Wednesday, 17 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
National Risk Assessment
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The national risk assessment provides an opportunity to identify and discuss significant risks that may arise for Ireland. Since it was first published in 2014, it has provided an overview of strategic risks and has highlighted risks such as Brexit, housing and pandemics. The process is designed to ensure a broad-based and inclusive debate on the risks facing the country. This includes publishing the draft for public consultation. There are also opportunities for stakeholders and Oireachtas Members to contribute to the development of the final version.
The national risk assessment is not intended to replicate or displace the detailed risk management and preparedness that happens across Departments and agencies. Rather, it focuses on the identification of strategic risks and is a tool to assist Departments and agencies to update existing or develop new mitigation plans.
By any measure, the period since it was last published in 2019 has been particularly turbulent. Risks such as Brexit have come to pass, with very significant repercussions across our society. In particular, the pandemic has affected every element of daily life to some extent. It is impacting livelihoods and, most significantly, as we know, has come at great cost to health and life.
A new draft national risk assessment was published for consultation last July and laid before the Oireachtas. It seeks to capture the impact of the pandemic, including how it has magnified existing risks and the new risks it has introduced. It also suggests new or existing strategic risks. New or previous risks outlined in the draft published for consultation include economic scarring and digital exclusion, as well as the heightened risk to social cohesion given the uneven impact of the pandemic. Work is well advanced on finalising the national risk assessment 2021-22 which will be published in the coming weeks.
The new draft national risk assessment highlights a decline of people's trust in institutions as a risk facing the State. I would make the case that cronyism, corruption and a complete lack of transparency have meant that more and more people are disgusted by the politicians and the institutions in this State. I ask the Taoiseach to comment in that respect on the recent actions of his Minister of State, Deputy Troy. We know, thanks to an article by Mr. Aaron Rogan in the Business Post, that Deputy Troy, in his position as a Minister of State in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, recently met big tech companies to discuss Ireland's national position on upcoming European legislation, namely, the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act.
He met them only after the companies were assured there would be no detailed minutes taken of what was being discussed. They wrote expressing concern as to the freedom of information dimension, assuming a note of the meeting would be kept that would be subject to freedom of information but that the note would not be overly detailed, and they were assured that only a high-level and anonymised overview note of the event would be drafted for records purposes and the meeting would be subject to the so-called Chatham rule. The details of who attended the meeting are not provided and there are no detailed minutes of what was discussed. Is this not very poor behaviour - an attempt to evade the lobbying rules and to have back-room, closed-door discussions with corporate lobbyists? Should the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, explain who attended the meeting and what was said?
Since the last national risk assessment was published in 2019, there have been major challenges for this country and, indeed, for the world. There is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we suffered the cyber attack on the health services, the HSE and the Department of Health, and we also encountered Brexit and the fallout from that. We must have an all-island and all-Ireland approach to major health challenges. Co-operation and working together were established in 1992 in what is known as the Ballyconnell Agreement. It was a new programme where there was delivery of some health services across both jurisdictions on a cross-Border basis. That brought great benefits to communities on both sides of the Border. The island of Ireland is a single epidemiological unit for disease control relating to animal health. I was involved in that in the past when we developed all-Ireland animal disease policies. There must be similar practical considerations in respect of human health. In both the North and South we must improve access to healthcare. Cross-Border health provision must be given a major impetus, and meaningful collaboration and co-operation are essential to plan for the many challenges that exist.
We should recall that the Taoiseach's former Government colleague, Mr. David Byrne, who served with the Taoiseach in the Government as Attorney General, spoke as an EU Commissioner about the dangers of pandemics and the lack of a Europe-wide approach to meeting those major challenges. Now we see how meaningful, progressive and insightful his comments were. He is a man who served this country with great distinction both as Attorney General and as an EU Commissioner representing this country in the European Commission. We need a programme of research on an all-Ireland basis. The shared island unit established by the Taoiseach could give a great impetus to research and development of health programmes. Having met the All-Island Cancer Research Institute, I am aware important work is ongoing at present. That could be given extra momentum as well. I am aware the Taoiseach has engaged with the institute directly, too. That is very important.
Professor Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University has written extensively about the areas for co-operation in regard to the provision of healthcare on a cross-Border and all-island basis. We need to deal with the challenges not on the day that they are with us, but by planning in advance for challenges such as pandemics in the future, God forbid. We always need to prepare in good time, and we must prepare as one all-Ireland unit for dealing with diseases that affect human beings.
It will not be a shock that I will add my voice to what was said previously, particularly in respect of the necessity for planning on an all-Ireland basis for all the issues we are dealing with and all the strategic risks we face. Many of them will require even more than that. Obviously, there must be international co-operation, and within the European Union there is the facility to examine some of these specific issues. We could talk about any of them. With regard to housing, until we deal with the issue of ensuring there is supply, there is the necessity to deal with where people find themselves at present under severe pressure.
I want to look at some of the technological risks. There have been huge issues with the ransomware attack and the reality of how exposed we all are both individually and on a State-wide basis. There have been attempts to get a wider solution at European level. Will the Taoiseach comment on that? In the world we live in we must ensure we are protected as much as possible, given that sometimes we are dealing with subcontractor players operating outside the borders of the European Union. It is an absolute necessity.
It is very hard to see how we would not deal with an issue that the Taoiseach spoke about earlier, namely, the drugs pandemic and organised crime. If we are talking about a strategic risk across the board, that is one I see many of the people I deal with living with daily, whether it is burglary crime or drug debt intimidation. We must set a timeframe and move as quickly as possible with regard to the citizens' assembly, because I believe that sometimes this House does not have the capacity and capability to deal with the issues that have to be dealt with. If we are dealing with the economic ramifications of the situation in which we find ourselves now, obviously supply chain issues are massive due to Brexit and the pandemic. It is also about making sure, even though this is a difficult week as regards people who will possibly find themselves out of work due to the changed set of circumstances, that we examine those areas where we need skills set and ensure we do everything necessary to put ourselves in the right direction.
I thank the Deputies for raising those issues. In response to Deputy Paul Murphy, big tech companies meet Ministers regularly. They are responsible for thousands of jobs in the country, which should be acknowledged. I note the Deputy rarely acknowledges it in correspondence. That said, there must be meetings with such companies and they should be transparent. There is no issue, in my view, with meetings. They have to be. That is how I approach it. I do not know the full background to the circumstances there. As a Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, it would be natural and normal for Deputy Troy to meet companies. It would also be important in the context of the Digital Services Act because there are issues. Other countries have different agendas with regard to the legislation, but one of our concerns thematically would be that we do not believe in protectionism. I do not believe in the idea that there should be a fully Europeanised technology sector that must be discriminated in favour of through regulation or legislation against other sectors from different locations on the globe. I do not necessarily accept that. I am not saying that is going to be suggested, but we have a concern that laws can become protectionist whether by design or by accident. There are legitimate issues in that space that have to be discussed and understood in terms of the risk to employment here due to negative consequences that could arise from legislation.
The good story is that the European Union always works by consensus and will engage with every member state. We will make a contribution to that process. We will listen to stakeholders in that regard, especially the views of the country's citizens to protect people from a lot of what is happening online from many of the products of some of the companies, some of which have been injurious to people in terms of what is happening online generally and the negative use of algorithms. I would argue that the use of algorithms in the online platforms is the more substantive issue in terms of undermining the political system and political institutions. It has been the big transformational change in the past decade or two in respect of politics, how politics is commented on and how the narrative around politics develops.
Some of it can be useful and positive but much of it can be very negative. I am not just talking about the negative, hostile stuff and the hatred. Individuals are targeted online in a very hostile personalised way, the only objective of which is to undermine the individual. That is contributing to the undermining of individuals in politics and in positions of office. Much of it is not substantiated and when the algorithms come into play, we get the trending and all that. That is a risk.
It should be clear who was there.
Deputy Brendan Smith made a very fair point on the all-island approach to the pandemic. There should be an all-island approach. For example, it would have been far better if Covid certs were part of an all-island approach. The party opposite, Sinn Féin, opposed the Covid certs here and have opposed them in the North. A cross-Border approach to hospitality would have made much more sense. The Deputy is right to point out that, epidemiologically, animal health is viewed on an all-island basis. He was involved in that as a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine. So was the late Ian Paisley, who recognised that there are no borders for the spread of animal disease and the same applies with a human pandemic.
The politics in the North has undermined that approach and the current situation has not made it easy. That said, much good work has happened. The two CMOs are working, the Ministers for Health engage and so forth, but there has not been an overarching all-island epidemiological approach to this. For the health officials in the North, the focus of authority is London for the public health advice that they receive and deploy. The Executive also has its own views.
I reassure Deputy Brendan Smith that we will move substantially on the research issue. Deputy Ó Murchú agrees with that.
I agree that the drugs issue is of paramount concern. We cannot have communities being undermined by criminality and addiction. We need to approach it on a number of fronts. I am particularly anxious that we would restore greater resources to a community-based response to these issues, as we historically had, including when I was last in government.