Wednesday, 28 April 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together. The Cabinet committee on Europe oversees the implementation of programme for Government commitments on the European Union and related issues. It last met on 22 March 2021 in advance of the meeting by videoconference of the members of the European Council on 25 March. It discussed the agenda for the European Council, including Covid- 19, the Single Market, industrial policy, digital matters and the economy, relations with Russia and relations with Turkey. The Cabinet committee also discussed the agenda for the euro summit, which followed on from the European Council and which focused on the international role of the euro. In addition, it discussed the conference on the future of Europe, which will be launched on 9 May. Previous meetings of the Cabinet committee on Europe took place on 16 July 2020, 8 October 2020 and 8 December 2020. It will continue to meet as appropriate, including to discuss issues on the agenda of the European Council.
Matters relating to international policy and foreign affairs are discussed by the full Cabinet as and when appropriate, mostly on foot of memoranda to Government brought by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I also engage bilaterally with the Minister on such matters, as appropriate. International matters also arise in the context of the European Union Common Foreign and Security Policy and other external policies of the European Union. When appropriate, these are included on the agenda of meetings of the Cabinet committee on Europe. The next meeting of the Cabinet committee on Europe is expected to take place in advance of the upcoming European Council meeting scheduled for 24 to 25 June 2021. The agenda for this meeting is yet to be finalised.
In five days, Abdulrahman al-Sahdan, who is a Red Crescent humanitarian worker from Saudi Arabia, will be sentenced by the Saudi regime to 20 years imprisonment for a tweet. Him and about 70 other democracy activists are facing sentences of between ten and 30 years each. They are persecuted by the Saudi regime, which, let us remember, carved Jamal Khashoggi into pieces in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, almost certainly at the behest of Crown Prince bin Salman. This young man will get 20 years in prison for a tweet even though he is a totally peaceful activist. Even Nancy Pelosi has called on the Saudi regime to release Abdulrahman. I ask that five days before this sentence, if the Taoiseach believes in anything like the right to peaceful and democratic protest and the right to dissent, he would call out the Saudi regime and ask for Abdulrahman's release.
This is shocking stuff compared with what some people have to put up with, and I would not make the sort of loose comparison that Deputy Mattie McGrath made earlier on. However, I find it worrying that under the guise of public health restrictions we are seeing political policing by Drew Harris of a protest planned tomorrow by taxi drivers that would have been fully compliant with public health guidelines. The Taoiseach should call that out too.
The Business Post reported at the weekend that the State is in final talks with the EU over the €915 million in recovery funding. There is a €750 billion fund in place under the EU's pandemic recovery plan, as we know. We will get €853 million in grants in 2021 and 2022 but our allocation for 2023 has been substantially reduced from €420 million to €68 million, a loss of €352 million. Is that confirmed? That is what was reported in The Business Post. The Taoiseach can tell me in his response. Have we lobbied for additional funding or what are the exact figures? Are the media reports correct? To the Taoiseach's knowledge, how much funding will Ireland receive under the recovery and resilience fund?
It is reported that this funding will go towards something I would welcome, namely deficiencies in our ehealth system, a centralised data centre and the retrofitting of State buildings. An ehealth project would allow for the secure electronic sharing of patient information lab results and prescriptions between medical providers. That will play a vital role in the situation where we have seen a huge negative deficit in our public health infrastructure. Can the Taoiseach confirm that this funding will be used for ehealth, retrofitting and a centralised data centre? When will this funding be confirmed?
It is a source of pride to the people of the Irish nation that whenever we have seen an injustice, be it famine or conflict, we have always stood up and played our part. In that vein, India is in peril. Medical staff are on their knees, hospitals are overwhelmed and crematoriums cannot keep pace with the number of people who are dying due to the coronavirus. I am aware of the welcome news that over 700 oxygen concentrators have been sent to India by Ireland but we have to do more and more has to be done globally. It was India, along with South Africa and several other countries, that brought forward the trade related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver, which is coming before the World Trade Organization to ensure vaccine justice and equity for low and middle income countries. The richest nations account for 16% of the global population but hold 53% of all purchased coronavirus doses according to the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy.
We need to act on the words: "No one is safe until everyone is safe". Even if COVAX, the global Covid-19 vaccine mechanism, were to be fully funded this year, it would still only vaccinate 20% to 25% of the population of the world's 92 countries. At the current rate, these countries may not reach 60% coverage until 2023 or later. We need to defend people, not profit, and show solidarity with India and all low and middle-income countries. We need to lead by backing the TRIPS waiver before the World Trade Organization meeting on Friday. What is our position on TRIPS?
As expected, the European Parliament has ratified the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement. Of particular note was the formal acknowledgement by MEPs of the unique circumstances of the North of Ireland and the role given to the Assembly in respect of the Irish protocol. When ratifying the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, the Parliament also expressed the need for ongoing and enhanced dialogue with the North. It is evident, therefore, that the North needs an institutional voice within the European Union. The EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement protects the Good Friday Agreement and trading arrangements and yet the North no longer has any institutional mechanism by which it can engage with the European Union on these matters of fundamental importance. What discussions has the Cabinet committee on Europe had on this matter? What engagement has the Taoiseach had with his European counterparts in seeking a solution for the North in this regard?
Has the committee had further discussions on the EU's relationship with Turkey? Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is extremely worrying and it is incomprehensible that the Turkish President would unilaterally reverse the decision to be part of this convention through a presidential decree. It is through this prism that we should view President Erdoğan's efforts to humiliate Commission President Ursula von der Leyen publicly, because it seems Turkey remains a cold house for women.
Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. That right is now being undermined by the actions of the Garda in this State. Last Thursday night, gardaí brutally broke up a peaceful picket of Debenhams workers at Henry Street, arresting a number of supporters and throwing workers, who were mothers and grandmothers, on the ground. The shop steward, Jane, was left naked from the waist up. Similar scenes were repeated in Tralee the following evening. Gardaí were taking these actions to facilitate non-essential, illegal, strike-breaking work, which successfully removed non-essential retail stock from Debenhams. Now we hear stories about the taxi drivers, with taxi driver organisers being told that they will be arrested if they turn up to peacefully protest, socially distanced in separate cars. How can Drew Harris continue as Garda Commissioner if he is ordering gardaí to break up and prevent legitimate protest while facilitating illegal, non-essential, strike-breaking work?
More than 3,000 people died from Covid in just one day in India yesterday. More than 360,000 were infected in the same day. The images on our television screens are ones of horror, showing a shortage of oxygen, car parks converted to crematoriums and a shortage of wood for funeral pyres. Meanwhile the Financial Timesreports: "As industry lobbying has escalated in Washington, companies have warned in private meetings with US trade and White House officials that giving up the intellectual property rights could allow China and Russia to exploit platforms such as mRNA, which could be used for other vaccines [heaven forbid] or even therapeutics for conditions such as cancer and heart problems in the future." Similar lobbying is taking place in Brussels. The EU is sending some oxygen but it is standing shoulder to shoulder with the US in fighting attempts at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights for vaccines. Ireland is in the front line of the EU countries which are fighting this, and the Taoiseach knows it. I appeal to him to reverse the Government's position on this issue before the crucial WTO TRIPS, or trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, council meeting on Friday.
While I also welcome the Taoiseach's response to the devastating scenes caused by Covid-19 in India, the real solution is very obviously to allow the global production of vaccines. We had all hoped that the pandemic would lead to a new solidarity. However, the EU, US and others refuse to allow a waiver on vaccine patents. The TRIPS waiver, as it is referred to, would allow countries in the global south to produce the vaccine themselves. It is sickening that this is not happening. Ireland needs to take strong moral leadership and we need the Taoiseach to do that. On Friday, a World Trade Organization meeting will decide on the issue. WIll the Taoiseach assure the Irish people that Ireland will fight for intellectual property rights to be waived to help save lives?
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the decision by the Saudi Arabian authorities in respect of Abdulrahman al-Sahdan. I will pursue that. There are a range of issues around human rights and freedom of assembly. I will discuss the matter with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and our ambassador will engage to support the avoidance of what would be a very severe penalty and the release of the individual concerned.
A new development, although not unprecedented during the last year or so, is the degree to which Deputies accuse An Garda Síochána or the Garda Commissioner of political policing. This has nothing to do with the question about the European committee. The accusation should be withdrawn. It is a very unfair accusation to make and it seeks to undermine the objectivity and operational independence of An Garda Síochána and the Garda Commissioner who have been given a very unenviable task in terms of the current public health situation.
Deputy Kelly raised the recovery and resilience fund and the €915 million available to Ireland to draw down in the first phase. The second tranche is in accordance with various economic criteria. The Deputy will recall that these include models of economic performance in GDP and employment. Ireland's economy has been growing in GDP terms in the last two years which may impact on our second phase drawdown. We are close to submitting a plan and have been engaged with the Commission on this.
The two key themes of the recovery and resilience plan are creating jobs in the green economy and digital transformation. The Government, and I personally, have been keen to ensure there will be significant inclusion around health digital transformation. For decades, we have been talking about bringing health into the modern era. The Covid pandemic has illustrated the degree to which health has caught up in some respects. We developed very good technology very quickly, including the Covid app and even the vaccine technology system. There will be provision in the plan for a contribution to e-health, in particular, to take a once-off opportunity using this fund to try to accelerate technology application in our health system. That is a clear objective.
Deputies Gannon and Cairns raised the issue of India. We have provided significant resources. We are a small country but we will continue to do so. It is devastating what is happening in India. It illustrates the danger of the virus and how rapidly it can get out of control.
On the issue around intellectual property, we need to examine this in some detail. I can recall in 2003 when SARS was potentially becoming a global pandemic, the world had zilch by way of manufacturing capacity or co-operation among pharmaceutical companies or between pharmaceutical companies and governments.