamental substance and written letter of the backstop. That is what we will do in the coming weeks. If that does not work, it remains in the hands of the United Kingdom to decide that we will not end up in a no-deal scenario. There is the option to revoke Article 50 and the option to extend it. While there may not be a majority for any deal in the House of Commons, I am of the view that there is a majority which believes the United Kingdom should not be plunged into a no-deal scenario. It is in their hands, at any point, to take the threat of no deal off the table either by revoking Article 50 or, if that is a step too far, extending it.
I wish to raise an issue with the Taoiseach which, unlike Brexit, is within our own control. The issue relates to Tipperary town. On 24 October and 20 November, thousands of men, women and their children, young and old, marched through Tipperary town to ask local government and national Government to help to put the place back on track. I attended both of those marches and I was struck by the genuine plea for help from decent people. They want help to rejuvenate a once great town. People were on the streets protesting at the years of accumulated neglect. They feel disillusioned and angry with the authorities of the State. Based on a Pobal report that drew on the 2016 census, it is a fact that the town has been identified as disadvantaged. The startling figures for unemployment in Tipperary are a damning indictment of Government and those which preceded it. There is 31% unemployment among males and 23% among females. When these figures are compared with the national average of 5.6% one can see how big is the problem. Some 20 years ago, Tipperary town was one of Ireland's leading market towns. Despite its current problems, it still has an enormous amount to offer and to work with. It is imperative that the inner relief roads are built as a priority to get the heavy vehicles off the main street, which will soon be completely resurfaced. The business community requires that its members' financial situation be taken into account when it comes to rates, levies and charges.
The one principle lacking in Tipperary is leadership with a vision for the future. All of our national agencies are aware of the problems in Tipperary and some of these agencies, including the county council, have available resources to assist the town but there is no overall plan that can be implemented. Efforts are disjointed and are not co-ordinated. Decision-making is choked by bureaucracy and stifled by the round-robin system within our State agencies. A new approach involving joined-up thinking is required.
We need a strategy and a plan to reinvigorate Tipperary town. The five primary schools in the town need extra resources for their pupils to tackle the cycle of disadvantage. I compliment and thank the Minister, Deputy McHugh, for his recent initiative in that regard. I ask the Taoiseach to nominate a figure with professional experience and competence to establish and lead a dedicated working group. This individual would bring together all relevant State agencies, local business and interest groups and would be capable of delivering a renewal plan for the town. What Tipperary needs is a new policy, new ideas and investment. Change is needed to secure the future of Tipperary town and its people.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue again. I am very much aware of the protests that have occurred in recent months. A turnout of 2,000 or 3,000 people to protest in what is a relatively small town is a huge number and reflects the depth of feeling that people in Tipperary town have about the decline of their town over the years. It is a concern that everyone on these benches very much shares. The Government has been engaged on this issue. As the Deputy knows and, indeed, at his invitation, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, met the principals of the five schools in Tipperary town to see what could be achieved in terms of additional supports, particularly recognising the disadvantage that exists in Tipperary town but also the influx of new communities, often people who do not have English as their first language, and the additional needs that they have. In terms of unemployment, while it is high, it is falling. Since it peaked in 2012, unemployment in Tipperary town has fallen by 52%, by more than half, and youth unemployment has fallen by two thirds, by 68%.
IDA Ireland is also engaged. There are now 11 IDA Ireland companies in Tipperary, employing 3,600 people, and there are 123 Enterprise Ireland, EI, client companies. Funding has been provided directly in recent months for Tipperary town, including a €97,500 grant for the town centre plaza project to upgrade the town centre, which the Deputy mentioned. Funding has also been provided for Tipperary town football club and other sporting clubs in the area. There has been an increase in the strength of the Tipperary Garda division by more than 40 in the last couple of years. I think it is fair to say that Government has been engaged at least in certain aspects of what is needed in Tipperary town.
The Deputy is correct that a new approach is needed and that a plan is needed for the town but that has to be locally led. There are lots of areas of need in the country and many pockets of disadvantage, including many in my own constituency. The right approach with few exceptions - in fact, only one exception because of the number of murders in the north-east inner city - is one that is local authority led and bottom up. A very good approach that I think could be modelled is what is being done in the Inchicore-Kilmainham area in Dublin or what is being done in the Balbriggan area under the remit of Fingal County Council, which is for the local authority to identify somebody to develop a plan and then to engage with Government on it. I think that would be the best approach.
I would appreciate if the Taoiseach would communicate the interest of Government and ask the local authority to lead such a group and that it be the lead agency and co-ordinate the other State agencies and the relevant business and local communities. The other aspect of this is that Tipperary town is situated on the N25 and it is approximately 35 minutes' drive to Limerick city. Historically, Tipperary town has been hubbed with Waterford and that has worked to the disadvantage of Tipperary. There are very obvious logistical and strategic reasons that it should be declared and treated as a hub of Limerick rather than Waterford. That should be put into the equation.
I appreciate the fact that money is being spent on regeneration projects. These one-off projects are welcome and make a valuable contribution. However, that type of project should be the centrepiece of a range of other initiatives and measures and they can only be put in place if there is a co-ordinated group working under the leadership of somebody in control. I ask the Taoiseach to communicate that to Tipperary County Council and ask it to appoint somebody to fulfil this leadership role.
It is certainly evident to me that Tipperary town is in the natural hinterland of Limerick city and I imagine many more people commute to work from Tipperary town to Limerick than commute from Tipperary town to Waterford. That certainly makes sense to me. What is required is a plan for the town and somebody to drive it forward. I will engage with the Minister of State, Deputy English, who has responsibility for planning. I will ask him to make contact with the local authority to see what can be done. We have models around the country where something similar has been done. We are starting such a project in the Inchicore-Kilmainham area. As I mentioned, Fingal County Council has been developing a plan for Balbriggan. I imagine there are many more examples around the country where similar things have been done. Given the depth and strength of feeling about the issue, it is appropriate that it be done in Tipperary town also. I will make contact with the Minister of State, Deputy English, this week to set the ball rolling.
The key message coming from COP 24 is that climate change is moving faster than we are and that we have to catch up before it is too late. However, Ireland is actually going backwards. Our commitments require us to reduce our emissions by 1 million tonnes per year, but instead they have increased by 2.1 million tonnes per year.
Yesterday we got our latest climate change report card, the climate change performance index. For the second year in a row - twice under the watch of the present Taoiseach - we are ranked bottom of the class. Ireland is the worst performer on climate action in the EU. It is embarrassing, disgraceful and shameful.
Despite all the years of talk and Government announcements about the need to transition to a low-carbon economy, it has been a case of more talk and glitzy announcements than any real action. The report stated: "The long-standing lack of implementation of substantive measures to put the country on a well-below-2°C pathway results in a very low rating for Ireland’s national policy performance". That is basically a technical way of saying that Ireland may talk the talk and spin the spin, but it certainly does not walk the walk, which is the responsibility of the Taoiseach.
Leaders must lead and the people do not want to see our country continually trailing in climate action. It is an unfair reflection of their concerns. The people are way ahead of Government on this. The Government is out of sync with Irish and global concerns and the demands for real climate action. It is all well and good to produce plans, roadmaps and recommendations, but they are of no use if they are not followed and if they do not have cold hard figures to back them up. If the Government were serious about climate action, why would it launch Project Ireland 2040 when it has not been climate proofed? Everything in the plan is wonderfully vague when it comes to climate impacts. Whenever I or one of my colleagues on this side of the House asks the Taoiseach or anyone in government for information on how they plan to tackle climate change, we get the same response: that €1 in every €5 under the national development plan is being spent on climate action initiatives. However, the climate action committee has been told that 60% of that €1 in €5 is already committed energy expenditure, meaning that the €1 in €5 appears to be a sham.
Today I would like to ask the Taoiseach about the other €4 in €5. How does he know what the impact of our greenhouse gas emissions of non-climate related spending under Project Ireland 2040 will be when there are no real numbers in the plan? There are no projected emission reductions, no identification of any real climate proofing. I ask the Taoiseach to give me the number for our projected emission reductions under Project Ireland 2040. I do not want vague plans and more announcements today; I want real numbers. If the Taoiseach does not have the numbers, does he intend to do that analysis?
Only a few days ago the Environmental Protection Agency released its report on greenhouse gas emissions from Ireland in 2017, last year. We do not have the numbers for 2018 yet. The EPA report reveals that our greenhouse gas emissions last year decreased. It happened for a number of reasons, including increased generation of renewable energy and also the fact that it was a relatively warm year meaning people used less energy to heat their homes. Nonetheless our emissions reduced in 2017. We do not yet know what the story is for 2018. The report card the Deputy mentioned was prepared by a German NGO which is an advocacy and campaign organisation.
We need to make a distinction between report cards, claims and assertions made by campaign organisations as opposed to those made by official bodies such as the CSO, the UN or the EPA.
-----between official statistics and those that are calculated by an NGO or an advocacy group that has a particular agenda.
What is undeniable is that we are very much off track in terms of meeting our emissions targets for 2020 and indeed, for 2030. It is for that exact reason that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has been tasked with developing an all-of-Government climate action plan. That is being developed at present and will be ready in the first quarter of next year. It will follow a similar model to the one he pursued with his action plan for education, which, everyone accepts, has helped to bring about vast improvements in education in recent years, and the Action Plan for Jobs, which helped to get us where we are today, moving from high unemployment to almost full employment.
We estimate that the implementation of Project Ireland 2040 will bring us approximately one third of the way to meeting our greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. It is only part of the solution and other solutions will also be required, including regulation, investment in technologies, taxation and behavioural change. Nobody is suggesting that Project Ireland 2040 on its own will solve climate change. We acknowledge that some projects may actually contribute to climate change, including, for example, some of the road projects listed. However, we would defend those projects because we think it makes sense to connect Cork and Limerick by motorway, connecting Limerick to Galway and other areas along the west coast.
When one is drawing up a national plan, one must take climate change into account and ensure that the plan is climate proofed. However, one must also take into account other considerations such as employment, living standards and balanced regional development. That is what a good Government tries to do; it tries to take into account all of the needs and concerns of people, balance them and develop a plan. That is what we have done.
I am certainly not saying that the national development plan on its own will solve climate change. It certainly will not do so when it has not even been climate-proofed, which is the main point. The EPA's recent report states that emissions have decreased. I am glad the Taoiseach accepts that this is due to the mild winter. Another reason is the reduction in fuel tourism because of Brexit's impact on the pound. The underlying trend is that we are still way off target but at least the Taoiseach has not tried to take credit for the weather, which would be a whole new level of spin. The recent reductions are certainly not due to Government action. We are 3 million tonnes off where we promised to be under European effort-sharing agreements and at the current carbon market prices, this would cost us some €60 million. That cost is only going to increase, year on year.
In terms of plans and the all-of-Government plan to which the Taoiseach referred, at this stage people are suffering from Government climate action spin fatigue and plan fatigue. Under the national mitigation plan for this year, only 21 of the 40 actions have been completed. As I said, the national development plan has not been climate proofed. The national energy and climate plan must be submitted to Europe by the end of the month but, as recently as last week, Departments were unable to outline any additional measure being undertaken to close the emissions gap.
The current national development plan is not fit for purpose. Restoring Ireland's reputation will require that the new national energy and climate action plan replaces Project Ireland 2040. This should include a new land use element which commits us to a new future for Irish farms, forestry and bogs. It should promise a radically different transport system which promotes walking, cycling and public transport ahead of road construction. Of course, we also need to divest from fossil fuels. This would ignite our economy but it requires leadership. Everybody matters in making this just transition, which is why my party has published a just transition Bill. If it can be done, it will only be done if the Taoiseach and his Government changes track and gets serious about this. The Government must lead and must prioritise tackling the most serious threat to us all.
-----by any cynicism coming from any corner of this House.
In Project Ireland 2040, we have a plan for a country which will have a population of 6 million in 2040. It is comprehensive and deals with the healthcare infrastructure we need, the new schools we need, investment in rail such as the Metro in Dublin, BusConnects in Dublin, Cork and Galway, improved connectivity around the country, taking coal off the grid, investing in electrifying our railways and investing in renewable energy. If the Green Party is against all those things and €100 million invested in cycling, so be it, but it is a plan we stand over.