Wednesday, 15 November 2023
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Israel's merciless military attack on the people of Gaza continues. The attack has killed more than 11,000 Palestinians, including more than 4,500 children and more than 3,000 women. A child is killed every ten minutes in full sight of the world. Gaza is a graveyard of innocent children. Israel's bombardment has destroyed Gaza's health infrastructure. Hospitals are running out of fuel and the electricity needed to power vital equipment. Maternity care and cancer care, all care, is decimated. As the wounded and dying pour in, hospitals try to keep going to the sound of gunfire, tank fire and air raids. Doctors on the ground have reported Israeli snipers targeting hospital staff and shooting people as they flee.
At Gaza's Al-Shifa hospital, doctors were forced to carry out surgeries, including c-sections and emergency amputations without anaesthetics, antibiotics or clean water. They have run out of the medicine required to treat children with the most horrific burns. People have bled to death because the hospital could not access fresh blood. Newborn babies died because incubators stopped working. Thousands of displaced Palestinians live on the corridors, the stench of decomposing bodies everywhere hanging in the air as testament to the horror inflicted on the people of Gaza. This is the hospital that Israel relentlessly besieged for days and then stormed last night. This is not defence. The Irish Government must refer Israel to the International Criminal Court. Israel must be held accountable. There must be immediate ceasefires. This is the only thing that will transform this horrific situation.
I am heartened by the news that Irish citizens are leaving Gaza via the Rafah crossing. I say also, that the hostages must be freed immediately. Yesterday, I met Tom, the father, and Natalie, the sister, of little Emily Hand. Their agony and trauma is unbearable. Emily will turn nine on Friday and she should be back with her family for her birthday.
Léiríonn an t-ionsaí ar ospidéal Al-Shifa arís go gcaithfidh Éire Iosrael a chur faoi bhráid an Chúirt Choiriúil Idirnáisiúnta. Tá an domhan ag rá "Stad" agus tá gá le sos cogaidh láithreach. The Taoiseach has rightly described Israel's actions as collective punishment and not self defence. He has also said that Israel's actions cannot be without consequence. I welcome that. However, he has not outlined what those consequences will be. Refusing to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court is a cop out and a dangerous one at that. It emboldens Israel in its violation of international law and its trampling on the human rights of Palestinians. Condemnation is not enough. The message has to be that Ireland will act when international humanitarian law is shredded and when a civilian, refugee population is slaughtered en masseby one of the most ferocious military forces on earth. I ask the Taoiseach to act. What consequences will Israel face for the atrocities it commits before the eyes of the world?
I agree with the call for a ceasefire for reasons I have outlined in the past. If there is a ceasefire, it is important it be honoured by all sides, including Israel, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other protagonists in this conflict. It would allow aid to get in, citizens of this and other countries to get out and perhaps for peace talks to begin.
In relation to the International Criminal Court, there is already an investigation underway. It has been under way for several years now. Referring Israel to the International Criminal Court at this stage, when an investigation is already under way, would be akin to reporting an alleged crime to An Garda Síochána several years into an investigation. It would simply have no practical effect or practical value. Also, the Deputy's proposal is flawed because it is to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court, and not the situation on the ground and that allows Hamas and Islamic Jihad off the hook. Perhaps that is the Deputy's intention. Perhaps it is an omission, but it is not-----
Those are the two reasons the Government thinks Sinn Féin's proposal would be of no use and would be unbalanced. What we are going to do is to provide an additional €3 million to the International Criminal Court. This will be of practical assistance and help it to gather the evidence and to carry out any prosecutions necessary.
I reiterate the Government's condemnation, without equivocation, of Hamas's terrorist attack on Israel on 7 October, which began this phase of the conflict. They sought to kill and torture as many civilians as possible without any mercy. There is no equivalence and no excuse for that. They provoked and perhaps even hoped for what has followed. Three things have to happen now. Hamas should release all of the hostages, particularly the children, including Emily Hand, the Irish hostage, who we believe is being held in tunnels in Gaza at the moment. They should lay down their arms because they are a terrorist organisation. I hope Sinn Féin in the Deputy's reply will support me in both those calls. While Israel has a right to defend itself, this is not self defence. This is collective punishment. This is disproportionate. It is wrong. That is why there should be a ceasefire immediately-----
-----to be observed by all sides so the killing can stop, aid can get in, hostages can be released and our citizens can get out. We also need a new peace process, one that ensures Palestinians control Gaza once this phase of the conflict is over and one that is based on a two-state solution. We do not have agreement at EU level when it comes to much in relation to this conflict, but we do at long last have clear agreement from all EU member states that there should be a two-state solution.
For far too long, European countries and the European Union have been willing to aid the Palestinians and trade with the Israelis without pressing either side to do what it needs to do. When this phase of the conflict is over, we need a more active approach from the European Union, pushing for a two-state solution, saying to the Palestinians that we are not going to continue to give them aid if they do not respect democracy and human rights and crack down on terrorism, and saying to the Israelis that we are not willing to continue to trade with them in the way we do if they are not willing to be serious about a two-state solution and about allowing the Palestinians the right to have the state they need and deserve.
In terms of the Irish citizens the Deputy mentioned, I can confirm that a first group of Irish citizens and their dependants have been cleared to exit through the Rafah crossing into Egypt today. Arrangements are in place for staff from the Irish embassy in Cairo to meet them and to provide them with consular assistance and support, including onward travel back to Ireland. We expect additional Irish citizens and dependants in Gaza to be on the list in the coming days, and we are working tirelessly to ensure all those who wish to do so will be allowed to leave as soon as possible. The Government has been very active on this issue, particularly the Tánaiste and I. We have met the Palestinian Prime Minister, the Egyptian foreign minister and the Israeli ambassador. They all had a certain role to play in making today possible, and I want to acknowledge that.
Not alone can I echo the call for a ceasefire and the release of hostages, but I remind the Taoiseach that I actually pre-empted his calls for those very things. There is no controversy on those matters. All the violence must stop now; not humanitarian pauses, not humanitarian windows, but a cease, a cessation, to all violent actions. I remind the Taoiseach that Israel is the dominant party in what is an asymmetrical conflict, to use the terminology, but let me ask him this, because he has used the terms "collective punishment" and "disproportionate" and said the actions are “not self-defence”, all of which are violations of international law. Israel does not care about international law.
When it came to Ukraine and Putin's violation of international law, there were, correctly, multiple complaints to the International Criminal Court. Why is Israel different? Why is it that the international community cannot the state the truth that the world has seen with its own eyes? As Palestinians are massacred, why is it that Israel cannot be held to account? The Taoiseach's own words reflect the damning analysis that Israel is in repeated violation of international law. This State, the Taoiseach's Government, can make a referral to the International Criminal Court and it should. It will enjoy the support of everybody in this Chamber and the entire country if it has the courage of truth and justice to take that action.
It is a very clear and consistent approach from Sinn Féin towards the Government, towards other Opposition parties and towards the media, namely, to shout them down or sue them. This is a Parliament, this is a democracy and I am going to be heard.
It is a serious issue, so may I be heard without being threatened with legal action or being shouted down? Would that be possible? This is still a democracy, Deputy, and I am not going to let you take away our democracy through your threats or your activities. I can guarantee you that. May I speak?
Thank you. I have explained the situation very clearly. This is not the same as Ukraine because an investigation into potential Israeli war crimes in the Palestinian territories is already under way. That is the position. We support that investigation, we provide millions in funding to the International Criminal Court in order that it can gather the evidence and take prosecutions into the future, and I very much hope that happens.
It is easy to feel completely hopeless and helpless watching the disaster unfold in Gaza. Today, there was a small glimpse of light. Up to 30 Irish citizens who had been trapped in a hell on earth for more than five weeks are finally getting out. I really hope they and every Irish citizen can escape the carnage. For the more than 2 million people who remain in Gaza, the nightmare continues. The horror is unimaginable. Yesterday, the Taoiseach's colleague the Minister, Deputy Harris, described it as a war on children. Strong words, but where is the action? How can the Government know that, say that and do nothing?
Europe is Israel's biggest trading partner. Trade is governed by the EU-Israel Association Agreement, which has an essential elements human rights clause. Israel's savage onslaught in Gaza does not just breach that clause; it makes a mockery of it. When I raised this with the Taoiseach last week, he suggested that the prospect of economic sanctions was somehow fanciful, but the text of the human rights clause in that deal is clear and unambiguous. It is not a matter of subjective opinion. It is a matter of legal obligation.
The Social Democrats are not the only ones making this argument. Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews and 30 other MEPs have written to Ursula von der Leyen seeking a review of the EU-Israel trade deal on similar grounds. Belgium's deputy Prime Minister, Petra De Sutter, has also called for the deal to be suspended. What we are asking the Taoiseach to do, therefore, is not outlandish or impossible. It is entirely reasonable and entirely feasible. Work with like-minded EU leaders and MEPs, including the Government's own, to advocate for economic sanctions.
A number of options are available to the Taoiseach to take action, many of which were outlined in our Private Members' motion taken this morning. They include economic sanctions relating to, for example, the EU-Israel trade agreement or the Horizon Europe fund, the passing of the Illegal Israeli Settlements Divestment Bill or the occupied territories Bill, and a referral to the International Criminal Court. The Taoiseach says a referral to that court has already been made, but we made one along with 42 other countries in respect of Russia, so somebody else having done it is not a reason not to do it now.
There is also the option of removing the diplomatic status of the ambassador.
Yesterday, the Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau joined with the French President Macron in telling Israel that the killing of babies must stop. The Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reacted angrily and stated that "the forces of civilisation” must back Israel in defeating “Hamas’s barbarism". There is nothing civilised about the Israeli war machine or its enablers in the West.
What can we do when Israel will not even agree to protect babies? More words? When Israel is not listening, not even to its closest friends, we have exhausted all our words. The Government intends to deny the Dáil a vote on the Social Democrats motion this evening. Does he intend to adopt any of the actions we have suggested? Does he plan on matching any of his words with any actions at all, or is he satisfied Israel will face no economic or diplomatic consequences for its massacre in Gaza?
Deputy and a Cheann Comhairle, on a point of information, nobody will be denied a vote whatsoever. This is a democratic Parliament and a democratic country. People are allowed to put down amendments and have votes on those amendments before the substantive vote, and the Deputy's party does that all the time. To try to suggest that is some sort of denial of a vote is deeply disingenuous and deeply wrong, and I want to call out the Deputy on that attempt at disinformation.
The first group of Irish citizens and dependants have been cleared to exit through the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt today. Arrangements are in place for staff from the Irish Embassy in Cairo to meet them and provide them with consular assistance and help for onward travel. We expect more Irish citizens and dependants in Gaza to be on the list in the coming days. We are working really hard to make sure all Irish citizens and their dependants in Gaza who want to leave are able to do so in the next couple of days. I have met the Israeli ambassador, the Egyptian foreign minister and the Palestinian Prime Minister about this, and the Tánaiste has been carrying out meetings as well. I recognise all those who have assisted us and our citizens in being able to have this good news and glimmer of hope to share with people today.
The actions we are taking are the ones we think will be effective. We are providing humanitarian assistance to the UN on the ground in Gaza, in excess of €13 million in recent weeks.
I recognise that 100 UN staff have been killed by Israel in recent weeks. We mourn their loss. They are true heroes. Their lives should not have been taken in the way they were. We support the work of the International Criminal Court. I outlined what we are doing in that regard. We are using our voice at the EU and UN in as effective a way as we can to recentre the position of the EU, in particular, and we are encouraging surrounding countries to show more solidarity with the Palestinian cause than they have to date.
The Deputy knows the EU is divided on this issue for lots of different reasons. We have been extremely active in the past month trying to recentre the European Union's position closer to ours. I have been involved in international affairs for quite some time. I have got some things right and I have got some things wrong. What I know is that there is a way to lead in international affairs and there is a way not to lead. If you go out too far on a limb, you lose influence. You get put in the category where you are not listened to any more. As Tony Blair would have said, if you lead so far in front, nobody can see you-----
He is an author of the Good Friday Agreement. It was in that context he said it, by the way. You have to make sure you use your influence in a way that is effective, not in a way that just makes you look good on telly or in front of protestors. That is not how you conduct grown-up politics or international affairs.
On the humanitarian clause the Deputy mentioned, I will make inquiries about it and seek legal advice on it.
I want to explain to people watching what I mean by denying people the opportunity to vote on the motion. When a party like ours puts forward a motion and the Government puts forward a countermotion, we vote on that first and do not get to vote on the Social Democrats' motion. It is not misleading. I just wanted to explain that briefly.
When I asked the Taoiseach what the Government is doing, he said it is using its voice, which I recognise. The Irish voice has been important and an outlier in the European and western context, but that just illustrates how low the bar is. We are now asking for more than using our voice by taking actions. I recognise what the Taoiseach is saying about not being able to go out too far on a limb. What we are saying, if the Taoiseach would listen, is that some of these calls will not do that. At this point, I do not know what else it would take because 160 children are dying a day and 180 pregnant women are giving birth in Gaza where the piles of bodies are getting bigger and bigger outside hospitals. I do not know what else could justify taking a stronger position or taking action to say that we do not tolerate this. There are multiple solutions and things the Government could do. It could push for the Israel-EU trade deal to be suspended, implement the Illegal Israeli Settlements Divestment Bill 2023 and make a referral to the International Criminal Court. Not all of those things would put one so far out that one would not be taken seriously, and the Taoiseach knows that.
I tried in my earlier response to Deputy McDonald to explain what we are trying to do. For the first time, there is clear agreement across 27 member states in the European Union that the only solution to this conflict is a two-state solution. Ireland has a role to play in making sure the EU presses for this, advocates for it and makes this the end to the conflict in the area. We can do that. For far too long, we have provided aid to the Palestinians without requiring that they embrace democracy and human rights and end terrorism. For far too long, we have traded with Israel without expecting it to respect human rights and to provide Palestinians with the state they deserve. There is an opportunity for us to play a role in making sure the European Union has a more active policy in this area. We must be credible in that regard.
That is how she would behave at a European Council meeting. She would go in, hector people, point the finger, leave early, do a press release and big press conference, make herself look good but ultimately would achieve nothing for us------
We saw in the budget last month the political choice to underfund our health service. At the Joint Committee on Health in September, the CEO of the HSE said the level of underfunding would amount to between €1.4 billion and €1.5 billion in 2023. On the same day, the Secretary General of the Department of Health said this budget would be a definite underfunding of existing levels of service. The Government totally ignored warnings from healthcare trade unions and patient advocacy organisations of the catastrophic consequences of this dramatic underfunding. Anyone who has had to deal with the crisis in the HSE could tell you the same thing.
Six days ago, there was the release of the first Irish national ICU audit annual report. The report showed the crisis in the number of ICU beds. It found that there are just six critical care beds per 100,000 people, less than half of the OECD average of 14.1. The average ICU bed occupancy was 88.5%, above the recommended maximum of 85%.
I, like all other Deputies, know we are dealing with a crisis across the HSE but I raise the particular cases of two women directly affected by the lack of ICU beds. Both have been awaiting care for years due to a lack of ICU beds for post-operative care. One woman waited four years for an operation on her scoliosis originally scheduled in 2018. She only got the operation after I raised it in the House a number of times. In February this year, after suffering from worsening pain and discomfort, it was found that the bones around her spine had weakened and the rods and screws had become loose. She had a further scan in May. It had got worse and she was told surgery was needed urgently. She is still waiting in a lot of pain as her doctor told her there are no ICU beds available for her to have her operation.
I am also aware of another case of a woman with a hernia. She is in great pain. Her stomach has distended because her organs have come out of place. She has been waiting in pain since 2019 as her doctor has told her there is no ICU bed for her to have her operation. This woman has been waiting since 2019. I raised this matter a number of times in parliamentary questions. How will the HSE deliver care for people like these two women I am working with when it has been underfunded by this Government? It made a political decision to underfund our health service. It is essentially a cut given inflation and growth in demand at a time when people are in pain for months and years because of a lack of services and beds. What will the Taoiseach do to increase ICU bed capacity despite the budget restrictions his Government has imposed on the HSE?
Under this Government, there are record levels of spending and investment in healthcare. Spending on healthcare will increase next year, not go down. There are also record levels of staff working in our health service. There are 20,000 more staff than there were when this Government came into office, including 6,000 extra nurses and midwives and about 2,000 extra doctors and dentists. Those are the facts. They are producing results. Waiting lists, which peaked after the pandemic, are now falling. They are down by about 20% since the peak, which is not the case in most other European countries. While we experience very serious problems in emergency department overcrowding, there are about 70 fewer patients on trolleys today than was the case this time last year. There are also big improvements in patient outcomes, particularly around cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease. We have a higher life expectancy in Ireland than almost any other European country. It is a far cry from the NHS system which the Deputy wants to see brought into Ireland, where life expectancy is lower, patient outcomes are worse, people wait longer and staff are paid a lot less.
That is the vision the Deputy has for Ireland, which I hope never comes to pass. On ICU beds, it is an area in which the Government has been very active in the past three years. We increased the number of ICU beds considerably since the pandemic and will continue to do so. That programme will not be adversely affected in the next year. As everyone will understand in this House, it is not just about a bed or the equipment; it is about being able to staff it. That means nurses with full ICU qualifications, anaesthetists and a cohort of doctors in training behind them. There is no recruitment restriction at all on ICU nurses, anaesthetists or doctors on the anaesthetic training programme.
I accept that money has been put into the health service - there is no doubt about it - but we are coming from a very low level in the first place. The national lCU audit annual report specifically stated there are just six critical care beds per 100,000 people, after a record level of money into the health service. That is less than half of the OECD average of 14.1.
The reality is these two women, one of whom has waited for her operation since 2019 according to replies I have received from St. James's Hospital, are still waiting, even though I received a reply in June that one woman would be seen by her consultant in the hospital. One woman is still waiting because the hospital cannot organise to have post critical care beds in place after her operation. She has been told the operation will last for at least five hours because they have to put all of the organs back into place before they can sort out the hernia. It does not matter whether this is about one woman or 20 women or men. The fact is that, on the ground, it is not happening and people are waiting because of the lack of ICU beds or because they cannot be linked in with their operations. That is the reality. That has to be dealt with.
I thank the Deputy. I am very sorry to hear about that lady's experience. It is impossible for me to comment on any individual case without having all of the details. Complex surgery requires a lot of resources, staff and theatre time and ICU beds to be available.
Sometimes ICU beds go to emergencies rather than people who are on waiting lists. We are expanding ICU and HDU bed capacity. I do not have the exact figures in front of me, but I understand there has been an increase of 25% in the past three years alone under this Government. I will check the figures and come back to the Deputy with the detail in writing.
As the Taoiseach knows, I have warned for years about the potential for an energy crisis and our exposure to elevated prices. Sadly, what I had warned about has come to pass. The current energy crisis has disrupted our economy and driven inflation on a massive scale. It poses real risks to our economy as, like it or not, we are dependent on oil and gas for the functioning of our economy. Even with a massive renewable build, we will still need gas as our backup fuel for electricity.
We still do not know how the Ukrainian war will pan out and we have seen ill-disposed actors sabotage critical gas pipelines like Nord Stream in Germany and Baltic connectors in Finland. Combined with the terrible situation between Israel and Palestine, our current gas storage and supply arrangements look completely inadequate and are in breach of EU legislation on gas storage. Despite my consistent warnings, nothing was done, apart from the Government kicking the can down the road in the hope that none of its bad policies would catch it out before leaving office. In the meantime, prices have skyrocketed and we are paying the price for not having a long-term and resilient energy system. The crisis is hitting all of us, in particular hard-working families, directly in the pocket.
I understand in recent days a number of reports have been finally been published by the Minister, Deputy Ryan. It seems his Department has finally understood that our only option for gas security of supply is a floating storage and regasification terminal. Will the Taoiseach advise us of the Government strategy on this,? Why has it taken the Government, which has highly paid officials and advisers, almost four years to realise that our only option for gas security of supply is a floating storage regasification terminal? When will this piece of critical infrastructure be put in place to ensure our national energy security? Where will the terminal be sited?
As the Taoiseach knows, I have mentioned Cork in recent years in the Dail as a potential site for the floating terminal. What is the competence within our State bodies for the development of a floating storage and regasification terminal? Will the Taoiseach assure me that a terminal company which will lease or purchase the terminal will be Irish owned and controlled?
I thank the Deputy. The future of energy in Ireland is renewable. That is the safest, most secure and cheapest way to provide for our energy needs in the long term. We need renewable energy, backed by interconnection to Britain and Europe, and mass battery storage in Ireland. That transition is very much under way. It is happening all around us, all over the country, such as the wind farms, battery storage in the midlands and the interconnector between Ireland and France. Work is very much under way and that is very much the future.
In the meantime, we will need oil and natural gas. We have good oil storage already, about a 30-day supply if needed. As the Deputy knows, some of that is in Cork. When it comes to natural gas, we have essentially two sources. One is the Corrib gasfield off Mayo, which will run out, and the other comprises the interconnectors between Ireland and the UK. In light of what has happened to interconnectors, gas pipes and telecommunication terminals around Europe in the past year or so, we have had to revisit our policy because we have seen gas pipelines destroyed and damaged, not just in Denmark but also between Estonia and Finland. We believe that reliance on the interconnector from the UK is too big a risk and a risk we have to mitigate.
We have not come down definitively on whether there will be floating or fixed gas storage. That is still open for consideration. We have asked Gas Networks Ireland to do further work in that regard. That will be done over the course of the next six months. It will be expensive, but the cost will be spread over a long period of time in the form of a levy on bills, similar to the one we have for the National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, when it comes to oil, petrol and diesel storage. Whatever we do will be State led. The Government has made that decision. That does not mean that there is not a role to play for the private sector, whether through public-private partnerships or contracting the expertise we need and which we do not have in the State sector, but it will be State led and commissioned.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has confirmed that the new facility, which is likely to cost hundreds of millions of euros to build, will be funded by a new levy on consumer gas bills. The Green Party loves taxing the Irish people. It seems to have a fierce habit of that. I presume the Taoiseach will not agree with that. There are already taxes on fuel, as well as a carbon tax. Where is our carbon tax money going to go? Why can it not be put into a facility like this, which I fully agree needs to be built?
I asked for a floating gas terminal and felt it was a necessity. We pleaded with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, who ignored our calls. We felt it could be positioned off the coast of Cork. Where will the terminal be sited? We need to know that today. The Taoiseach said it will be constructed in the next six months. It certainly will, but the Irish taxpayer cannot pick up the tab on this. Irish taxpayers cannot keep picking up the tab for every issue of concern. There are carbon and NORA taxes. What other taxes will the Government put on ESB and gas bills which ordinary people will have to pay? They cannot be hit again.
The Government should use the carbon tax it has imposed on the people. It is mostly hurting the people of rural Ireland. Most parties in the House agreed to it. The floating terminal should be paid for using the carbon tax money that is there already. People should not be hit by another bill on top of the bills and levies they cannot afford to pay.
-----which he opposed to pay for gas storage. It is so absurd I do not think I will go down that road at all. Storage has to be paid for. Nobody is going to store for free a huge amount of gas for us which has to be burned off or brought into the system every couple of months. The proposal is that the user of gas will pay for the storage. That makes sense to me. The Deputy is proposing that it be paid for by a tax he is against. That makes no sense.