Tuesday, 4 October 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
I last met the political leaders in the North at the plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council which took place in Dublin on 5 July and on which I have reported to the House. I have not had any particular contact since 21 July. At an official level, contacts are ongoing with the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government. A number of North-South Ministerial Council sectoral meetings have taken place since the recess. The sixth meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in institutional format took place yesterday, 3 October. The Tánaiste is due to meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 6 October. I hope to visit Belfast in the period ahead, although a programme has not yet been put in place. I will travel to Armagh on 18 November to meet political leaders and attend the 11th plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. I have not held any discussions with political leaders in the North concerning any tribunal of inquiry.
Deputy Gerry Adams: What progress has been made on the sectoral meetings agreed at the plenary meeting in June? As we approach the date of the Presidential election at the end of this month, can I bring to the Taoiseach’s attention the fact that Irish citizens in the North and in the diaspora are excluded from voting? Tá a fhios ag an Taoiseach go bhfuil suim ag a lán daoine 60 míle ón gcathair seo go mbeidís ábalta vóta a chaitheamh sa toghchán, ach níl an ceart sin acu go fóill. Does the Taoiseach agree that the extension of voting rights to all Irish citizens and passport holders would be a natural outworking of the Good Friday Agreement, which enshrines the right of the people of the North to Irish citizenship? Has the Taoiseach given any further consideration to extending the franchise for Presidential elections north of the Border? Perhaps that can be considered in the context of the upcoming planned constitutional convention.
The Taoiseach: B’fhéidir go bhfuil faitíos ar iarrthóir Sinn Féin nach bhfaighfidh sé sách vótaí thíos anseo. B’fhéidir go bhfuil an Teachta ag iarraidh a chinntiú go mbeidh vótálaithe sa Tuaisceart in ann vótáil thíos anseo.
The Taoiseach: Níl a fhios agam an bhfuil sé sin ag cur isteach air, nó nach bhfuil. I have given some consideration to the Deputy’s suggestion. It is right that the constitutional convention should consider this matter. I hope to announce the establishment of the convention after the Presidential election. Obviously, I will consult the Opposition leaders before doing so. It will then be a matter for the constitutional convention to consider and take hearings about the matter and a range of other issues that will fall within its legitimate remit, including the Presidential period of service.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Questions Nos. 7 to 9, inclusive, are in my name. I might follow up on them separately. The Taoiseach has been in office for seven full months. He will appreciate that people want to know how he intends to lead on Northern Ireland. Thankfully, it has been a relatively quiet period when it comes to constitutional issues. This is an opportunity to drive change and policy forward. The lesson we consistently need to be aware of is that nothing can be taken for granted in relation to the North. The consistent position of the Irish Government has been that it sees itself, along with the British Government, as a guarantor of progress through the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement. I ask the Taoiseach to comment on the assertion that it is not enough for institutions to be established and for politicians to hold positions without actually delivering for the people. It is a matter of regret that one of the failings of the Northern Ireland Executive is that it has not functioned very effectively in recent years.
I can recall, prior to the Hillsborough Agreement, that it was quite dysfunctional in terms of how it was operating as a collective Executive, in regard to circulating memos and papers to each other and so forth. In that context, does the Taoiseach agree it seems surprising that even the position of Deputy First Minister is one which can be put on hold for about two months?
When Mr. Peter Robinson stepped down as First Minister, we saw this caused a lot of inaction and drift for that period. Ministers in the Executive tend to come and go, almost on a yearly or two-yearly basis, which seems to be more about electoral advancement than actually doing things, whereas being in government means one has to do — one has to execute policy and deliver. It is a curious aspect of the Northern Ireland Executive that there tends to be the sense about it that people can come and go, and divert, whereas there is very serious work to do. This is almost the equivalent of the Taoiseach saying he is taking two months off because he wants to go off and campaign somewhere.
I do not mean that in any personal sense. It is a very real issue in terms of how the Northern Ireland Executive works. It has been one of the reasons there has been a lack of confidence in public opinion towards the institutions in the North. The medium to long-term damage emanating from this can actually undermine the edifice of the Good Friday Agreement itself if people are not careful with regard to the office, the institutions and the positions within the Executive. I make that point sincerely.
The Taoiseach: I do not disagree with that broad principle. The Deputy is well aware from his own experience of the incredible sensitivities of the discussions that took place over many years to bring about the Good Friday Agreement and to have an Assembly in place. When that final structure was being put together, nobody would have assumed that what has happened would happen. I know that when others might have considered leaving the Assembly or leaving Northern Ireland politics, they chose not to do so.
I share the Deputy’s view that there is a fragility about the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that requires strength, leadership and solidity. As I said, I do not disagree with the broad principle he has outlined, namely, when people are appointed under the d’Hondt system to these positions following the elections, they are generally expected to complete their remit and responsibilities, or, if they choose for some other reason to leave, they are free to do so.
Deputy Joe Higgins: Is the Taoiseach concerned, and has he had any discussions with Northern Ireland leaders or his British counterparts, with regard to the effects of the projected stg£4 billion in cuts outlined in the Northern Ireland budget at the beginning of this year? These are, from here on, designed to result in thousands of job losses in the public sector, on which the North is very dependent, as the Taoiseach knows, given the collapse of manufacturing over many decades and the serious effects on health and education.
In view of the fact there are already quite severe areas of disadvantage in working class communities in Northern Ireland in both Protestant and Catholic areas, and serious alienation of a certain cohort of youth in particular, is the Taoiseach concerned that these cuts will give rise to more unemployment, poverty and alienation, and are grist to the mill of dissident paramilitary organisations, whether on the republican or loyalist side, where young people seeing a dead end get diverted into these worse dead ends, with all the destruction that is involved? Will the Taoiseach make representations to the British Government on these issues and even to the leaders of the Assembly, who should be fighting them as well?
The Taoiseach: As Deputy Higgins pointed out, I have certainly noted the impact of budgetary policy in respect of Northern Ireland and the implications it is having. Clearly, it is a matter for the Executive in its dealings with the British Government. The Deputy is also aware of this House’s interest in keeping alive the importance of foreign funding for social upkeep in Northern Ireland, of which we are very supportive. At the discussions on the North-South Ministerial Council, as happened in the past, we are supportive of contributing to the well-being and the support of issues that have a benefit both North and South.
It is not for me to interfere in the workings of the Executive and its relationship with the Chancellor in the Commons. Obviously, we have discussed the interest of the Northern Assembly and its constituent members in regard to taxation matters and the matter of employment and investment, North and South. However, as I said, it is a matter for the Executive how it does its business in respect of its budget.
Deputy Gerry Adams: It is a bit rich to hear a lecture on what is happening in the North. As the only Teachta Dála who was honoured to serve people in the Northern Assembly, let me say there is confidence in that institution and also in terms of the requirement to fulfil fully the Good Friday Agreement.
On the Government’s plans to amalgamate the Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission, the Human Rights Commission is an essential part of the Good Friday Agreement and the Government will be in contravention of that agreement if it goes along that track. I was at Hillsborough, as was the leader of Fianna Fáil, when the then Taoiseach refused to raise the issue of Irish language rights with the Unionists.
Deputy Gerry Adams: Is it not more in keeping with the Government’s responsibilities that it should uphold all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement? I am particularly drawn to this issue of amalgamating the Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission.
The Taoiseach: I did not say that there was not confidence in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is entirely a matter for the people of the North who they elect to their Assembly. I understand the point being made by Deputy Martin is that, when the Assembly was set up, it was not envisaged that people could leave for a while and come back again. I do not disagree with that broad principle which he set out.
In respect of the Human Rights Commission, that matter was a specific part of the Good Friday Agreement and it was cleared up and accepted by the Northern Assembly and the Ministers in respect of the amalgamation here of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, and for very good reason, as was explained by the Minister for Justice and Equality in co-operation with both the Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission. I had the opportunity to address both organisations in a fitting assembly close to Leinster House recently, where members of both organisations set out on a new agenda. That is perfectly acceptable and, in fact, the Human Rights Commission, as was, which had been diminished in its capacity to do its work, is now strengthened by the addition of the Equality Authority. It is accepted as a continuation in a stronger way from this jurisdiction.
Deputy Micheál Martin: What always struck me in terms of language and cultural issues was that it was successive Irish Governments, with the British Government, that actually delivered for the Irish language in the North, not any party. It amazed me that Sinn Féin always allowed a Unionist become the Minister with responsibility for culture and language and then complained about lack of delivery on the language in the North. I could never quite understand that one.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The review of the work of cross-Border bodies and the examination of new proposals was a core part of the St. Andrew’s Agreement. We have now had the general election and the Assembly elections. Will the Taoiseach provide an update on the publication of the review? Will he agree to continue the policy of seeking to expand the scope and reach of these cross-Border bodies? A review has continued for ages; publication has been stalled and so on.
The Taoiseach has stated he made no call to any Northern leader before announcing changes to the Smithwick tribunal. This caused much concern at the time regarding the Government’s approach and commitment to the objectivity and independence of the tribunal which is very important in terms of confidence within the Unionist community. The Taoiseach has also stated he has held no further discussions with any political opinion in Northern Ireland in that regard. People need reassurance in respect of the tribunal being allowed to finish its work without hindrance or interference. It is a vital issue in terms of Unionist perception of the South and how we in the Republic conduct our inquiries and so on.
The Taoiseach: Yes, I can give the Deputy that assurance. On 1 June the Dáil passed a resolution amending the terms of reference of the Smithwick tribunal to require it to provide an interim report for the Clerk of the Dáil not later than 30 June 2011 and to present its final report to the Clerk of the Dáil not later than 30 November 2011. Mr. Justice Smithwick had previously indicated to the Minister for Justice and Equality that the tribunal would be able to conclude its work in the timescale established in the amended terms of reference. The Minister emphasised in his statement to the Dáil that if for any unforeseen reason, the chairman found he could not conclude his inquiries and report by 30 November, he could report that matter and the Oireachtas could consider it further. It also was made clear that the Government’s response would be fully cognisant of and consistent with the need for the tribunal to fulfil its obligations fully and as expeditiously as possible. I understand the Minister spoke with the Northern Ireland First Minister, Mr. Peter Robinson, and the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, Mr. David Ford, to inform them of the content of his speech in the Dáil on the Smithwick tribunal and the motion passed. As the Deputy is aware, the tribunal is conducting public hearings. He has my assurance that there will be absolutely no interference — nor should or could there be — with the chairman in his dealings with the tribunal. As I stated, if for some unforeseen reason, he is unable to conclude the hearings within the timescale set out, he can report the matter and the House will consider it further.
Deputy Joe Higgins: The rights of people in the North in respect of the Irish language are important. However, far more pressing at this time in working-class communities is the massive crisis with regard to jobs, the beckoning health and education cuts and the sectarian division that, unfortunately, still underlines society in the North. As a representative of a political tendency that historically has opposed both British imperialism and paramilitarism of all kinds, I am seriously concerned that the intensification of the economic crisis, leading to greater poverty and the alienation that goes with it in the North, poses a threat to the possibility of society advancing and ordinary people in the North having the decent society and life they deserve. I put it to the Taoiseach that, unfortunately, while Members welcomed the end of the insane paramilitarism on all sides and recognise that British imperialism and capitalism are in crisis and do not really have a solution to offer, the institutionalisation of sectarian division which is the reality of the structures put in place on foot of the Good Friday Agreement has fault lines and that such fault lines can be badly exposed if the economic crisis, poverty, alienation, unemployment and cuts to services are intensified. Therefore, in the interests of ensuring a decent future and overcoming the problems of sectarian division, I suggest to the Taoiseach that it is critical that these issues be addressed. I note his own Government does not give good example in leading a massive barrage of cuts here.
The Taoiseach: For once I agree with the Deputy on the impact serious cutbacks can have on any area of society, particularly one in which people are under pressure. That is the reason I have had some involvement with them, albeit not as much as I would like. I hope that when I get the opportunity to travel to Belfast in the near future, I will be able to have a look at a number of issues there. However, this is the reason the Government has been highly supportive of the continuation of funding from both the European Union and the United States. It is also the reason the Government was happy to support the expansion of health services at Altnagelvin hospital in Derry and is happy to support, where appropriate, infrastructural projects that benefit both sides.
In addition, there is a number of strong examples in which a community gets involved with young people in particular, especially young males who might be tempted to take the wrong direction in life, and makes whatever impact it can. We have raised elements of this issue, as always happens between North-South ministerial colleagues, and in so far as we can encourage and assist in any way, we will be happy to so do. However, as I noted to Deputies Adams and Martin, it is a matter for the Executive to decide how it conducts its negotiations with Britain. In so far as general support is concerned, I understand the issues of depression and pressure, as well as, unfortunately, the tragic impact of suicide in a number of locations in the North where disillusionment and an absence of hope have reigned too long.
Deputy Gerry Adams: There will be a huge cead míle fáilte for the Taoiseach when he visits Belfast. We are very fond of County Mayo and if he gives me notice, we might arrange for him to visit Michael Davitt GAC which is a fine hurling club. However, he stated — perhaps the leader of Fianna Fáil said the same thing — it was not foreseen that a member of the Executive could leave and then return. Clearly, he was talking about Mr. Peter Robinson, the only person to have done this. All Members respect this as in his dire and hugely difficult family circumstances, this was the appropriate and right thing for him to do. As a matter of eolas or information to the Taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fáil in respect of the only other person to do so, Mr. Martin McGuinness, his temporary replacement, Mr. John O’Dowd, has been praised by other Unionist Ministers for the way in which he is handling his brief. Moreover, the Taoiseach will be aware that on foot of the help his Ministers are giving to Mr. McGuinness, perhaps he might not be obliged to return.
An Ceann Comhairle: In Question No. 9 the Deputy asked whether the Taoiseach was planning visits to Northern Ireland and he has just told the Deputy that he intends to go there. We want to move on as only 17 minutes remain and 40 questions to the Taoiseach were tabled. I am anxious to try to facilitate all the Deputies present as we could spend all day on this issue. Does the Deputy have a quick supplementary?
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