The Cabinet meets at Dublin Castle this morning with a packed agenda covering everything from Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the funding of the health service, to defamation laws and electoral reform.
Ministers will be briefed on Irish and EU aid to Ukraine while the Government has tabled a Dáil motion to express support for the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the country.
A big topic of conversation will involve the Irish contribution to Ukraine and that of the European Union, which decided over the weekend to send almost half a billion euro in military aid to Ukraine – a watershed intervention.
Ireland has said it will make a contribution to non-military aid.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee is also expected to update her Cabinet colleagues on EU plans for dealing with the growing influx of refugees from Ukraine. Justice and home affairs ministers discussed the plans at the weekend, but it is now expected that they will return to the EU capital later this week to finalise that work.
And what does all of this mean for Ireland’s long-cherished policy of neutrality?
As Pat Leahy reports in this analysis piece, the chances of the traditional policy of military neutrality emerging unscathed seem remote.
On our front page today, we carry the latest dispatch from Daniel McLaughlin in Ukraine after another day of high-stakes brinkmanship.
He reports that Ukrainian officials have accused Moscow’s military of killing at least nine civilians and injuring dozens in a missile strike on the fifth day of the Russian invasion.
More than 500,000 people have fled to the European Union.
Talks between delegates from Moscow and Kyiv on the Ukraine-Belarus border on Monday brought no breakthrough, but both sides said they expected to have another meeting in the near future, possibly on the Ukraine-Poland frontier.
Separately the Cabinet will approve new defamation laws which will implement significant changes in the way libel cases operate. The plans come on foot of a report into the existing law, and changes will see juries abolished in defamation cases. There will also be an "anti-Slapp" mechanism where a defendant to a libel claim can seek to have the case dismissed on the grounds that it is a "Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation" – a case taken by a rich and powerful person or corporation to deter criticism or investigation. Ministers are also likely to approve a white paper on enterprise development, as well as proposals relating to the census and electoral reforms. More details can be found here.
The future of Covid-19
The speed at which the focus segued from pandemic to war certainly took many in Government by surprise but behind-the-scenes, the spectre of Covid-19 still looms large.
A two-hour meeting of the Cabinet Covid-19 subcommittee was pencilled in between 2pm and 4pm on Monday but as it turned out, Ministers flew through the agenda and were done and dusted after little over an hour.
The assessment from the deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn was reported to be pretty upbeat, and Ministers were told that the trajectory of the disease is stable and underlying indicators are still good, while severe illness is low. There was also a conversation on the Omicron sub-variant lineage. "The view is that it is more transmissible, but there is no evidence yet to say that it is more severe," a source said.
The main purpose of the meeting was to chart a long-term path forward for the country through the next phases of the pandemic. It is understood that a four-step plan was discussed which would see an emergency protocol established if a new variant of concern threatens public health.
The first part involves an immediate phase in which a continuing focus is placed on meeting the current Covid-19 demands in terms of hospital care, vaccinations and testing and trace.
The second part of the plan involves a transition phase that will see PCR testing and vaccinations scaled back to a significant degree, with the dismantling of a workforce of thousands in vaccination centres, test and trace, and labs.
The third part of the plan will look at a longer-term way of living with Covid-19 in the years to come. It seems most likely, at this stage, that the majority of people will be offered one vaccine every year, perhaps just before the winter when people are naturally indoors and respiratory illnesses tend to flourish.
The Government is still waiting on advice the timing of a fourth jab from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee and that is now expected in a matter of weeks.
The fourth part of the plan involves an emergency structure to ramp up vaccinations and testing in case a variant of concern upends plans once again.
As for the successor to the National Public Health Emergency Team? Apparently, we are told, this is still very much up for discussion.It looks as though a smaller multi-disciplinary team will keep tabs on the situation. More details on this and the Government's latest plan for Covid-19 can be found here.
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First up will be Leaders’ Questions at 2pm with Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, the Independent Group, and the Rural Independent Group ready to grill the Government.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin will take questions at 3pm followed by a Government motion stating support “for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. Just under two hours have been set aside for that.
Health matters will be top of the agenda in the evening as Sinn Féin brings a motion on waiting lists at 3.40pm. Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath will take questions at 7.40pm followed by Topical Issues at 9.10pm. The Dáil adjourns just before 10pm.
The full and more detailed schedule can be found here:
Proceedings kick off with Commencement Matters at 2.30pm followed by the Order of Business an hour later. At 4.45pm there will be statements on the situation in Israel and Palestine, including a recent report of Amnesty International. At 7pm there will then be statements on the situation in Ukraine before the Seanad adjourns at 8pm.
The full schedule is here.
At 11am the Joint Committee on Health meets to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Public Health Tobacco and Nicotine Inhaling Products Bill 2019. The proposed legislation will prohibit the sale of vapes and tobacco- and nicotine-inhaling products to people under the age of 18. The committee will hear from representatives of Vape Business Ireland and later in the afternoon the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.
At the same time the Joint Committee on Education and Further and Higher Education will hold a roundtable discussion on the future funding of higher education with a number of different representative bodies.
Also at 11am, the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications will discuss speed limit reductions in urban areas. Again, at the same time, the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action will discuss energy ambitions and challenges, which could be timely given the debate around energy security in light of the situation in Russia and Ukraine.
The best of the rest can be found here.