Wednesday, 3 February 2021
Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation
The negative consequences of Brexit are now becoming readily apparent. So too is the need for the Irish protocol, which was hard won, and the necessity for those protections for the Good Friday Agreement, our all-Ireland economy and so on. Unfortunately, the misguided approach by the European Commission last Friday has now been seized on by a section of political unionism; ironically, by the same section of people who championed Brexit despite repeated warnings that Brexit would be bad and damaging for Ireland as a whole. Nonetheless, they now use this misstep by the European Commission as the basis to launch an attack on the protocol to attempt to undermine, to unravel and, they say, to have it removed. The united front that we created was successful and necessary in securing the protections for Ireland in the face of Brexit.
I believe we now need calm, cool leadership and that same united front. I invite the Taoiseach to confirm that the Irish protocol and the protections for our island are permanent and firm, will not be unravelled and are not up for grabs.
I accept and believe there is a need collectively all round for calm, cool leadership. Certainly, we responded quickly on Friday evening when the Commission made, in my view, a mistake in terms of dealing with the AstraZeneca vaccination supply issue via the protocol and Article 16. To be fair, as soon as I engaged with the President of the Commission she responded quickly and reversed the decision. To me, it was a demonstration of the goodwill of the Commission. There is a genuine desire on behalf of the Commission not in any way to undermine peace or create any difficulties. It was certainly not a hostile act.
That said, the British Government in its wisdom decided to pursue a relatively hard Brexit and to stay outside the customs union and the Single Market. This has necessitated a co-operation and trade agreement. Thankfully, that has been arrived at, and it means no tariffs and no quotas. However, there was always a necessity to create special provisions for Northern Ireland to underpin the Good Friday Agreement and to facilitate access for Northern Ireland industry farming, business and jobs to the Single Market in Europe as well as to the UK market. It is for the benefit of everyone. It does need some changes. We believe that working collectively between the UK Government, the Commission, ourselves and the Northern Ireland Executive we can moderate the impact of this in terms of basic issues that have been raised on all sides.
I am returning to the issue of quarantine. Mandatory quarantine is necessary. Quarantine at home is a waste of time. The new variants are potentially lethal. That is the analysis coming through.
The Health Act 1947 actually gives the Minister quite an amount of power, if we read it. In May of last year, the Minister for Health, the Minister for Justice, the Attorney General and all other relevant Ministers agreed, as a result of a request from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, to come together to discuss how to bring this about. What has happened? What actions have been taken for the past eight months on quarantine following that request and that group coming together? Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House, after eight months, that they were not doing nothing? I call on the Taoiseach to tell me they were not doing nothing. When, at the latest, we will have this legislation in front of the House? All of us will facilitate it next week for as long as we have to sit.
The period in May was during the interregnum Government and the last Government as it dealt with the pandemic. As we know, through the summer months the numbers were low. Most of the representations in this House were with a view to relaxing restrictions and opening up. The overwhelming number of calls in the House were to do just that. Deputies were concerned about airports, airlines, employment and so on. Legislation will be introduced quickly and it will be brought into the House.
It will improve this and give greater capacity. I appreciate Deputy Kelly's offer to facilitate the speedy passage of this legislation through the House. In fairness, the Deputy has indicated that he will do so.
In the recent "RTÉ Investigates" programme on homelessness, Natalie told us about how she feels safer sleeping in a tent rather than in emergency homeless accommodation. Last week in the Dáil, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage told us that the national quality standards framework applies to all homeless accommodation, including private providers. On Friday at the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Mr. Brendan Kenny of Dublin City Council confirmed that this is not the case and the private providers are not having these national standards applied to them. Will the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage come to the Dáil and update the record on this? Will the Government move swiftly to ensure the national standards apply to all homeless accommodation, including that of private providers?
Of course I will alert the Minister to the comments and the request of the Deputy. I wish to make the point that sustained action has been taken in respect of homelessness and the provision of emergency accommodation. The numbers are coming down. Obviously, we want them to come down further. Certainly, we want to create sustainable housing alternatives for people who are homeless in this country. That is our commitment and objective under the programme for Government.
Yesterday, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, announced the welcome decision - one for which People Before Profit has been campaigning for quite some time - to cease issuing new gas and oil exploration licences. Of course, it then emerges that the gas and oil companies are welcoming this because all the existing licences as well as ones such as Barryroe that are up for extension, renewal or adaptation will continue. This means we will have licences extending to 2034. In the face of a climate emergency, we are actually planning to facilitate the further extraction of fossil fuels with all the damage that does to our environment and future. Does the Taoiseach not believe that we should not only cease issuing new licences but that we should not renew, extend or in any way adapt existing licences to facilitate the extraction of fossil fuels?
On foot of recommendations from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the intention is to legislatively provide for no more new exploratory licences in respect of fossil fuel. That is a groundbreaking and significant decision, the first of its kind. I do not in any way question the credentials of the Minister when it comes to dealing with this issue in a comprehensive way. There are clearly legal challenges in respect of any existing licences that have been issued.
Without question this is a significant milestone in policy terms and a welcome one. Deputy Boyd Barrett should welcome it and not seek to undermine the Minister's objectives in this regard.
We can all agree that we have a terrible vista at the moment in hospitals and nursing homes with cross infection in all our hospitals and a large number of our nursing homes. The Taoiseach is well aware that I brought antigen testing to NPHET last April. I am an advocate for these tests. Despite NPHET's resistance to them, they are being used informally in hospitals. I know of a respiratory consultant in Dublin who is using them to look after his own staff and his bed allocation. He has done over 50 antigen tests and they completely mimic the results of polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing. At present in the nursing home establishments there is PCR testing one day per week for staff. That is now due to extend to one day per fortnight. This is totally inadequate. Will the Government look at bringing in antigen testing, rapid screen testing, biweekly into our nursing homes and hospitals for our hospital staff to try to reduce the infection load?
The HSE deserves considerable credit for ramping up a very significant testing and tracing capacity, with up to 150,000 tests per week now. I recall people articulating loudly not so long ago for 100,000 tests per week. I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that 137,000 were conducted last week. However, the Deputy is correct in saying there has been a resistance from the clinical and public health perspective to antigen testing. It is fair to say that those in clinical and public health see PCR testing as the gold standard. They are applying it and using it now. NPHET has advised that it can be used in outbreak settings, in hospitals or in nursing home settings. There has been a reluctance to override the clinical and public health advice on antigen testing to date. The view is that its optimal use now is in the context of outbreaks.
The Taoiseach promised me some time ago that he would meet with Councillor Kieran Bourke and his Fianna Fáil colleagues on Tipperary County Council regarding the scandalous closure of St. Brigid's hospital, in Waterford. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, met them yesterday armed with HSE officials, who said the hospital was closed because it might flood. The existing hospital has been there for 140 years and has never flooded. There are such diatribes and lies coming out of the HSE, and the Taoiseach is hiding behind the cover of that. He has political accountability, as does the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, for older people but they are denying the people of Carrick-on-Suir and indeed the Minister of State's constituency access to this wonderful facility. Now St. Theresa's, Clogheen, has been taken up as a Covid hospital and there is no place for people to go for respite or palliative care in south Tipperary because of this reckless closure of St. Brigid's in the middle of a pandemic. My goodness, someone would want to pinch the Taoiseach and wake him up. The hospital is closed in the middle of a pandemic and the people in the surrounding area are denied a perfectly good hospital, and then there is the refusal to meet people. Will the Taoiseach meet with Councillor Bourke and his colleagues?
The Deputy needs to change his tone. His continuing relentless hostility is regrettable to have to witness weekly, but that is the way he operates and that is his entitlement. I have refused to meet no one. The Deputy keeps coming in here every week saying I am refusing to meet somebody. I have refused to meet nobody. Obviously, with Covid, we cannot meet people physically.
We can meet people virtually, and I know that Deputy Cahill and others would facilitate that meeting tomorrow morning or whenever else. Deputy McGrath cannot keep on attacking people in a very nasty way left, right and centre and then expect-----
I wish to return again to the issue of antigen testing, which I have raised several times, both before and after Christmas. The European Commission advocated greater use of antigen testing in November. It is being rolled out right across Europe. The Biden Administration has now introduced far greater use of antigen testing in America, including in homes. Here NPHET has finally moved, reluctantly, to a very circumscribed role for antigen testing in the context of outbreaks, and only in that context.
Is there a conflict of interest between being chair of NPHET and being director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, which has very large contracts with the State for PCR testing? I am not saying there is any subjective bias on the part of that member of NPHET, but there is a clear perception there is objective bias, or a clear possibility of it. What is the reluctance to antigen testing? Whatever opening up will take place in March will have to be done safely, and there is a role for antigen testing in our hospitals, our schools and especially our homes.
The reluctance, from what I can surmise and gather from the discussions I have had, is that NPHET believes the PCR test is gold standard. It believes a lot can be missed through antigen testing. That said, it has now advised that it can be used in outbreak settings. I know that the Deputy chaired the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response, which I presume discussed this, zero Covid and the whole range of issues that were brought before that committee-----
-----throughout the summer. I do not accept the Deputy's point that there is a conflict of interest between being chair of NPHET and being director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory, NVRL. To be fair to all concerned, everybody has come together in different contexts to help the country defeat and suppress Covid-19. We should accept people's bona fides in that regard. There is a reluctance within the political sphere and within the Government sphere to override this kind of-----
No. They have their experts. We cannot just pick and choose à la carte. There are structures within the country and clinical and public health advice and-----
Two weeks ago, along with 3,500 bereaved relatives of the conflict, I wrote a joint letter to the Taoiseach and to Boris Johnson. The British Government has repeatedly failed to deliver on our rights to truth, justice and accountability. We need a truth recovery process, a proper archiving of lived experiences and an examination of themes and patterns. I ask the Taoiseach to meet with Relatives for Justice and bereaved families and to commit to me here today and to the other 3,500 bereaved relatives that he will do all he can to ensure full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement without delay.
Maybe the Deputy's party could do something as well. Maybe it is time for Sinn Féin to help and assist in truth recovery in respect of the terrible atrocities-----
Why is it shocking? Why is it shocking that the relatives of those who were murdered in Kingsmill should get transparency and some truth as to what happened?
I did not interrupt. I listened and I wish to respond. It is a genuine response. The Deputy generically calls it "the conflict" as if the Provisional IRA and the Provisional movement had absolutely nothing to do with it. "People got killed by accident" seems to be the assertion in the lovely and articulate way in which this is put, but we know the reality-----
I know that, and we will do what we can. As a Government we have played our part through the setting up of the Smithwick tribunal of inquiry and we will do more if necessary to bring truth through to what happened, but the Deputy's party must also do more.
In fairness, in response to what Deputy Mairéad Farrell said, it is a straightforward request to ask the Taoiseach to meet Relatives for Justice. We do not need the side commentary in that regard.
I wish to revisit the Irish protocol. I want to know about the interactions the Taoiseach has had. I accept that the European Commission changed tack when he made contact with it, but has he talked to the Commission since to ensure there is no chance of Article 16 being invoked again? We have had terrible language recently, particularly from unionism and Brexiteers. What interactions has the Taoiseach had with the British Government from the point of view of ensuring, even though there are operational difficulties that need to be dealt with, that the Irish protocol will be protected? We need to ensure there is no return to any element of-----
My response is that I have no difficulty meeting any groups, and I have met them in the past, but I do get tired of those who do not come to the table and I believe genuinely that the Provisional movement has not come to the table on many atrocities that were committed in the past. That needs to happen too.
In response to the question about the protocol, yes, there has been subsequent engagement between us and the Commission on making sure this does not happen again and on whether sensible, common-sense modifications can be made to the protocol, which I think has been asked for on all sides. We support that sort of process to get meaningful, common-sense approaches to the operation of the protocol. It has been only about four or five weeks since it was introduced.
I welcome that the just transition commissioner is engaging with peat harvesting contractors, but how are our horticulture industry and our nursery industry going to survive economically without their access to peat and compost? These are essential. Will we find ourselves importing this natural raw material we have in this country for these industries to be able to survive and prosper?
I thank Deputy Cahill for raising this incredibly important issue. The Government is asleep at the wheel on this issue that could lead to devastating loss of employment and investment in many rural communities. For example, the Government position on horticultural peat could close down the mushroom industry, which is critically important in my county of Monaghan as well as in other counties. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, does not have a notion in terms of the real outworking of this issue. I am asking the Taoiseach to intervene and to engage with the peat and mushroom sectors to ensure we do not have a situation whereby peat is being exported from Ireland at a time when-----
On this issue, there is a case that needs to be addressed and that is to reassure the horticultural sector that it is not intended to close it down. If alternatives are available, we need to know about them. I support the points raised by the previous speakers in that regard on the basis that the horticultural area is effectively and essentially carbon neutral.
Deputy Cahill has been consistent on this issue for quite some time. I point out to Deputies Carthy and Durkan that a working group has been established by the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, to examine the future role of peat in the horticultural sector in relation to the long-term solution for peat alternatives for horticultural purposes. I am told that, in the interim, existing stocks are available to meet current demand. I am willing to meet the interests involved if Deputy Cahill or another Deputy can facilitate that.
Bord na Móna intends to remain active in this area. As Members are aware, it is fully focused on renewable energy, recycling and the development of other low-carbon enterprises. There are challenging issues around climate change and responding to it, and there are no easy solutions to it. I do believe that issues can be addressed through just transition and engagement with the key industries. The Government wants to support the mushroom industry. In fact, we have been ongoing supporters of that industry in terms of its capacity to create employment and, through more research, to create even further employment. I met Deputy Cahill some time ago in terms of the bioeconomy and what research can do for the mushroom industry in that respect. I am open to trying to follow through on that with the Deputies.
If I could finish my sentence, that would be helpful, Deputy. I am simply pointing out where we are. There is a list of 28 Deputies, including me, who have not been reached. What is the Deputy's point of order?
I am going to try again. I have resumed the seat to take over. The Ceann Comhairle before me was in the middle of this list. There is a very long list of Deputies which will be held over until tomorrow. The list is exactly as we got it.
I will try to explain for the last time before I move on. I have no idea what point of order is being made. I have a list before me. I worked meticulously to that list. I am putting it there and I am moving on. I ask for Deputies' co-operation.