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Financial Resolution No. 2: General (Resumed) (Continued)

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 924 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar] This includes extending the school breakfast programme to the new DEIS schools from next year. We are also opening the free breakfast programme to non-DEIS schools and up to 35,000 children in non-DEIS schools will benefit from free school breakfasts. This is in recognition of the fact the majority of children who are disadvantaged do not attend DEIS schools and very often attend a school in the parish next door. School breakfasts have been shown to increase attendance and improve concentration.

There is also a special increase of an additional €10 in payment for guardians who take care of orphans or children who have been abandoned by their parents.

As part of the Government’s commitment to rural Ireland, I am announcing the total reversal of cuts to farm assist, a programme which helps more than 8,000 farm families. The introduction of additional income disregards for farmers with children further ensures that farm families will benefit. At a time of falling farm incomes, it is essential we strengthen the safety net for farmers who are on the margins. Even farmers who do not qualify for farm assist have the reassurance that there is a strong safety net for them, should they need it. This is particularly important given, as I said, it is a time of falling incomes.

Many of the farmers who benefit from farm assist live in remote parts of the country, with very limited prospects for off-farm income. In recognition of the crucial work undertaken in rural communities under the rural social scheme, an additional 500 places will be made available next year. This will bring the total number of places up from 2,600 to 3,100 in 2017.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): Information on Eugene Murphy Zoom on Eugene Murphy I must ask the Minister to conclude as he is sharing time with the Minister, Deputy Flanagan.

Deputy Leo Varadkar: Information on Leo Varadkar Zoom on Leo Varadkar I will submit the balance of my script.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Charles Flanagan): Information on Charles Flanagan Zoom on Charles Flanagan This budget takes place against a background of international challenge which is unprecedented, both in its scale and its complexity, in our political lifetime. The human tragedy which is unfolding in Syria, in the Mediterranean and, most recently, in Haiti is a backdrop to our contributions which we should all be mindful of in the course of this debate.

I am pleased to say that Ireland is playing a front-line role in the international community’s efforts to address many of these challenges. Ireland took a lead role in last year's successful efforts to agree a new set of global Sustainable Development Goals to 2030. This year, Ireland was again asked to take the lead at the UN in discussions on the global migration challenge. Our naval personnel are to the forefront of essential search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Our peacekeepers are deployed in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, helping to maintain stability in areas critically affected by the conflict in Syria. Irish volunteers and agencies are to be found across the world in the most difficult operating environments.

These efforts are backed up by unprecedented levels of humanitarian assistance to the region. In recent days, I and the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, approved the airlift of vital emergency relief supplies to the besieged city of Mosul in Iraq and to the people of Haiti in the aftermath of a violent hurricane. We announced further funding of €7.5 million for the Syrian people, which will bring our total humanitarian funding for Syrians since this horrific conflict began to €62 million by the end of this year. This is our biggest humanitarian aid commitment for many years and we stand ready to do more where we can. Our hearts go out to the Syrian people and we strongly support the UN’s efforts to bring this grotesque violence to an end. We want those responsible for the carnage dealt with by the International Criminal Court.

For the second year, the total allocation to official development assistance, ODA, has been increased. For 2017, the Government is allocating a total of €651 million for ODA, an increase of €10 million on the 2016 allocation. Of that, €486 million will be managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the Irish Aid programme, with a further estimated €165 million coming from other Government Departments and Ireland’s share of the EU development co-operation budget.

Of course, it is Brexit which formed the immediate backdrop to this budget. In recent months, there have been considerable discussions in government about the potential impacts of Brexit and how we could best Brexit-proof the budget in an environment and backdrop where much remains to be clarified, in particular by the United Kingdom, and where a complex and multi-layered set of negotiations lies ahead. Our goals as a Government in these negotiations, and my particular goals as Minister, are as follows: to protect and advance the enormous gains made through our own peace process; to prevent a hard Border reappearing on this island and ensure the circumstances necessary for this island economy to flourish; to encourage an outcome which retains the closest links between Ireland and Britain, on the one hand, and the UK and EU, on the other; and to ensure a prosperous and well-functioning EU with a strong and prosperous Ireland at its heart.

To this effect, a number of important steps have been taken or are under way. In respect of Northern Ireland, as I have made clear, the protection of the peace process is a central focus for the Government in terms of the negotiations ahead. I have spoken repeatedly of my commitment to protecting the invisible border across the island of Ireland. We are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive. At the North-South Ministerial Council plenary meeting following the referendum, Ministers from North and South agreed to a Brexit-specific work programme between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government, including a full audit of key North-South work programmes. Our next plenary is on 18 November in Armagh.

Last week, the Government approved a proposal that the Taoiseach and I convene an all-island civic dialogue on Brexit to give an opportunity to those affected by the vote to make their voices heard, both directly and through their representative groups and organisations. It will also provide an opportunity to map the challenges presented by Brexit and how they might impact on different elements of society and the economy on an all-island basis. The main output will be a report and a series of recommendations which will be used to help inform the Government's position on the issue of the negotiations.

In preparation for the negotiations that lie ahead, a new EU division has been formed in my Department, headed by a highly experienced Second Secretary General and staffed by experienced officials reassigned from the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Given the complexity of these negotiations, measures are being taken also to reinforce the Ireland-UK, legal and trade divisions of my Department. This will be augmented by additional resources in our key missions in Europe, in particular in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and London.

From a trade perspective, we are all acutely conscious of the importance of the UK market to Irish exporters. However, I have been working to intensify our focus on other markets. I believe we have the capacity for much greater market penetration in other EU member states and I am focused on that, but we are also looking beyond Europe’s borders. The next meeting of the Export Trade Council, which I chair, will take place on Tuesday and will focus on the Asia-Pacific region. I will shortly bring a memorandum to Government to advance the programme for Government commitments to introduce cross-sectoral whole-of-government strategies for Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Just one month after the referendum result, I joined the Minister, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, to announce an expanded international trade mission programme of 68 events to the end of this year, including 26 ministerial-led trade missions. Last month, I undertook an engagement with Enterprise Ireland in New York and, in the weeks ahead, I will be leading trade missions to France, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In last few weeks, our mission network has supported three ministerial visits to the Asia-Pacific region, where high level political visits are crucial to deepening and strengthening our trade and investment relations. Our missions will continue to support and facilitate the ambitious programme of trade missions planned for the rest of this year in co-operation with Enterprise Ireland, whose work I greatly value.

Earlier this year, I launched the economic diplomacy strategy that seeks to build on the consolidation of the Department's trade role in recent years by establishing a network of commercial attachés to extend the range and impact of our embassies’ activities in support of trade. This is being put in place in Mexico, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Bucharest and Jakarta - locations where economic opportunities exist to be explored and where either there is no State agency presence at present, or, if there is a presence, it is a relatively light one.

I use all opportunities as trade Minister to promote Ireland as a country to invest in and to trade with. I am just back from the UN General Assembly where I gave a strong message that Ireland will remain at the heart of Europe, will continue to be an English speaking gateway to a market of 500 million people and will continue to offer a business-friendly environment and a talented and adaptable workforce. I undertook a similar set of meetings at the Asia-Europe summit in Mongolia in July. I have engagements in Europe and Asia in the coming weeks where I will continue to promote our strategic interests.

The budget allows my Department to continue with the innovation agenda for our passport services. Our modernisation process is underpinned by two drivers: a better service for Irish citizens and the need for ongoing adaptation to protect passports from exploitation by criminals. This year saw a huge rise in demand for passports, driven by a number of factors. There was a rise in the number of people travelling abroad, undoubtedly encouraged by the steady and sustained growth in our own economy and increasing confidence.

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