Wednesday, 9 September 2020
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
I raise with the Taoiseach the issue of the British Government's clear intention to renege on the Irish protocol. As the Taoiseach will know, the protocol was secured after a very long negotiation. It represents the bare minimum required to protect Irish interests. It is essential to protect our economy, to ensure no hardening of the Border on our island and to ensure our peace agreements are protected. As the Taoiseach will also know, it is binding under international law.
Today, legislation will be published. The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made very clear that this legislation will breach international law. In other words, the British system is now breaching international law with its eyes wide open and is making no secret of that fact. It is interesting and should be noted that the secretary of state has managed to speak out of both sides of his mouth on this issue. On Monday evening, he met with my colleague, Ms Michelle O'Neill, the joint Head of Government in the North, and sought to assure her that the legislation would in no way interfere with the protocol. He then took to his feet on Tuesday and said the precise opposite. As the Taoiseach knows, he has conceded that the British Government will in fact act to breach international law.
All of this demonstrates how far Mr. Boris Johnson's government is prepared to go to satisfy his Tory Brexiteers and, frankly, his own blunt English nationalism. It should be recorded that the British Prime Minister was the champion of Brexit. The Taoiseach may also recall that he was also an advocate of a no-deal proposition. He had to be dragged to any meaningful negotiation by his own parliament. In the past, I have described his approach and position as stupid and dangerous. I reiterate that today; the position of Mr. Johnson and his government is both stupid and dangerous. It is very clear that perfidious Albion is alive and well and living at No. 10 Downing Street.
The British Prime Minister believes that it will either be his way or no way. He mistakenly believes he can now pressure or bully Ireland. It needs to be made very clear to him that is not going to happen. I take some heart from the international reaction, not least from the statements of Congressman Richard Neal, chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, and others.
This story broke on Sunday night; it is now Wednesday. I am alarmed that it has taken this long for the Taoiseach to indicate that he will intervene with the British Prime Minister. I appreciate and understand the value of diplomatic back channels but, in this instance, it falls to the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, to defend and represent Irish interests. When he takes the phone call with the British Prime Minister - I assume the call will be made today but the Taoiseach might clarify that - will he make it absolutely clear that there can and will be no reneging on the Irish protocol and no return to a hard border on our Ireland and that the Good Friday Agreement will be upheld in all of its parts?
The foundation stone of any agreement and of the conduct of negotiations rests on mutual trust. No one party to any agreement can unilaterally undermine or deviate from it. I have been very clear about that in statements I made this morning at a press conference on Brexit readiness for the entire country. The unilateral nature of this decision by the British Government does undermine trust. The withdrawal agreement is an international treaty and it is binding. Ireland is with the European Union on this. As far as we are concerned, the withdrawal agreement and the protocol is the legal position and remains the legal position. It is what has been agreed to and will not be resiled from.
Last evening, I spoke to the President of the European Commission, Dr. von der Leyen, and we agreed that this was a very serious development. There was no prior notification to the Irish Government at any level as to this decision or measure. There was no heads-up. Whatever issues the Government of the United Kingdom has with regard to the implementation or working through of the protocol should be dealt with in the negotiations which are to commence this week. That is why the joint committee and the specialised committee were established under the withdrawal agreement.
What the secretary of state announced yesterday in very crude terms represents a very new departure in the conduct of international relations and the conduct of relationships between governments. The European Union is very concerned about this, as am I. As I announced this morning, I will be speaking to the British Prime Minister today, primarily to register our position and not to become embroiled in some exercise in which the British Government is becoming involved. We have to be extremely clear and firm with regard to where we stand as a country in respect of the withdrawal agreement and protocol, as we intend to be. We have to register with the British Prime Minister our complete opposition to the decision that has been taken - I will do that - and also the modus operandiand the manner in which the decision was taken and the lack of any prior consultation or engagement. I have been involved in negotiations with UK governments before and was involved in negotiations with the European Union with regard to the Lisbon treaty and so on. Proper negotiations are conducted on the basis of no surprises and on the basis of proper engagement in advance utilising various channels to try to get to an agreement. That did not happen in this case.
The additional point I want to make is that to drag Northern Ireland back into the centre stage is very divisive. It is extremely regrettable in the sense that there was an acceptance of the protocol and the withdrawal agreement. I do not want to put words into anyone's mouth but irrespective of people's stances on Brexit, people have accepted the de facto reality of the protocol and of the withdrawal agreement and were getting on with it in terms of using the mechanisms of the withdrawal agreement to deal with issues. As such, the Government is unequivocal on this and is very clear-minded in our response to the British initiative.
Anyone who has even a passing interest in British Governments, but particularly those of a Tory variety, will understand that this is not a new departure. Sadly, it is not a new departure for Boris Johnson and his administration to walk away from prior commitments, including those held within international treaties. In this instance, the protocol is a settled matter and the withdrawal agreement is a settled matter. It is connected to but very much distinct from the negotiations that will, as the Taoiseach said, go on between Britain and the European institutions. I am a bit concerned, first, at the slowness of the Taoiseach's response. The response and that call to Downing Street should have been much quicker. I am also concerned he is perhaps indulging in wishful thinking of the sort that might suggest that Boris Johnson and his government are not capable of really walking away from the commitments they have made.
I will say again that in the Taoiseach's conversation with him, he needs to dispense with diplomatic niceties and to set out the position very clearly to him. The Taoiseach might also remind him that the North voted to remain.
Now, not alone are they proposing to walk away from binding international commitments but yet again they are turning their faces away from the democratic decision of people on our island. These stakes are very high for all of us and we cannot afford to have hesitancy or any lack of forcefulness and rigour in dealing with Boris Johnson and his administration.
The Deputy is wrong in her analysis when she speaks of lateness and all of that kind of stuff. She should not seek to try to divide the House on the very fundamental matter of our commitment to adhering to international agreements. I am as resolute as the Deputy or any other Member, as is the Government, in terms of international treaties. What we do not do, though, is react in a knee-jerk manner to any particular move in the middle of negotiations. We are clear about the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. If the UK Government is not, then that is an issue they have to come to terms with. They agreed this. The point is that we are not going to become embroiled in their particular problems or difficulties, whatever they may be, about aspects of the protocol.
One must allow things to evolve. The British Government have taken this decision unilaterally and it is very serious. The stakes are very high. They are very high for people out there and for jobs, the economy and employment. That is why I believe the action taken by the British Government is very serious. It undermines trust, which as I said at the outset of my contribution, represents the foundation stone upon which negotiations are conducted.
Negotiations can only be conducted on the basis of trust and we cannot have international parties to an agreement unilaterally undermining that agreement.
I received a message from a doctor in the past couple of days. He stated:
I have luckily had no patients who have died of coronavirus. I have had at least three though who have had delayed cancer diagnoses due to the shutdown of services and the delay in services. These will almost certainly die. I have others who are desperate to be seen by specialists but are hitting a brick wall in trying. The shutdown of the health services is killing people.
That is a startling statement for any doctor to make and it is not an isolated situation.
Around the country many people who are currently cancer symptomatic are facing a brick wall when it comes to reduced and closed services. The consequences of this will be enormous for them. Likewise, the cancellation of cancer screening has seen thousands of abnormalities, precancerous cells and cancers missed this year already. The numbers for cancer screening carried out in this State this year are startling when compared to those for last year. We have a bizarre and confused situation, which demonstrates the priorities of the Government whereby a person can get his or her hair cut and be in the physical space of a barber or go to a beautician and be in their physical space but people cannot attend BreastCheck at the moment. People cannot get a face-to-face consultation with mental health services staff in the majority of counties.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this pandemic has been the refusal of the Government to research the human cost in mortality and morbidity of the shutdown of the health service. I have asked on many occasions. The Taoiseach brought the party leaders together with the heads of NPHET and the HSE only last week and I appreciated the opportunity to be there. However I asked this question again, and again it went unanswered. There is no effort by the Government to understand the actual cost in mortality and morbidity to people throughout the country due to the shutdown and closure of health services.
The truth of the matter is that without that information the health service resource allocation cannot be made on the basis of evidence. Without that information, resource allocation is being made blindly by this Government. I ask that the Government carry out that research and open up critical healthcare services for people in real need across the country.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. It has been a core consequence of Covid-19 that normal non-Covid health services have been impacted very severely where activity levels are concerned, particularly in respect of diagnostics and procedures in acute hospitals. The Government is acutely aware of that. The forthcoming winter initiative plan will very much focus on that issue as well as dealing with the impact of Covid throughout the next six months but, critically, it will focus on the resumption of services.
On cancer screening programmes, a number of those services have resumed albeit not at the same levels that obtained prior to the onset of Covid-19. Various conditions and restrictions have been applied to the hospital setting as well to protect healthcare professionals and patients from Covid-19 when patients are going in for various procedures. That has slowed the throughput of patients to a significant degree. Waiting lists have, therefore, climbed since Covid emerged and we are very well aware of that. This came on top of waiting lists that had already been quite significant. Part of the winter initiative is to endeavour to procure capacity separate from Covid to enable more diagnostics and procedures to be done, particularly in regard to cancer, heart disease and areas where we can prevent the onset of serious illness and intervene early to improve patient outcomes from such conditions, along with additional beds and greater throughput in hospitals.
Another element is reducing pressures on trauma centres and accident and emergency centres through having more community diagnostic centres, particularly with regard to respiratory issues. All of this is designed to reduce the pressures on the acute hospital system to enable more procedures to be done in the acute services consistent with the health protection required in a Covid environment.
The Deputy made a valid point on undertaking more comprehensive research on the impact of Covid on a range of conditions or services. Fundamentally, what is required right now is to make sure that over the next six to nine months, the plan is robust enough to manage Covid and enable the resumption of services to as normal a level as possible within the context of the restrictions of Covid-19.
I will give the Taoiseach another example if I can. The National Suicide Research Foundation collects data on self-harm presentation from emergency departments throughout the country. These important data were suspended in the vast majority of these hospitals until the end of June. Even today, self-harm data are still not being collected in all of the emergency departments throughout the country. Face-to-face consultations for serious mental health issues are radically reduced. I understand that as many as 70% of those face-to-face consultations are not happening at present. In the main, these have been replaced by telephone calls. Telephone calls are no substitute for people who are in serious mental health situations. I have heard commentators say the health service is facing breaking point this year due to Covid. The truth of the matter is the health service is at breaking point every year anyway in this particular State. The difference of the situation is we have advance notice of this exceptional circumstance. This gives the Taoiseach an opportunity to prepare properly.
I ask the Taoiseach not to leave 100,000 women in a queue for BreastCheck. Do not set up a hierarchy of illness. Do not pit one patient against another in their pursuit of treatments. Will the Taoiseach provide the necessary resources now to make sure people get the life-saving treatment they need in the coming months?
I fully empathise with the Deputy's presentation. We are with him on the need to respond to these issues. This is why the HSE has developed a draft plan, which contains proposals for health service delivery in the Covid-19 pandemic for the winter and through to 2021, to address the backlog of non-Covid care as a result of the pandemic itself. It is built on a number of pillars, including building capacity, testing and tracing, contact tracing, public health, cancer services, targeting waiting lists and workforce planning because it will require the recruitment of additional personnel. Resources will be provided to enable this to happen. Already, unprecedented resources have been allocated to the health service and will continue to be allocated to the health service given the emergency we are in and the enormous unprecedented challenges that have been presented to the health services by Covid-19.
The Deputy's points on mental health are well made but there have been restrictions in mental health services because of Covid. Again, part of the planning is designed to try to enhance and improve, within the constraints of Covid, mental health services and the overall population health needs of the public, particularly those with chronic enduring illnesses and our senior citizens. Particular attention in the winter initiative plan will be focused on these.
There is a timber crisis in the country, which is threatening the entire forestry sector, the haulage sector that relies heavily on it, the sawmills that process it and the end users of timber, such as people in the construction industry. Unless the Government acts quickly, Ireland will soon run out of essential construction products, such as pallets and timber for the construction industry and our supply chains, forcing timber production lines to shut. Managing directors of top sawmills in Ireland say that only for the pandemic and the shutdown in Ireland they would have run out of timber by now. We are facing a nightmare scenario whereby stocks have decreased and shut down and lay-offs might be only weeks away. These people have been given notice that there is the potential for lay-offs in the very near future.
The reason for the crisis is that the permit system for planting and harvesting trees and making forestry roads has been overwhelmed because almost 2,000 applications and 400 approved permits are being appealed by a handful of so-called environmentalists, some of whom are supported by the Green Party, which is supporting the Government. The forestry appeals committee has been inundated with objections to most licences, intended to prevent the planting of conifers and block the felling of commercial forests. This is a ridiculous situation and it is extremely unfair to farmers who have planted their land thinking they would be able to sell their thinnings and clear-fell their timber when the time would be right.
Coillte, which supplies an enormous amount of timber to sawmills in Ireland, normally has auctions of timber to keep supplies sustained. Coillte has cancelled at least half a dozen of these already this year and no contracts are secured for next year. All the required permits and paperwork are stuck in this self-made man-made queue. This is a major disaster and the promises that Governments, present and past, have made on planting thousands of acres of land every year will be absolute nonsense unless the Taoiseach urgently deals with the crisis of objectors.
It is reported widely that more than 1 million cu. m of timber, which is one third of the sawmills' annual consumption, is tied up in appeals. The timber needed by the economy right now is still in the ground and it is in a two-year queue cycle. We need the Government to amend the Agriculture Appeals Act quickly to give the forestry appeals committee enough resources and the authority to clear this backlog. Hardware merchants throughout the country that rely on sawmills for much of their timber are struggling to bring in timber from overseas, which is escalating costs. Bringing in timber from abroad is ridiculous, as prices have reached record peaks in the US driven by the pandemic crisis, which has resulted in a DIY boom. European producers prefer to service very large lucrative markets in other parts of the world such as China, putting Ireland at the end of the line as to where they wish to provide timber. Instead, we are looking to Russia and Scandinavian countries to try to meet the demand. So much for the Green Party trying to do things right. Where is the environmental sense in us not being able to use our farmers' trees but instead having to go to Russia to bring here the timber we need for our construction industry?
I thank the Deputy for raising this very serious issue. It is no exaggeration to say that of course the forestry sector is in crisis. It is in crisis because the planning system as it exists has been overwhelmed by a very high volume of appeals to decisions taken by the forestry appeals committee. The response has to be through resources and legislation. The Government published legislation to deal with this by streamlining the appeals process to make it fit for purpose, environmentally sustainable and administratively efficient to deal with the backlog and the system in future. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands of jobs are at risk if this is not dealt with firmly and resolutely by the Oireachtas and the Government will bring forward this legislation. We published it in July and it went out to consultation. There were approximately 8,000 submissions. During the consultation period, the volume of objections or appeals went up dramatically, perhaps in anticipation of the legislation that was about to come in. This has exacerbated the situation somewhat further. The rate of appeals on Coillte's licences increased from 30% to 80% in August and it is likely to be 100% in September. These are not just appeals on commercial felling. Some of Coillte Nature's new non-profit tree planting proposals, such as the Dublin mountains transformation, have also been appealed. Huge amounts of trees in the ground cannot be felled and it is very serious. We have to deal with it and we will deal with it. There is a significant backlog. Forestry is a significant employer with 12,000 people directly employed in rural and regional areas. The industry will be short of timber by November if the legislation is not passed and a new system is not brought in.
The Government is committed to introducing the legislation.
The forestry sector is on its knees because of objectors. We have seen the harm that has been done in this country by objectors, who have cost us many projects that would have created employment. We have seen them denying us housing for people and seen the harm this has brought. I ask the Taoiseach and his new Ministers, whom I really wish well, and the Taoiseach knows that, to not let down the forestry farmers, the haulage contractors, the mills and everyone else in this regard. I ask the Taoiseach to do something to get rid of the horrible scourge of serial objectors for once and for all, ideally by putting in place a charge of €2,000 for every horrible objection and every horrible observation that would be put on any type of permit or licence sought, whether it is to plant ground, to make a forestry road or to get a clear-fell licence. It is only through proactive work such as this that the Government will stop this type of messing in a very important sector of our society, which the Government on one hand is trying to promote and, on the other, is not doing enough to help. I ask this of the Taoiseach in the most genuine way on behalf of farmers, haulage people and people involved in the production of timber.
People are entitled to object. That is why we have a planning process. I accept there is a crisis and that we need a more streamlined, fit-for-purpose system. That is what is proposed in the amendment to the Agriculture Appeals-----
That is why there are amendments to the Agriculture Appeals Act and why those amendments are required. The amendments will bring the forestry licensing process into line with the planning process under the Planning and Development Act 2000. The amendments we have already published - and we will take on board the consultation that arose from that publication - provide for a more efficient and effective operation of the forestry appeals process. The additional staff, including forestry inspectorate staff and others who are important in assessing applications and appeals, have already been recruited. It is a two-pronged approach involving additional resources, administrative staff, forestry inspectors, ecologists and legislation to streamline the process itself. There is always a balance in life, and that balance means we have to protect the industry, jobs in the industry and those who planted in good faith when various schemes were announced years ago and who are entitled to have their decision to engage in this programme realised. That is a fair and balanced approach to the matter.
Baineann mo cheist le hathrú aeráide, go háirithe an cinneadh a rinne an Chúirt Uachtarach ar an lá deireanach de mhí Iúil. Dúradh sa bhreithiúnas sin go raibh an plean, the mitigation plan, mídhleathach, go háirithe ó thaobh na ndualgas a bhí ar an Rialtas plean a leagan amach ag comhlíonadh na ndualgas a bhí air faoin reachtaíocht 2015. Significantly, on 9 May last year, we declared a climate emergency. We did so for very good reason: because the word "challenges" does not capture what we face with climate change. The Taoiseach himself has recognised this in the programme for Government, which refers to the importance of transformational change. The year we declared the emergency, the Climate Change Advisory Council, a body I will come back to because of its lack of gender representation, told us in blunt terms that we would fail as a country and a Government to meet our obligations, notwithstanding the catastrophe we face in 2020 and 2030. Then, on 31 July of this year, the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Clarke, delivered a unanimous seven-judge Supreme Court judgment in the climate case taken by Friends of the Irish Environment, and I pay tribute to that organisation. They were not objectors; they were very concerned citizens and residents of this country. In that judgment, the Supreme Court quashed the Government's national mitigation plan. Mr. Justice Clarke outlined that section 4 of the 2015 Act required the mitigation plan to be specific and that the purpose of requiring the plan to be specific was to allow any interested member of the public to know enough about how the Government intends to meet the national transition objective by 2050 so as to inform the views of the reasonable and interested member of the public as to whether that policy was considered effective and appropriate. The Government has made the argument repeatedly, including in court, and I agree with it, that this is a living document. The court accepted that, but the Chief Justice went on to say, notwithstanding that it is a living document, "it does seem to me to be reasonable to characterise significant parts of the policies as being excessively vague or aspirational". The court went on to quash the plan. We have therefore had no mitigation plan since 31 July, when the Supreme Court quashed it. What has the Taoiseach done about this? I ask him not to tell me he will come back with an action plan or a climate plan within the next 100 days. He may do that, and I would welcome that, but that is not his obligation following this judgment. His obligation is the mitigation plan.
I will come back to gender equality and the Climate Change Advisory Council.
Admhaím go bhfuil an cinneadh sin a dhein an Chúirt Uachtarach dearfach tábhachtach. Caithfimid sa Rialtas cloí leis an gcinneadh sin agus ceachtanna a fhoghlaim. Mar is eol don Teachta, is í an gheallúint is tabhachtaí ag an Rialtas nua ná Bille cuimsitheach láidir ó thaobh cúrsai aeráide de a chur i bhfeidhm. The impact of that Supreme Court judgment is being assessed by the Government. Lessons have to be learned from the entire judgment itself and what the Chief Justice had to say and it is being taken very seriously by Government. The new Government made it clear that one of the key pillars of its programme for Government was climate change more generally and, particularly, the publication of a climate Bill within 100 days. That is important. Work must also commence on a mitigation plan, and I note that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, will address a range of these issues. We will also take on board any submissions Deputy Connolly has to make, particularly in respect of gender equality as it applies to the Climate Change Advisory Council. Essentially, the issue of the absence of specifics is one that has to be addressed in any new plans or legislation. Obviously, when a judgment of such significance is articulated by the court and decided upon by the Supreme Court, it falls on Government to give that the deepest analysis and assessment, and we will do that, not only in the context of the national mitigation plan but also more widely in terms of climate legislation. Very significant commitments on climate have been made in the programme for Government, and we are determined we will match those commitments with specifics and clear timelines.
I do not know if the Taoiseach realises the significance of the judgment. The mitigation plan has been declared invalid by the highest court in the land. This is beyond a matter learning lessons; it is a matter of acknowledging that the plan was utterly defective and telling us a timescale for the new plan. Under the 2015 Act there is a particular process of consultation. I therefore ask the Taoiseach to tell me what steps have been taken, when the national mitigation plan will be published and the date for its enactment.
As for the Climate Change Advisory Council, there are two female members out of 11. On the adaptation committee there are two female members out of ten. That is totally unacceptable.
I have looked at the programme for Government - I have it here in front of me - and the aspects of it that pertain to this question. I could not disagree with the Government's language. It is wonderful language: "transformative action", "facing the challenges", "learning from Covid", "not going back". I could not agree with the Government more on the language used, but the message going out daily is quite contrary to that. Because of Covid, the Government is telling us not to go on public transport. It is actively advising us not to do so.
In relation to Galway, the Government has utterly failed to respond to 24,000 people begging it to do, at the most basic level, a feasibility study on light rail to fit in with its national plan. I am conscious of time.
I understand the profound nature of the judgment. Of course I do. The Government has only been in office for two or three months. We will deal with these issues. Of course Covid has changed the norm. The Deputy stated the Government is saying not to go on public transport. Public health is saying that and it is advising us. There was a view in this House that we adhered to the broad thrust of public health advice. We hope we will get through Covid and that Covid will pass. Public transport will have a key role in how society is organised in the future. The Government is committed to public transport and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is particularly committed to it. He is committed to light rail. He was in Galway recently - I think last week - engaging with people.
I do not see the Minister, Deputy Ryan, having any difficulty in committing to a feasibility study. He wants to accelerate light rail proposals and initiatives across the country. I will talk to him about the Galway situation. The Deputy said he has refused.