Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 January 2023

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Tá an tAire, an Teachta Donohoe, i lár conspóide mar gheall gur briseadh rialacha síntiúis thoghcháin. In olltoghchán 2016, fuair an tAire, an Teachta Donohoe, síntiús polaitíochta ó fhear gnó nár fhógair sé agus bhí sé os cionn an méid atá ceadaithe faoin dlí. Tá an cheist seo á seachaint ag an Aire ó 2017 agus dhiúltaigh sé aréir d’aon cheist eile a fhreagairt air seo. Tá ceisteanna ann a gcaithfidh sé a fhreagairt. Níl dabht ar bith faoi sin agus tá sé tuillte ag an bpobal go bhfreagróidh sé na ceisteanna sin.

On 14 July 2020, the Tánaiste and then Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, came to this House and spoke in respect of a Government Minister who was in the middle of a controversy refusing to answer questions in the Dáil. This was after the Minister had given a statement to the House. He stated:

... he has decided that he is not prepared to address this allegation publicly and will not make any further statement or answer any questions on this issue in this House.

This decision has created a situation where legitimate doubts and additional questions are being raised. Government colleagues are expected to address these. This is simply untenable. It is my view that Deputy Cowen had an obligation to come before the House. It is also my view that this issue is damaging to the ongoing work of the Government.

This was just hours before the then Taoiseach sacked Teachta Cowen as a Cabinet Minister. Fast forward to the situation we had last night. A Minister who has been embroiled in controversy is refusing to answer questions in the Dáil and making a virtue of the fact that he will not say anything else on the matter and nothing is being done. What happened in this Chamber last night was farcical and completely unacceptable. On this issue, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has made not just one statement before the House, but two statements. Yet, he answered none of the questions that were put to him. Today, as his concocted story lies in tatters, he announced that he wants to make another statement - statement number three - before the Dáil. I, along with other Deputies in the Opposition, put dozens of detailed questions to the Minister last night and he refused point blank to answer those questions.

What is needed is what other Ministers have undertaken to ensure that they are accountable to this House, namely, questions and answers before the Dáil in real time. When the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, leaked a confidential document to his friend and was subject to a SIPO investigation - not only a SIPO complaint but a Garda inquiry - he came before this House and answered questions in real time, over and back, for well over an hour and a half. When the Minister, Deputy McEntee, appointed a Fine Gael activist as a judge to the Supreme Court she did likewise, answering questions over and back and being accountable to this House.

The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, does not need 24 hours to make his statement fit with the concocted narrative he has given on a number of different occasions. Does the Tánaiste believe the Minister's story? If so, which version of it does he believe? Has the Tánaiste asked the Minister if Michael Stone, a personal friend and political supporter, paid for posters to be erected for him in the 2020 campaign, having done so in the previous general election? That question was put to the Minister four times last night and he refused to answer it. Has the Tánaiste asked the Minister anything about this controversy in which he is embroiled or is it one rule for the Tánaiste’s Government Ministers and another rule for Fine Gael Government Ministers? Will the Tánaiste ensure that the Government Whip brings an amendment to the Order of Business so that proper questions and answers can be posed to this Minister who point blank refused to make any other comment on this matter but has been forced to make a U-turn and wants to make a third statement? A statement does not cut it. We demand accountability. We demand questions and answers with the Minister and that he come clean.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Is é mo thuairim agus is é an taithí atá agam ó bheith ag obair leis an Aire, an Teachta Donohoe, ná gur fearr ionraic macánta atá ann. Déanann sé a dhícheall gach aon lá ar son na tíre. Oibríonn sé ar son mhuintir na tíre go macánta. Caithfidh mé é sin a rá. Is é sin an taithí atá agam féin agus mé ag obair leis an Aire, an Teachta Donohoe, ar feadh dhá bhliain go leith. Caithfidh mé é sin a chur os comhair na Dála.

First, I am essentially saying that from working with the Minister in Government over the past two and a half years, I have found him to be a very competent, dedicated and honourable Minister. I have to put that on the record of the House.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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That has been my experience in my engagement with him. He has the country’s interests at heart in the discharge of his duties as a Minister.

Second, I offer the viewpoint that in a legitimate controversy and issue of this kind we need balance and perspective in how we approach these issues. I make that point in terms of the issue at stake here. It is essential that Members across the House adhere to the regulations and rules governing political donations, electoral spending and the various rules the House has created through legislation to ensure the proper conduct of elections and political affairs in this country. That is important but in the consideration of that we need to have balance and perspective with regard to the issues at hand.

Third, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has come before the House in relation to this issue and it is my understanding that he will do so again at the earliest opportunity. We in this House took the decision to establish a body via legislation, the Standards in Public Office Commission, or SIPO, to investigate complaints that are lodged with SIPO in respect of any individual or Member of the House where the complaint alleges there has been a breach of the rules or guidelines. The Minister has come before the House. A legitimate question that we all must ask ourselves in respect of electoral laws and the political donation regulations is whether it is the view that we should have a process for detailed investigations that operates parallel with SIPO. There is a genuine issue there.

To be fair, Deputy Doherty’s party acknowledged that it did not fully include all expenditure in a recent election in its statement. I think some €7,000 paid to a political polling company was not included. If I am correct, and Deputy Doherty may correct me, his party received a major donation from, I think, William Hampton of €4 million or €5 million. Sinn Féin has always said it is a 32-county party but in respect of any complaints or accountability to SIPO in regard to that legacy of €4 million to €5 million, which was extraordinary in itself, Sinn Féin opted to say that there is a six-county Sinn Féin party to which that money has gone and it has not gone to the party in the Republic. Some would say that is a circumvention of the SIPO rules and regulations, although Deputy Doherty may disagree with that.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Exactly.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I merely say that because people can legitimately complain and we then have to weigh up who ultimately does the investigation in terms of the detail of a complaint. There is a danger. I fully subscribe to the idea of accountability to the House. Perhaps in the aftermath of the SIPO investigation, that accountability can be dealt with in more detail-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Time is up.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----but there is a problem with how I determine how Members want to proceed.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Just like the Minister, the Tánaiste did not answer any of my questions. There is a bit of a pattern here. Let us be clear about this. Deputy Donohoe is the Minister who oversees the SIPO legislation. SIPO has been begging for additional powers and the Minister has refused those on a number of occasions. The matter is serious. There was a donation. In fairness, the Fianna Fáil candidate disclosed how much it cost to put up election posters in the same constituency in the same election. It was €4,920. A businessman offered that service to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, who did not declare any donation above €600. Whether the donation is in hard cash or a donation in kind, it has to be declared. It is unlawful to accept a donation above €1,000.

That is what the core allegations here are.

The problem the Minister has is that, when it was pointed out that at least the van was used in 2017, he did not do anything about it. He was overseeing this legislation, yet did not do anything about it. Last year, when a number of journalists put these questions to him, he stated he had carried out a review and everything was in order. What we need is accountability, the same accountability the Taoiseach had when he was subject to a Garda investigation and a SIPO investigation. The Minister needs to come before the House and answer questions. Will the Tánaiste facilitate that and facilitate the Opposition in putting questions to the Minister and getting answers? Has he asked the Minister about any of these matters, such as whether Michael Stone paid for the erection of posters for the Minister during his campaign in 2020?

12:10 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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First of all, the Minister spoke to me on Sunday and outlined what had transpired. He gave an account and apologised to me for the omission and the mistake he had made in respect of this. He did raise those issues with me. He has also offered to come before the House again at the earliest opportunity in respect of the issues the Deputy raised.

I am struck by the language the Deputy used in questioning me. He used the term "concocted". That is a very partisan comment. He is entitled to make that comment but it is a very partisan one. It strikes me that the reason the House established SIPO in the first instance by legislation was to ensure an independent, rigorous and procedurally correct approach to investigating any alleged breaches of the regulations we have created within this House. The very language the Deputy uses in his subjective assessment, which he is entitled to have, underpins the reason SIPO was established in the first place.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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Did you ask him about the 2020 posters? You are not interested.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Cairns, please.

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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I want to know what the Tánaiste's Government knows about Coillte's plan to sell off vast tracts of rural Ireland to a British investment fund and when it first learned about it? Last November, the Government announced €1.3 billion in new forestry supports. I welcomed the announcement and thought it was a good news story for farmers, who would be encouraged to diversify and begin planting trees in greater numbers. Conveniently, the Government forgot to mention that large swathes of this much-needed State investment would be diverted from farmers and rural communities to international investment funds.

Earlier this month, Coillte announced it had done a deal with the British investment fund, Gresham House.The Irish Strategic Forestry Fund will acquire tens of thousands of acres of forestry ground using a €200 million war chest, most of which is coming from the investment fund. As part of the deal, Coillte does all the work and private investors reap all the rewards. Coillte sourced tens of thousands of acres in rural Ireland for the fund. It will plant the trees and manage the forests. Meanwhile, of course, the fund will be entitled to grants and premium revenues of up to €60 million from the Government's €1.3 billion forestry supports, and this will be just the start. Similar partnerships with other funds are surely on the cards.

The news of this scheme has sent shockwaves around rural Ireland. There are fears land prices are going to shoot up as a result of this land grab by private investments, and those fears are well placed. We have seen what happened with housing costs when vulture funds entered that market. Why should the impact on agricultural land be any different? Environmental groups are also deeply concerned. The Irish Wildlife Trust has labelled this a scandal. It will be devastating for our biodiversity.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach tried to distance the Government from this grubby deal. He said it had not been signed off by Cabinet and that there had been no memorandum to Cabinet at any point. There may have been no memorandum, but that does not mean there was no awareness at Cabinet that this was happening. According to reporting by The Irish Mail on Sunday, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, knew about plans for Coillte to use public-private partnerships to acquire land as far back as March 2021, nearly two years ago. Last week, after public outrage boiled over about this deal, the Tánaiste said it should be reviewed and alternatives explored. What did he mean by that?

Will the Tánaiste clarify when the Government found out about this deal, why the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who is meeting Coillte today, has developed an interest in it only in the past week and why alternatives were not explored before this deal was entered into? Finally, if the agreement is going to be reviewed, does this mean the Government is going to reverse it?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Deputy Cairns for raising what is a very important issue. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, are meeting Coillte today, and they will discuss Coillte's role in the Irish Strategic Forestry Fund and how Coillte should work closely with farmers and local contractors to achieve positive outcomes for the Irish forestry sector and for Irish farm families. They will also discuss other models, and I think other models need to be pursued, to help Coillte meet its overall target of planting 100,000 ha of new forests.

This has to be seen in the context of the overall challenge, which is enormous, in terms of where we are coming from and where we want to get to in forestry. As the Deputy knows, about two thirds of our land is farmland, so in order to meet that bigger target we have set ourselves nationally, farmers will have to be the biggest drivers of our afforestation effort. Our farmers will also be the primary beneficiaries of the new €1.3 billion Forestry Programme 2023-2027, the largest ever investment by a Government in tree planting. The premiums for planting trees will be increased by between 46% and 66% and extended to 20 years for farmers, so there are strong incentives for farmers to become involved in this new endeavour and agenda.

New forests on public lands will primarily be native woodlands, focused on biodiversity benefits, because we really have to get that balance of 50% of all new forests being broadleaf and native to respond to the biodiversity challenge and crisis. From Coillte's perspective, we need efforts from both the State and private investors, as well as from farmers, to get to a very different scale of afforestation from that which we have experienced over the past decade. In respect of its partnership with the Irish Strategic Investment Fund and Gresham House, Coillte is saying it equates to about 1% of the current Government target of 450,000 acres of new forests by 2050. Ultimately, the fund aims to own about 12,000 ha of forests. About 3,500 ha of that will be new forests, with the remainder being the purchase of existing forests that the fund will concentrate on. Coillte will not sell out any existing publicly owned forests to the fund, nor will any other public body sell land to the fund. Any land purchased by the fund will already be in private ownership and no private landowner will be forced to sell land to the fund.

The strategy we have outlined is still before Europe, relating to state aid and so on. We want to explore alternative models but we are going to need an awful lot more on board to get to the targets we have set ourselves.

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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In one way, the silver lining from this issue arising is that we are finally having more of a discussion about agriculture. We do not have a Sláintecare for agriculture or the kinds of closely monitored targets such as those in housing to see how much progress the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is making, but exactly the same playbook is playing out in agriculture as that which has done in those other Departments, and that is allowing the privatisation of a public good. In the future, we will have exactly the same conversations about forestry that we have today about health and housing, with always the private interests being protected. The Tánaiste said the Government is introducing these premiums for farmers and that is great and I welcome it, but now a private investment company is going to reap all those funds it has introduced, or a huge part of them. It is really good that this is being highlighted because we do not have as in-depth discussions about agriculture. We have seen this play out over decades of policy, and how the supermarkets are doing quite well while farmers are price takers not price makers. Larry Goodman is doing fine and beef farmers are struggling to make ends meet. This is the latest example of prioritising those private interests over the interests of farmers.

The Tánaiste did not answer any of my questions, so I will reiterate them quickly. When did the Government find out about the deal? Why is the Minister showing interest in it only now? Why were the alternatives not explored before the deal was entered into? Will the Government review this decision and try to stop it?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Government does not run Coillte. Coillte is a separate-----

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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It is a semi-State.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, it is a semi-State, but with a mandate underpinned by legislation.

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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The Tánaiste acknowledged the deal needs to be looked at. Is he-----

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

12:20 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We can change that mandate but that is the mandate. The Government does not run every semi-State organisation and if it did there would be problems. The first people in the House complaining about Government interference in semi-States, and correctly too, would be, guess who? The Opposition. That is an ongoing challenge. As to the basic point, farmers will benefit the most from the forestry programme and from the increase in premium. Farmers will benefit the most-----

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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Why are they so annoyed?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----and there will be no privatisation of public land. I have made that clear in my original statement. There will be no privatisation of public land. That is the point. In fact, I would favour more State acquisition of land for forestry. That is the position the leaders of the Government have discussed with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Again, we have to be careful of State aid compliance in how we do all of that and that is the issue in terms of whatever we do. The more fundamental point, however, is that we are not planting enough trees at the moment at all. We really have to grow exponentially the amount of trees, particularly native woodlands, and I want more purchase of land for native woodlands in this country. We should really embark on that programme.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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The Tánaiste is aware the 2023 tourism business is beginning to open up currently and should be well underway by St. Patrick's Day which is only seven or eight weeks away now. To that end, I want to make him aware that up to 40% of hotel and guest house accommodation, 2,404 rooms I believe, or more, are taken up with refugees and asylum seekers. Some 400 men, asylum seekers, have been in one centre in Killarney since 12 October. I ask the Tánaiste two separate questions. First, what alternative accommodation will he provide for the 4,500 Ukrainian refugees in Kerry and Killarney? What alternative accommodation will he provide for these, many of whom have children who are now in schools and in the middle of the school year? Second, the 400 asylum seekers in Hotel Killarney who I believe are all men, should be removed from Killarney. They should never have been placed there in the first place, all together in one hotel on one side of town. These come from at least 12 different nationalities. Since they came there on 12 October last, there have been many reported incidents of friction between themselves on a daily basis with Garda vehicles outside the place day after day, culminating on new year's night at 8 o'clock with five people being stabbed and one fellow's finger being cut off. Five ambulances were outside the place and at least that many Garda cars were on the Park Road which is the main access to Killarney town. The placing of 400 asylum seekers on Park Road has caused a deterrent to many women, girls and even young boys locally who are afraid to walk the footpaths for leisure or necessity as they feel intimidated by large groups of asylum seekers. Ye landed these people and did not provide one extra doctor or any extra social welfare worker to the welfare staff. What vetting takes place with these asylum seekers when they come to this country? The people of Killarney and Kerry want to know. People are coming here without any documents. Surely they could provide documents after a few weeks or whenever. Are they just left to their own devices after they come in and they say they have no documents? I ask also about asylum seekers from Georgia and Algeria. Are they entitled to come here? Should they be deported? They-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy's time is up.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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-----should be deported when they cause trouble and they should not get asylum here when they cause trouble.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The first point I make is that we have international obligations under international law. What has distinguished Ireland on the global stage is the fact that we are a rules-based country that believes in the international rule of law and that we adhere to that. One aspect of that is the Geneva Convention and European laws in respect of the treatment of those who seek asylum. Therefore, there is a legal obligation on us in respect of people fleeing war, starvation, or political oppression to hear their cases through the asylum process. When someone arrives into the country, in many cases without documentation or with no documentation on them when they present, they seek asylum. Then the legislative process this House has provided, or legislated for, kicks in and that application is then assessed. The number of people seeking asylum this year has dramatically increased over previous years. I think there are close to 14,000 to 15,000 people who have sought asylum. That is separate from those from Ukraine who are fleeing war. Approximately 75,000 people fleeing war have come into the country from Ukraine and we can all see the devastation in Ukraine that has caused this massive migration of millions and millions of people from Ukraine, namely, the bombing of civilian infrastructure and the terrible murders of the innocents.

In terms of the asylum seeking process, we are legally obliged under international law to give people a fair hearing when seeking asylum. That is creating a lot of pressure on accommodation. The combination of the war in Ukraine, allied to climate change and conflict in other parts of the world, is causing enormous pressures on our asylum process which is unprecedented in terms of scale. If you take 15,000 seeking asylum under the asylum legislation combined with 75,000 Ukrainians, one can see already the pressures on our accommodation system are going to be immense. Our public servants have worked extremely hard to try and absorb and accommodate the very significant increase in migration that has occurred. It is not easy and it is now challenging but there are no easy solutions either and I am not going to pretend that there are. Unfortunately, we are in a wartime situation in Europe and the worst war since the Second World War on the Continent and it is having very negative repercussions across the board. We have conflict elsewhere as well in the neighbourhood of Europe, all of which is creating this movement and migration. Every single other country in Europe is also experiencing this.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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The Tánaiste has obligations here to the people in Ireland as well, to the people in Kerry, to the hotel and tourism sector and to all the people involved in tourism in Kerry. Is he going to free up the 2,404 hotel rooms in Killarney and Kerry and ensure the livelihood of all these people with craft shops, pubs, coach tours, jarveys, boatmen, cycle tours, heritage centres? Is he going to jeopardise all these people if we do not find other accommodation? I asked the Tánaiste about this last November. What has the Government done since? What accommodation has been found? It is fine to say there is a legal obligation to the people outside but if the thing is not being done properly, and if the Government is compromising our own operators here in Kerry in this instance, it is not fair and it is not fair on those people. It is also not fair to land 400 asylum seeker men into one end of Killarney town and make the women, girls and young boys in Killarney afraid to walk the town. The Tánaiste has an obligation to those people too in case he is forgetting and it is very important that he does see after them.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Shame on you.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Do not ever accuse me of racism or anything like that. We have refugees in Killarney for the last 20 years and I-----

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Shame on the Deputy.

(Interruptions).

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I took them to the North of Ireland to get their eyes seen after when no one here would do it.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Will Deputy Healy-Rae please sit down? Can we hear the Tánaiste please?

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I will not take the Deputy's rubbish.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We should also acknowledge the support, goodwill and solidarity of many communities the length and breadth of the country, including in Kerry, displayed towards those who have sought shelter on our shores, particularly to those fleeing the war in Ukraine. There was a strong response in Killarney, for example, when there was an attempt to move Ukrainians out of Killarney.

People at the grass roots spoke very strongly in response-----

12:30 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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That was another stunt by the Government.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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-----and that occasioned a change in direction, which I thought reflected the basic humanity of people in our communities. I understand the challenges, and the Government does as well, in terms of tourism and the pressure on accommodation. That is why a €50 million fund has been established and will be allocated to communities that have taken in a lot of migrants and asylum seekers, and also Ukrainians. That is a community-based fund, which is to recognise the lengths to which communities have gone to facilitate this, but there are challenges. Across Europe, this will be the debate of the year. We must hold our nerve in respect of Putin.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The time is up.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Putin is gambling on this exact debate happening in every parliament across the European Union. That is what he wants. I know Deputy Healy-Rae does not mean it that way. I accept his bona fides in terms of the pressures in his constituency, but essentially that is what Putin wants. Europe needs to hold its nerve for the next 12 months because what Putin is doing is attacking the values of democracy and the rule of law and those basic principles must win out in the end.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I listened to what the Tánaiste said about Coillte's liaison with Gresham House. I am not clear whether he is in favour of a review of this arrangement, but it was reported that he is. I would welcome some clarity on the issue, what form it might take and the timeline.

One of the arguments the Tánaiste and others have used to support the Coillte arrangement is that we cannot get to 18% afforestation without significant investment from investment funds, vulture funds or whatever other source. The Tánaiste said he might look at alternatives. We could reach our forestry targets if every farmer in Ireland with a holding of 50 acres was properly incentivised to plant 1,000 trees, which would be 1 acre, and every farmer with 100 acres was incentivised to plant 2,000 trees, which would be 2 acres, and so on, on a pro ratabasis. We could do it by proactively engaging with farmers, local communities, and public authorities on certain State-owned lands. Instead, we are doing what we have done time and time again: we are engaging with large investment funds, Irish and foreign, because it is easier. We tick the box, and we get it done, but we are ignoring the impact on communities and the negative impact on farmers. We are also ignoring the fact that the kind of policy being pursued will fundamentally change settlement patterns in the west, the north west, the south west, parts of the midlands and other parts of the country.

While it is a subject for another day – I know the Tánaiste is aware of it – the cumulative effects of this type of forestry policy, as well as the rewetting targets, both our own and those of the EU, will fundamentally affect settlement patterns in Ireland. Will the Tánaiste say if it is Government policy to do that, and let the people know? When certain events occur, whether it is land clearance, abandonment or otherwise, because they are driven by other policies that the Government pursues in forestry or other areas, it is the worst and most dishonest policy for the Government to wash its hands and say "it is not us; it is Europe or climate change". However, it is the Government that makes the decisions and is responsible for the outcome.

Another major concern is how this plan will drive up the price of land and make it unprofitable for any local farmer to purchase land for any type of agricultural activity. If the Tánaiste wants to see the reality of this, he should go to County Leitrim where the price being paid for land for afforestation already means no local farmer can compete to buy the land for agricultural use or for agroforestry, which is what I propose. We might as well put up a sign and say no locals need apply.

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

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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Could the Tánaiste confirm that he supports a review of the Coillte plan? Could he give us a timeline and tell us what form it will take?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, along with Deputy Cairns, because it is an important one. The Government's policy, as the Deputy states, is to increase afforestation from the current level of 11%, or 808,848 ha, to 18% by 2050. This will require an additional 450,000 ha of new forests by 2050. Coillte, in its strategic vision, has committed to enabling 100,000 ha of new forests by 2050, to create a carbon sink of approximately 18 million tonnes of CO2. Half of these forests will be native woodlands. The other half will be forests for quality timber production, which will be used in large part to displace emissions-intensive building materials such as steel and cement.

My view, which the Minister will be communicating to Coillte today, is that Coillte did not need the legal approval of the Government in respect of its decision. However, I take the Deputy's point that overall public policy must be clear also. My view is that subject to state aid rules, in terms of forestry, I would want the land to be in State ownership. Farmers are individual private operators as well. We want farmers to drive the bulk of the afforestation, so we must be careful about the utilisation of the terms "private" and "public". There can be no selling off of any State forests or anything like that. I think the State itself should be more actively involved in purchasing land too. That will create tensions in terms of pricing and other such issues, but we must purchase land for native woodlands and for simple rewilding at its most basic because the biodiversity challenge is so crucial. We are not at the races in respect of meeting the biodiversity challenge just yet. The Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and others have made great progress in the past two and a half years by doubling the budget of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and it now becoming a Government agency. For the first time in a long time, the NPWS has found its feet and has got great underpinning. I am very passionately committed to the biodiversity agenda. I have been asking agencies to buy land for rewilding and native woodlands. We need commercial forestry as well. The construction industry must develop more carbon-efficient mechanisms to build houses in the future. Timber-frame construction is pitifully low in this country in comparison to Scotland, for example. The real issue for us is to get from the low level we are currently at. Significant progress was made in the 1980s and 1990s but that has stalled in more recent times.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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The time is up.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The more fundamental part of the Government's strategy is the premiums and the large increase in that regard, which is a very significant incentive for farmers to use more of their land for afforestation.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I could not disagree with a word the Tánaiste has said, but the problem is that it is not what is happening. I support the Government's forestry policy in terms of getting to 18%, but I do not support how it is going about part of it because the implications of that, as I have outlined, are significant.

The Tánaiste says he wants land to be in State ownership; I fully agree with him, but is the policy that is being currently pursued going to ensure that? Last July, 1,000 acres in County Tipperary were bought by Gresham House. It is already under way. It is happening. That is standing forest. The Tánaiste says one thing, with which I agree, but what is happening on the ground is different. The Tánaiste says the real issue is to get it done. Yes, it is. I have given him an example of one of the ways we could do it, by engaging proactively with farmers and communities right across the country. We could go a long way doing that-----

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

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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-----instead of inviting in the investment and vulture funds to tick the box and get it done quickly. Could he please pause what is happening and conduct a review?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Leader of the Opposition; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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The size of the fund will be about €200 million. The fund aims ultimately to own a total of 12,000 ha of forest. This is what I have been informed. This equates to roughly 1.5% of our total existing forest estate. Of those 12,000 ha of forests, roughly 3,500 ha will be new forests, which the fund hopes to plant over the next five years. That is an average of 700 ha of new forests per annum for each of the next five years, out of an existing annual target of 8,000 ha per annum.

The remainder of the 12,000 ha purchased by the fund will be existing forest. The percentage impact of this particular initiative by Coillte is relatively low. We want other models to be developed to drive the overall forestry agenda. In particular, we want exponential growth in the number of trees we plant every year.