Taoiseach says €4bn Covid fund could be used for Ukrainian refugee response

The €4bn contingency fund set aside for the Covid-19 response could be raided to pay for the State’s response to the influx of up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.

nd Mr Martin said his family was considering taking in refugees from the country.

Speaking in London on Sunday morning Mr Martin said there would be an “undoubted increase” in public spending to accommodate refugees fleeing war torn Ukraine with over 5,500 having already arrived in Ireland in the last fortnight.

“That’s a contingency fund that had been provided in the Budget for Covid which hasn’t been spent,” Mr Martin told journalists outside the BBC in central London.

“Some of it has, but not all of it has and that may be available for us to work on the undoubted increase in expenditure that will occur in areas like education, in areas like health and across the board, and that’s something that both the minister for finance and the minister for public expenditure are examining.”

As of late January around €500m of the €4bn fund announced in last year’s Budget had been spent but with all Covid-19 public restrictions now phased out and State support schemes being wound up in the coming weeks, the Taoiseach’s remarks indicate ministers will seek to reallocate the funds.

Mr Martin has said he and his family are considering whether to take in Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war in their home country.

He said everyone would have to play their part and that he and his family will discuss the matter.

The Fianna Fail leader owns three residential properties, including his family home and two holiday homes, one of which he jointly owns as part of an inheritance. He also stays in a Dublin apartment which is owned by his wife.

“I think we will all play our part in that,” he said. “I think these are personal decisions that every family has to take and we will respond in relation to that, as a family we will discuss that. We’re obviously reflecting on this, like everybody else.”

Outside of Mr Martin, of the Cabinet, only Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and Justice Minister Helen McEntee have publicly said they are willing to consider housing refugees fleeing the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Speaking on Tuesday, Mr Ryan, the Environment and Transport Minister, said he would have to talk to his “wife and four adult children” before taking a refugee in.

However, asked if he would encourage his Cabinet colleagues to take refugees into their homes if they have the space, he said: “Yes.”

On foot of Mr Ryan’s comments, the Irish Independent contacted spokespersons for every member of the Cabinet to ask whether their ministers would be prepared to accommodate Ukrainian refugees if it was possible for them to do so.

But there was no response from the spokespersons for the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath, Arts Minister Catherine Martin, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien or the Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney,

Nor was there any response from spokespersons for Education Minister Norma Foley, Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys, Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman, Higher Education Minister Simon Harris, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly or Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue.

Spokesperson for ministers of state who sit at Cabinet, including Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers, Biodiversity Minister Pippa Hackett and Logistics Minister Hildegarde Naughton did not respond.

More than 15,000 pledges of accommodation have been made by the Irish public to the Irish Red Cross, 4,500 of whom have pledged stand-alone vacant accommodation rather than rooms in their own homes.

“We are asking those who have registered with us with offers of accommodation to bear with us and our contact team will be in touch over the coming weeks,” an Irish Red Cross spokesperson told the Sunday Independent.

“We have had a huge number of pledges of accommodation since just last Friday when we had just 180 offers and to put it in context it took a few months to reach 1,000 pledges during our Syrian refugee campaign a few years ago.”

Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath had previously told the Sunday Independent he wanted to use the unspent funds to reduce the State’s borrowing costs and narrow the deficit this year.

More than 5,500 Ukrainian refugees have traveled to Ireland in recent weeks, the Taoiseach told the BBC earlier on Sunday morning.

He said security checks are not being carried out however security personnel are “monitoring” the situation at airports.

“Humanitarian response trumps everything,” he said. “We do know that that can be exploited by bad actors.”

He said Ireland’s “primary impulse” to help people who are fleeing war.

Mr Martin also said neutrality is something that should be “reflected upon”, saying that Ireland is not “morally” or “politically” neutral.

“We will have to reflect on this military neutrality position more generally,” he said.

He said that a long-held position cannot be held “in the middle of a crisis”.

On sanctions, Martin told reporters outside the BBC that the Government was working “in unison with the European Union” and said it was a fundamental principle of Ireland’s response.

“We’re not going to take unilateral action in respect of the sanctions themselves,” he said. “We don’t have oligarchs in Ireland in terms of we don’t have them resident in Ireland. They haven’t bought any football clubs and stuff like that.

“They’ve been very prevalent here in the UK and other jurisdictions and our sanctions that we’ve agreed with the European Union do go after oligarchs across Europe and go after their finances. That’s good and that’s important in terms of keeping pressure on the Russian system and the system of power and privilege within the Russian Federation.”

The Fianna Fáil leader again said the fallout from the war would impact the cost of living and said it would be “a very challenging situation”.

He said there could be a “long term” economic impact caused by the crisis.

“So we have to act prudently and wisely in terms of how we deploy resources with a view to understanding that they may not necessarily be short-term.”

Mr Martin said he had a “good meeting” with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday at Twickenham.

He said Mr Johnson paid tribute to Ireland’s humanitarian response to the Ukraine crisis.

They also discussed the Northern Ireland protocol with Mr Martin saying he stressed the EU’s desire for a resolution on the matter.

“We did speak about the border need for stability in Northern Ireland and this will be an issue we will return to.”

On reports that the UK government was considering a unilateral green channel for goods going from Britain to Northern Ireland, Mr Martin said there had to be a negotiation between the EU and UK and that “unilateralism generally I don’t subscribe to.”

Mr Martin said he had no concerns about ministers being out of the country for St Patrick’s Week as the war in Ukraine continues, saying there would be a Government meeting next week via video conference.

He said he would discuss the Ukrainian crisis with President Joe Biden on his own visit to Washington DC which begins on Monday.

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