Dáil debates

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Accommodation Needs of Those Fleeing Ukraine: Statements


1:20 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to be opening this debate, which has as its main focus the measures the Government is putting in place to address the accommodation needs of those fleeing Ukraine. Thus far, more than 27,000 people have arrived in Ireland from Ukraine. This is why the co-ordinated whole-of-government response that we have put in place is so crucial.

Our domestic response cannot be divorced from the international context. Ireland's continued diplomatic support for Ukraine is an important part of today's debate also. We are maintaining close and regular contact with the Ukrainian Government. The Taoiseach met the Ukrainian Prime Minister on 20 April and on 14 April, I visited Ukraine, including the town of Bucha. As part of this visit, I met with my defence and foreign affairs counterparts. I was the first foreign minister to visit Kyiv since the Russian invasion on 24 February.

After witnessing the shocking aftermath of the devastation in Bucha, I expressed to the mayor of Bucha the sincere condolences of the Irish Government and people. I committed to bearing witness to those terrible atrocities and to raising the situation internationally. I know that I have the full support of this House when I say that those who perpetrated these heinous crimes must be brought to justice. On 19 April, as promised to the mayor of Bucha and the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, I briefed the UN Security Council on my visit. I described how I stood at the edge of one of the mass graves, where the work of carefully exhuming bodies continues. At that stage, 503 civilians had been identified, and just four soldiers. These are 503 individual human beings, men, women and children, who were not combatants and yet who appear to have been deliberately killed, in some cases having been tortured in a brutal manner before that happened. In that city I saw first-hand the devastating impact of the use of explosive weapons, including prohibited cluster munitions, by Russian forces in populated areas, without regard for civilians. Homes, hospitals and schools have been destroyed.

At the UN Security Council I was clear that these facts speak to a total disregard by Russian forces for their clear international obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians. I also highlighted that Ireland is supporting all efforts to bring an end to the conflict through all diplomatic means available, to hold Russia accountable, and to call out Russia's cynical attempts to use the Security Council and other UN bodies to spread disinformation about supposed biological or chemical programmes in Ukraine.

Ireland joined more than 40 countries in referring the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court, ICC. While I was in Kyiv, I announced a further €3 million in funding to the ICC, €1 million of which will be dispersed immediately to the office of the prosecutor. This will assist in the investigation of the situation in Ukraine, along with other situations the court is involved in. In addition to the ICC's investigation and joining the Group of Friends of Accountability, we have also supported the Human Rights Council and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to use their own accountability mechanisms to bring to light the full truth of Russia's actions in Ukraine and to document and seek accountability for human rights abuses there.

As these efforts continue, we also need to address immediate humanitarian needs. Thus far, Ireland has allocated €20 million in direct humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and neighbouring countries via the International Committee of the Red Cross and other UN agencies. This includes a dedicated Ukraine civil society fund of €2 million specifically to support NGOs responding to the crisis. We are also providing support through core funding of UN agencies, including early disbursement of our annual contributions for 2022, in order that they can adequately plan and deliver crucial assistance. Ireland has provided emergency medical supplies to Ukraine, including nine ambulances, in response to requests from the Ukrainian Government. We are offering medical evacuation support and two Ukrainian paediatric patients have been treated in Ireland to date. Four rapid responders have also been selected for deployment with UN agencies in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries. The EU is providing €1.5 billion in a package from the European peace facility to support the Ukrainian armed forces and Ireland is contributing its full share, which is just over 2% or €33 million thus far. Our focus is on military assistance outside of lethal weaponry.

Ireland is supportive of further measures being taken against Russia as part of a sixth EU sanctions package. The European Commission presented proposals for a sixth package of sanctions yesterday, aimed at depriving Russia and Belarus of the ability to pay for the continuation of the scale of this war. The package will include additional listings of individuals and entities, including senior military officers and other individuals deemed to have been involved in committing atrocities in Bucha and elsewhere, and in the siege of the city of Mariupol in particular.

The package also targets additional Russian and Belarusian banks, including Sberbank, which is Russia's largest bank. The three big Russian state-owned broadcasters will also be sanctioned. The package targets services, including accountancy, public relations, and consultancy services to Russian companies. A complete import ban on all Russian oil is also proposed, to be introduced in an orderly fashion so as to ensure that EU member states can secure alternative supplies. Crude oil will be phased out within six months, and refined products such as petrol and diesel by the end of the year. Ireland has frozen approximately €1.25 billion of Russian assets as of 29 April.

When I met the Ukrainian foreign minister in April, I reiterated that Ireland fully supports Ukraine's application for EU membership. Ireland, along with a group of EU member states, is working to provide political and practical assistance and support of Ukraine's European perspective. EU leaders have agreed to develop a Ukrainian solidarity trust fund, with a view to the reconstruction of a democratic Ukraine, once this Russian onslaught has been brought to an end.

We all hope that this dreadful period in Ukraine's history will soon pass. When it does, the world will remember the bravery displayed by the Ukrainian people in defending their families, their communities and their homeland. It will also be remembered by those who continue to work for democratic change within Ukraine.

Deputies will remember that last month, when we were addressed by President Zelenskyy in a joint sitting of the Houses, he thanked Ireland for its support and for its principled approach to this crisis. I can assure the House that Ireland will continue to use its voice internationally, to the greatest effect that we possibly can, in its principled support for Ukraine and continued focus, not only on supporting Ukraine in surviving this aggression, but also on trying to find a way to bring it to an end.

The focus of this debate, I know now, will be on the challenge we face here at home in accommodating the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who are displaced and driven from their homes for their own safety and the safety of their children. Some 85% of all of the Ukrainians who have come to Ireland are women and children. We have a moral obligation to ensure that Ireland plays its part in this war effort - because that is what it is - to offer generosity and openness, and practical solutions to the security and housing needs of those who chose to come here. We have made a very clear decision not to apply any quotas and not to require any visas to be filled out. Instead, anyone who chooses to come to Ireland to seek safety, security and stability during this war will be accommodated. This does put our systems under pressure, and it is important to acknowledge that. Trust me when I say that given the stories many of us heard from the Ukrainians who have come here, the challenges we face really do pale into insignificance compared to the stories that many of them will recount when they come here, and the trauma they are trying to recover from, in Irish homes and in the hotels, vacant properties and other accommodation facilities we are providing.

It is important to be honest about the extent of this challenge. Not all of the solutions will be perfect. We need to ensure that we are honest about that. When there are stresses on certain elements of the system, we need to be able to respond to it. I pay tribute to my colleague the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, who is sitting next to me here, for the work that he and his Department have done. They are, effectively, the lead Department in providing the accommodation and facilities. Many other Departments are supporting, but the Minister and his Department have done an extraordinary job, in the space of little more than two months, to accommodate more than 27,000 people, predominantly women and children. We will continue to do that and work in a whole-of-government manner, to make sure that the accommodation needs are provided as comprehensively as we possibly can. In years to come, when we look back on a dark period for Europe, which is what we are living through right now, I hope we will be to say that Ireland behaved in a way that was generous, outward looking, appropriate and in solidarity with a country and a people that are being torn apart.

1:25 pm

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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Since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine on 24 February, and the invoking of the temporary protection directive shortly thereafter, my Department has been working intensively as part of the cross-government response to the Ukraine crisis.

My Department’s role is focused on the immediate accommodation needs of those who have fled here. We have established a Ukraine unit within the Department, comprised of almost 50 staff, to support this effort. The accommodation provided is temporary in nature and is focused on the emergency need to provide shelter. The team is also assisting in directing refugees to all relevant Departments, agencies, NGOs and local authorities, as well as the private sector, to ensure that refugees are facilitated in accessing the supports from others that they require.

I want to focus on the scale of the challenge being faced across the Government, and in particular within my own Department, at this present time. As of yesterday, 27,372 people have fled here from Ukraine, with some 18,000 of them requiring accommodation. Ireland has never experienced an influx of refugees on this scale before.

We are doing so at a time when our own housing crisis is severe and approximately 10,000 people are in direct provision, which is a system of accommodation we are committed to ending. It is in this context my Department has been tasked with finding accommodation for what is now just short of 20,000 people in the space of two months. Thus far, everyone who has fled here from Ukraine has been offered a place of safety and security. I pay tribute to the efforts of my own officials, many of whom have worked long hours every day since the outbreak of the conflict to source this accommodation, to the local authorities and the NGOs that have supported this work and in particular the communities across the country that have done so much and been so welcoming to Ukrainians.

As I acknowledged when speaking on this previously in the House, much of the accommodation being provided is not perfect and involves a degree of congregated or grouped living. Over the past week, local authorities stood up emergency accommodation locations across the country and the majority of immediate accommodation allocated at this time is in emergency accommodation. The nature of emergency accommodation is that it is temporary and can involve a number of moves for those involved, which is also a logistical challenge for the Department. This need to move people on from the temporary and emergency accommodation is not ideal. We would have hoped not to add to the stresses of our new arrivals. However, it must be acknowledged we are dealing with a crisis of proportions absolutely unprecedented in the modern era. We must not fail in our endeavours to meet this crisis and meet the needs of these refugees to the very best of our ability. It is with this in mind my Department is exploring all options for accommodating new arrivals and that has involved some creative solutions to an ever-evolving situation. In an effort to reach those solutions my Department has contracted approximately 11,500 hotel beds, with additional capacity being pursued through guest houses and bed and breakfasts, accommodation pledged by the general public, State-owned or privately-owned properties that may be suitable for long-term accommodation, accommodation belonging to volunteer bodies such as Scouting Ireland, religious properties, local authority facilities and working with Airbnb. The Millstreet Green Glens Arena has opened and will take up to 320 people and some larger serviced accommodation centres such as hotels will also come on line soon. My Department is advancing other options such as student accommodation as well. In doing all this the central consideration is the immediate safety and security of the displaced people fleeing Ukraine.

If the initial accommodation provided to someone is in emergency accommodation, every effort is made to move people to serviced accommodation as soon as possible. People in serviced accommodation are advised when arriving this is temporary and the intention is they will be moved into pledged or other medium-term accommodation as soon as this is available and that this may not be in the same area as the initial temporary accommodation. I know people have made contacts and have established connections in these locations and may wish to remain there. However, we must also recognise this crisis is real and continues to result in a very large number of people arriving on a daily basis. Until such time as they are housed in permanent accommodation, the movement of people may be part of our response here. Again, this is not perfect and is not our preference but it is part of the reality of the situation we face.

I am conscious there has been a focus on the issue of pledged accommodation and we welcome those people who have opened their homes to people fleeing the crisis in Ukraine. As a Government, we are incredibly grateful for those offers. These pledges have been made through the Irish Red Cross, IRC, and to date in excess of 24,000 pledges have been made. The process of getting people moved into pledged accommodation has been slower than I would like. I refer to the scaling up of what needed to be done. This was a process that had had 600 pledges come in over a five-year period and then experienced 24,000 over a five-week period. We had to scale up and support the Red Cross in putting in the infrastructure. That included funding, staff and additional personnel from other State bodies like Pobal and the Defence Forces.

The process of matching people with pledged accommodation or pledged rooms is ongoing at the moment. My Department is working closely with the IRC to deliver that. Of course, because we are dealing with people fleeing a situation of really unimaginable suffering and stress, that process of moving people into vacant or shared accommodation must be done right and with consideration of the needs of the people involved. That process takes time. I thank those who pledged their accommodation generously for their patience to date and in those cases where we have not yet been able to arrange for a Ukrainian family to move in, I ask for some more patience. We are ramping up this system and ensuring it will work quickly and effectively. My Department understands from the Irish Red Cross all those who have pledged accommodation have now received a phone call. Over 32,000 phone calls were made. Of those calls, to date 13,000 were not responded to and 6,000 people said they needed to withdraw from the original pledges for various reasons. We are following up with all those who have contacted. Of the pledged vacant properties, 1,837, having been processed by the Irish Red Cross, have been forwarded by my Department to the partners that are assisting us with moving people into these properties. These are predominantly the local authorities across the country. I again want to thank them for their assistance. There is also the Peter McVerry Trust and the International Organization for Migration, IOM. At every point, for various reasons some properties cannot be taken up but to date, 700 people have moved in to pledged accommodation across the country. This is mainly to vacant units.

We are now looking at the vetting process for the shared accommodation as well to ensure that can be done as quickly as possible. However, especially where a child or vulnerable person is moving into shared accommodation, I think everyone would agree a vetting process is an essential part of the child protection measures we must take. As we know, there is currently no payment for those pledging property but this is an issue that is being actively considered by the Government at the moment. Beneficiaries of the temporary protection directive are, as we know, in receipt of assistance from the Department of Social Protection, such as the supplementary welfare allowance and child benefit. Pledges have a role to play in supplementing other short-term accommodation and my Department will continue to support the Irish Red Cross and implementing partners to give effect the pledges we can.

All in all, as a country we have responded well to the call to support the effort in easing the burden of relocating to Ireland from Ukraine. We all hope for an end to this war as quickly as possible but in the meantime we will continue to play our part. It has not been easy to scale up the level of services in a short period. I again acknowledge that not everything we have done is perfect but it is evolving and getting better. From speaking to Ukrainians, I know of their gratitude for the support the State and especially communities across the country have shown. I conclude by again thanking those communities, the people and all the State agencies and NGOs that have done so much to support people in such desperate need.

1:35 pm

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine is a watershed moment for all democracies across the world. Putin’s war of devastation has thrown down the gauntlet to us to stand by our values and live by our best traditions of decency and fairness. Ireland is not a global military power but we are a humanitarian one and we can give badly-needed compassionate refuge to those fleeing the bullets and bombs of this ruthless invasion.

I pay tribute, as my colleague the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, just did to the generosity of spirit displayed by Irish people in their warm-hearted response. Our NGOs too, have responded in an exceptional manner. I thank all of them for the work they have done heretofore and their ongoing commitment. In particular, I thank staff in local authorities right across the Republic for their extraordinary effort on top of all the other pressures they must bear. We are asking much of them and they have shown remarkable agility, innovation and empathy in their work to assist those who need our help. Their continued engagement has made a real difference to the lives of the Ukrainian people who have arrived here. The immediate, emergency response as outlined by my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is directly with his Department. The medium- to long-term requirements of new accommodation supply are being addressed by my Department. Co-ordination is being undertaken by a newly established special Cabinet committee headed by the Taoiseach and a Secretary Generals' group.

Housing is the greatest challenge facing the Government and it is where the pressure of the Ukrainian emergency will be felt most acutely. The crisis simultaneously poses an unprecedented demographic shock and a supply chain crisis for our housing system. The invasion will have an impact on the overall housing supply.

However, the situation is too volatile and unclear and it is too early to quantify exactly what the extent of that will be. This means we need a tiered response that we can escalate as needed, depending on the scale of numbers seeking refuge and the length of time for which our friends from Ukraine stay in Ireland. It also has to take into account the economic impact, inflationary risks and supply chain issues that are real.

My goal, as Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and that of the Government is to protect Housing for All, the national housing plan to address our domestic crisis, and meet the accommodation requirements of our friends from Ukraine. In order to achieve this, my Department is responding with a twin-track approach. The first strand is focused on meeting the specific needs of our Ukrainian friends, while the second addresses the broader impact on the housing system.

First and foremost, Housing for All, the national housing plan, remains at the heart of Government policy. It is the most ambitious housing plan in our history, backed with unprecedented levels of funding. It places home ownership back within the reach of working people and massively ramps up public and private home building. Measures to address the needs of Ukrainians fleeing the conflict will be in addition. We will take additional and accelerated steps to help accommodate the impact of desperate people forced from their homes. I emphasise that the response to the Ukrainian crisis is separate from and additional to Housing for All. It is not and should not be displacing existing targets. Those are required to address our own pressing housing needs. To address the Ukrainian crisis we are undertaking a tiered set of extra actions that can respond to each scenario of numbers seeking sanctuary as it emerges. The bright red line between existing measures to tackle our housing crisis and extra steps to address the needs of Ukrainian refugees is vital.

Those fleeing conflict are not simply collateral damage in this invasion; they are a core part of the Russian strategy. Russia has sought to weaponise human misery and use it against European solidarity. Putin is gambling that the pressures and strains of accommodating and caring for people and tackling a cost-of-living crisis will snap the bonds of democratic solidarity with Ukraine. For the sake of all small nations seeking to assert their right to independence, we cannot and will not allow that gamble to pay off. Putin and his allies are indulging in crude nuclear imagery on state television in an attempt to bully small nations. That will not stand.

We can and must look after our people while helping Ukrainians who need our aid in their darkest hour. That challenge places a profound moral and political responsibility on all Members of this House. We cannot allow the seeds of division to be sown or issues be stoked for partisan gain. We have to confront misleading and false information and engage in good faith on the challenges this crisis presents. However, I do not agree with Deputies who heretofore opposed Housing for All using the crisis as an excuse to repeat their call for an immediate new national housing plan. That would only blur the lines of our response, confuse delivery targets, risk pitting one group against another and achieve nothing but further uncertainty in a volatile situation. I urge Deputies to desist from doing that. While every plan needs to show flexibility, the core commitments, policies and funding of Housing for All are at the heart of Government policy. There is already an inbuilt annual review in the plan to ensure it is on track. Ultimately, those calls in respect of stalling or revising the plan are motivated from a political perspective and I will not go down that road.

As with Brexit and Covid, Irish people have continually shown their depth of resilience, natural innovation and immense empathy. This international crisis caused by Russia’s aggression will see us do the same again.

Essentially, my Department’s response to Ukrainian accommodation needs is set over three areas, with a special housing task force drawing the various strands together. The first strand focuses on vacancy and refurbishment, the second on temporary volumetric and modular accommodation, and the third on new permanent homes. This threefold strategy builds on a series of summits, workshops and meetings with both the public and private sectors though the past two months as well as consultation with Members of this House to design an agile and tiered response to the crisis. In the first area, relating to vacancy, I have established an emergency vacant housing delivery unit within the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA. This unit will support relevant Departments and agencies in repurposing vacant State-owned buildings for emergency use. It will also support each local authority to refurbish a flagship project in their area to house those fleeing Ukraine. These properties will be selected from buildings we have identified across the country, further adding to our capacity. More than 500 units have already been analysed by a team of former chief executives. A total of 89 buildings, covering an estimated 5,300 potential beds, are already being transferred to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. I am also funding local authorities to establish specific support teams, and designating an additional director of services in each local authority to co-ordinate supports and services locally and across agencies and community groups, building on their sterling work to date.

In the second area, the Office of Public Works, OPW, will take the lead in designing and constructing modular homes on State lands. To be clear, this will be a small but important part of the State response. It will assist in plugging the gaps where other accommodation is not readily available. My Department will support it in identifying and planning for appropriate serviced sites.

On the third area, the focus is on activating the 80,000 unused planning permissions in the State. I will issue a national call for inactive permissions shortly to help collate delayed or stalled developments. I am setting up a clearing house group composed of key planning and infrastructural experts. Its role will be to identify and analyse the reasons behind the lack of progress on these matters. The clearing house group will be empowered to make specific recommendations to me to issue special time-bound planning permissions and changes to catalyse developments. Any suitable and additional permanent accommodation under these measures will be returned to general social and affordable housing if and when the Ukrainian crisis is resolved and special accommodation needs end.

Our housing system is coming out of a decade of undersupply that has been compounded by pandemic shutdowns. It is now facing supply chain and inflation pressures from the Ukrainian crisis. To help address these issues, I have removed the local authority acquisition cap and restored local decision-making in certain emergency situations. There will be a new voids programme in 2022 that will focus specifically on those on the social housing lists. Using new regulations under section 9 of the Local Government Rates and other Matters Act 2019, I will restrict the use of commercial rates vacancy refunds to encourage the reuse of vacant stock. We will also look at the potential for zoning additional lands, as well as for providing temporary emergency permissions through section 181(2) of the Planning and Development Act. We are doing a trawl of all 31 local authorities for public and private sites on which we can develop homes for our Ukrainian friends in a speedy way.

We will stand shoulder to shoulder with other democracies against authoritarian aggression. We will look after our people as well as those fleeing war and we will live up to the best traditions of fairness and decency towards those who need our support.

1:45 pm

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to make clear the full support of Sinn Féin for the efforts of the Government to bring about an end to the war in Ukraine, but also to ensure that all Ukrainians who are forced to flee their country and seek refuge here receive every possible support. I commend, as did the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, the generosity and enormous community spirit of people the length and breadth of the country. They have opened their homes, pockets and hearts and we support them in their efforts to do so. Like other speakers, I wish to make clear that it is the view of Sinn Féin that this war is absolutely unjustified and the behaviour of Russia deserves the utmost condemnation.

In particular, I commend the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and his Department on the enormous efforts they have made to date in trying to ensure the warmest possible welcome and the greatest level of support for those who have been forced to leave their country. One of the great merits of the response of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is that it is seeking emergency accommodation outside the mainstream housing system. It is a sensible approach, particularly because it avoids putting Ukrainians who, rightly, are seeking refuge in competition with other people in acute housing need who experienced the rough end of our own housing crisis. At all times, the Government and the Opposition must ensure that, in everything we do, we do not in any way generate that kind of competition, or the potential resentment that could emerge from it, to ensure those fringe elements of our society who would seek to exploit that resentment are unable to do so.

I want to raise three particular issues with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth for his consideration. I raise them in a constructive spirit and I hope he accepts I am doing so on that basis. First, as he knows, the Irish Refugee Council made quite a detailed policy proposal at an earlier stage in this refugee crisis. One of its central elements related to trying to access a small percentage of vacant holiday homes, with the offer of a legally binding 12-month licence agreement and a modest administrative payment to encourage people to participate. While the Minister stated that the Government is actively considering the issue of a payment, that specific proposal was not mentioned. As we move into the holiday season, we are already hearing from hotels that there may be some pressure in the context of continued access to beds. In that context, a call for vacant properties could yield a small but significant number of the 62,000 vacant holiday homes which are out there in the right locations, which would ultimately provide a better quality of emergency accommodation for the families in question, particularly from a child protection point of view, which would be more cost-effective than commercial hotel accommodation and which would involve accessing properties outside of the housing system.

Second, while I fully understand and support the Government's accessing of hotel accommodation through the international protection accommodation services unit, IPAS, there have been at least two instances where homeless service providers in Cork city and Wicklow have expressed some concern that hotels that would otherwise have been the primary source of emergency accommodation for families presenting as homeless are now fully booked up by IPAS. This is one of the imperfect solutions the Minister spoke about, but it is really important that there be the maximum level of co-ordination between his Department, IPAS and homeless service providers to try to avoid such a difficulty in as much as is possible. While I am sure that already is happening, I urge, as the homeless numbers are likely to increase in the coming months, that there be even greater co-ordination.

Third, where IPAS is leasing out commercial buildings such as hotels, there is the potential for a loss of employment for people working in those locations who may not be involved in the direct provision of services to guests or refugees. This is particularly the case with large commercial hotels that have events sections, etc. It would be very unfair, and potentially counterproductive, if people were to lose employment because of the need to secure those locations for emergency accommodation. I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to that issue to ensure it does not create difficulties.

As the lead Opposition spokesperson on housing, I wrote to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on 8 March seeking a meeting to discuss his Department's response to this crisis and ideas we have to address it. I received a two-line reply directing me to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and his Department, as the lead agency. On 21 March, I wrote to the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage asking what advice was being given to local authorities with respect to the many questions they would face regarding the refugee crisis. I was told that, at that point, no such advice was being given. I wrote to the Minister and the Secretary General again on 31 March. On 1 April, I received a reply from the latter with more detail about the work the Department was doing to support the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and IPAS in trying to secure large vacant buildings and other emergency accommodation solutions.

Unfortunately, during all of that period, there were many newspaper reports claiming to be based on briefings from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage or the Minister regarding the fair deal scheme and whether properties coming into the housing system under that scheme would be available for Ukrainian refugees. It was also claimed that local authority acquisitions, voids and relets would be made available, as well as emergency planning powers, to tackle all of this. Those briefings and the media coverage they generated have caused enormous confusion. It is a pity the Minister responsible for those issues is not in the Chamber to hear this. They had real potential to cause a lot of anger and resentment and they were deeply unhelpful. I fully appreciate the crisis situation the Government is dealing with but I urge all Ministers to ensure there is clear and coherent communication as we move through what will be very trying times for Departments, civil servants and the wider public. I urge that briefings be avoided where one Minister is trying to present himself or herself as being more active than another. We need to have clear public communications, as the Minister present has been providing to date.

We received a briefing from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on 26 March in which we were told categorically that all the media briefings in previous weeks were inaccurate, social housing would be used not for refugees but for the social housing waiting list, fair deal properties would be used for those in the private rental sector and no new emergency powers were being introduced, contrary to what we had been told. We were told, as the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage had indicated, that his Department's focus was on assisting IPAS in identifying large vacant buildings to be potentially refurbished for multi-family occupancy and on the provision of some modular housing for emergency accommodation. Given that, according to those officials, the emergency timeline may be as much as two to three years, depending on what happens in Ukraine, which we do not control, I strongly urge the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Government in general to approach the issue of modular accommodation with real consideration. There is no reason we cannot use new, good-quality, high-end building technologies to accelerate the delivery of social and affordable homes for a very large section of the community, including those Ukrainians who have no home to return to after the war and who opt to stay in Ireland. I urge the Government to learn the lessons of direct provision and avoid short-term, low-grade modular housing villages that could end up being accommodation for refugees for much longer than initially intended.

It is an enormous mistake for the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage not to revise the targets underpinning his housing plan. They already are under huge pressure from rising homelessness, a shrinking private rental sector, low private sector supply, rising housing prices and rents, and inflationary pressures. If we are to ensure that the long-term housing needs of Ukrainian refugees who stay in Ireland are met at some future point, now is the time to revise those targets and push them upwards. I see no reason for the Government to stand by its current plan or housing targets.

I thank the Ministers for the information they provided. As Sinn Féin housing spokesperson, I stress the need for a new housing plan that can meet the housing needs of all sections of society, from refugees to the homeless and everybody in between. I urge the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to take that point back to Cabinet and impress it upon his colleagues.

1:55 pm

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the chance to speak in this debate. Everybody is very mindful of the situation facing people in Ukraine We are all thinking of those who are facing that situation today, including those who are fleeing and those who are trapped without the choice or chance to get out of the country. Like Deputy Ó Broin, I want to acknowledge the work that has been done to date, particularly by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and his Department. As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, I sometimes feel like everything falls to that Department. This was an added difficulty nobody foresaw and, in fairness, he and his staff have dealt with it extremely well to date. They should be commended on that.

I also acknowledge the great work done in counties Carlow and Kilkenny, in my constituency, where people in communities really have rowed in, whether through collections or by providing accommodation or other services. They are trying their very best to ensure people, particularly children, are integrated and involved in community activities. This discussion is about housing but I was in Wicklow last Friday where I visited a number of early years facilities that are making provision for Ukrainian children. I was told they children have integrated totally, which is fantastic and very welcome. I take this opportunity to raise a point made by those service providers. There are Ukrainian women who have come to Ireland who are qualified in early years care and would like the chance to work in the sector, in which there is a severe staffing shortage. Where people want the opportunity to work, it would be fantastic to facilitate it. I gave a commitment to raise the issue with the Minister. One of the points the service providers made is that there is a major difficulty with Garda vetting. Of course, nobody is saying that people do not need to be vetted.

However, if anything could be done to speed up that process or to help people to access those jobs while services are crying out for staff and there are people who would really like to work, it would make perfect sense. I wanted to take the opportunity to say that.

I also wish to make a point, which Deputy Ó Broin also made, about employment. I have seen a few unfortunate cases in my constituency, mainly affecting people who are part-time or students doing weekend and summer work. Still, that work was invaluable to them. They have been told there is no longer work for them because of the situation. Maybe weddings and various other events in hotels have been cancelled. Perhaps that could be considered as well.

The other point I wish to raise - it is a difficult one, and it is hard to know exactly how we can police this - is that there have been some incidents of people being taken advantage of. When we speak about this issue it is really important we all plead with people to go through the proper channels. While I know there can be goodwill in WhatsApp and Facebook groups, I have been horrified by some of the stuff I have seen. I encourage people to go through the proper channels, that is, the Red Cross and various other channels. I know there are many people with goodwill and most people are very well intentioned, but we always see people who will exploit these situations. I encourage people to make sure they go through the proper channels in order that everything is vetted and above board.

2:05 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I also commend the Department on the work it has done. I have dealt with staff in the Department since the beginning of this crisis and have found them to be really helpful and sensible about these situations. In my county, Leitrim, we have a hotel, Lough Allen Hotel, in Drumshanbo, which has been closed for a number of years, since Covid, and is now open and has more than 200 Ukrainian refugees there. I have been there and visited them. It is a tremendous wonder to see people from practically the other side of the world come there and integrate and get on so well.

I spoke to the principal in the local secondary school as well. There are children preparing to go there. Some of them will wait until after the school holidays because we are so close to them now. A big effort is being made. However, I think the schools will need more assistance with all this because some of the children who come, naturally, will have difficulties with language, etc. Also, for some of them, there is autism and all the things we have in this country, which will come with them when they arrive. There are also elderly people who have various disabilities, conditions and other issues who will need medical assistance. That is one of the problems. Even in County Leitrim, with our low population, it is very hard to get a GP. That is one of the big issues that is coming up for an awful lot of the refugees. They cannot get a GP. They are being sent from pillar to post with no assistance. Particularly in an area where there is a hotel and a large concentration of refugees, some kind of medical service needs to be put in place to assist with that.

The other issue I have come across I came across first in Bundoran, where there was also a large number of refugees in a large guesthouse and now in a hotel as well. All of them want to work. They want to know where they can get work. Some of them are coming with skills. Some are nurses or doctors. There are people in various professions. With some of those professions, we absolutely need their work. We need them to come and help out because we have shortages of those skills. As mentioned earlier, however, the issue of Garda vetting and so on comes into play. Where will they go to get Garda vetting? They cannot go to the authorities in Ukraine, obviously. That will not happen. Therefore, some other system needs to be found to deal with that. That is absolutely essential.

In some areas there is a little tension or concern, perhaps in towns which, over the summer in particular, depend on tourism, with other businesses in the town also depending on tourists coming. Such areas now find that the hotels and other accommodation are not available for tourists. That will cause a little tension, so there needs to be due care and diligence around that to ensure that jobs and the possibility of business and commerce in those towns are not displaced. We just need to get that right if we can at all. So far, in fairness, there have been huge efforts and we are making great progress in getting it right.

The other issue that comes to mind is the huge number of people who have pledged accommodation and said they are prepared to take people into rooms in their houses. We know that will be difficult. I know of some cases in which it has been difficult up to now. A real effort needs to be made to try to get that done as speedily as possible for people and to ensure that if they do go into a place in somebody's home, there are services there to back up and to support the family that was prepared to take them on.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I acknowledge the work of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Yout hand how successful it has been throughout this crisis. As the Minister will know, I am a member of the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability Integration and Youth. Everything seems to fall under the remit of that committee. I have spoken in the past about the mental health challenges that displaced Ukrainian people will face when they land on our shores.

Today, however, I will focus on the housing situation we are in. The Government has failed spectacularly to get to grips with the housing crisis, and now we have a crisis upon a crisis. The Government's housing plan is not fit for purpose. The Government hopes to reach 10,000 social and 4,000 affordable homes by 2025. That is not good enough, and the bar was set deliberately low. The Government seems to be playing politics with people's lives. Before the war in Ukraine, our housing system was in a deep crisis. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage referred to blurring the lines. Last week, he was forced into an embarrassing climbdown. For weeks his office had been talking about the fair deal homes, local authority acquisitions and social housing voids being used for Ukrainian refugees.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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That is not true. That was a bit of spin from the Deputy's colleague beside him.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister also mentioned yesterday that he does not interrupt people when they speak. I would appreciate it if he would have the courtesy to not do so now.

On Tuesday, representatives from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage told the joint committee that what the Minister said about such housing being used for Ukrainian refugees was not the case. There seem to be mixed messages coming from the Minister and his Department. This caused hurt and confusion among people languishing on the housing list, people stuck in their mothers' and fathers' back bedrooms, people in substandard accommodation and people living in overcrowded dwellings. The Minister can point his finger as much as he wants. He should point the finger at himself and successive Governments that have stood over these policies for a number of years. The people who contacted my office were upset and felt, because of the briefings, that the Government was going to push them further down the list. They thought they would have to endure these living conditions longer. It was pitting one group of marginalised people against another. I had a look at the word "marginalised" and what it means. It used to refer to minority groups that were unable to access basic services or opportunities such as housing. However, they are not smaller minority groups any more. These Government policies the Minister has stood over have ensured that. These minorities and socially excluded people will no longer be silent.

Thousands of Ukrainian people will land on our shores over the next while. We must be able to look after them as best we can, as much as we will look after the people who are currently victims of the social housing policy the Government has stood over.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I express my solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Their resistance has been heroic and inspirational in the face of the reprehensible actions of their much larger neighbour. The stories coming out of Ukraine about the war crimes that have been committed are sickening. The recent simulation shown on Russian TV must be met with a strong response. We are long past the time to expel the Russian ambassador. He needs to go - no ifs, buts or ands. We are a peaceful, neutral country, and this kind of behaviour must be confronted.

As the saying goes, a bayonet has a worker at both ends. Workers and their families are suffering to satisfy the bloodlust of Putin and his oligarchs. The casualties on both sides are mounting. The UN and the EU must use every available channel to try to get the message through that this war must end. Ireland must use its position on the Security Council to push for reform of the UN. It must also encourage the Chinese Government to withdraw any support it might be providing to Russia. I commend the work of the Red Cross and other groups and individuals who are working to ensure we welcome as many refugees as possible.

We learned at the Committee on Budgetary Oversight last night that we could see more than 100,000 people arrive here, with a contingency of €3 billion set aside. I was surprised to learn that the EU has not provided any funds and is probably unlikely to do so. It is clear we will need people to open up their homes to cope with the numbers. We need an assurance that local authority tenants who open up their homes will not face any repercussions, be that in respect of income thresholds or occupancy levels. We need adequate payments made available to support families who welcome refugees.

I am worried about the ongoing spin that this war is being used to abandon our long-held military neutrality.

Our Defence Forces need investment. Our serving personnel need to be paid better. Their working conditions need to improve and they need modern equipment. We need the basics first, such as radar and reliable vehicles. We do not need NATO levels of equipment. Why spend millions of euro on drones that can kill people from miles away when we have families living in emergency accommodation and old people on trolleys for days? We need to get our priorities right here.

Finally, I implore the Government not to forget the victims of war elsewhere in the world. I am thinking particularly of Palestinians who have endured Israeli aggression for decades. We must stand up for them. The first step must be to fulfil the programme for Government promise to recognise the state of Palestine.

2:15 pm

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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I would like to share time with my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith.

I thank the Ministers, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, Coveney and O'Gorman, for updating us on the Government's response to Russian war of brutal aggression on a peaceful democratic country.

I will start by commending the Government on the generosity of spirit that it and the Irish people have shown in their approach in offering support and sanctuary to those fleeing the war in Ukraine. We in the Labour Party will stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and we will stand in support of all the Government efforts that have been taken to ensure that we are offering as much sanctuary and support as we can in this country, as the Minister, Deputy Coveney, said, without the imposition of quotas or visas.

This is a national effort. We are militarily, but not politically, neutral on this and that is clear. Certainly, in my previous capacity, on the then Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, I spoke out consistently against Russia's aggression in waging a proxy war in Syria. It is the exact same tactics that we are seeing here with Russia waging this war, directly, in this case, on the people of Ukraine but also, as the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, said, weaponising human misery by seeking to undermine European solidarity and European democracies through creating and exacerbating a cost-of-living crisis and through causing so many thousands, indeed, millions, of Ukrainian people to have to flee their homeland in such appalling circumstances.

We will continue, of course, to stand in solidarity with Irish Government efforts to ensure Russian accountability for complicity in the brutal war crimes that we have seen committed against the people of Ukraine. I appreciate the Minister, Deputy Coveney's update on that.

Last week the Labour Parliamentary Party wrote to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to offer our constructive support in the national effort to ensure that we in Ireland can offer the strongest possible support to our Ukrainian friends who have come here seeking sanctuary.

We are also responding separately - my colleague, Senator Rebecca Moynihan, our housing spokesperson, is collating a response to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien - with constructive suggestions on possible vacant housing options. We welcome the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien's call for buildings and his engagement with Opposition representatives on this. We recognise the immense challenges involved and we appreciate and acknowledge the substantial effort of so many public servants, civil servants, NGOs and local authorities that have really stepped up. Fifty staff, in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth alone, form the Ukraine unit. I have met with so many public and civil servants who have done so much already to support Ukrainian visitors.

In my constituency, in Dublin Bay South, we have seen a huge community effort. We have seen the great Evergreen centre in Terenure set up a weekly event for those hosting Ukrainian families and for their Ukrainian visitors, Swan Leisure in Rathmines holding community events, and many church groups across the constituency and other community groups organising events, and we are seeing similar across the country.

We are also looking at accommodation needs. I, along with my colleague, Councillor Dermot Lacey, have identified the long vacant Baggot Street hospital as a State-owned building. I think it is on the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien's radar that it may well be available to offer emergency accommodation. I am also aware of Avalon House, for example, an empty hostel on Aungier Street in Dublin city centre, that also has space and has quite a considerable number of empty bedrooms.

We are aware that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman's Department is co-ordinating the State response but clearly there is substantial feed-in and co-ordination with other Departments. In our letter to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, we sought to offer our support in a range of different areas.

On the accommodation point, we asked for clarity on the role of international protection accommodation service, IPAS, as compared with the role of local authorities. We have received a little more clarity on that today but we want to ensure that there is clear co-ordinating of the accommodation needs of Ukrainian guests. Certainly, I have been contacted by constituents telling me there is a lack of information available. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, said we all need to be patient. Clearly, this is a massive effort and the Irish Red Cross has had to have significant additional capacity provided to enable it to co-ordinate responses to those pledges of accommodations alone. Certainly, there should be clearer information and co-ordination in terms of the offer of accommodation and I absolutely agree with the need to ensure that there is no divisive rhetoric used in the co-ordinated response on accommodation.

This can be a win-win in terms of offering constructive solutions to address our own pre-existing homelessness crisis along with providing more emergency and shorter-term accommodation for our Ukrainian guests. Student accommodation clearly will be coming into the picture as well in the summer and that will be welcome. In my constituency, there is quite a significant body of availability there.

We are also asking for a timeline for the establishment of community hubs across the country. We understand Tusla is the designated agency and we have suggested that it might be preferable to establish such hubs uniformly across the country. We have asked how the views and experiences of those affected who have fled Ukraine can be inputted into developing our national response.

In my engagement with my local officials in Dublin City Council, I am aware there is a concern about having a clear funding stream available to local authorities to enable them to offer support. In many cases, this involves small amounts of money. These are essential supports to fund community and voluntary organisations working on a local basis with Ukrainian families and individuals here and we seek to have that clear funding stream available.

On the issue of employment, any Ukrainian visitors I have met are so keen to engage in work and many are so highly skilled. I met some, particularly women, with wonderful qualifications. I have also met with local employers who are keen to recruit and to ensure that they can match their skill shortages in sectors, for example, pharmacy, retail, hospitality and care work, with the skills of Ukrainians coming here. I have already put down questions on this. What co-ordinated response can we offer to those who wish to offer their services and to those who are looking to employ Ukrainian visitors here given the skill shortage and the recruitment difficulties in many sectors?

We have also raised questions with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, around educational needs of children to ensure minimal disruption of children. There are some reports of children being moved from school to school since arrival in Ireland. That is clearly regrettable. Indeed, there is a need for supports for those with mental health issues and with physical health issues to ensure that there is consistency of care from GPs across the country.

We have offered many different constructive solutions and we look forward to engaging further with the Government. I will hand over to my colleague.

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)
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As my colleague, Deputy Bacik, said, we certainly understand the scale of this or at least we all try to understand just how big this issue is. It is demanding an unprecedented response from Government.

Housing is the greatest challenge but, below housing, there are many important and pressing immediate challenges. I was in St. Finian's Community College yesterday meeting the fifth and sixth year politics and society students and they were asking questions. A girl, named Ciara Brady, asked me if I knew the Ukrainian people who are living up in the hotels in north County Dublin, such as the Shoreline Hotel, and in Emmaus, the Christian Brothers' facility, and I said I did. She asked, "Is there anyone up there looking after them?" It was the most simple question but it cut to the heart of what I am dealing with on the ground, day in, day out. I have been in touch with both the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Joe O'Brien, respectively, who, in fairness, have been really responsive, as has the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, in terms of coming back to me, but that simple question cut to the heart of the day-to-day issues that many of us are trying to assist with and for which I feel there is a deficit in the response.

The Fingal response forum is doing much good work but it does not have competencies in social protection, health, school transport and school placement. These are real issues of concern and ones that we are finding difficult to resolve. If it was not for the work of local volunteers, such as Ms Corina Johnson, locally in Donabate, people would not be getting to doctor and dentist appointments, would not be getting school transport and would not be getting into schools.

What I and the Labour Party are seeking is to have a dependable, experienced presence in these centres, be they hotels or whatever, from the State. It could be retired community welfare officers or experienced Intreo people, but it should be people who are able not only to point people in the right direction and solve problems as they arise but also to have a dependable reporting function to the Ministers and the Government so we know what is happening. Every day, we are getting a new, unique, worrying query. I have encountered safeguarding issues and people coming onto sites looking to take Ukrainian women from sites. I do not have full faith in the structure of the event companies and facilities management companies that are taking over properties. We need experienced State officials here.

I also believe IPAS is too opaque. It is impenetrable, and we cannot contact it even though it is playing a vital role in this. That is very important and it is something I ask the Minister to take on board.

They are the two issues - a dependable State presence on these sites and examining how IPAS is functioning.

2:25 pm

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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Prior to being elected to the Dáil, I spent many years advocating for change in how we facilitate immigration in Ireland, how we allow migrants to enter, what rights we grant migrants who enter and how we help people to become and feel part of society. In the past ten weeks, 28,000 Ukrainians have come to our shores seeking refuge from war. We have provided accommodation to all who have asked for it, some 19,000 people, and people across the country have opened their homes to them.

In terms of facilitating integration of this extraordinary flow of inward migration, the Government and broader society are getting the fundamentals right. Key to this is the temporary protection directive and particularly how Ireland is implementing it swiftly for new arrivals. I credit my colleagues in the Department of Social Protection for their role in this. People are granted the same rights as EU citizens immediately. This is a game changer as I believe broader society is also more inclined to see our new arrivals as equal because they have been granted equal rights. There will be an enduring bond, beyond this war, between Ireland and Ukraine, as the basis of many Ukrainians' introduction to Ireland will facilitate successful integration. Successful integration will also happen very much because of the groundswell of support from individuals and communities across the country. Personally, I have never seen anything like it and we in Government must nurture and support this public reaction. One of the ways we can do this is through our support of the community and voluntary sector. The fast, responsive and adaptable reaction of the community and voluntary sector across the country has been extraordinary. While there has been leadership at the highest levels in government on this issue, there also has been leadership in spades across the country at community level. However, there is more to do.

Community response fora have been set up in every local authority area to co-ordinate the local State and community sector response to the Ukrainians accommodated in each area. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has provided supports to local authorities for these fora. I have visited 12 different accommodation locations across the country in the past two months and everyone I have met is working hard to assist Ukrainians to settle in. Agencies are generally working well together. The local authority-convened community response fora must continue reaching out to all Ukrainians in their areas, especially those accommodated by the State, and assess additional needs. I also ask all community groups working with Ukrainians to connect with their local community response fora. In all the locations that I visited, and Roscommon last week was a prime example, the local response to Ukrainians has been strongest and most supportive in the areas where inter-agency relations have been established and grown, where community and statutory bodies work hand-in-hand and where new working relationships are formed and old ones strengthened. It is also key that all community response fora include representation of Ukrainians themselves in the fora. I am staying connected to the issues on the ground by visiting local responses and regularly meeting stakeholders such as Community Work Ireland, Volunteer Ireland, The Wheel and the Irish Local Development Network.

I also want Members to be aware of the work being carried out in response to the Ukrainian crisis by two particular programmes funded by the Department of Rural and Community Development. First, there is our network of funded volunteer centres and staff across the country and the volunteers they support. We have a funded volunteer centre in every local authority area, which is a massive resource and is doing extraordinary work. I also acknowledge the hundreds of community workers across the country who, under the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, have turned their attention to the needs of Ukrainian refugees in their communities. I attended an online meeting this morning regarding how SICAP nationally through its over 600 community workers, even before the Ukraine crisis, was doing so much work to facilitate the integration of migrant communities. Now these workers are stepping up to the plate again with their expertise and connections to assist Ukrainians across the country.

I assure the volunteers, SICAP workers and the broader community and voluntary sector that I am working at national level with other Departments to get more supports for their work. I am aware that their workload remains while they have done this additional work over the past two to three months. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman and I met a number of NGOs and community groups working on the ground two weeks ago and we have taken on board the issues they raised. We are working on them and hope to meet the groups again soon.

On the issue Deputy Duncan Smith raised with regard to the Shoreline Hotel, I understand that school transport has now been organised. Fingal County Council is going in there. English language classes are starting today via Fáilte Isteach and next week, and this is a model I expect will be replicated in other hotels around the country, Fingal County Council is facilitating all those key State agencies to come in and meet the refugees.

Photo of Jennifer Carroll MacNeillJennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ministers for facilitating this debate today. I will flag a couple of practical issues of which Ministers should be aware. Much has been said that I agree with, particularly Deputy Duncan Smith's points about a State presence. In my constituency, the local Fine Gael councillor, Mr. Jim Gildea, offered his home on the second day of the conflict to the Irish Red Cross. He and his wife live in a home with additional space. They have yet to receive a telephone call. They received an email saying they would get a telephone call but nothing has happened. Meanwhile, another family down the road nearby has a Ukrainian family staying. They have been there for the past two months and with the pressure for everybody it has to move on.

I could link them directly, but I cannot do that because the home and so forth have to be assessed, there must be Garda vetting and one cannot put vulnerable people in a newly vulnerable situation. My difficulty is that I am aware of both situations but I cannot deal with the gap. I have nobody to call and I cannot reach the Irish Red Cross or the IPAS unit. I cannot join these dots even though I am aware of them, and this cannot be the only situation where this is occurring. As public representatives we are encountering many of these different situations which we can use and flag and connect with somebody who can take things further. As Deputies have said, it is difficult to reach IPAS and the Irish Red Cross. I appreciate that they are under overwhelming pressure at present, but we have practical things that can be resolved on the ground. We just need a better-connected system.

I also have a particular concern about Ukrainian teenagers who are coming here, particularly those who are coming alone and who are reliant on Tusla due to whatever tragic reason they are in Ireland alone. The difficulty is where they are ageing out of the Tusla system from 17 years old into 18 years old. In usual circumstances in Ireland, a minor coming to 18 years old is under the after-care programme of Tusla. It is not necessarily clear, it may be so but it is not yet apparent to me, that this is also the case in respect of Ukrainian children. They are not necessarily under a care order, for example, but they are under the remit of, and generally reliant on, Tusla. How do we protect those very vulnerable young people who may be moved from one accommodation to another and may be placed in a situation that is more at risk than where an 18-year-old would otherwise be placed? I draw that to the Minister's attention.

Other Deputies have raised vacancy. That is an ongoing issue. Going around my constituency last week I counted five vacant homes in one estate which historically had been a council estate. I went back later in the week for a constituency clinic and I saw activity in three of them, so something is happening. That is fine, but I cannot access the information about the others. It is still difficult to do that.

It occurs to me, however, that we have a very good rent a room tax relief scheme. When the Minister was the spokesperson on housing for Fianna Fáil he tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, asking for it to be extended from €14,000 to €15,000 per year. I can understand that. However, consider the pressures now in addition to our housing crisis, people coming out of direct provision and a greatly increased number of people looking for accommodation.

If we are trying to increase housing stock generally without placing additional pressure on the social housing system, is it really time to look at this scheme on a temporary basis? Should we conduct a macroeconomic analysis and not only consider tax forgone? If we take a three year temporary programme and do something radical such as double it or increase it by 50% to try to get more one-bedroom places for individuals or couples in Irish homes and provide tax relief to do so, the Department of Finance will speak about tax forgone against general tax income. Could we look at an overall macroeconomic analysis of something such as this? Could we examine what the impact may be on take-up and what the relative cost of this in terms of tax forgone might be versus the cost to the State of acquiring or providing emergency accommodation in other forms? This could then be benched against the humanitarian concern of housing people in what we all recognise are not necessarily appropriate circumstances. It is a radical thing to ask. I ask that the view taken is not only the Department of Finance's quite narrow view of the tax analysis of it but that something more broadly across government would be considered.

2:35 pm

Photo of Cormac DevlinCormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to examine the Government’s efforts to support people fleeing Russia's war in Ukraine. According to the UNHCR, more than 5.5 million people have been forced to flee Ukraine since the Russian invasion on 24 February. As of yesterday, 27,372 people have arrived in Ireland from Ukraine. A total of 18,661 people have sought accommodation through the international protection accommodation service scheme. I welcome confirmation from the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth that they have been offered safe emergency accommodation while long-term arrangements are being finalised.

I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. I also thank his colleagues, the Ministers with responsibility for children, education and justice and other Departments and agencies for their efforts to date. I know staff have made a tremendous effort over the past few weeks to deal with this unprecedented challenge. I also commend local authority staff on their efforts. In Dún Laoghaire Rathdown we have seen fantastic initiatives and efforts made in recent weeks. As have other speakers, I highlight the tremendous welcome provided by the Irish people to people fleeing their homes in Ukraine and the efforts of local volunteers who have stepped up to support Ukrainians in towns and villages throughout Ireland.

Given the extent of the situation, the State has done well to date, but there are longer-term issues. One can foresee pressures and challenges and the Minister might consider a number of suggestions. I have spoken to people who have offered homes or are considering offering homes, particularly on a more long-term basis. They feel guidance or standard arrangements for essentials such as insurance and terms of licences would be helpful. A modest payment to families hosting people to cover underlying costs might also be helpful. A modest grant, linked with appropriate terms and conditions, to bring housing stock up to standard might be a quick way to unlock long-term vacant stock. The Minister is examining this.

Having visited Lithuania in March I am well aware of the feeling in the EU, particularly in the Baltic states which are subject to ongoing hostility and threats from Russia. Europe must continue to stand united against Russian aggression and sanctions must continue until Russia ends its war and occupation in Ukraine. In the meantime, Ireland must do everything we can to support the people of Ukraine. As noted by their ambassador to Ireland, H.E., Gerasko Larysa, Ukraine and its people are fighting for their existence in Russia's barbaric illegal war.

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. Unfortunately since the previous occasion I spoke on this matter the situation in Ukraine has become even worse. The human cost of the war continues to grow as cities are razed, towns are steamrolled and villages are laid to rest. Nowhere appears to be out of reach of Russian brutality. Even cities in the far west of Ukraine such as Lviv are targeted.

Sadly we have often seen the brutal use of missiles in recent years by so-called great powers and superpowers. As ever, civilians the world over continue to pay the price for the wars of the elite. It is ordinary men, women and children in the firing line. Whether it is residential neighbourhoods in Mariupol, children playing in Gaza, weddings or field hospitals in Afghanistan or starving villages in Yemen or Somalia modern remote warfare always hurts innocent civilians the most. While some states try to normalise this brutal form of war it is the responsibility of neutral states such as Ireland to call it out. It is also our responsibility to lead against the war and against the institutions that facilitate it.

The efforts of Ireland's diplomatic mission at the United Nations and the leadership it has shown have not gone unnoticed. However, I believe our political leadership can and should go further. The United Nations and not NATO is the proper forum for delivering aid to Ukraine if sought and, if sought, a peacekeeping mission. Ireland can and should be more vocal on this point. We should be acting as leaders for a non-aligned policy of peacekeeping at the Security Council. We must challenge the veto of imperialist powers, whether that is Russia or any other great power, and ensure human rights, peace and solidarity are the defining virtues of UN decision making. We must use our position to show leadership among the non-aligned nations of the world and advocate a new democratic model of UN decision making. While imperialist powers continue to hold a veto against UN peacekeeping deployments they will continue in their war of aggression the world over.

As has been mentioned, it is important that we accept those fleeing Russian terror. The generosity of the public needs to be reflected by the Government. We have the resources to house all and it is important that we do not divide society. Earlier, Deputy Ó Broin made suggestions that are worth taking on board. I acknowledge the work the Irish Refugee Council and local authorities have done on managing the reception of Ukrainian refugees. Dublin City Council has been very supportive of the community that is welcoming residents at the Evergreen Club in Terenure.

I acknowledge the work and commitment of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. He and his staff have been hugely professional, supportive and encouraging. Along with all of his staff they have made a huge difference. I welcome the commitment by the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, to ensure the current targets are not impacted by Ukrainian refugees. This would only set vulnerable groups against each other and could damage social cohesion and social solidarity and give the extremists an opportunity to develop their hate. As do other Deputies, I believe the Baggot Street hospital provides an opportunity to develop support and it is important that it is done.

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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I commend the huge effort being made to support Ukrainian refugees. They have been displaced by war and forced to leave their homes. A huge amount of work is going on at State level to support them. The response from communities throughout Ireland has been very generous. We have seen communities come together and put the shoulder to the wheel. We have seen community leaders and community activists showing real leadership on this, turning huge goodwill into practical help. It is important to recognise this. There are also those working for local authorities and Departments who are doing a huge amount of additional work. It is very important to recognise this.

I want to touch on a few issues raised by the Minister on some of the measures to increase housing supply overall. I welcome that the commercial rates refunds for vacant properties will be ended. This should have been done a long time ago. It never made sense to reward vacancy through a tax exemption while those who put buildings to use pay the tax. For this to be effective the loophole needs to be closed for the many commercial vacant premises, particularly newer developments. By "newer developments" I mean those in communities that were built ten or 15 years ago, such as in Clongriffin in my constituency. More than 50% of the commercial units at ground floor level are vacant and have been since being built. This is matched in newer developments throughout Ireland. I understand many of them escape rates being applied because the owners claim the units were never finished and are still shells. This is even though the planning permission to fully finish them has long expired.

For this measure to be effective, that loophole needs to be shut down and it needs to be shut down quickly. It is important in terms of bringing buildings back into use and if they are not commercially viable, converting them into housing and if they are commercially viable, getting life back into communities. It is also important in terms of sustainability. Could the Minister look at that?

In terms of activating unused planning permissions, the Minister has been very vocal for a number of years about the need for very strong "use it or lose it" measures. I think we are still waiting to see those strong measures so they need to be brought in urgently. We often hear this narrative about the planning process. It is a significant issue. I accept the frustrations some have with the planning but there are a lot of planning permissions. There is a significant issue with them not being used and built out. In the last quarter of last year, about 6,200 homes were under construction in Dublin but there were 28,500 homes with planning permission. There is an issue with people sitting on those planning permissions and not wanting to bring them to market at the same time because that would obviously have knock-on effects on affordability. It would be good for people in terms of affordability but might not be in the interests of all the developers. Different landowners and developers over the year have told me that this is what they do. They release them at a slow pace to control the prices, which, of course, is what they will do if they are able to.

A practical issue that is a small one but one that affects supply in terms of vacancy is the delays around things like trying to get fire certificates. I know of one landlord with a vacant office for which there is planning permission. Everything is in line to try to convert it into housing above a shop in a town but the landlord has been waiting for months while trying to get the fire certificate. Every time, the landlord gets an update, he is told it will take another few months. These are premises that could be used for housing. It is on a small scale and the landlord is very frustrated about it. When we are putting more and more work on to people who are already stretched in terms of housing delivery or processes and are not putting in additional resources, there is a problem. This landlord was told recently that one of the administrative staff dealing with fire certificates has been taken off that to deal with the current housing crisis. By not having those extra resources, we are actually creating additional issues in terms of vacancy.

I very much agree with the comments of Deputy Duncan Smith in terms of needing full State presence in those professional supports. A significant effort has been made by volunteers but we cannot continue to rely on that will and volunteers. I appreciate that this is an emergency and people have put in significant effort but to date, there has largely been reliance on hotels and other forms of emergency accommodation. This accommodation is suitable for short-term accommodation but we need to move into more sustainable options for people. As Deputy Devlin said, in the case of people who might have an under-utilised property such as a holiday home they do not rent out that is in walk-in condition and could be used, apart from the voluntary pledges that are being worked through, there is no framework or information about insurance or helping to meet those costs of wear and tear. A very strong call should be made to people who have holiday homes that do not see much use who might only use them once or twice a year to make them available for this housing need on a once-off basis but a framework needs to be put in place. It is only reasonable then for these people to be given some compensation to cover their costs and if, for example, they have to make alternative holiday arrangements. This could and should be done. I am concerned that there is an over-reliance on continuing to use hotel accommodation- not by the Minister's Department but by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, which is leading on this - when there are other options that should be used. The Irish Refugee Council has been strong on the need to do that. I appreciate that it takes time but we should not repeat bad mistakes made in other areas, including in terms of homelessness where people have been caught in substandard emergency accommodation for extended periods with the indefensible pressure that puts them under.

In addition to holiday homes, at least 92,000 vacant homes are available. According to GeoDirect, there are more than 22,000 derelict homes and almost 30,000 vacant commercial buildings. Ground floor vacancy rates in Irish towns are well above the European average with vacancy rates as high 28% in Tipperary town according to the Heritage Council and 24% in the centre of Dundalk and Tralee. To put those figures in context, about 120,000 people are on housing waiting lists or in insecure HAP tenancies. It is not true to say that we could match those vacancies exactly with those 120,000 people. Where there is housing need does not match perfectly with where there is housing demand, or anything like perfectly, but it is true to say that while much of this vacant stock is in isolated rural areas, according to the 2016 CSO figures, 64% of it is in urban areas and is largely located in areas where there is housing need.

The Minister is correct that we need both to deal with the existing housing crisis and to meet the needs of people forced to flee their homes as a result of war and he has my full support in this regard. We need to tackle vacancy to free up existing homes and we need a tax on vacant homes, which has been talked about for years but has still not happened. There are reports in the Irish Examinerabout campaigners Jude Sherry and Frank O'Connor, who have done excellent work identifying 700 derelict properties - this does not include vacant properties - within 2 km of Cork city centre. In the middle of a housing crisis, there is no justification for that. This requires an emergency response from the Minister and the Department as to how on earth in the middle of a housing crisis, 700 derelict properties can be identified by two volunteer campaigners in Cork. It should not be left to Dr. O'Connor and Ms Sherry to do that; Cork City Council should be doing this. We need a significant effort relating to vacancy and dereliction and we need it now.

2:45 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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On the last point, Louth County Council are leading the way. I do not know what is happening in Cork but Louth County Council identified over 100 abandoned homes and renovated them at an average cost of €100,000 per home. All of those homes are occupied and families are living in them. I agree with Deputy Cian O'Callaghan that we need a tax on empty homes. It is something for which I have been arguing for in Fine Gael for a number of years. I hope more people are beginning to listen to the sense those arguments make.

I strongly support the view of Deputy Carroll MacNeill regarding the rent a room scheme. It is an obvious way. These are people whose children have left home. The rent a room scheme might be used to help many of these families. It will not be easy to match up individuals with empty properties and there are other issues such as governance and appropriate placements but it would make a lot of sense and I very much commend that.

This is the 71st day of the war. Over 7.7 million people have been dispossessed and 5.7 million people have left Ukraine. This is the same as every man, woman and child in Ireland leaving Ireland to go to another country. This is what is happening in Ukraine.

I very much welcome and support the work of the Government and the work of the Ministers concerned. Indeed, I believe that my own council, Louth County Council, is doing an excellent job. I also commend the community groups. I wish to mention two Ukrainians who are showing very important leadership locally, Olga Duka and Natasha Ibanez. They are helping their community and us to ensure that the Ukrainians are welcomed into our community. Their support is very strong and they are going from strength to strength. As others have done, I wish to voice my support for providing support to families who have taken in refugees. It is a fact that energy costs are going up. People are realising that now. Unfortunately, the energy crisis and the war is leading to an even more difficult situation. There is an issue that has been mentioned in the media, but I have not heard a Minister talking about it today. Let us get the facts out. What is happening on the proposed payment of €400 per month for those who take in refugees that was announced in the media? Are we flying the flag or paying the money? I think it is time to pay the money and to support those families, who will have significant and increasing energy costs as a result of this humanitarian crisis.

The crisis has brought a great response from Louth County Council. The crisis management team, in co-operation with community and other groups, has made a significant difference both in Dundalk, where they have repurposed the Dundalk sports centre, and in Drogheda, where they are repurposing and using the Dominican and Franciscan facilities for longer-term accommodation. I know the work is going on. They are looking at Drumcar and the Marist college in Dundalk to provide further medium- to long-term accommodation. At the end of the day, this has all happened before. It is nothing new for Ukrainians to be dispossessed from their homes. Indeed, a Soviet commentator, Vasily Grossman, wrote about it in two of his novels, Stalingradand Life and Fate. He was present in Ukraine 80 years ago, when the Nazis were murdering, plundering and killing millions of citizens there. The largest number of Jews that were exterminated during the Second World War were Ukrainians. Grossman wrote his book a long time ago. He wrote about Nazi Germany, but if we put in the word "Russia" into his text, it sounds very true today: What has become of Russia? What has happened? They burn villages, organise executions of prisoners of war and massacre peaceful civilians. His question is relevant today: Are there no longer any good, noble or honest Russians? How can that be? We know their science, literature, music, philosophy and culture. Russia and its people will survive, and goodness will triumph over evil. It is not acceptable, when we talk about the war, to talk about ordinary Russians. It is really Putin and the political system. We are not talking about the ordinary people of Russia. I hope that there will be changes there. I have about ten seconds left. I wish to state that the Minister is doing an excellent job. We must put our money where the people are. We must look after the people who are in our homes, and ensure that the families who are accommodating them receive the payment.

2:55 pm

Photo of Emer HigginsEmer Higgins (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I want to begin by thanking the people who are working at our reception centres, at Dublin Airport and at other ports. I thank the many volunteers, and those who have opened their hotels, apartments and homes to people who are fleeing the war in Ukraine. I also wish to acknowledge, in particular, the Irish Red Cross, the many other NGOs and their volunteers, who are playing such an essential role in this national effort. I extend a welcome, a céad míle fáilte, to every person who has arrived here since the war began. I know, from hearing the stories of many Ukrainian people who have come to Ireland, that home is undoubtedly where they want to be, with their families and friends, living in their own homes, going to work or school and living a normal life. Instead, they have been forced to flee, in many cases, leaving their loved ones behind and, in particular, the older people and the men in their lives. Few of us can imagine what it feels like to have one's life turned upside down like that. Words must be little consolation. However, I hope that people will feel welcomed and safe here, in their temporary home.

We have welcomed 27,000 Ukrainian people to our shores. Two thirds of them are women, and around one third of them are under 18. Of those people, 18,500 have sought accommodation from international protection accommodation services. There is no doubt that we, as a country, have a massive challenge on our hands. There is a challenge to ensure that each of these people is looked after and is housed appropriately. We do not want to add to their trauma in any way. I welcome that in addition to hotels, tourist accommodation and pledges made through the Irish Red Cross, the Government is also identifying State-owned or local authority properties which may be suitable for accommodation. I ask the Minister to consider engaging with the HSE before its site in Crooksling, in my constituency, is sold. There is an out-of-use nursing home there, with around 6,000 sq. ft of accommodation and facilities in Brittas, which is on a bus route to Dublin city centre. It could be repurposed to help accommodate Ukrainians. Now is the time to be innovative and to think outside the box, to bring in additional supply to our housing stock. Unfortunately, as we all know, our housing stock was not adequate to meet demand before the war. That is why we need to supplement it with additional homes that otherwise would not be available. That is why it is so important that we engage with people on the holiday homes front. We should really incentivise them to give up their holiday homes for the duration of this crisis, where possible, to accommodate Ukrainians. As others have stated, another great way of bringing more properties into use is to look at tackling vacancy and dereliction. We speak about the issue quite a lot. There are plans in place. Fine Gael recently launched a document on renewal. There are some good ideas in that that could quickly turn vacant or derelict properties into homes. It is also important that we look at the homes of people who are in nursing homes currently, through the fair deal scheme. I note that the Minister has made some commitments around this. It is very timely. These are all important solutions that could help us increase and add to our current housing stock. As Deputy Carroll MacNeill has said, a great way of doing that is by extending the rent-a-room tax relief. I understand that additional individual pledges are still coming into the Irish Red Cross and are being assessed. We all want to see that progressing as quickly as possible. The reimbursement that we have spoken about today is crucial to help tackle the cost of living crisis that families are facing. It is a big undertaking, and one which people should not enter into lightly, in giving up their holiday home or having a new family in their existing home. I think that supporting Ukrainian people with social welfare support services, as we have done from the moment they have arrived in Ireland, is key to giving them the independence and self-support to turn things around.

I know that it can be quite frustrating for some Irish people, who have their own housing problems, to hear us talking about this additional level of crisis in our housing market. However, I do not think this needs to be an either-or situation. We need to ensure that the efforts of the various Departments, that are working so hard to ensure that we are addressing the existing housing and affordability supply, are doubled down on. In the past 12 months, 22,000 new homes were completed, construction began on 35,000 new homes, and 43,000 planning applications for new homes were granted. Scaling up our social and affordable housing supply, increasing cost-rental delivery, improving supports for first-time buyers and returning our vacant stock to the housing market are all important steps to take at this important and challenging time.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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My time is relatively short. There might not be consensus emerging across the House, but I think everybody in the House seems to agree with the broad thrust of where we are going in terms of the provision of housing for Ukrainians. There is increased unanimity on the view that we must tackle vacancy. Points have been made about dereliction, which we are further away from tackling, and bringing properties back into usage. My colleague, Deputy Matthews, has some very interesting ideas around that. I know that the Minister has engaged with him. I want to use my time to drill down into a few specific issues. There has been much praise for the response of local authorities. That is very much deserved. From engaging with my own local authority officials, I know that they are responding first, and worrying about costs later. They are spending the money now in the expectation that they will recoup it from central government. Of course, there should be oversight of spending and we should always try to ensure value for money for the taxpayer. However, it is important that we give that commitment to local government that the money that they spend will be recouped.

As we had to have an emergency response in accommodation, we are housing people in emergency centres and hotels. As we move towards a more medium-term solution, however, I strongly believe we have to consider the layering up of services. Accommodation and housing are central but on top of that we have to look at education provision, the availability of employment, social protection services and transport provision.

While IPAS is the lead agency in providing accommodation, I have heard estimates that between one quarter and one third of Ukrainians are staying with family members. That means the local authorities do not really have sight of these people and do not have a role in providing accommodation for them in the long term. Policy should never be done because of specific examples but I have heard specific examples of people arriving with complex needs for whom it is difficult. The accommodation provision they have is not suitable. For example, I am aware of a child in a school who is autistic and is finding it hard to deal with the dislocation and trauma of the move. That must be extremely difficult and it must be amplified when that family is in a hotel room and must go back to that constricted and confined space. As we move to that medium-term solution, we need to look at the basket of services that we need to apply. They have to follow housing but we also have to think about the other services we provide.

3:05 pm

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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It goes without saying that we welcome the people fleeing war and terror in Ukraine with open arms. Putin's army has invaded a sovereign land and is murdering and terrorising a sovereign people. There are increasing reports, as happens in so many conflicts, that Russia is using rape as a weapon of war. There are reports of the rape of women, children, girls and now also of men and boys. The savage cruelty and inhumanity of Putin's war makes our humanitarian response all the more important and urgent. Given their experience, it is crucial that these people who are coming to us - and I will call them our Ukrainians as that is who they will be - feel safe and secure, starting with how and where we house them. It is important that those who have suffered sexual abuse will be given the proper supports when they arrive here and that our NGOs do not have to waste any time with fundraising when they could be providing that vital support.

Sadly, for a lot of the Ukrainians coming the Government has made a shambles of their accommodation needs, adding to our housing crisis. I have people in north Kildare who would love to offer accommodation to people fleeing Ukraine if they only had a house of their own. However, in their 60s they are sleeping in their cars or camped out on their children’s sofas. For the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and his Government, what is a home for our citizens compared to the millions in profits that a vulture or cuckoo fund can make? It is the lowest of the low to try to blame the poorest of the poor for a housing crisis that is a direct result of his Government's phobia of public and affordable housing, particularly seen as there are none as generous as people who have experienced poverty. They would share their last sandwich with you.

The Government is obsessed with turning housing, something every human being needs, into a profit commodity for the wealthy and the fabulously wealthy. When you look at the pain, suffering, anxiety and fear of people coming to us day in, day out and week in, week out and desperate for housing you can see where the term "filthy rich" came from. It is repulsive in this well-off State in 2022. It is repulsive that we would have our own people struggling to find a place to buy or rent and it is beneath any Irish Minister, given our history, that he would seek to blame migrants for the housing crisis-----

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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It never happened.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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-----that is of this Government’s making while simultaneously welcoming-----

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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That never happened.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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-----Ukrainians who desperately need safety and security. Or has the Government let the cat of the bag that it thrives on and is obsessed by optics, gestures and cheap PR that cost the taxpayer and the people with no homes a fortune? Is it more important for the Government to stand on the international stage and be seen to welcome Ukrainian refugees than to have housing and accommodation that they need? Instead of posing as international statesmen I would ask the Members of Government to be actual statesmen for all the people and use this crisis that is affecting our people and the people we welcome so warmly to revolutionise housing in this State. There are too many already trapped in the no-man’s land on our housings lists, losing their children's childhoods waiting and waiting. The Government has the power and the duty to fix this crisis. We are happy and willing to work with the Government because we know from our clinics that there are too many people wasting their lives away waiting for a home.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy should tell her friends to stop objecting to housing all over the country.

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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I have also met Ukrainians in Naas and the local communities have been exceptional in their welcomes. There have been bring and buy sales and many people across my constituency have welcomed these people. I also know from my dealings with the Irish Red Cross that its staff are working their fingers to the bone. It is important that we get this right. If the Irish Red Cross needs extra help and resources, it is important that they are given to it. Vulnerable people coming here must be provided with a roof over their heads through the proper channels. This is so important because not everybody has good intentions.

One thing we are not happy about is how the highly controversial company, Aramark, is managing to get another ride on the public money merry-go-around to provide meals to another group of fragile people coming to us. There are serious questions in the public mind about the services they provide to direct provision. How did this happen? Why was the process skipped? There are serious questions to answer here. I hate it when I see reference made to "feeding people". We feed animals and we provide meals to people. Those meals are supposed to be nourishing, appetising, well thought out and well presented to human beings, not least human beings who have been traumatised. I would like to ask the Minister on what evidence of it providing this service was this company chosen again? To me, it beggars belief.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I thank the Government for agreeing to the debate I asked for on this. I did so in response to the Minister's letter, which I responded to a number of weeks ago. I will not get into the politics or the foreign policy because I do not have time and we will debate that on another day. I want to discuss the practical issue of how we do what we have to do, namely, both accommodate Ukrainian refugees and address the housing crisis, which is very severe at present. I want to argue with the Minister that we have to make this a win-win. Notwithstanding all our debates on previous policies and so on, if the current situation has prompted the Government into doing extraordinary and unprecedented things and if it is willing to consider extraordinary and unprecedented things, then I suggest we do that to get that win-win. We have the opportunity to do it because Putin's bloody invasion and the fact there is a war gives the Minister extra powers and I specifically refer to the Emergency Powers Act 1939, which gives him the power to do extraordinary and unprecedented things. Critically, this includes the power in section 2(2)(g) to "authorise and provide for the acquisition, taking possession, control or user (either by agreement or compulsorily) by... the State of any land or other property whatsoever" in the context of war. We should have used those powers before to get hold of vacant and empty buildings but whatever about that debate, I am appealing to the Minister to now use that power because he is justified in doing so.

I want to cite the following examples from my area. I invite the Minister to look at the Seamark Building on Google. It is 10,000 sq. m large with about six storeys and has been empty for a decade at Merrion Gates. It is a scandal and we could use it for accommodation. We could reconfigure it very quickly; it is a modern building and a lot of people could be put in there. Right beside it, in the hands of the Religious Sisters of Charity, are the St. Mary's Centre Telford complex and the Caritas nursing home, which are virtually empty and have been for a few years. Whatever about the previous history of that it is available and there are other public and private buildings available.

I am saying we need to do this unprecedented thing. Simultaneously, we should use the same powers to get a higher proportion of social and affordable housing from new developments. Legislatively the Minister can get 10% social and affordable housing in new developments and I know the Minister has upped it to 20%. I am asking the Minister to seriously consider getting a higher proportion. In my area one could drive along the N11 and see multiple apartment complexes near completion. In Cherrywood, there are huge amounts of properties near completion, for example. In the current situation we are justified in doing this and the Minister has the power to purchase more of those apartments, both for people on the housing lists and for the extra housing needs we have. We have to do that now.

Otherwise, we will not be able to deal with the housing crisis, which is at a very acute level.

The Minister was saying I was a bit late. I know he has to run off. I have just come from Dún Laoghaire courthouse where a young working man and his family are about to be evicted by the council over a dispute about family succession. I will not get into the rights and wrongs of the issue, although I think it is wrong, but it makes no sense. Why would we allow no-fault evictions in the current climate? Why would the Minister allow it? It will put extra burden on the emergency accommodation which we need for all the refugees.

There is a win-win here. Stop the no-fault evictions on an emergency basis. I would like to see it go further but surely this is the emergency that would require that to happen. I ask the Minister to stop them even if it is on a temporary basis for a year or two. Given the current climate, why would we put extra burdens on emergency housing services by allowing no-fault evictions from public or private housing? I ask the Minister to get a higher proportion of the buildings that are near completion or completed and to use the emergency acquisition powers that are available to him to get public and private buildings.

We should go on an aggressive campaign to recruit people directly to local authorities or to some sort of State construction core in order to reconfigure and refurbish buildings. I know the Minister has made efforts to move in this direction, but in my area there are more council voids than there have been for quite some time. It is clear that we have not got enough staff. There should be an aggressive campaign to recruit people directly in order that the State will have the capacity to move in and refurbish both council and private properties that could be reconfigured to provide temporary, emergency or medium- and longer-term accommodation. I appeal to the Minister to take those suggestions seriously and to look at some of the proposals in my area.

3:15 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I will start by countering the disgusting attempt by some on the far right to divide and rule and to try to blame the housing crisis on refugees from Ukraine or elsewhere. The Minister shook his head when it was mentioned a moment ago and indicated he did not say what he is reported as having said. He should clarify his comments because what seemed to be said on the radio was that a serious cause of the increase in homelessness is that people were coming from EEA and non-EEA countries and immediately going on the homeless list, as opposed to the very obvious reason for the explosion in homelessness that is the ending of the eviction ban. One can trace the increase in the numbers of homeless people from the end of the eviction ban.

The real people responsible for the housing crisis are Irish landlords, developers, US and European vulture funds and the real estate investment trusts, REITs. We need to fight for emergency action to provide decent housing for all. A month ago I raised with the Taoiseach the case of more than 20 families in the Shannon Arms in Limerick facing eviction by a consortium of landlords that included Supermac's millionaire Mr. Pat McDonagh. We now know that these tenants include a family from Ukraine that has been living in Ireland for the past number of years, as well as a family from Syria. The far right wants to sow division and have neighbour blame neighbour, but the only people who benefit from this are the millionaire slumlords such as Mr. Pat McDonagh. What we actually need is to build solidarity among neighbours and all working-class people to stand up to the landlords and refuse to be bullied out of their homes. Some people have already been kicked out and are homeless. Others face eviction in a matter of weeks. However, the tenants are now organised and are resisting these evictions. Mr. Pat McDonagh is masking his evictions as renovations and is doubling up the occupancy of apartments and reintroducing tenements to squeeze more money from them. Scandalously, if Mr. McDonagh succeeds in making them homeless, some of these tenants could end up being put up by the State in the local hotel that he owns.

Last month, the Taoiseach appealed to the landlords not to evict the families. The landlords have not listened. I appeal to the Minister and the Taoiseach to take action and not to speak any more empty words. I ask them to bring the Shannon Arms into public ownership in order that the tenants can be protected and it can be used to house others in need and to invest in it to improve conditions and strengthen the community there.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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A headline in the Irish Independentlast Monday morning read, "Migrants from countries other than Ukraine adding to pressure on homeless supports, housing minister warns". Imagine if a few of the words in that were switched around in order that the headline stated, "Migrants from countries other than Ukraine adding to pressure on homeless supports, Le Pen warns". That would fit perfectly well. The Minister is directly quoted in the article, and the headline does not jar in any way with the content of what he said. Unless the direct quotes in the newspaper article are made up or false, that headline reflects what the Minister said.

The Minister and his Government colleagues have been given a number of opportunities in the House this week to step back and distance themselves from what was said. When the Minister was asked yesterday and earlier in this debate, which I did not see it but I have listened to the comments here, there was a vigorous shaking of the head. The Taoiseach was asked about that by my colleague, Deputy Boyd Barrett, yesterday. People should have a look at what the Taoiseach said in reply; he completely sidestepped the question.

This is not good enough. There is no place for comments of that nature. The Minister and the Taoiseach should face up to that and accept that if a mistake was made, then what was said should be retracted. Trying to shimmy out of it will not wash. No one group of vulnerable or homeless people should be picked out in this way. We are watching very carefully what Ministers say on this question from here on in. There were other points I wanted to make about a situation in Cork but I have 20 seconds left and I have approximately a minute and a half of points to make on it. I will leave it at that.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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We all have a lot to say on an issue such as this. It is important that we say it. I appreciate the early statements by the Ministers and by all the Deputies who have been present throughout the debate. I would like to think that this unites the House and the country in terms of our response to a war that is now in its 71st day. The impacts of the war are absolutely startling, if it has not long started, on our society and economy and most importantly on our role as signed-up members of the human race.

I will make points as a direct response to the sort of representations to my office from constituents who wish to play their part. Their generosity is genuine and their compassion for the people fleeing Vladimir Putin's brutal war in Ukraine is absolute. However, they have questions and they want clarity. They want those questions answered in a way that will ensure that they are comfortable in making sure of their generosity. As we saw at the outbreak of the pandemic, there are, unfortunately, certain limits to solidarity. There is often a rush for solidarity and then when things a bit tough, people get a little bit concerned or it slips out. Whether we like it or not, the wall-to-wall coverage of the war in Ukraine will diminish as time goes by. Unfortunately, the notion of the Russians shelling Kyiv or committing atrocities the likes of which have not been seen, if not since the Balkans war, then certainly since the Second World War, becomes normalised.

My office gets questions from people who may be fortunate or in a situation in which they have a second home such as a holiday property or one they are in a position to put to use for this effort. In some situations they might have a spare room in their home. People who have contacted me have properties and are willing to put them forward, but they want to have clarity for their own purposes. It is not necessarily for their own sake, it also for dealing with insurance companies in terms of the ability to inspect the properties, to have an idea when they may receive the properties back and what exactly they are signing up for. They ask when they will get clarity and whether their offer is being accepted, under what term it is being accepted and about the registration. I fully appreciate that the Red Cross, which is running this portal, is snowed under with offers, some of which are the most generous and genuine but which are simply not suitable for what is required.

When these offers are submitted, some people will have questions. They want to know that these will be answered in an open and non-judgmental way. These people wish to have the peace of mind of knowing they will be able to refer back to their insurance companies, banks or even other family members with information, especially where the property involved is the subject of a time-share or split-ownership arrangement. A number of extremely suitable properties are not being used now because of a lack of clarity or information. This is because people who wish to engage in the process, but who are not absolutely sure they will be able to follow through and complete the process, are afraid there might be some pushback.

Many Deputies have referred to the need to engage in myth-busting. I have already started to get one or two calls to my office from people who may be on the housing list or trying to get a child into a particular school. The practice of othering is one we have been seeing for some time. It has been present during all my time in politics, whether here, in the Seanad or on the county council. I refer to situations where people believe they are not getting a house, not moving up the housing list or not getting a place for their children in a school because somebody else is coming in and leapfrogging them. This is being fuelled by campaigns of misinformation and disinformation on social media undertaken by malevolent characters who would jump on any crisis to make odious points. We must be aware that this is happening. I have referred many times to the open approach of the Russian Government and Russian operatives to warfare, which is not just about shells and missiles, troops on the ground, cyberwarfare and hybrid warfare; it also involves the use of the tool of misinformation and disinformation.

Across the Continent, the level of misinformation being directed to European Union member states is evident. I speak to parliamentary colleagues in the Baltic States and central and eastern Europe, especially those in Poland and Slovakia. Those countries have been dealing with this disinformation and misinformation emanating from the Government of the Russian Federation and its operatives for well over a decade. We are now starting to get a taste of it. Horrendous mock imagery was broadcast earlier this week on Russian state television of what would happen if a nuclear bomb was detonated off the coast of Donegal and Ireland became a nuclear desert after a tsunami. It is par for the course for the type of disinformation directed into Estonian television sets, for example, or online. We must be aware when unknown people with multiple numbers after their handles are coming on social media and saying people are not getting places on social housing lists because everything is being given to Ukrainian refugees and 27,000 people are jumping the queue. It is important that we target that type of misinformation and disinformation. We must not only call it out; the Government must also take the lead in doing so.

When talking about housing and accommodation needs, and I have mentioned this point before, the overall holistic approach to caring for our guests from Ukraine is something that deserves a continued focus in the context of providing language supports, immersion and utilising those people resident here who are from other eastern and central European countries, who may have been living here longer, as well as people from the Ukrainian diaspora. Counselling and pastoral care are crucial for people coming from a traumatic situation who will, unfortunately, also be facing more trauma in future, whether that stems from loved ones lost in the conflict or houses destroyed.

I also echo and want to add to the point made by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, this morning. We talk about rebuilding Ukraine. Ireland and the rest of the EU need to begin the process of devising a type of Marshall plan for Ukraine. We must rebuild Ukraine, not only to restore it to what it was before Russia’s brutal war but to enhance it. Such a level of reconstruction and financial support is in our interest. It will ensure that when - and not if - Ukraine joins the EU expeditiously, that it will do so from a position where the country is ready to participate in the Union and serve in its institutions.

3:25 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I am sorry I missed the Minister of State’s contribution. I was at the national child safety summit in Croke Park. It was an excellent event and well done to all involved, including One in Four. It was an enlightening experience, and this is a matter that must be addressed in the long term. When somebody comes to us for help, the only thing we can do is to offer that help. By the end of May, we are expecting that between 29,000 and 33,000 Ukrainians will be seeking accommodation in Ireland. We must do what we can to support them. I spoke about this at the parliamentary party meeting. I am working with a group in Carlow and I am finding the generosity of the Carlow people amazing. It is the same all across the country. We are all aware of how good Irish people are when it comes to something like a crisis, and this is a crisis.

That said, I have a few concerns. One is in the context of bed and breakfast and hotel accommodation. In Carlow and across the country, we have seen communities get together and do up houses and old schools because we are trying to ensure that everyone who comes here will have a place to stay. The issue now is that this type of approach is not sustainable in the long term. While I welcome everything that has been done, and I am conscious I missed the Minister of State's contribution, I wonder what our long-term plan is in this regard. We need a strategy for the future. This is not a situation that is going to go away overnight and we must ensure we have a framework in place to address this aspect. This is important. It is important for Irish people and Ukrainian refugees to know that we have such a plan in place.

Previous speakers mentioned that when we originally talked about accommodation, people were asked to offer up houses. People have been so good and they have done that. I am also, though, getting phone calls in my constituency from people who are saying they tried to get in contact with someone in this regard, but no one has responded to them. Another person rang me to say a family was living in a house the caller felt was not up to scratch. It was felt that the house had not been checked properly and that it should have been before a family was put in to live in the building. We are just starting to come across these sorts of issues. In fairness to the Red Cross, which is doing its absolute best, this is an unprecedented situation. No one was prepared for this to happen on such a scale. We can only say to those in the Red Cross that we understand they are doing their best in this context.

Regarding people with disabilities, a man contacted me through a family. He is in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, the accommodation he was put into was unsuitable. In the end, the man was moved. There was a meeting of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters this morning and one of the topics that came up was that people with disabilities fleeing war can be treated unfairly if they cannot advocate for themselves. This is another aspect to be considered. We must be extremely mindful of people with disabilities and of people in wheelchairs. We must ensure, if we can, that we are able to accommodate them. We must be mindful of this aspect too. I contacted the office of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. However, there is an issue in this regard. In fairness, everybody is doing their best. Local authorities are doing their best, and I can only sing the praises of Annette Fox of the Carlow County Development Partnership, CCDP, in the context of its social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP. The Minister of State knows Ms Fox as well. She is doing an excellent job. All these different agencies are doing their best. My point though is that it is important that there be more points of contact for people wishing to offer their homes for accommodation in places like Carlow town, Tullow, Bagenalstown or the Minister of State's city of Kilkenny. Similar to what I said before about people who have a house or a holiday home, the problem encountered concerns trying to get the relevant information and getting it quickly. This seems to be the biggest issue we are facing. Therefore, I ask that we examine a system to address this issue. In Carlow, the SICAP programme is leading this endeavour through the community. The local authority, and I mention Brian O’Donovan and Michael Brennan in this context, is also playing a big part regarding the issue of accommodation. What is important is getting the relevant information out fast enough and undertaking communication quickly. I ask that this aspect be examined.

I reiterate that it is important to say we are all doing our best here and working as best we can. I would feel more secure about the future, however, if we had a framework in place. Hopefully, perhaps, the Minister of State might come back to us in a few weeks with a response that will provide us with more information. I must return to the point - and there is no point in blaming anyone because everyone is doing their best - that I always feel that the provision of information seems to be where we fall down a bit. I know the Minister of State will address this facet.

The Sunday before the bank holiday weekend was Easter Sunday for Ukrainians who are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. They have a slightly different date for Easter. In fairness to Annette Fox, Stephanie McDermott and all the different groups, and I do not want to mention too many people because I will always forget someone, a big event was organised. It was lovely to see children present and playing at the event. There was Ukrainian music. When we were going into the room, there was food and lovely arty eggs. It is a tradition in Ukraine to buy and craft colourful eggs for Easter. When I was in that room, I just thought how nice it was that we in Ireland are ensuring that we make these people feel welcome.

That is part of it, namely, trying to make sure they have their events that they need to have. There are challenging times ahead but I know that we in Ireland will do our best and will make sure they are kept safe.

3:35 pm

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Canney. We have ten minutes, I think.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputies have 12 and a half minutes. That is inflation.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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We are witnessing the horror of war at the moment, although we are removed from it. The destruction that is happening in Ukraine and the annexation of parts of Crimea are truly horrifying. War crimes are taking place there, brutality, rape and genocide. The Russian leadership will have to be held to account for it in the future. Pictures have come out of Bucha in the past two weeks showing victims with their hands tied, their fingernails removed and obvious evidence of torture. Women and children have been raped. These are crimes against Ukraine and humanity. At some future point, Ireland must be more strident in terms of expressing our its outrage at what has happened there.

The recent propaganda on Russian television detailing the extermination of the population of Ireland and Britain through a nuclear attack is a further sign of the desperation of the Russian leadership as it moves to provide new threats to Western support for Ukraine's fight for democratic survival. The Russian ambassador has repeatedly lied to the Irish people. He should be summoned by the Government to account for the tyrannical threats of Vladimir Putin to our country and our existence. He should also get the message that Ireland has never given in to bullying.

I sincerely thank the Irish people for our collective response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Thanks are due to our NGOs, local authorities -my own local authority in Waterford is doing an outstanding job - and the lead Departments and their officials have gone to extraordinary lengths to provide shelter for and welcome to Ukrainian refugees coming into Ireland. The Minister for Foreign Affairs outlined that the number so far stands at 27,300 and is growing daily. To date, 18,000 people have required temporary accommodation. In my county of Waterford, as well as many other counties, generous homeowners have provided immediate accommodation in their houses. In Waterford, we have refugees staying in a number of sports centres in the city and county. I thank the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and his Department officials for expediting a property offer I brought to him some weeks ago. Gracedieu House in Waterford will welcome the first of many guests this weekend.

The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage outlined the significant work being done by his Department, local authorities, the OPW and NGOs to identify additional possible property locations. The Regional Group brought a motion before the House only in the past weeks to target the vacant properties throughout the country that are lying idle. I welcome the Minister's decision to reform the fair deal scheme to allow properties to become available to the rental market. The Minister also mentioned the possibility of providing modular home solutions on public lands that could revert back to the State in the future as part of temporary housing stock. This initiative must be expedited immediately. There is no reason to delay it.

The Minister mentioned the agility of Ireland's response to the crisis. There is probably much more we can do. In Waterford, a number of community organisations have contacted me with a view to providing outreach activities for Ukrainian visitors. At present, there is no designated contact person to co-ordinate such offers, although I welcome the Minister saying additional staffing is now being provided to local authorities. Many of the visitors coming here wish to work but there is no formalised process to provide work access routes for them. One of the biggest deficits in the country at the moment relates to haulage drivers. Ukrainian heavy goods vehicle, HGV, licensed hauliers do not have their licences recognised here. Ukrainian car driver licences are recognised, however. Germany has moved to give immediate recognition to Ukrainian HGV licences and these drivers are taking up immediate employment. I ask that the Minister speak to the Department of Transport to question why we cannot follow the lead of Germany and adopt a similar approach that would provide much-needed skilled labour to the transport and logistics sector.

School access and teaching cover is a significant issue already, with some schools having taken in Ukrainian children with no English, without Ukrainian translators to help. Teaching cover must be provided to ensure seamless integration of these children, but also to defend against a charge of disadvantaging existing pupil-teacher ratios.

The issue of private pledges has been mentioned. They have become somewhat problematic. People may be foregoing rent on summer holiday lets that they are now reconsidering. The potential duration of stay may be a concern for many and the introduction of tenancy rights may be in the minds of some of the 6,000 pledges now declined. In addition, the standards demanded for accommodation provision are possibly too high in the context of many properties that have been offered. People may be also holding off in case the Government decides to financially support pledged arrangements. This is something the Government needs to make a decision on soon, and it needs to announce the outcome of that decision.

I was glad to hear the Minister say the Housing for All programme funding is separate and ring-fenced from Ukrainian accommodation support moneys. That being said, the labour component now required to build houses under the Housing for All scheme to cater to Ukrainian housing needs and to provide a retrofitting programme is not available in the State currently. This fact must be recognised and policy decisions must take account of it. Public contractors are at present refusing to quote for a large number of public sector builds. This is because of the onerous nature of the contracts and the inability of contract programmes to allow any adequate contingency or variation clauses. This is a significant reality that Government procurement is going to have to step up to and meet. If I can refer again to Waterford, the Minister has put a threshold of €250,000 on the affordable housing programme. This is completely at odds with the prevailing market and the reality of building costs in Waterford. For the local authority to deliver any house under this scheme it will have to be at least €325,000. I have discussed this repeatedly with the Minister without action with respect to moving the support level from where it is at present. Nothing will be provided under the affordable housing scheme in Waterford.

The people of Ireland have long ranked as among the most generous in the world. Yet again we are stepping up and providing support for those who need it most. Our response to date has been magnificent. If this war drags on we will be called on to show continuous solidarity and generosity to Ukraine. We must not forget what is happening in Ukraine today and that, but for the kindness of strangers and the solidarity of our friends and neighbours, it could happen in Ireland at any point in the future. Let no one say of us that when we were needed, we were not there. That has never been the history of this country or its people and must not ever be. Regardless of the trials and tribulations it may bring to our shores, we must persevere. Ireland has always shone brightest in the darkest hours before the dawn. Let us continue to be a beacon for those who are fleeing for their lives and their children's lives from the war zones in Ukraine.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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This morning at the Joint Committee on Disability Matters we heard presentations from people who have disability in their mind. AsIAm, WALK and other agencies were in attendance to explain what is happening in Ukraine to children and people with disabilities and what the challenges are when they come out of Ukraine and into Ireland or across Europe. The presentation from WALK describes how the organisation was:

... in touch with an organisation in Kyiv in Ukraine where they gave practical examples of how people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the war. For example, shelters in Kyiv are inaccessible, so people with disabilities are forced to stay at home with no level of safety, adults and children are being left in institutions to fend for themselves with little or no access to food and water, there is no essential medication for lifelong conditions such as multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, power failures where electric wheelchairs become inoperable, and we have been told stories about the experiences of people with disabilities that have died unnecessarily because they cannot hide or navigate the cities' surfaces that are now covered in rubble making them completely inaccessible for anybody with mobility issues.

That was part of the presentation this morning. It shows what is actually happening to people with disabilities in Ukraine.

We are all very forgiving but I do not know how we can forgive Mr. Putin for throwing this onto the people of Ukraine, including the vulnerable.

I am involved with agencies across Europe that focus on children with autism. More than 100 Ukrainian children with autism have come to this country so far. Putting them into hotels is not at all right. They need to have safe accommodation and an environment they can get used to. They have been through so much trauma. A huge body of work is to be done to make sure that when we bring in people with special needs, they will be treated properly and not all in the same way. There is an individuality problem here and we need to make sure that we deal with it. It is a huge challenge. We have a challenge here in any event in trying to provide services. We must take cognisance of this when planning to take in people.

At the meeting this morning, it very much came across that there is a lack of co-ordination at interdepartmental level in delivering disability services. The added problem is that it is very hard to find who is in charge. While the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is the Minister of State responsible for disabilities, who is co-ordinating the bringing into Ireland of those with special needs? Who is identifying those needs? Some people are leaving Ukraine but leaving all their mobility aids behind because they cannot bring them with them. These people are being carried into this country. On arriving, interpreters must be got to find out exactly what medication they are on. This is not painting a pretty picture. It is actually cruel to have to talk about it, but the way it was presented to us this morning was very strong and simple. We need to put a co-ordinated plan in place and make sure that we have all the support services required. That is a challenge because we are failing to provide the services for our own people. We must ask how we can deliver for everyone with a special need.

The question of housing and its scarcity has been documented well here today. As Deputy Shanahan said, there is potential in the existing vacant stock. We should wipe out or circumvent all the planning regulations and rules. Gateway approval is needed to spend money to do the houses up. We need to just get on with it. Also, we need to make sure, all working together, that we do not leave anybody behind. We must explore every option, including in the short term. What is short-term? The people coming here from Ukraine say they want to go back to their own country but they will not be able to do so until it is rebuilt and there is accommodation for them there. That will take more than a few months. Therefore, we have a huge challenge on our hands. We have a long-term problem in this country with services for disabilities but we now have an added challenge. We must work together on it. We must not treat everybody who comes into the country in the same way.

3:45 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute to these statements on the Government's response to those fleeing Ukraine. I wish the Ceann Comhairle and Cathaoirleach of the Seanad well in their forthcoming address to the Ukrainian Parliament. I am aware that they will carry the best wishes and heartfelt concern of the Irish people to our Ukrainian brothers and sisters.

Having listened to other speakers, I believe it is interesting that there has not been a word of criticism of the Government's approach in response to the Ukrainian crisis. The approach has been multifaceted. It has involved the Taoiseach, Ministers and the agencies mentioned by previous speakers, including the Irish Red Cross, which I imagine was overwhelmed at the very beginning, never having experienced the demands that exist or anything like the challenges it now faces. It is slowly managing to get around to processing the offers of accommodation by the public. There are also the volunteer groups and the ordinary, decent people. We read in social and other media that if there is a call-out for food, clothing, bedclothes or other products needed in a specific locality or by individuals, the response is overwhelming, quick, warm and empathic. The response has not just been by individuals and NGOs, however. In my constituency, large corporations have very quietly donated significant sums to ensure a budget to secure supplies of whatever goods are needed. The budget is not finite and I believe the offers are open.

I can think of a couple of individuals in my constituency who have been part of the response. Mick Kennedy of Knocklyon United FC is a big advocate and proponent of sport for all, including children with special needs. Ukrainians had been arriving for only two days when Mr. Kennedy had thrown open the club and made it, its teams and coaches available to any Ukrainian boy or girl who wanted to join a soccer club and play sport. That generosity of spirit is characteristic of people's response. It has been replicated in my constituency by clubs such as Tallaght Town AFC and others. I recently saw a call-out from South Dublin County Sports Partnership, which was looking for mentors, coaches, experts, clubs or teams willing to assist with accommodating Ukrainian teenagers. Another club, St. Jude's, also in my constituency, so happened to have been one of the first to respond. Overall, the response was overwhelming, swift and all-embracing, reflecting all kinds of sports codes within Dublin South-West. This kind of response has featured nationwide.

There are a couple of points I want to make in particular. The Government made a big ask of chief executives of local authorities around the country to co-ordinate the volunteer response. I want to pay special attention and tribute to South Dublin County Volunteer Centre, which is in my constituency. The centre came to my attention initially because its volunteers have manned and womanned the vaccination centres since vaccinations began at the convention centre in Citywest. The centre has supplied the volunteers from around Dublin South-West constituency and outside it on a 12- and 18-hour basis. There were different shifts, with people in high-vis jackets making sure people were carefully and gently marshalled into position. When the call came from the chief executive of South Dublin County Council stating the Government had asked volunteer groups, which in south Dublin included South Dublin County Volunteer Centre, to respond in any way they could to the Ukrainian refugee situation, they answered it. Through a family member, I became interested and signed up. I have completed only a fraction of the number of shifts that many of the volunteers have completed. I have done only two to date. They tend to be six hours long. I am happy I applied to do them. There is no point in my saying it is fulfilling but it has just been very interesting to watch coaches, sometimes with as few as five people and sometimes with as many as 20 or 30, arriving around the clock, including as late as 3, 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. The centre is manned by volunteers and also officials from the Department of Social Protection, who are present on a 24-hour basis ensuring that when accommodation is offered, the wait is not lengthy and people are dispatched around the country speedily and efficiently.

Some of the people who have come from Ukraine have driven. You can see in Citywest car park, which was built for different things, the odd car with a Ukrainian registration plate. The following story, whose events I did not witness, was told to me by a volunteer. It is about the arrival here of a family with a very young daughter who was still in her school uniform.

Their town, it seemed, had been reasonably safe at a particular time on a particular day, and then clearly came under threat. She was collected by her parents from her school while in her school uniform and they drove across central and western Europe and arrived in Dublin, with their daughter still in her school uniform. That is the kind of story that brings home to us the horrors of war.

I met a beautiful man, Jacob. He left Palestine many years ago to escape the horrors of conflict. He found himself in Ukraine and fell in love with a Ukrainian woman. He now finds himself in Dublin as a result of the horrors of conflict in Ukraine. He came from Mariupol. All of the volunteers and the Government will be familiar with all of these stories, but these are the narratives we have to keep hold of. There are human stories at the end of each of the forms filled out by Ukrainian refugees. Jacob has no idea about the fate of his parents he left behind.

Again, it is striking that when the coaches arrive there are many young girls, babies, women, mothers and sisters, yet so few men. They are emphatically warmly welcomed. Citywest is a temporary rest centre and is manna from heaven and a real refuge when people arrive. There are mattresses and clean sheets and duvets, which are changed every day. The place is looked after very well. The food offering could be a little better and was designed initially with the intention and on the understanding that when refugees arrived they would spend just 24 hours or less there. Some have had to spend a little longer, sometimes because of waits for accommodation. Thankfully, they have been few. They may be waiting for an accompanying relative to arrive a day or two days later or, indeed, a pet. There are only so many hotdogs and packed sandwiches one can eat.

I pay tribute to the coach drivers, who have traversed different parts of the country in good humour while showing the best of Irishness to people who have been forced to come to our shores through no fault of their own. I also pay tribute to the people who man, a 24-hour basis, the food truck, as well as the staff of Citywest and security people. There is teamwork and camaraderie there. I acknowledge the social protection staff who process the forms and the staff and passport personnel in Dublin Airport.

Yesterday, I told the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, of an issue that I would like the Minister to note. People are processed really well and the system is impressive. When people arrive in Citywest they are given a mobile phone and complete paperwork. They are given a social security number if they arrive in Dublin Airport or Rosslare. However, for people who arrive in Dublin Port - not many do - it does not seem to have the ability to process refugees there in the manner in which they are processed in Dublin Airport. People are sent to Citywest and sent back to Dublin Airport to be processed. They then have to go back to Citywest again. Perhaps the Minister could address that.

This has been an opportunity for volunteers to come to the rescue of the State. They are doing unpaid work. The Citywest venue is manned 24 hours a day, and has been since refugees began to arrive there. Volunteers have created a database that they circulate to other volunteer centres in other counties to let them know a certain number of refugees are coming their way and are being dispatched. I do not think the Government is organising that; it is being organised on a voluntary basis.

On the wider question on issues like accommodation and so on, we have to be creative and innovative. There may be a possibility of accommodation in some of our ports, not at sea but on the water. We can now accept that as a result of visits to Ukraine by people like my colleagues, Billy Kelleher, MEP, and Senator Timmy Dooley, that there are towns and villages which have been razed to the ground but do not make it to the news. The damage inflicted that we have seen on television is almost beyond belief. We now know that if the war ended on 6 May, in many cases there is simply nowhere for these people and their families to return to.

Therefore, the generosity of spirit that Irish people have shown will have to be extended a little longer. Jacob, who originated in Palestine, is a barber and also has a masters degree in technology, but had not practised that particular skill in a long time. He was offered a job soon after he arrived here. Many people are willing and able to work. Many others have different specific needs. Clearly, their mental health and well-being, as well as overall health, ought to be a priority. Many will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many are still clearly in deep shock. The common attribute and human demeanour they display is, more than anything else, one of absolute resilience, gratitude and warmth towards the people who are receiving them.

I want to pay tribute to the people in my community, who are reflective of people throughout the island, for their generosity of spirit and heart. They show empathy in the knowledge that what we have witnessed is horrific and no one leaves their homeland for another far-off strange place by choice. All any refugees want to do is to return to a safe and peaceful place in a timely manner. Irish people will continue to respond to whatever demands and challenges come before them. It is beginning to seep into the national consciousness that this is going to be a little bit more of a marathon than a sprint in terms of the demands that will be made of us as a people.

3:55 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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Ukrainian refugees are coming here on a false promise announced by a Government that has little or no plan as to where these vulnerable people are to be housed in the long-term. There is a feeling of powerlessness that can quickly take hold when watching awful images from conflict zones in the comfort and security of one's own home, whether that it is Kyiv, Damascus or Kabul. It is hard to know how to respond to stories of families being ripped apart, people fleeing from being shot in cold blood or children deliberately being targeted in war crimes.

All of the people coming into the country need to be housed. It is obvious that there are not enough houses in this country to cater for them. Even the current number is proving to be a significant challenge, with hotels and bed and breakfasts wanting their properties back and some families finding it difficult to host refugee families. There was a real Irish housing crisis before the Ukrainian crisis ever began. We have had a deepening housing crisis since the last financial crash in 2008-2010.

Around 10,000 people in Ireland are homeless today. That is approximately the population of Ballina. Approximately 120,000 are on local authority social housing waiting lists. People are expected to wait for a home under the scheme for at least nine years, on average. That is approximately the population of County Clare. Approximately 7,000 people are in the direct provision system. All in all, when one adds the numbers together one will find we already had about 137,000 people in this country, prior to the war in Ukraine, waiting for a home. That is about the same number of people who currently live in counties Offaly and Monaghan combined.

The Government's ongoing virtue signalling in taking in refugees, when its record of providing housing is atrocious, is shameful. The Government's response to the needs of Ukrainian refugees will, undoubtedly, follow the same failed policy route. It is now clear that the Government has no plan or strategy to deal with the influx of refugees. Despite this, Ministers and the Taoiseach have made sweeping announcements that Ireland will pledge to have no restrictions on the numbers entering the country.

This approach is not only letting down the refugees who are fleeing war; it is also letting down our own people. It is more of the same, with Ministers making promises they cannot possibly keep. Deep down they know that, but continue to make the promises anyway. The State has an appalling record when it comes to looking after vulnerable people in need of housing, and it appears that the path being paved by the Government will make matters much worse for everybody involved.

An opportunity has been missed here. The unfortunate Ukrainians who are fleeing the terrors of their country and coming here have not been given the opportunity to live in rural communities. I cannot understand why that is the case. In most situations that I see, they are being put into areas that already have serious housing issues and problems. There was a massive opportunity for Ukrainians to be brought into small rural communities. I do not see many of them going home in the short term because, unfortunately, it is a long-term issue for them. These towns and villages in rural communities - there are plenty of them in my constituency - are starved of people to go to school there, for example. They have fabulous facilities such as community halls and beautiful playing pitches or whatever for all sports but they lack people. There are opportunities there.

In my parish of Goleen there is a Garda station with seven rooms lying idle. The Garda station was closed. Why can it not be given to the community? Why is that being made impossible? There are plenty of community and voluntary groups in the area. Could six people be housed in that building? The local school would survive if that was done.

Another issue in west Cork at the moment relates to Darrara agricultural college. In fairness to the staff of the college, they have done superb work to make sure the Ukrainians who have arrived at the college in recent weeks are welcome. The Ukrainians at the college have now been offered an opportunity to work. I was contacted by a company in Clonakilty that is offering many of the individuals an opportunity to work. They have no transport to get to the workplace, however. That is wrong. There is plenty of transport; it just needs a bit of organising. I have been told that the people who have a good intention of going to work in Clonakilty, which is only two or three miles away from the college, have said they would travel by bicycle if they were given one. That is the situation. Transport should be provided, especially where work is available and the people in question are willing to take on the work. Transport should be provided immediately. The people of Darrara agricultural college are doing their level best. They have done brilliant work to get the rooms prepared and make sure food and everything else is looked after. However, employment has been secured for these people but they cannot get to it. We cannot take them to work if they have to do an early shift in Clonakilty. There are a lot of cogs not moving at the same time. I could speak further on this issue if I had more time.

4:05 pm

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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What has this shown to the world once again? It has shown that the Irish people are the most welcoming in the world. I refer to the fantastic hospitality they show to people who are in need. That is what the Irish people are. However, it also has shown up the failure of previous Governments in terms of infrastructure across the country. People coming from Ukraine cannot be put into rural areas because of the lack of infrastructure there. The people in rural areas want to welcome Ukrainians into their areas but there is no bus transport for them if they get there.

As a short-term measure as we are coming into summer and in light of the number of Ukrainians who are coming into the country, would it not be possible for mobile chalets to be put into areas where there is infrastructure? There are places available where that could be done. Families could go to there and get their bearings before being moved to a long-term location. At least, they would be with their own people and able to speak their own language. They would be able to go to their own healthcare professionals. Some Ukrainians who are coming here are doctors or nurses but their qualifications are not recognised. There is a big problem when a person from Ukraine wants to go to a hospital because he or she is feeling sick. There is a big language barrier and a transport barrier. Why not have a place with a hospital where Ukrainian doctors and nurses, leaving aside that their qualifications are not recognised by the Government, can look after and help their own people? Why has a simple thing such as that not been done? Mobile chalets or mobile homes can be put into an area where there is infrastructure overnight. These mobile homes are fully kitted out and they can provide for families, especially coming into summer. Many people go to holiday homes and mobile homes in summer. These mobile chalets are perfectly suited to areas where the Government cannot otherwise house Ukrainians who need accommodation.

The Red Cross is overwhelmed with the work it has to do. All the volunteers are overwhelmed. There is complete chaos. I am aware of a family that offered its holiday home for use by Ukrainians. It contacted the Red Cross and got a phone call last Thursday week to say the Red Cross wanted to go and see the house. The family agreed to meet the Red Cross there. Little did the family realise that the Red Cross volunteers were on a minibus with eight Ukrainian people with their suitcases. They were coming out to look at the house to see was it viable for them. They took the suitcases off the bus and moved in straight away. A person with the Ukrainians had a letter but could not explain to the householder what had to be done, and that person was there to help. It is total chaos.

The following day, I met a person whose job is to track where Ukrainian people are in order to put a map together so that where they are is known. That person asked me if I knew where Ukrainians had been placed and asked me to notify them because some of the Ukrainians have slipped through. They were put into houses but now it is not known where they are.

To me, a simple thing that could be done is to put Ukrainians in need of accommodation into mobile homes or mobile chalets. They would be together and feel safe and they would be in areas that have infrastructure. They could then be placed into longer-term residential settings. We would know where they are and that we can help them.

We had to get an interpreter down to the Ukrainians who moved into the holiday home to let them know where the bus service was and everything else. Doing so was actually put onto the people who own the house. The volunteers had to rush back into Limerick to collect to another person to take them somewhere else and they did not know where they were going. This is what is wrong.

We are the best country. The people of Ireland are brilliant. They would give up their own dinner to help somebody in need. That is what we are like. It is complete chaos at the moment, however, because the Government will not do the simple things that people are suggesting to it. I hate to say it but this has shown the complete failure of previous Governments in the context of the lack of infrastructure in the towns and villages in rural Ireland. That has been demonstrated by the fact that the State is now unable to put people into areas and then keep a count of them.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this important issue. It goes without saying that all present condemn the atrocities that have led to this situation and the aggression by a country that professes to be an international model of some sort. The pattern of events that is taking place is the same as that which took place in a different time and a different country when the Sudetenland was gradually encroached upon by an aggressor who pursued by using threats that if interfered with, there would be a major war. Like some other speakers, I have to make the point that it may yet fall to the international community to take more severe action to ensure that is not allowed to continue and that threats and implied threats are completely unacceptable.

That said, we have to deal with the situation that is now in hand. There are many challenges for us as we have to deal with a significant number of people whom we did not anticipate. We did not anticipate their needs or what is happening in their home country. It would be absolutely untoward of us not to respond sympathetically. I am glad the Irish population has responded firmly and sympathetically. I strongly support the attitude taken by the Government, the Ministers who have spoken in this debate and their Departments. The challenges are manifold. There is a challenge for the health service. It must be provided for. We must deal with the issues at all levels at the same time because of the magnitude of the problem. There is a challenge in the context of the housing situation. That challenge might be a boon in disguise. It might be possible to utilise the system to such an extent that we can deal with the challenges even better than before. For instance, we can utilise system-built houses that can be built readily and assembled quickly on site and in just a few days. That can be done. There are plenty of people around the country willing to offer sites for such accommodation at short notice.

That possibility should be examined. Whatever emergency arises in the course of what needs to be done to accommodate refugees must be taken on board and precise remedies put into operation to deal with it. We must ensure vulnerable children with particular needs are looked after especially and specifically and that no effort is spared in dealing with the situation in a way that we would like to be done if we were in that situation.

There is nothing new about the modus operandiof the aggressor. That modus operandishould be what motivates us most of all in our response. We must let it be known that we in the civilised word are not going to be intimidated and cowed into a position of accepting what the powerful mete out to us. I have every confidence in the Government's ability to deal with the situation on those grounds, including in the provision of educational needs, accommodation needs, including special accommodation needs, and so on. Such provision can be made because the facilities are there. For some time now, for example, we have been exporting system-built houses to other countries. There is a strange irony in that, given we have an accommodation problem at home.

It is important that we deal with the situation even-handedly because it could bring about a reaction from people of all nationalities in this jurisdiction who have been on the housing list, perhaps for ten or 15 years. We must deal with the issue in an even-handed way, insofar as we can, and pull out all the stops to make it happen, and make it happen quickly. We are all proud of the way the Government has reacted. Even though there are compelling issues to be dealt with in this State, many of which are converging at the same time, the Government, rightly, has responded in a positive way, recognising the needs of those who are worse off than we are at this particular time.

I have spoken to a number of Ministers in recent times about a particular issue. The method of preparing accommodation should not be done in such a way that some people might escape from a particular requirement in order to facilitate, allegedly, the needs and exigencies of the time. The Government should investigate the existence of any prior arrangements, agreements or whatever or any clashes that may have taken place in the past. Refugees should not become the victims of any crossfire, for want of a better description, in this situation.

I hope we can respond in the way we always respond to a challenge. We work best together in this country when challenged and we will never be challenged in the way we are now going to be challenged. Let us all sit down together, put our shoulders to the wheel and try to make sure the people who are in need are dealt with in a meaningful and helpful way.

4:15 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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To pick up on one of Deputy Durkan's points, he referred to the importance of how this crisis is handled in terms of the impact on both refugees and our own citizens. In the past few weeks, I have noticed on social media, particularly WhatsApp groups, memes and jokey picture messages with an underlying, insidious element of racism, to be perfectly honest, in pitting refugees against people in Ireland who are in need of a home. I am glad the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has clearly outlined on a number of occasions that the funding for Housing for All is ring-fenced and separate. The provision we are talking about in this debate must be given in additionality. Deputy Michael Collins has left the Chamber but he is the first elected politician I have heard engage in that type of whataboutery on this issue.

Irish people have responded fantastically, as all speakers have said. There is a spirit among Irish people, going back centuries, to help those who most need it. However, this is a unique situation for us. Throughout our history, we have had the advantage of geography in that we are an island in the North Atlantic that has not had a big refugee crisis. Every other country on the Continent of Europe has experienced this before. What we heard from the two Rural Independent Group Deputies was a bit disingenuous and contradictory, with one of them saying we have great facilities in rural Ireland, including schools and town halls, before the other fellow stood up and said the past few Governments have put no investment into rural areas. I could take him to town halls in my constituency. At Ballinkillen community hall in Carlow, for instance, the community group has accommodated 70 people and the process has begun of moving those families into more suitable accommodate for the longer term. The Scout Den in Kilkenny is another such facility and the same is happening at St. John of God Convent and ancillary buildings on that site. There are others doing the same. I do not disagree that more needs to be done but it is deeply unfair for those Deputies to come in here and trot out the single transferable speech they give on everything and condemn the Government for not being able to predict something nobody else did. Even less than six months ago, nobody would have said Russia was going to invade Ukraine.

I should have started my contribution by acknowledging the unspeakable horror that has been inflicted on the Ukrainian people by the leadership and army of the Russian state in the past number of months and stating how welcome these people are in our country. Deputy Michael Collins said he has not encountered any refugees in his constituency who are living in rural areas. I could take him to plenty of parts of Carlow and Kilkenny where that is the case. I was speaking to a former Member of this House from a different county who has a building in his yard that was converted into a home office years ago. A family of six, including a grandmother, father, mother and three children, are now living there. It cost him some €11,000 or €12,000 to have that building converted.

That brings me to the next point I want to raise. How do we secure the additionality we need in terms of accommodation? The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, as a rural person, knows there certainly are rural areas that are too isolated and cut off and which do not have public transport links. However, there are also plenty of rural areas in east Galway, Carlow and Kilkenny that have transport links and where there are properties that are vacant for whatever reason. I often find it is because of title issues or disputes within families. We have an opportunity in the next few months not only to provide accommodation for people now but to bring some of those units back into use for the future. If the Government, rightly, is prepared to pay €25,000 to €30,000 for a year's accommodation in a hotel room in our capital city, it should be prepared to give €10,000 or €12,000 to people down the country who have a vacant property. It might be the house down the road from them in which they were reared. Whatever the scenario, the private individual will get good value for any grant given to renovate such properties and make them habitable. I welcome the proposal by my colleague, Senator Cummins, for opening up holiday homes across the country. Again, some such homes are very isolated and would not be suitable but many of the main holiday centres in the country are well served by public transport. I think Irish people would answer a call to make such properties available. It is all about additionality.

The other possibility is former congregated settings, with which the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is very familiar. Many of them have been closed for only one, two or three years and it would take a very small amount of money to make them useable again. There is a large facility in Kilkenny that could take 250 people. I am trying to advance that but there is a bit of a wrangle between different Government agencies. It is only two years since people lived in that accommodation, which is right on the edge of the city. The new bus service would have to be extended slightly but it would be perfect for accommodating refugees. There are many such facilities scattered throughout the country.

Some are in provincial towns. I was thinking of the ex-convent in Mooncoin. It will never be reoccupied but it is only a few years since the nuns left it, and there is a bus route from Limerick to Waterford that goes multiple times a day and stops outside the door of the convent.

None of us, including the Government, expected this to happen. The Red Cross is under pressure and needs help. I encourage the Government to do anything it can in the immediate term in terms of financial aid to bring back some of the dilapidated and vacant accommodation that could be made available as well as the former religious or formerly publicly-owned residential settings. All of those provide an opportunity, as well as some of the holiday homes, maybe, to deliver a safe environment for our Ukrainian refugees for as long as they need it.

4:25 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Thank you, both Deputies, for those words of wisdom.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate. I will approach it from two angles: first, the practical angle and the angle of the title of the session and, second, more generally, the angle of our neutral role and our role in bringing peace in the world. I welcome and pay tribute to the work done by the Minister of State's colleague and the Government in taking a hands-on approach in welcoming the refugees. That is absolutely necessary as one of the fundamental parts of our humanitarian reaction to the completely unjustified war and Russia's invasion. Let me get that off the table.

As for the practical matters, one cannot but put this in context. We have a major housing crisis. Last night I gave some of the figures for Galway. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is very familiar with them. Rents in the county have risen by 90% in recent years. Since the trough, the period of the lowest rents, they have gone up by more than 100%. The figures do not mean anything any more.

I will respond to Deputy Phelan. When your slot comes near the end of a debate you get a chance to comment on others' contributions, which can be somewhat unhelpful. I did not hear the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage say the money was ring-fenced. What I heard him say, and what he has clearly written in his speech, is that there are separate targets in respect of the Government's Housing for All strategy and that the Government will not interfere with those targets in looking after the refugees. The Minister felt it important to point that out. It is not possible to give that assurance and I am leaving the refugees out of this. We are not reaching our targets as is. One of the points I made in my contributions this morning and yesterday related to the voluntary housing bodies in Galway, in the Minister of State's county. They have expressed great difficulties in reaching their targets. They just cannot do it. That was highlighted at a meeting of the housing task force. It is important to be clear in our language when we talk about housing matters. The Government's reaction has brought into acute focus two things: first, the crisis which we have all been shouting about for a very long time but which has been ignored and, second, what we can do when we put our minds to it. Suddenly we can build. Suddenly we can look at empty houses we had left vacant all the time. Suddenly we can act when there is a war. That is certainly a cause for reflection.

A point was made about local authority houses that are empty. It is unacceptable that they are empty. They have remained empty in Galway for as long as I have been a councillor and then a Deputy. I see the Minister of State nodding, and I welcome that, but the only response we ever got from management was that such houses were a small percentage of our overall housing. At any given time there are 100 empty houses in Galway. It looks bad, if nothing else. They should be turned over in a matter of weeks and they never have been. It is appalling.

Going back to the speech by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, we did not, unfortunately, get a copy of it, but I took a note of some of the things he said. I could not disagree with him. He stood on the edge of a mass grave containing 503 civilians and four soldiers - men, women and children. He went to Bucha and saw the shocking effect of the war there. He was asked to bear witness and he was absolutely right to have done so. That was a very strong message to send. When your time is limited you try to focus. I absolutely agree with the Minister. One could not but be touched by what we see and what the Minister said when he came back.

I want to broaden the debate, however. I did not hear any mention of the role Ireland was playing on the UN Security Council to bring peace. No matter how much we condemn Russia, which deserves our condemnation, we have to sit down at some stage and come to a peaceful solution. Are we just going to keep killing and killing, led by Russia? Are we going to keep sending more and more weapons, and for how long? For how long can we keep taking in refugees? As long as we can, of course, and I would be the first to push the Government to do that. Realistically, however, what should our role be in addition to providing humanitarian assistance? Where is our voice to say this war has to stop and we cannot keep doing this? Who is doing an analysis as to how the war started? The nearest I have come is an article in the Irish language. Tá alt i dTuairisc, agus is fiú d'aon duine atá in ann é a léamh. An teideal atá air ná "Má díbrítear an Rúis ar fad ón gclann idirnáisiúnta, ní chun ár leasa a bheidh sé". Is í Fionnuala Ní Aoláin an t-údar. She states that if we expel Russia from the international family, it will not be to our good in the long term. That is no defence of Russia. My condemnation of Russia goes without question. Professor Ní Aoláin elaborates on this. This woman is the special rapporteur of the United Nations on counter-terrorism and human rights. She happens to be from Galway originally. She is also a professor in a university in America. She has multiple roles and is well respected. She condemns outright Russia's invasion but goes on to talk about ceachtanna le foghlaim, the lessons that must be learnt. She sets them out very clearly. The article is worth reading. She says at the very end of it, "Má bhíonn an Rúis ina cadhan aonair ar fad, ní chun ár leasa a bheidh sé", that is, if we push Russia out completely, it will not be to our good.

I would draw an analogy with that. Many people have called for the expulsion of the ambassador. The Government has said no, that we need to keep relations with them and need to talk to them. Yet I have not seen one single piece of evidence that we have used our voice in respect of Russia to bring some type of peace or compromise. I fully support the investigation into war crimes and the International Criminal Court with no difficulty at all, but at what stage will our voices rise up and say, "Please stop this war. We cannot go on like this"? Europe is not playing that role. It has now reversed policy completely. We have not quite yet and we are giving humanitarian assistance, but Europe has reversed policy completely to provide military aid for the first time.

The EU started out as a peace project; it has now gone closer and closer to a military project. If Members doubt me, let me just quote from a report I am making my way through. It is a very dense report and was published only recently. It is titled At What Cost? Funding the EU's Security, Defence and Border Policies, 2021-2027. I will give the reference to anyone who would like it. The report's authors go on to show the cost of the militarisation that has been taking place consistently. I actually doubted the figures and I spoke to my colleague here, Deputy Pringle, and to a woman who works with me because I doubted the percentage increases in respect of military spending and had to double-check them. Let me give the House some of the figures, but first, let me say that the European peace facility is but one of the EU's array of budgetary instruments that form part of a multi-annual financial framework under which an unprecedented amount of money for defence and security purposes has been earmarked. I will show Members just some of them in the few minutes I have left. EU security, defence and military budgets between 2012 and 2027 increased by 123% compared with the previous budget round, which was €19.7 billion, up to €43.9 billion. That is 123%, and that is only one percentage. The figures go much higher than that. EU funding for law enforcement, border control and military research development and operations is 31 times higher, at €43.9 billion, than funding for rights, values and justice, which would lead to peace in the world. The largest increase is to the European Defence Fund, which has a budget of nearly €8 billion. This is the figure I baulked at. It has seen a 1,256% increase.

This money, for the first time, will be used for research and development for high-tech military weaponry. We have got the private corporations working hand in hand, spending billions of euro public money on arms development.

Moving on to Frontex, the EU's border agency that I have spoken about on many occasions, the aim is to have 10,000 people working for that agency. The aim is deterring and containing migrants rather than protecting them. The agency has seen a 194% increase compared to the previous cycle and - listen to this figure - a 13,200% increase in the budget over less than a year. We have had the retirement of the man in charge recently because the European Parliament was about to discipline or take action in relation to his behaviour.

I will finish by going back to an t-Ollamh Ní Aoláin pointing out that it is a very dangerous policy. An t-Ollamh Ní Aoláin welcomes absolutely the open policy for refugees, as I do, but she makes it perfectly clear that they are white and European or on the European Continent and we have a completely different approach when refugees are not from the European Continent and when they are of a different colour. I raise that as a serious cause of reflection because as we speak, we have 2,000 people in direct provision who have permission to go outside. They have the status and can go nowhere. We are ignoring what is happening in Yemen. We have ignored the Amnesty report on Israel in relation to Palestine and the International Criminal Court. Of course, Israel has refused to co-operate with the International Criminal Court. They are not part of it.

4:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I will finish. America has absolutely no respect for the International Criminal Court.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We wandered a bit away. The Deputy is passionate about the issues but wandered a little bit away from the issue of accommodation.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Not really, a Cheann Comhairle, but I will take your ruling on it.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I am not ruling. Perhaps we could agree to disagree.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I was judging by the content of the other speeches.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I was not here for all of the others.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Were you not? That was unfortunate.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Anyway, it was interesting to hear yours-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Thank you.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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-----as always.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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Ireland signed up to the directive and we committed to stepping up to join the international effort to support those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine.

As one can see for the contributions from my colleagues here today, there has been a vast amount of time and effort spent working on Ireland's response to the horrific conflict in Ukraine. We are nearly three months into this horrendous war and, while the daily pictures of people leaving their homes in droves to seek safe haven elsewhere have somewhat dissipated, the reality on the ground is that it continues unabated.

Over 27,000 people have arrived in Ireland from the Ukraine to date. Nearly 18,500 require immediate accommodation but they all need help in some shape or form. Homes, healthcare, education, transport and work; the list is endless. This requires a whole-of-government response, and it needs to continue for the foreseeable future.

It is evident from my colleagues here today that we are committed to doing the best job we can with the resources available. Creative solutions for temporary emergency accommodation from the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, plus longer-term housing from the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, are emerging.

Maslow's theory of hierarchy of needs keeps springing to my mind. Food, water, clothing, sleep and shelter are the bare necessities for anyone's survival. Once a person's basic needs are satisfied, the want for order and predictability sets in. Then a sense of love and belonging occurs which leads to the elevation of esteem and, finally, self-actualisation. We have the blueprint right here to chart how to help our Ukrainian friends. We must strive to assist them to reach the final point on the chart. They have already made a long and arduous journey to reach our shores. For many their journey is not over just yet, but it will be.

It will be soon, through our concerted and co-ordinated efforts. We must work together to realise this endgame. Ireland must show the céad míle fáilte today and every day. We must travel the end of the journey with them, and hold their hand while they assimilate into our country until such time as they can return to their homeland and rebuild their future.

As Minister of State with responsibility for disability, it is important that I also speak to those with disabilities who may be arriving into Ireland. To put it in context, I travelled to Romania for St. Patrick's Day and I used my time to engage. After coming home on that Friday, the first meeting I had on the following Monday morning was with the disability organisations. I chaired a meeting that day - I think it was 20 March - of disabled persons’ organisations, disability service provider organisations and members of the disability stakeholder group alongside officials from the Department of Health and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, - indeed, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, was also present - to discuss the impact of the war in Ukraine on disabled people in Ukraine and how best to co-ordinate our supports. One would think, listening to one or two contributions here today, that this had not happened.

The meeting provided an opportunity to share perspectives and expertise on challenges and potential solutions. Organisations at the meeting detailed the work being done to respond to the crisis across civil society organisations, both nationally and internationally. Both the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and I have also met the Ukrainian and Polish ambassadors to discuss how Ireland is positioned to support people with disabilities who may arrive here. Meanwhile, officials in the Departments of Health and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the HSE have continued to liaise on a number of issues.

The HSE national disability operations office is working with the community healthcare organisations, CHOs, its funded disability service providers and representative bodies to manage and co-ordinate appropriate responses. The HSE has established a number of dedicated work streams underpinning its national co-ordination efforts, including one which focuses on access to disability services. Any initiatives should engage with this HSE work stream to ensure a co-ordinated effort. The HSE has informed me it has agreed a pathway for disability screening and assessment as Ukrainians arrive into Ireland, while also making contact with the WHO regional office for Europe on the issue.

Ultimately, regardless of diagnosis or need, Ireland will not be found wanting. The public has demonstrated its solidarity with Ukraine. They have offered up their most prized possessions to help. Those who have a lot and those who have very little have all done so willingly and without calls for compensation. We have demonstrated our capacity for human kindness. It is in the most dire of circumstances and we all deplore the fact that it has to be given at all. It is hard to believe that the events that have unfolded so close to what is considered western civilisation are so barbaric as to be the opposite of civil. Let us continue regardless. Let us offer our support and strength in this time of need, no matter how great the need is.

If I can go off-script for a second, I talked about travelling to Romania. I travelled to Romexpo, where there were 2,000 beds put up. I met with the gentleman, Dr. Arafat, who was in charge of the Covid response and who was now in charge of the Ukrainian response, and he talked about the border and the crossings. He talked about Moldova and the couch-surfing that was taking place in Moldova. Dr. Arafat was talking about in excess of 100,000 people couch-surfing in Moldova at that stage and there are many times that number as we speak today.

I asked how can we help and Dr. Arafat's response was clear because it is not the first time they have found themselves in Romania in crisis. Like the Irish, they were able to mobilise and put a system in place. Dr. Arafat said that when they need they will ask and that we will come then but at present they needed a process - the flow to take place. They had a really good flow system.

I went down to the train station to see how it operated and where the tents were up on the train stations. You could see that weary face. One could see the different ways broken down into four different categories. The first was if you were on your own. The second was if you had children. The third was if you had an elderly parent with you, and then there was the singles. There were tents if a person needed to take shelter.

Then I went down to Romexpo, which I found quite inspirational. I was talking to the assistant secretary in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, about where the people at Romexpo talked about putting down the 2,000 beds and dividers between the beds, as well as the value of the washing machine. This was because all they had come with was their clothes and if they could wash their clothes and hold onto them, those were their prize possession.

People came to Romexpo and left clothes and food. Even if people were not staying there, and at that stage it had not opened, individuals who were spread all around Romania could come in and pick up some clothes and some of their favourite foods. It was like the free shop not too far from here in Dublin, and Deputy Connolly and I know about it in Oranmore and the wonderful work happening there.

The ground-up approach in Ireland is unbelievable. Officials, particularly those in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, worked morning, noon and night. I regularly talk about Ms Carol Baxter, assistant secretary general in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. She was up at 4 o'clock one morning trying to find accommodation for people coming off an aeroplane. She was doing that along with the day job. She was not alone. There were many more like Carol in that space. I also acknowledge the work of the Irish Red Cross. Along with the Irish Red Cross there were other groups. One was Helping Irish Hosts, which gave support to 750 Ukrainians in 250 Irish homes. There is also the role of the Sisters of Mercy in the convents in Loughrea and Gort. The convent in Templemore in Deputy Mattie McGrath's area has opened its doors to support refugees.

There is also the role of SICAP and the LEADER organisations. I often talk about Galway Rural Development, but in places that have LEADER organisations they were available when a bus rolled in, no matter what time it was, to ensure there was an interpreter was available, to ensure women and children could be attended to and even to ensure there was some cat food or dog food for the animal that came along as a reassurance pet. It was wonderful that the Government allowed them to bring their pets with them. The role of the pet has been phenomenal. In addition, the LEADER organisations mobilised communities saying they needed clothes and school books and that they needed to get clubs open. They brought the entire community with them. It was phenomenal. There was also the role of the Civil Defence, county councils and the education and training boards in ensuring that education and language services could be provided.

What I have described is not just the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth doing something or the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage doing something. It has been completely across government, across semi-State bodies and across communities, working with open arms and receiving people into the community. Long may it continue and long may we work together to ensure that the céad míle fáilte is there.