By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
The Government has been accused of veering towards “a flawed approach” to tackling the energy crisis, as TDs heard that small businesses have compared their electricity bill costs to paying a second rent.
The Dáil saw an eventful return to business after the summer break – shifting from a solemn minute’s silence held for the late Queen Elizabeth, to laughter at the accidental promotion of the Sinn Féin leader, to frayed exchanges on the cost-of-living crisis.
The first course of action after the summer break was a minute’s silence was held in memory of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.
The British Ambassador was present in the Dáil for the mark of respect from TDs.
The Ceann Comhairle, or chair of the Dáil, Sean O Fearghail, called her a “truly magnificent and inspirational head of our neighbouring state, whose years of dedicated service is truly without parallel”.
The Dáil is back after the summer break - and its first course of action is to hold a minute's silence for Queen Elizabeth II.
The Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl calls her a "truly magnificent and inspirational head of our neighbouring state". pic.twitter.com/144OX2Xl1Z
— Gráinne Ní Aodha (@GNiAodha) September 14, 2022
“There are many on this island who see Queen Elizabeth as their queen, and we sympathise with them on this very sad moment in history,” Irish premier Micheál Martin said.
After the minute’s silence, the Ceann Comhairle called on the Taoiseach to kick off Leaders’ Questions, despite the fact that it begins with questions from the main opposition party.
There were smiles and laughter as Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald rose to her feet and Mr O Fearghail realised his mistake, including wry grins from the Government benches.
It comes after two opinion polls published at the weekend put Sinn Féin on 35 per cent – the largest share of support for a political party in Ireland.
“Thank you for that unparalleled vote of confidence, I’m very touched,” Ms McDonald told the Ceann Comhairle.
Sinn Féin TD Eoin O Broin, sitting to Ms McDonald’s right, remarked that “Freud would be delighted”.
Civilities took a nosedive after that, with the Government accused of not doing enough to help people tackle with the cost-of-living crisis.
Sinn Féin criticised the Government’s preference for energy credits rather than price caps to deal with spiralling electricity bills.
The main opposition party has called for energy bill prices to be capped at “pre-crisis” levels until February, which the Taoiseach indicated on Monday he was not in favour of over electricity credits.
In the first round of Leaders’ Questions of the new Dáil term, Ms McDonald said that the last energy credit, issued in April and worth 200 euro plus VAT, was not long-lasting enough.
“While energy credits are well and good, they do not provide certainty. They don’t protect people from a continuous barrage of hikes,” she said.
“In fact, when the Government introduced its initial energy credit, it was too slow. It was wiped out by further price hikes before it even landed into people’s accounts. So this is clearly a flawed approach.”
Ms McDonald said that it would deliver certainty for people, and that it “simply makes sense”.
Mr Martin requested from Ms McDonald a fully costed proposal on the way Sinn Féin would tackle the energy crisis, calling her proposals “vague” and “one-dimensional”.
“The Government’s view is, for the time being, we want to get people through the winter to the end of March, not the end of February,” he said.
“We’ve got to do it using a range of measures, in terms of reducing electricity bills yes, but also giving flexibility to the people in the form of payments that we give them.”
He said this could include energy credits, the welfare system, cost reductions and investments in public services.
Ms McDonald replied that Sinn Fein’s proposals on price caps were similar to those introduced in France and Romania.
She said: “The only blank cheque in question here Taoiseach is the one that you are asking families to give to energy companies.”
Labour leader Ivana Bacik said that small business owners are reporting that paying for energy bills is like paying “a second rent”.
She said: “…We see energy bills increasing dramatically for so many struggling households and families. Households facing the dreadful prospect of energy bills which could reach 6,000 euro per annum next year, and small businesses which are telling us that now their energy bills are as much as their rent.”
The Taoiseach acknowledged that “it’s not fair that companies would make exorbitant profits on the back of a war, and on the back of the people, in terms of the exploitation of a crisis”.
Aontu TD Peadar Toibin said that the response of the government to the cost-of-living crisis has been “stifling inertia”.
“Going by the rate of action of this government, the only thing that will remain warm this winter will be the government’s hands, from sitting on them all of this time,” Mr Toibin added.