Thursday, 7 March 2019
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
One week from today, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland, known as the PPS, will meet the families of victims of Bloody Sunday to brief them on the decisions it has made arising from its investigation into the events of Bloody Sunday. As the Tánaiste can imagine, this is an incredibly sensitive time for the families. Last weekend the PPS asked people to avoid speculation ahead of that meeting out of sensitivity for the concerns and interests of the families. That justifiable call has been ignored at the highest levels of the British Government and the British Tory Party. Boris Johnson added to it last weekend in his article in the The Daily Telegraphand with his callously inappropriate tweets. His statements trampled all over the feelings of the families. He ignored the fact that 13 people had been murdered on that day and that a 14th person had died from injuries he had suffered on that day. He also ignored the apology given by the former Prime Minister David Cameron specifically to the people of Derry and the families for the hurt and the wrongs done on that day.
Although it is easy to dismiss Boris Johnson because he is paid to be bizarre, as a former Foreign Secretary, he should not be allowed to get away with these remarks. We cannot dismiss the words of Karen Bradley because she is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Her comments yesterday in the UK Parliament added to the enormous distress of the families. She completely ignored the views and requests of the PPS, as expressed last weekend. Her comments were completely inappropriate and, even worse, ignored due process and the impending decision of the PPS. She walked all over the rights, feelings and sensitivities of the families. She also ignored their grief and frustration. In the light of the history of the events of Bloody Sunday, the Oireachtas cannot let her remarks go unchecked.
Like every Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Tánaiste has had to deal with legacy issues on the nationalist and unionist sides. The grief and frustration of all families are still very raw, while we are trying to tackle those legacies. As a Parliament and as a political class, we have tried to approach these issues with sensitivity. Yesterday's remarks were absolutely callous, completely out of order and totally inappropriate. I gather that the Tánaiste met Karen Bradley last night in London and that they were due to discuss this matter. How did he express people's anger at the remarks she made yesterday? Does she realise how offensive and careless they were? Does the Tánaiste accept that the comments she made yesterday show complete disrespect for the families? Ms Bradley said her comments had been misrepresented, but I do not accept that explanation. Does the Tánaiste accept it? Does he think Ms Bradley should withdraw her remarks immediately and issue a full apology to the families of those whom she offended?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which is one the House needs to address today. I met the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, yesterday evening and assure the House that she is in no doubt as to where we stand on this issue. I made it very clear that the Irish Government's position was that there should be effective investigations into all deaths during the Troubles, regardless of who the perpetrators were. That is what was agreed to at Stormont House and that is what needs to be legislated for. No amnesties from prosecution are provided for in the Good Friday Agreement or any subsequent agreement, including the Stormont House Agreement. The Irish Government has been clear - we were clear again last night - that it will not support any proposal to introduce such a measure for state or non-state actors. I reiterated that point very directly last night.
While the Secretary of State's second statement yesterday afternoon, in which she clarified that "where there is evidence of wrongdoing it should always be investigated, whoever is responsible," was important, perhaps it was not enough. We need to stop and recognise that the comments she made yesterday morning caused intense concern, hurt and distress to families who had lost loved ones in dreadful circumstances. After all these years, their level of trust is understandably at a low level. Their confidence that a framework will be brought forward to address properly their deeply felt concerns is fragile, to say the least. That goes for all victims of violence perpetrated by anyone. I have met many such families and every one of them deserves respect, support and sensitivity. We have a responsibility to attempt to meet their concerns in a comprehensive way. That means fully implementing the Stormont House Agreement framework.
Most Members of the House will not have had access to the statement the Secretary of State issued in the past few minutes. It is much more detailed than the second statement she made yesterday. She apologises and says she is "profoundly sorry for the offence and hurt that [her] words have caused." She says "the language was wrong" and "deeply insensitive." She says very clearly that she wants "to see justice properly delivered" and that she and her Government "believe fundamentally in the rule of law." In the context of the tragedies we have seen in Northern Ireland, she says "where there is any evidence of wrongdoing this should be pursued without fear or favour whoever the perpetrators might be."
To answer Deputy Calleary's questions, we have raised these issues very directly and I think the Secretary of State now recognises the seriousness of the statement made yesterday. I think she is making a very significant effort today to try to correct it. She has made a very direct apology to the families. I understand she is likely to be in Belfast this evening and may comment further. I also understand she may make direct contact with the families.
The statement does not go far enough because it is digging again and ignores so many other things. The Tánaiste has said he has been clear with the British Government. I accept that he has been, but it has ignored the will of this House in relation to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. It has ignored the issues surounding the Pat Finucane and Ballymurphy cases. It seems that there is a mindset to ignore these things in the hope they will go away, but they cannot. This House owes it to the families to defend their rights and loved ones and stand up for their interests. How does the Tánaiste expect the families to work with Karen Bradley from here on in, given her remarks yesterday? She made the remarks in the House of Commons and was not under pressure. She was answering questions and, frankly, her comments were calculated. That she has made such remarks has added enormously to the distress of many. She has ignored the wish of the PPS for people not to become involved in this issue. The Tánaiste has to know and understand the anger of people on this and the other issues I have mentioned, including the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. The British Government's mindset is to keep ignoring these issues in the hope they will go away. That is what was behind yesterday's statement. That is actually the real feeling of the British Government about these issues.
The Deputy should read the statement in full before dismissing it entirely. I understand what he is saying in terms of the depth of feeling and distress that these comments have added to. The timing could not have been worse when one considers what is likely to happen next week with 14 families waiting for a briefing from the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland. It is a very stressful time for the families. One can also consider the timing of the judgment in the Pat Finucane case, which again has heightened focus on legacy issues. The police ombudsman's investigation and the information flow from the PSNI has also raised real concerns. There are ongoing requests for more information to be released on the Dublin-Monaghan bombings. This is a time of real sensitivity.
It also is a time of real sensitivity for many victims of violence and terrorism, from Kingsmill and many other areas, as well as for the Ballymurphy families. We are at a really sensitive point in Northern Ireland where legacy issues need to be dealt with in a sensitive way. The Secretary of State is very aware of that, and that is why she has issued a long statement today. I hope there will be direct contact with some of the families concerned to try to rebuild some trust and faith following the comments made yesterday.
Ba mhaith liom an t-ábhar céanna a ardú leis an Tánaiste inniu, is é sin an méid a dúirt Karen Bradley i dTithe na Parlaiminte i Londain. Níl dabht ar bith gur chuir sé isteach go mór ar iad a bhfuair a ngaolta bás faoi lámh fórsaí na Breataine. Yesterday the British Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, stated that the killings carried out by British security forces in the North were not crimes. It was an outrageous and ridiculous statement, which followed on from a statement from the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, who indicated that the British Government is planning to introduce legislation to protect serving and former British soldiers who may have committed crimes. This did not emerge from the blue, but rather was a part of a sequence of events happening within the Tory Party. The comments of both are an insult to families who have lost loved ones at the hands of the British army and their proxies in loyalist death squads who were directed by the British state. Such comments add insult to injury for the families who have suffered these awful tragedies and who have faced difficulties in trying to secure the truth for many decades. These families are faced with the British Government's continued attempts to block access to the truth and justice that they so desperately seek.
Nobody can be above the law. Bereaved families, some of whom have been campaigning for almost five decades, are entitled to the justice they seek. The Tánaiste mentioned that at Stormont House, the two Governments and the relevant parties agreed a process that was supposed to deal with issues of the past but which the British Government has thus far refused to honour. That goes to the core of what is happening within the Tory Government at this point in time. It is refusing to implement the Stormont House Agreement.
Can the Tánaiste outline to the House the conversation he had with the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, during their engagement last night? Did he ask her to withdraw her remarks? I have read her statement and she has not withdrawn them. She has said that the language used was inappropriate. It should be clear that the problem is not just with the language she used. The content of her remarks in the House of Commons was deeply inappropriate and was insulting to the victims and to those who have lost loved ones directly at the hands of the British forces, and indirectly through loyalist actions supported through collusion and other assistance by the British state. Did the Tánaiste ask the Secretary of State the position of the British Government on the Stormont House Agreement? Will it now honour the commitments entered into many years ago when that agreement was struck? This goes right to the heart of British policy on dealing with legacy issues. The families and victims are being let down once again. The Tánaiste has acknowledged the hurt and pain that has been caused by the actions of the British Government, but many have said that they are not surprised that this is its position. They were surprised, however, that it was stated so bluntly and in such a matter-of-fact way in the House of Commons yesterday.
As the Deputy would expect, I had a very long meeting with Karen Bradley last night on this issue. At the end of the meeting, I asked her to state publically what she stated to me when I asked her for reassurance from her Government that it was still committed to the Stormont House framework on dealing with legacy issues in Northern Ireland and that it would move forward on that basis. I asked her to confirm that it could not and would not support any form of amnesty or Statute of Limitations that would mean that certain killings would not be fully investigated because of who the perpetrators may have been. I made very clear to the Secretary of State the impact that her statement earlier that day in Westminster would have on many families who were deeply hurt and very sceptical about whether they would be able to get truth and justice through the proposed legacy framework. I think she accepted all of those things and there is a strong attempt by her today to provide clarification. I understand that she may be in Belfast later this evening and may comment further but I think the apology and the confirmation that any evidence of wrongdoing should be pursued without fear or favour, whoever the perpetrators might be, is the kind of language consistent with what was agreed at Stormont House. That is what the two Governments need to recommit to: there is no other approach to legacy and dealing with it in a way that finds truth and justice for everybody and hopefully move society towards a process of reconciliation on the back of that truth. The Government will not support any other approach apart from what has been agreed between the two Governments and supported by the political parties, including Sinn Féin, in the Stormont House Agreement.
I note the Government's continued support for the Stormont House Agreement as the vehicle for dealing with legacy issues and to provide a pathway for those who have lost loved ones and for those who were injured to access justice and truth. It does not take away from the fact that the British Government is still not honouring that agreement. While the Tánaiste has outlined his comments to Karen Bradley and his hope that she would clarify a number of points, she did not provide that clarity in her statement today. She did not suggest that the British Government supported the Stormont House Agreement. Indeed, her statement is silent on that. It did not deal with the Statute of Limitations issue, in the context of the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, indicating this week that the British Government is planning to introduce legislation to protect serving and former British soldiers who may have committed crimes. The statement is silent on that issue.
Her statement conceded that the language used was wrong. It was not just an incorrect use of language, but the content of what she said was completely wrong and hurtful. I am mindful that the former deputy leader of Fine Gael, Senator Reilly, is calling for the resignation of Karen Bradley in the Upper House today. I am not sure whether the Government shares that view or if it was something the Tánaiste shared with her personally last night. Is the Tánaiste calling for Karen Bradley to retract her statement and not just apologise for the language used in her earlier statement?
I made it very clear to the Secretary of State last night that I believe her statement was wrong and ill-advised, and that it would cause deep offence to many people. I think she recognises that, but she can speak for herself. It is a very unusual situation where, in a different Parliament, a Minister of another Government is commenting on another Minister. I work with Karen Bradley on many issues. I believe she is a good person. I believe she has made a mistake here. She is apologising for it and is trying to correct it today. I hope she will be able to do that in a way that is convincing for the families impacted and affected by the statement made yesterday. I will continue to work with her to try to ensure that what was agreed between two Governments and political parties as a way forward on legacy issues, which is hugely important on so many levels but in particular for victims and their families across Northern Ireland from both communities and none, is followed through on now. That is not to say it is straightforward because we know that with politics in London it is challenging to bring forward legislation linked to legacy.
At 2 p.m. on Saturday protesters will gather in Dublin city centre in the latest of a series of demonstrations organised by the National Housing and Homelessness Coalition to protest at the Government's failure to address the housing emergency. The protesters will gather at three different locations in the city centre and then converge on a building, which we will not disclose at the moment but which will symbolise what we believe is the real explanation for the country's housing crisis. It is part of a series of demonstrations that will happen in different cities to highlight the particular problems in different cities. There will be protests this weekend in Dublin, with further protests in Galway and Cork.
There are many reasons to protest in Dublin over the Government's failures in the housing crisis. The number of children and families in emergency accommodation in Dublin in the time that Fine Gael has been in government has increased by 270%. The Government has built a pitiful number of local authority houses that last year did not even meet its own pathetic targets. Property prices and rents have risen to absolutely shocking and unaffordable levels for ordinary workers. In Dublin, rents have increased by 82% since Fine Gael came into government. The average house price is now €446,000, an increase of €53,000 in the past two years. Despite repeated promises we still have no affordable housing scheme. This week we had the debacle of the Rebuilding Ireland affordable mortgage scheme. A whole generation of young working people are forced to live with their parents and sometimes their grandparents.
How did Fine Gael let this happen? We got a glimpse of the answer this morning when we heard about the profits of Cairn Homes, the biggest owner of zoned building land in Dublin, which have increased by an incredible 267%. One can add to that Dwyer Nolan whose profits have increased by 233%. Seán Mulryan is getting paid €204 million by the Central Bank - I love the irony - for its new headquarters. The profits of I-RES REIT increased by 90% in 2018. The profits of Park Developments have increased by 100%. The profits of Kennedy Wilson in 2017 increased by €299 million. It boasts: "We are pleased to complete a record quarter that resulted in the highest level of profits in our company's history." In Dún Laoghaire the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-controlled council has just sold Johnny Ronan a public site on which 358 apartments could be built.
My question is very simple. Is that not the real explanation for our housing crisis? While the Government has talked about providing affordable and public housing, it has not done it.
I do not accept that assessment, which will be no surprise to the Deputy. He approaches the housing crisis from an ideological perspective. He believes no one should make any profit from building a house anywhere as far as I can see. He believes that everybody should essentially be provided with a home by the State and that the taxpayer should pay for it all. Our position is that people who cannot afford to buy their own homes need to be supported by the State through affordable housing, affordable rental, supported rental or social housing.
Our economy is recovering from a deep recession that was caused by the collapse of a property market and a banking system. It has taken time to build capacity again in local authorities and in banking systems in terms of builders and developers being able to produce the number of homes that are needed across all sectors. We are now seeing dramatic year-on-year increases in the delivery of social housing. Working with some of the parties opposite, we will see a new affordable housing scheme delivering affordable houses in the next two to three years. We assigned money specifically for that in the previous budget. We are seeing private homes being built. We are seeing more first-time buyers purchasing houses than we have seen for a decade. The Rebuilding Ireland loan scheme the Deputy mentioned is a victim of its own success because we set €200 million aside for it. Clearly that money has now been fully used up and we need to find a way of financing that successful scheme into the future. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform are figuring out a way to do that.
I am not suggesting that we do not have a major housing challenge to solve. Far too many people and far too many families are homeless. The number of families who are homeless has levelled off and we now need to ensure that number reduces dramatically over time. It is not correct to suggest that the delivery of homes is not moving in the correct direction. There were more than 18,000 new homes last year with 8,000 extra social houses last year. We need to get that figure over 10,000 and we need to increase total house building to more than 25,000, and we will. However, these things do not happen overnight and they certainly do not happen if the State takes on the burden of doing everything itself.
I presume the Tánaiste would not accuse the authorities in Berlin, for example, of being ideological. It is holding a referendum essentially to root out vulture funds and property speculators from Berlin because they are contributing to the housing crisis. That sentiment is expressed across the board in Berlin.
There is nothing comforting in what the Tánaiste has said. He has not responded to the charge that the Government's policy has essentially been about transferring large amounts of land from NAMA, based on the banks we bailed out, to the people who are now profiteering to obscene levels. The business section of today's edition of The Irish Timesreports that even those who are profiteering are saying the Government's solution will not work. The CEO of Glenveagh Properties has said that there is not a chance of reaching the target of 35,000 units the Government hopes for and that the private market simply will not be able to do it. However, the Government's targets for building public and affordable housing go nowhere near meeting the shortfall because it has completely relied on the private sector-----
That is the fact. Glenveagh Properties plc seems to think it is. Where is the affordable scheme? The Government promised it in 2016, and now the Tánaiste is saying it is going to be another two or three years-----
-----so there is no hope for a whole generation of young working people whose incomes could not possibly allow them to afford these property prices. Cairn plc properties have an average selling price of €428,000 this year. Has the Government not failed? Why does he not admit it?
-----developing our housing policy on the back of trying to make developers happy. We have developed a housing policy that can deliver homes for people. We are going to add an extra 50,000 social housing units onto the existing stock over the lifetime of the Rebuilding Ireland plan and we are on schedule to do that. We are not relying on the private sector to deliver them. On a temporary basis, while we are adding the necessary numbers to our social housing, we have an over-reliance on the rental market and we are supporting people in the rental market through HAP and other mechanisms. We have always said that. That is because the problems of today cannot be solved immediately because it takes time to build homes. While we are building those homes, there is pressure and an over-reliance on a rental market which is why we have, on a temporary basis, introduced rent caps through rent pressures zones, to be able to limit the increases in rents that people have to cope with.
Anybody who suggests that one can solve this housing crisis overnight is either misleading people deliberately or is naive. It cannot be done overnight. This is a five-year housing plan and we are on target, despite the fact that there are still serious pressures that need to be resolved.
I wish to raise some important questions on the issues of workers rights.
I want to begin on a positive note with the coming into effect of the banded hours legislation this week. I have been informed by the Mandate union, which represents workers in the retail sector, that there has been a significant uptake in union membership on the basis of this legislation and a huge interest in applying for the extra hours.
However, the situation is complicated by what appears to be a joint approach by some of the major employers, such as Dunnes Stores, Lloyds and SuperValu, which have banded together to come to an arrangement where they insist that workers sign what they call a new banded hours contract. I understand this contains a threat of disciplinary action and even dismissal if workers fail to work the hours outlined in these new contracts.
I put it to the Tánaiste - I am glad the relevant Minister is present - that there should be a close monitoring of this legislation and its implementation over the next period because I believe there will be skulduggery in trying to scare workers again to not take up these banded hours.
I have also been approached recently by workers in the new, swanky and expensive restaurant, The Ivy, where the company is taking the major proportion of tips paid to staff to make up the difference in their wages. As an example, one worker signed a contract last October for €14.90 an hour. This person is now being paid €9.80 an hour, and the difference is being made up from the tips. This company is robbing the workers of their money and we do not know where the rest of the money is going. It seems it is being pocketed by the company. The staff working in the sector are reliant on tips to make up a reasonable wage to enable them to get by and to afford the outrageous rents being charged in this city for accommodation. This wage theft is an increasing practice in the sector. There also have been reports from the restaurant industry in Galway. A Bill has come through the Seanad on this issue, and I would expect widespread cross-party and indeed Government support for that legislation.
Finally, I want to raise the issue of the ongoing dispute for union recognition by ambulance paramedics who are members of the side Psychiatric Nurses Association, PNA, in the health service. Is it not an incredibly bad signal for a major State employer such as the HSE to refuse to recognise the rights of ambulance paramedics to be represented by a union of their choice? The PNA is an officially registered trade union that already represents staff in the health service. It is even worse for the HSE to refuse an invitation to attend the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. The Government and the Minister should instruct the HSE to go to the WRC, which the PNA already has stated it is prepared to do.
I will try to answer some of them.
This Government's record in trying to protect workers, particularly around minimum wage increases, is very strong and it will continue to be, by taking independent advice on an annual basis.
On the tips issue, to be clear, any employer that calculates salary and includes tips in that figure is acting illegally. This cannot be done.
Tips are separate to salary and if there are issues that the Government needs to act on there, then we will look at that closely. If there are loopholes in respect of the new legislation that are being abused, we will close them.
On the new legislation, which has been welcomed across the trade union movement generally and certainly by ICTU - I listened to Patricia King doing so during the week - this is a sensible and pragmatic way forward that involved some compromise but does provide significant increased protection for workers. That is what we are trying to do here in a way that is fair, and that has listened to the concerns of employers but has struck what we regard as a fair balance. This is a view that would be also be reflected across the trade union membership.
On trade union recognition by the HSE and the ambulance workers who want to be represented by the PNA rather than SIPTU, that is an industrial relations issue where the HSE must make a judgment call as to how to maintain a proper industrial relations infrastructure and relationship between unions and employers. The position of the HSE and the Government is fairly clear on this issue. There are different views and perspectives across trade unions on the approach here. Anyone has, of course, a right to join a trade union but that does not mean that the trade union necessarily has the right to be recognised, per se, by an individual employer, if another trade union is representing the concerns and rights of those workers. That is an ongoing dispute but I think that the Government's position has been made quite clear.
The former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, boasted that this was the best country to do business in. It is not the best country for a lot of workers facing exploitation by employers. It is extraordinary that the Government is saying that an employer decides who represents a worker in a workplace, and not the worker. It is a basic human right to be represented by a trade union of one's choice. It is not up to the HSE or SIPTU to make that decision. It should go to the WRC, where all issues will be discussed and decided upon and recommendations will be made. If the WRC says that those workers are entitled to be in a union of their choice, well then c'est la vie, that is the decision that is made. If not they can go to the European courts to challenge that decision. The Government is denying those workers that right by not instructing the HSE to go to the WRC. That is the issue here. It is not up to the HSE to decide where those workers and what union should represent them. It is a basic human right that is being denied them by the Government and I urge it to reconsider its position in this regard.
First, on the comments by the previous Taoiseach on trying to make Ireland the best small country in which to build a business and to work, I stand corrected if I am wrong, but my understanding is we have the second highest minimum wage in Europe now, and we are very proud to have that. At the same time, we are maintaining a competitive economy that is creating jobs every single day.
That is not an easy thing to do and we will continue to try to manage an economy that protects workers' rights and pays them a decent wage for a week's work. We will continue to take independent advice on where the minimum wage should be and act on that as a Government. At the same time, we will continue to talk to employers about the supports they need to be able to build and grow competitive businesses out of Ireland. That approach has worked very well in the last seven years. We have seen unemployment fall from over 15% to just over 5%, and it is continuing to fall month on month. That is the approach we will continue to take.
In respect of the approach of the HSE in the other issue the Deputy mentioned, those matters are well understood and debated at this stage.