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Taoiseach heads to Berlin with Ukraine crisis top of the agenda

Inside Politics: Coveney issues blunt statement after Putin’s ‘dangerous escalation’

Today the Cabinet will sign off on a decision that will essentially result in the end of Covid-19 restrictions in Ireland. No longer will masks be required in Irish society. There is some symmetry to it. Two years after the first case was identified in Ireland, it is an acknowledgement that the tide is now ebbing and the global crisis is receding.

But no sooner is one global crisis receding, another one begins. After many weeks of rising tension, Vladimir Putin last night announced in a televised address that the Russian Federation will officially recognise Donetsk and Luhansk, the two breakaway areas of Ukraine.

It is a dangerous escalation. Today's editorial in this publication does not mince its words.

It describes the action as a "dangerous and unilateral escalation that appears to set the path for Russian aggression. An all-out assault on Kyiv and eastern Ukraine, which the Russian president threatened in a rambling and fiery speech from the Kremlin, could occur at any moment, plunging Europe into its worst security crisis since the second World War."

Are we on the verge of the worst security crisis in Europe in more than 80 years? How will Europe, Nato and the US respond if Russian tanks indeed roll into Ukraine? Will it be through the imposition of sanctions including calling a halt to the Nord Stream gas pipeline? Or will it involve some military response, with all the knock-on consequences that might stem from that?

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney issued a blunt statement last night, saying the move "contravenes international law, is a blatant violation of Ukraine's territorial integrity, and marks a clear and unilateral breach of the Minsk agreements."

He said Ireland supported a clear and strong EU response, including additional sanctions measures.

By coincidence, Taoiseach Micheál Martin is travelling to Berlin today for a meeting with the German chancellor Olaf Scholz.

It is certain that the crisis surrounding Ukraine will be at the top of the agenda. It is a difficult issue for Germany. If the Nord Stream gas pipeline is abandoned, it will suffer most.

Chancellor Scholz will host the Taoiseach at the Federal Chancellery in the German capital for a working lunch, following military honours on arrival and a private meeting between the two leaders.

In a statement issued this morning, the Government said that the leaders will discuss Irish and German relations, the situation in Ukraine and other EU Council issues such as economic recovery, EU/UK relations and our climate goals.

Later in the day, the Taoiseach will visit Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe for a wreath laying ceremony and a tour of the museum.

That will give a potent reminder of the horror and terrible toll of Europe’s last major war.

European manoeuvres of a different kind

In our main political story today, we report that the island of Ireland could host a quarter of the games in Euro 2028.

The Cabinet is to be updated today on the joint bid of the five football associations across Britain and Ireland to bid for the European competition rather than the World Cup two years later in 2030.

We had an uneven experience with bids for major competitions. The last Government threw the kitchen sink at the bid for the Rugby World Cup only to be comprehensively outgunned by France. There was a little too much expectation, and a hint of hubris.

So the mood this time is much more tactful and careful.

“The Government here is waiting for more information on the costs and benefits of hosting before making a decision to support efforts to land the tournament,” states the report.

The State had spent about €155,000 on scoping out a potential joint bid for the 2030 World Cup before that proposal was dropped by the five football associations in favour of pursuing Euro 2028.

Sources said the feasibility work can be repurposed as the Government considers whether or not to back the Euro 2028 bid.

In the same report we confirm that Cabinet will sign off on National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) advice that the requirement for the compulsory wearing of face masks on public transport as well as in schools and shops can be dropped from Monday February 28th.

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Phil Hogan may seek compensation from the EU Commission over its handling of the response to Golfgate, which resulted in his resignation as Trade Commissioner.

Cormac McQuinn also reports on the possibility of people being paid subsidies to work in remote hubs.

Playbook

The Taoiseach is in Berlin today meeting with the Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz. Thomas Byrne, the Minister of State for European Affairs, is in Brussels at a General Affairs Council meeting.

The Cabinet meets this morning with Leo Varadkar chairing the meeting.

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath will take Leaders Questions in the Dáil at 2pm. Later on there is a debate on Citizens’ Assemblies, which divide opinion. Critics say they are not truly reflective of the wider population as their supporters claim. A criticism coming from the other side is that too few of the recommendations have been acted on over the years.

The Sinn Féin private members' motion on scrapping increases in carbon tax will commence at 5.05pm. That is sure to raise some hackles on both sides of the house.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe will take priority questions at 7.05pm.

The Seanad is debating two Bills today. The first is the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill. The other is the emergency measures Bill that will allow energy companies to apply a €200 rebate to electricity bills to compensate domestic users for rising energy costs.

A busy day at committees. The Education Committee is examining future funding models and proposals for higher education. The Environment Committee is scrutinising an EU Directive on the protection of the environment through criminal law.

Justice is looking at the incidence of anti-social behaviour in Irish society.

In Foreign Affairs, Amnesty International head in Ireland, Colm O'Gorman, will respond to questions about its report: "Israel's Apartheid Regime against Palestinians".

The full schedule for the Oireachtas today can be found here.