Wednesday, 28 April 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
I propose to take Questions Nos. 16 to 23, inclusive, together.
I marked St. Patrick's day with our friends in the United States with a programme of virtual events. The focal point of the programme was the traditional political discussions and meetings with President Biden, Vice President Harris, Speaker Pelosi, and the Friends of Ireland caucus.
In these meetings, I discussed Ireland-US relations, and the importance of the transatlantic relationship and economic ties. We discussed facing global challenges together. I welcomed the renewed support of the United States for the Paris Climate accord, the WHO, and the UN Human Rights Council. We also discussed a range of issues relating to the UN Security Council, and our common readiness to support others on their path to justice and peace.
With President Biden I discussed Covid-19, including the public health situation in both countries, and the measures our Governments have put in place to get our economies ready for recovery. We spoke about vaccine roll-out, and the logistical challenges faced by the EU and US of accessing sufficient supply for our peoples. We spoke about the importance of maintaining open supply chains to support vaccine production and delivery. We also reaffirmed our shared commitment to the COVAX initiative.
I thanked the President and members of Congress for their support during Brexit for an EU-UK agreement that protects the Good Friday Agreement, and which was achieved through the Northern Ireland Protocol. I welcomed the bipartisan resolution in the US Senate, reaffirming support for the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements promoting peace and stability on the island of Ireland. We discussed the challenges that have arisen in Northern Ireland since the beginning of the year. I also briefed President Biden and Vice President Harris, as well as the Friends of Ireland, on my Shared Island initiative.
In my meetings with President Biden I highlighted the continuing difficulties facing the undocumented in the United States and supported President Biden's call for immigration reform. I expressed the Government's appreciation for the strong backing to date in the Administration and across the aisles in Congress for the E3 visa Bill, which we hope will be introduced in the Senate shortly.
After my meeting with Vice President Harris I joined her in congratulating the newly announced 2021 Frederick Douglass global fellows, who will travel to Ireland this summer, the public health situation permitting.
My virtual programme over the course of three days also included a range of other community, trade and economic-focussed events, as well as events to mark the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the Friends of Ireland, including marking the particular contribution of John Hume in this regard. I also had telephone contact with the President in the aftermath of this election.
Did the Taoiseach invite President Biden to Ireland? I am hearing different stories and information from both sides of the pond on this. As the Taoiseach knows, President Biden intends to visit the UK and he could include Ireland as part of that. The Taoiseach might confirm whether he has officially invited him and, if so, will he give us some details?
One of the main components was the issue of vaccines. I have raised this issue previously. Through the People's Vaccine Alliance various people have come together to fight for this. We all know what is going on in India at present. It was proposed by India and South Africa at the WTO to ensure we can get vaccines throughout the world quickly. This is the biggest test of mankind for many centuries with regard to how we will get it out quickly. The open sharing of information and technology will end the pandemic quicker. Did the Taoiseach raise the issue of patents and intellectual property with President Biden? If so, what was the discussion like? I presume the Taoiseach is supportive of the WTO TRIPS waiver and I presume the Government will support it.
I heard what the Taoiseach said about the issues of the Northern Ireland protocol and people who are undocumented. Will we appoint an envoy to represent Ireland as we had previously? If not, why not? Was there any discussion on future travel and movement between the US and Ireland?
President Biden and Vice President Harris continue to express their unequivocal support for the Irish peace process and the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. This, of course, is very welcome. I hope we will see similar energetic political action from the Government in Dublin to press these two issues of full support and full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bipartisan resolution last month equally expressing full support for the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and no hard border in Ireland. The resolution also very helpfully states that any new trade agreement between the US and Britain must not only consider the obligations under the Good Friday Agreement but that those obligations should be met. This is the critical clause because we have had a succession of experiences of non-delivery on agreements that have been struck.
In this vein, will the Taoiseach tell us whether he has briefed President Biden and Vice President Harris on recent events in the North? Has he discussed the implementation of the New Decade, New Approach and Stormont House agreements with them and the outstanding issues that have yet to be delivered? Will the Taoiseach also tell us whether he discussed with the President the economic strategy for the US emerging from the pandemic and the proposal for a global minimum corporation tax rate?
Today, I received information that from last June to this February 2,600 people caught Covid in hospital settings in the State. Given that is roughly half the length of time of the illness the real figure is way higher than this. It is an incredible situation because hospitals should be the location of cure and protection but in reality for many people they were the place where they caught this deadly virus. I know many families who had loved ones who went into hospital for non-Covid reasons, caught the virus and died. While there is no doubt that hospitals did their best in many cases to keep out the illness there are serious examples of mismanagement also.
The biggest issue I have, and perhaps the Taoiseach will answer this, is that staff were asked to work in a seriously understaffed manner. We had Be on call for Ireland, to which 70,000 people signed up, and this time last year only 54 of them had been employed. At the start of this year, there were still 700 people who had the right qualifications and were ready to go into the health service to help but they were not employed. We know that in January and February, hospitals were grossly understaffed and under pressure.
Did the Taoiseach discuss with President Biden the issue of the TRIPS waiver for vaccine technology and vaccine formulae? Even the United States Government, as I have pointed out to the Taoiseach previously, has used wartime legislation to direct private companies to do certain things to respond to the coronavirus. This is in the heart of capitalism, if we like. It does not go far enough as far as I am concerned but even the US understands the need to use emergency measures to tell for-profit commercial companies what they had to do in response to the coronavirus. Shockingly, the Government and the European Union are dancing to the tune of the vaccine producing companies that do not want to share the vaccine formulae and technology with countries such as India and others where we see disaster unfold.
It is morally obscene when we know that in order to see the back of this pandemic, we need the world vaccinated. The awful terrifying cost of that is being seen in countries such as India, notwithstanding, by the way, the shocking right-wing irresponsible attitude of the Indian Government, which was like Trump and Bolsonaro. Nonetheless, it is unconscionable that Europe is holding out against a waiver of intellectual property on vaccines.
I would like to ask the Taoiseach whether, in his conversations with President Biden, he has discussed the economic response to Covid. In the US, they have launched a $2 trillion post-Covid stimulus plan but here, the Government is reported to be set on repeating the mistakes of 2008 with a troika-style programme of €8 billion or more in austerity.
How can the Taoiseach justify this contrast?
The Government's proposals for Covid austerity will do nothing to rebuild the economy and society. The proposal to cut the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, from June would see millions of euro taken out of the economy, hurting those who have already paid the most in terms of Covid when what we need is public investment.
I would also ask have they discussed the Biden proposals for a minimum global corporation tax rate, which, according to UCD academics, would result in a 50% reduction in the corporate tax take here? Does the Taoiseach agree with them that this is the end of the road for Ireland's corporate tax haven strategy? Does the Taoiseach not, therefore, agree that instead of being a corporate tax haven or pursuing austerity once more, we need an eco-socialist plan of investment in green jobs, public housing and an Irish NHS? Instead of cutting the PUP, we should be implementing a wealth tax on the billionaires and major corporations who have seen their wealth skyrocket during this pandemic.
Last week, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney stated that we have to ensure that we are not protecting intellectual property rights in a way that is resulting in mass loss of life, and that we need to share know-how and capacity. I agree with the Minister but the words have no meaning unless we act on it. That means, between now and the next meeting of the World Trade Organization, WTO, this House would welcome the Taoiseach making contact with Joe Biden and the European Union and urging them to drop the intellectual property rights on the vaccine in order to support the motion that emanates, interestingly enough, from India, the country that is currently suffering the most. India and South Africa have the motion in front of the WTO to relax the intellectual property rights to allow the production of vaccines at scale.
The Taoiseach must be as distressed as everybody else was looking at the scenes coming from India. It is horrible. However, it is not only about India. There has to be a motive of selfishness on the part of the Taoiseach and Joe Biden, which is to protect all of us. Because it is a pandemic, by its nature, none of us is safe until every man, woman and child in India is safe also. It makes no sense to continue to impose intellectual property rights on vaccines in the middle of a global pandemic. It can only make sense to a greedy, selfish cohort of capitalists who see this as an opportunity to make fast profits. I ask the Taoiseach to put Ireland on the right side of history and make that phone call to Joe Biden and the European Union.
Briefly, can the Taoiseach clarify what is the position of the Government in terms of intellectual property rights? Has the Taoiseach discussed this with President Biden? Is Ireland advocating at an international level for the waiving of these rights? What exactly is the position? If not, will the Taoiseach start to do this?
I have a similar question. Today, President Biden stated that the US would be in a position to share vaccine know-how. What is the Irish position in relation to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, TRIPS, and could we communicate it in advance of the WTO meeting on Friday and show moral leadership on this issue?
First, Ireland has shown moral leadership on this issue and so has Europe. There have been many simplistic conclusions drawn here, which are not merited and do not stack up. Europe has led the charge in terms of vaccine production and export for the entire world.
A month or two ago, Deputies in this House were criticising Europe in terms of its slow distribution and manufacture of the vaccines. The reality is Europe, through its pre-purchasing agreements, has done an awful lot to ensure proper research and production of vaccines, which are being exported all over the world and the barriers have not been put up to stop it. That is important.
Unfortunately, too many Deputies reduce everything to a slogan or sound bite. It is not that simple and the Deputy should not pretend it is that simple either. One of the largest manufacturing sites is in India. AstraZeneca has been manufacturing in India and India has put a ban, of necessity, on any export from India. Earlier in this period, Europe thought it would be getting vaccines from India. Now we have to do everything we possibly can to help India. We are sending out materials etc. We will do whatever we can. We will support whatever is the correct policy approach. We have been strong supporters of the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, COVAX, programme. Europe is one of the largest contributors, if not the largest contributor.
In respect of the meeting with President Biden, at the time, in March, we did not discuss the intellectual property issue. The focus rather was on supply chains because the biggest barrier was on that whole manufacturing, production and supply chain area, in terms of getting a sufficient quantity of components to enable vaccines to be produced quickly. No matter where one goes in the world, all of those components will be required in that supply chain.
There were 11 or 12 questions, or maybe more, asked. It is impossible for me to give any form of reply to this kind of scenario. That is merely the system as it has been developed.