Tuesday, 17 February 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Deputies will be aware that agreement was reached at the December European Council that, if the Lisbon treaty comes into force, all member states would retain a Commissioner. It was also agreed that a number of other concerns of the Irish people, which I spelled out at the Council meeting, would be addressed satisfactorily, including by way of appropriate legal guarantees.
On the basis of this agreement at the European Council and on the condition of our being able to agree the satisfactory texts of legal guarantees in the coming months, I have said that I would be prepared to return to the public with a new package and to seek their approval of it in a referendum.
The other potential referendum is in the area of children’s rights. Deputies will be aware that the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children is due to report to the Oireachtas in April 2009. The Government will await that report before making a decision on the holding of a referendum on children’s rights in 2009.
Deputy Enda Kenny: I recognise the importance of the Lisbon treaty and having a referendum on it passed. Obviously, while the Fine Gael Party campaigned strongly on this issue last year, the result is as was. I discussed this matter with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and set out my views on the holding of the referendum. My view was, and is, that the issues of concern to the Irish people should be dealt with sequentially. I refer to issues, be they ethical matters, corporate tax or conscription, which were to the fore during the referendum debate. For this reason, I set out my view that the referendum should be held towards the autumn of this year and that the timeline the Government was working on should be towards that date.
From the last meeting I attended in Brussels, I understand the Czech Presidency is working on the declarations to which the Taoiseach referred, with the aim of having them ready in time for the June summit. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that the timeline is as was, that is, the Lisbon referendum should be put to the people some time during the autumn. This would provide a decent timescale to deal with such issues and everything could be given proper structure and debate so that, on the next occasion, the assurances the Taoiseach correctly sought and was given at the December Council meeting can be understood fully by the people. They can then be asked the question on the Lisbon treaty, with the added declarations, at a future time.
I ask the Taoiseach to confirm this because I do not want this issue clouded by other issues. Obviously, this is of great importance to our country, its economy and to Europe as a whole. It is important to have a clear strategy and timeline, as well as clear and adequate preparation, in order that on the next occasion there is no ambivalence and there are no unanswered questions, and that everyone in the country is made as fully aware as possible before answering the question.
The Taoiseach: The December Council conclusions guide the Government in this matter. They have given us until June to ascertain whether we can agree texts with our colleagues and until the forming of a new Commission to decide when a referendum is to be held. As Deputy Kenny noted, I met the Opposition leaders, both before and perhaps after the Council meeting. They gave me their views on the matter and I stated I would work to the December conclusions. I wish to get on with the business because until such time as agreement has been reached on the texts, we are not in a position to ascertain whether we can proceed with the referendum, although that is our intention. Everyone acting in good faith and the receipt of the legal texts, which are the equivalent of the political commitments we obtained at the December Council meeting, will be what will guide us in this matter. I have asked that this be given full priority. The timing of a referendum can be decided as soon as such work is done.
Deputy Enda Kenny: One of the reasons for a negative result in the last referendum was the uncertainty and confusion that arose because the Taoiseach’s predecessor always responded in that way to questions in the House. In other words, on at least a dozen occasions when the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, was asked the question, he never gave an indication of approximately when he expected to hold a referendum. This caused a lack of focus and concentration and consequently certainly caused great confusion.
I have set out my views on this and would appreciate ongoing contact from the Government. While the Taoiseach has done this twice previously, it is necessary to have clarity. One will get a clearer, more structured, comprehensive and better way of dealing with this issue if one adheres to what was the original timeline. I understand the Czech Presidency is preparing these declarations and I expect the Taoiseach will keep Opposition parties informed about developments in this regard. The proposed referendum on the Lisbon treaty must not be clouded for any extraneous reasons. We must have a full, thorough and comprehensive debate on what is an issue of great importance for the future of Europe and of Ireland.
The Taoiseach: As I said, the timeline to which I am working is outlined in the December conclusions. We have until the specified time; it is not a question of waiting until then. We should get on with the work, do it as quickly as possible and see what options are available to the country. It is my strong view, particularly in the context of the economic and financial crisis with which all of Europe and elsewhere is contending, that this uncertainty regarding the Lisbon treaty is an issue that does not benefit us to any great extent. Obviously, we have work to do in this regard.
Priority has been given to this matter by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State with responsibly for European affairs. I have asked that this work be given the highest possible priority. Discussions are ongoing with representatives of the various institutions in the Union, for example, legal services. As soon as the work is done, the Government can consider where to go from here. Others have expressed their view. I simply want to make sure the work gets done as soon as possible. We do not have to wait until June. It may be necessary to wait until then or it may be possible to get the work done sooner. We will have to wait and see.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: If it is the Taoiseach’s intention to proceed with a second referendum, is it not the case that not a single word, let alone a line, in the Lisbon treaty will change when next he presents proposals to the Irish electorate? Does he accept that the Lisbon treaty, on which the Irish people have already voted, will remain absolutely as they have already judged, the text being exactly the same? Why has the Taoiseach indicated such a willingness to run a second referendum when all he has at this point in time, we understand, are indications of intent from other member state Governments? He does not have written declarations that have been signed off. He apparently does not have firm agreements in regard to specific matters, be they declarations, protocols or whatever. Why would he make such a willing indication? Does he accept that this contrasts starkly with his refusal to accept the judgment of the Irish electorate which has already voted on the Lisbon treaty and decided by a significant majority to reject it?
If it is the case that the Taoiseach is to proceed with this pursuit, when does he expect to have these declarations or whatever form they take or are to be referred to? Does he have drafts of these matters at this point in time? Is he prepared to publish them? Is he prepared to share them with Opposition voices in this House so that we have the opportunity to see exactly what he is proposing? Does the Taoiseach accept that, for a significant body of Irish people, the idea of running a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, just as was done with the Nice treaty, is a serious blow to the sense of the importance of democracy not only internally within this jurisdiction, but within the European Union itself?
If the Taoiseach is to proceed, will he take the opportunity today to make it abundantly clear that his understanding of the Irish people’s judgment in the Lisbon treaty referendum as already presented was as a judgment on proposals regarding the future governance of the European Union’s structures and so on and not a referendum on Ireland’s future participation in the Union? If he is to run with a second referendum, will he make clear that it will again be a referendum on the make-up and form of administration and so on within the European Union context and is not and cannot be portrayed, as others in his Cabinet and colleagues have attempted so to portray, as a decision on Ireland’s future participation within the Union?
The Taoiseach: With regard to the question on the conclusions in December and what they mean, we obtained political commitments and we are now embarking on detailed discussions as to what legal texts can be agreed with partners regarding the issues outlined in the December conclusions. The change that will take place in respect of the Commissioner can be taken by decision of the European Council but the assurances we can find to give legal effect to concerns identified as influential for some people in deciding to vote against is an exercise in democracy. It is precisely that, it is about listening to what people have said, identifying their concerns and how we can seek to assuage those concerns. The decision is respected since no treaty can come into place unless all 27 member states sign up to it. That is a clear indication that the decision of the Irish people is respected since the treaty cannot come into effect without our consent.
Regarding the work being undertaken at the moment, it is the job of the Government to proceed with that based on the political commitments we have received. If there is a successful outcome to these discussions and if there is prospective agreement from partners we can make their views known and make the terms known to the people for a debate in the House. We require a European Council meeting at Heads of Government and State level to adopt those protocols and commitments on which we received political agreement in December.
Regarding our future participation in the Union, there are consequences to decisions. Were we to have these commitments agreed to, were they to be satisfactory, were we to hold a referendum and were we to vote “No” again then obviously the other member states of the EU in agreement with the Lisbon treaty would have to see how they want to proceed. We would remain members of the Union but it is very much open to question whether, as was suggested, we would remain as influential as we have been given that all decisions carry consequences, both positive and negative, depending on the extent to which they contribute to a consensus that is otherwise there. This is a work in progress and there is more work to be done. As soon as it is completed we will be in a better position to assess where we will go from there.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Does the Taoiseach not accept that his assertion — that the efforts to explore how to put the Lisbon treaty to the people again are democratic — flies in the face of people’s understanding of democracy? A direct analogy would be if, in the event of a general election going against the Taoiseach, he were to turn to the people and ask them to hold on until he consulted with them to see why they did not vote for him and rejected him, and if he were to hold a second general election in order to ensure he had a manifesto people could support and commitments just as useful as the commitments he hopes to secure with regard to the Lisbon treaty. This is exactly how people feel. The Taoiseach’s argument that this is a further exercise in democracy does not stand up. People are not buying it and it holds no water. The Taoiseach does himself no good service by taking this position.
What is the view of the Taoiseach of the remarks of the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, that these so-called agreements, declarations and protocols will not be ready by June? Does that influence the Taoiseach’s thinking on the timing of the referendum? Perhaps the Taoiseach has not yet decided on the matter but is he considering running the second Lisbon treaty referendum in tandem with the local and European parliamentary election and other possible by-election scenarios on the same day in June? Are we facing a scenario in which the people will be asked to make a further judgment on the Lisbon treaty and, like a pig in a poke, be asked to buy something without seeing firm agreements in black and white and their legally binding value? Is the Taoiseach seriously considering this?
In speaking about the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, what is the Taoiseach’s view of his repeated assertion that the Irish people’s decision to reject the Lisbon treaty has in some way contributed to the current economic recession? Does the Taoiseach believe this claim to be just as off the wall as some of the claims made by people who campaigned on the “No” side in the course of the Lisbon treaty referendum debate? I am prepared to acknowledge that not everybody was presenting a factual scenario in their arguments but is the Taoiseach not prepared to be at least as gracious in saying that this continued effort and utterances by Ministers — or half Ministers in the case of Deputy Roche — are equally outrageous and off the mark? They have no place in this debate.
The Taoiseach: The Deputy will be surprised to hear I do not agree with him at all. The idea that one is precluded from putting a question to the Irish people, or that it is in some way a negation of democracy, is at variance with the facts. If the people’s voice is to be respected — it has been and will be unless there is a change — we will simply address the issues that cause concern. People are still saying they are in favour of the European Union and want us to be part of the Union. The Union wants to proceed along the lines it set out in the Lisbon treaty and it is likely that all other 26 member states will eventually get to that point. That leaves the other partners asking what is our position in that context. They have indicated to us a preparedness to accommodate issues and concerns which we identify. This is precisely what we have done.
We have gone back to our partners and in the true spirit of the European Union, they have shown a preparedness to seek to accommodate Ireland and allow work to proceed to see what way that can be put in effect. We have until June to complete this work but if we can complete it sooner, all the better. We will continue to work with the other parties but I cannot anticipate that agreement until the work is done, positions are put and people signify their consent and agreement to the positions sought. Until that is done, I will not give consideration to anything as that is the first job we must do. When that is done, we can see where to go from there.
The conclusions in December confirm the timelines, which are indicative. It is a matter of deciding what is in our best interest. We are dealing with an economic and financial crisis currently, along with the international recession, and where we stand on the Lisbon treaty is an issue as far as the international investment community goes. It is my strong view that it is not helpful to Ireland’s case at the moment. The quicker we are in a position to clear up and deal with those issues as effectively as we can, the better. It must be done on the basis of the conditions as set out in the December Council meeting. That is our task, which will take account of the concerns of those who may have voted “No” on the last occasion.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: The working assumption arising from the December summit and the Taoiseach’s report from it was that work would proceed on the drafting of the various declarations and statements. That work would be concluded, it would go to the June summit and then there would be another referendum in the autumn. To be fair, the Taoiseach has not committed himself to that timetable but that is the working assumption. On two or three occasions in response to Deputy Kenny and Deputy Ó Caoláin, the Taoiseach indicated that work on the various statements and guarantees might be completed before June. If that is the case, is there a mechanism by which they could be agreed by the European Council and would go to referendum on the same dates as the local and European elections?
What is happening with the drafting of those documents? The Taoiseach stated work is under way and Deputy Kenny mentioned the discussions that took place around the time of the December summit with Fine Gael and the Labour Party. Will we be involved in discussions about the drafting of those documents? What progress has been made with the drafting?
The Taoiseach: The question of adoption of whatever is agreed between ourselves and our partners on the issues outlined in the December Council conclusions would need to be agreed at a meeting of the European Council at heads of Government and state level. That could be the meeting in March, the meeting in June or a special meeting. Such a meeting can be convened at any time, it is up to the Presidency to decide it is right to do it.
The December conclusions set out indicative timelines. We are not obliged to say we can hold a referendum only between June and October, or that we can come to conclusions on these protocols only at the June meeting. We have until then to do these things, there is an understanding on the timelines for decisions, they are indicative, and I cannot say at this point what the time will be. This is a work in progress, although we know the indicative timelines. We do not have to stick to them rigidly, we can see what progress we are making, but we cannot continue with discussions about securing agreement beyond June. No decisions have been made.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs met with the Czech Presidency on a couple of occasions and officials met with Council legal services. The Attorney General has begun work, although we are not at an advanced stage of drafting as things stand. Discussions are taking place and the normal liaison is under way between the legal services division of the Council and a member state that is having something drafted based on Council conclusions at previous Council meetings.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Does the Taoiseach think sufficient progress is being made to allow for agreement at the March summit? I appreciate these matters depend on progress made but is that a realistic possibility? Will the Taoiseach involve the parties that supported the treaty on the last occasion in discussions on the drafting?
The Taoiseach: I do not see it arising at the moment but, as the Deputy is aware, a lot of work can take place in two or three weeks if it can be agreed. Whether we can make that degree of progress, where the Presidency can organise a consensus around text which has yet to be presented, remains to be seen.
We had a meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on Europe last week and I said that we need to move on this as quickly as possible and make progress quickly rather than believe we can just incrementally move along and assume everything will be fine in June. We need to get down to the substance of the issues quickly.
Deputy Enda Kenny: I listened to the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, on a number of occasions talk about the importance of this for investment in Ireland, which is true. I also listened to the director from SR Technics talk about Ireland being 20% above cost. The Government has a real job to do in getting down Government costs for which the Lisbon treaty or Europe is not responsible in terms of the attractiveness of the country as a centre for investment and of job protection and job creation. A great deal of work needs to be done there as well.
I have made the point that in view of the way we deal with referenda, I do not want confusion to arise where, in the lead-in to the question being answered by the people, there is 50% media coverage for and against. There will be 1,500 to 2,000 candidates for various parties involved in other elections. However, I take the Taoiseach’s point that it is not the central issue now and that work is being considered by the Czech Presidency. I assume the Taoiseach will report progress as it happens.
Mr. Sean FitzPatrick, the former chief executive and chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, has declined to attend an Oireachtas committee for legal reasons. Recently, a senior member of FÁS refused to attend——
A senior member of FÁS refused to attend the Committee of Public Accounts because Dáil committees cannot compel or subpoena witnesses to attend and give information in regard to certain matters. The committees can examine issues but cannot apportion blame or otherwise. In view of this situation, people ask why the Oireachtas cannot require people to attend committees and subpoena people to give evidence which is in the public interest.
Is it the Taoiseach’s view that a constitutional referendum might be required to give that authority to the Oireachtas and, as a consequence, to Dáil committees or does he believe it is within the ambit of the Oireachtas to rewrite Standing Orders to make that possible? This issue is of critical importance to stability and to the people’s understanding of the way business is done.
The late Deputy Jim Mitchell chaired the DIRT inquiry and while the powers were not changed, the interaction of personalities and the goodwill of the parties involved allowed people to attend that committee. I will support the Government if the Minister of State, Deputy Pat Carey, redrafts Standing Orders to give committees the right to subpoena witnesses to appear before them, whether the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Economic Regulatory Affairs or otherwise, if it is in the public interest. Does the Taoiseach believe that arising from the Abbeylara case and the Supreme Court decision in the case of Maguire v. Ardagh, it might be necessary to do this by way of constitutional referendum?
The Taoiseach: I did not anticipate the purview of these questions extending to the question Deputy Kenny asked. The Chief Whip has indicated that he is available to speak to committee Chairmen, Whips or whoever regarding this matter which has arisen in recent days. The question of people coming before committees was governed by the case mentioned by the Deputy, and the case of In re Haughey before that, back in the 1970s, regarding the principle of constitutional justice and the natural justice issues arising. The need to ensure that processes respect those rights is important in order for the process to be effective and beyond challenge in terms of judicial review. There is case law in these matters and legal advice available that can help guide the consideration of the questions raised in recent days.
An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Kenny’s question was outside of the field of play, but it was at least inside the wall as he had asked a question relating to the possibility of a referendum. Deputy Sherlock, however, is completely out of the ballpark. It will take a lot more than Standing Orders to do what is requested.
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