Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Work is proceeding on the preparation of proposals for a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. The proposal to abolish the Seanad was signalled by the Government parties prior to the general election and the Dáil and Seanad will have an opportunity to debate the necessary legislation fully, when it is published.
Deputies will be aware of the position regarding the treaty on stability, co-ordination and governance in the economic and monetary union. Now that we have a final text, the views of the Attorney General have been sought and the Cabinet will take whatever decisions are necessary on foot of her advice. If a referendum is required, one will be held.
Deputy Gerry Adams: The big problem at the moment is that I meet citizens every day who do not have rights. I met a woman called Billie McDonnell who was the victim of symphysiotomy 60 years ago. She has no rights whatsoever and is still fighting 60 years later to try to have her issues dealt with. In a real republic, those rights, the rights of children and citizens would be protected, but they are not.
With regard to the treaty and an upcoming referendum, has the Taoiseach received clear guidance from the Attorney General as to whether a referendum is required for the austerity treaty? In terms of the core democratic issue involved, does he consider the treaty should be part of a referendum? If it is, will the referendum be held in tandem with others and is there a timescale for it?
The Taoiseach: I have been very clear about this. The process of agreeing a final text intensified from the Christmas period until the last meeting of the Council of Europea leaders at which the text was agreed and signed off on by 25 of the 27 countries. The day after that meeting, the Tánaiste wrote formally on behalf of the Government to the Attorney General seeking her legal and formal advice on whether the text is compatible with our Constitution. There is no timescale and no pressure on the Attorney General to conclude her deliberations. When she has concluded her deliberations, she will return to Government and it will take whatever steps are necessary following that advice. That has been the procedure in this country for a long period. As the Deputy knows, one only changes the Constitution if it must be changed.
Deputy Gerry Adams: On the issue of the children’s referendum, the Taoiseach and the Minister may have noted that the report of the Children’s Rights Alliance on the Government’s performance in child-related areas condemned the Government’s failure to address child poverty and the impact the 2012 budget is having on young people and children. It also criticised the treatment of children detained in St. Patrick’s Institution. These criticisms highlight the need for the Government to bring forward the children’s rights referendum Bill as soon as possible.
The Taoiseach: In politics, no more than in life, one will always have those who will disagree and they have the legitimate right to criticise. Others will agree and say they think something is a good idea. It is important to recognise that this is the first Government that has set up a senior Department and Ministry for children. That is a statement of our priorities in its own right. It took some time to get this right and to extract from the different Departments the essential elements with which the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs must deal. It is a fledgling Department in that regard. It is also important to note that there has been no adoption legislation in this country. The Minister is anxious to progress that in the first instance and, as the Deputy is aware, it is complex legislation.
The Minister is working with a range of groups on child protection. With regard to this issue, I will not rush in here and say we have it all ready and everything is as it should be. This issue is so sensitive and serious that we must get it right. This issue and the issue of the Seanad raised by Deputy Martin are two clear commitments in the programme for Government. I have no intention of rushing into the House with a Bill that is not complete and as comprehensive as we would like it to be on either. Therefore, I cannot give the Deputy a timescale. However, I will inform the House properly when the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the Attorney General and all involved have completed their work on it.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Based on answers to previous questions and on the Government’s general commitment to a new republic, constitutional conventions and more open and accountable politics, one would imagine this means a political system that is more responsive to the popular will on key issues confronting the Government. Given the Taoiseach has committed the Government to supporting a treaty, which is not an EU treaty but an intergovernmental treaty, which will lock this country into crippling austerity for at least ten years and which will give this intergovernmental body the right to intrude on our budgetary process and to impose conditions on the ability of governments to frame budgets which will in the words of the treaty be “permanent and binding”, thereby locking governments into them, it is difficult for me to understand how that is not worthy of a referendum. It is probably the most far-reaching treaty with the most profound impact on the citizens of the country and the Government’s ability to exercise economic sovereignty in the State, so how can the Government think——
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: ——that does not require a referendum? It is beyond me. With all the love circulating on St. Valentine’s day, does this extend to the majority of people in this country, who have indicated they want a referendum on this treaty, and will the commitment to new and open democratic politics lead the Taoiseach to conclude that we should have a referendum as a matter of priority? If the Government or the Attorney General decides we need a referendum, will the Taoiseach indicate when that referendum might take place?
The Taoiseach: That old record is getting a bit stale. I will repeat for the Deputy the process in this country, much of which he does not like. The Attorney General of the day would be asked for formal legal advice and the Government has followed that path absolutely correctly.
The Taoiseach: We will await the deliberations and formal advice from the Attorney General. As I repeated before, this country, unfortunately, is in a programme which will continue for two further years. There is nothing in the fiscal compact that affects the figures and structures set out as part of our programme. As Deputy Boyd Barrett is aware, we have had four serious analyses by the troika and have measured up in those, although it has been difficult for our people.
When the Deputy speaks about condemning the country to ten years of austerity, the fiscal compact requires countries to reduce their debt to GDP ratio to 60% over the next 20 years, and the formula is to be worked out in respect of each individual country. I remind Deputy Boyd Barrett that far from relying on austerity to do that job, we will rely on export growth potential, which is central to yesterday’s jobs action plan. Between 1991 and 2000, our debt increased from €36 billion to €40 billion but our debt to GDP ratio in the same period declined from 95% to 35%; that was not because of austerity but because of strong growth.
The Government has a responsibility to deal with the public finance problem but the opportunity to deal with the other issues will rely mainly on growth. That is why we have put jobs and growth central to the agenda for the European Heads of Government meetings from now on. That will start in the middle of April with the task force dealing with youth unemployment for countries where the rate of unemployment among young people is above the European average; unfortunately, Ireland is part of that group with a figure of 29%.
We are in this programme until the end of 2013 and the export-driven potential of what is to be unleashed when the action programme is implemented to improve the atmosphere and the environment for business to work and create jobs is very far removed from the sort of weekly rant from the Deputy, with everybody being scarified and driven into penury by a programme of austerity. It is far from that.
Deputy Micheál Martin: My question related to the progress made in regard to the proposed referendum to abolish the Seanad, and I did not get much beyond a statement that work is proceeding, which has been the line for the past 12 months. There seems to have been very little work put into this in advance of the election and one could be of the view that this proposal was tabled with a view to electoral popularity as opposed to being well thought out.
Our view is that the broader issue of fundamental reform of how Parliament does its business is required in regard to the proposed constitutional convention. We should consider whether we need a bicameral or unicameral Parliament. For example, if there was only one Chamber within the current Oireachtas, there would be a very unhealthy scenario with the Government having a significant Dáil majority, ramming legislation through and imposing guillotines, with no opportunity for debate in a second Chamber.
Will the Taoiseach produce an interim paper as internal work must be ongoing on options? How many articles will need to be amended, for example, and what is the impact of the proposal on the wider Constitution? What kind of ideas are being formulated? If an interim paper could be published on a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish the Seanad, it would be helpful to the debate. Many people have different views on the issue and the failure of this Oireachtas, for example, to deal adequately with European Union affairs on an ongoing basis or properly embrace the all-island economy and the North-South relationship, in conjunction with evaluating legislation.
There is also a need to radically reform how this House works. The collapse of the financial and banking world was global and not restricted to this country, and even now Spain, France and other countries are beginning to own up to their banking issues. Nevertheless, banking was only discussed once in this House in 12 years before the crisis. What does that teach us and what are we learning from that? It is not an example of a House working properly, irrespective of who occupies certain seats.
A constitutional convention relating to the abolition of the Seanad should not be done in isolation of more fundamental reform of this House. There should be real separation of Parliament from the Executive, and the Parliament should not be controlled by the Executive, as it has been almost from the foundation of the State. Perhaps members of the Government should no longer be Members of Parliament when they take up office. Those are the kinds of radical ideas we would like considered. We could examine the possibility of direct franchise to a second Chamber.
With regard to the fiscal treaty, I would like the Taoiseach’s comment on the breaking news that French Prime Minister François Fillon has apparently stated that a referendum will be necessary for France to adopt a fiscal rule to balance its budget. Last July, the National Assembly and the Senate independently approved writing a fiscal rule into that country’s constitution, although it was never taken to the congress of both houses, a necessary step to change the French Constitution. It is interesting that Mr. Fillon believes it necessary to hold a referendum on writing a golden rule for the budget into that constitution. In other words, there are varying political views on the issue and I would appreciate the Taoiseach’s commentary on that development regarding the fiscal treaty.
The Taoiseach: I do not speak for Monsieur Fillon or President Sarkozy but I make the following point. The French system is very different and the French people voted down the Lisbon treaty referendum.
The Taoiseach: As a candidate in the presidential campaign, Mr. Sarkozy said that if he were elected president, he would implement the Lisbon treaty by parliamentary majority, which is what he did. The French Government and system is their own and not for me to comment on. We have made clear issues of change by referendum here.
The other question related to the Deputy’s party’s set of proposals prior to the last election concerning parliamentary reform, some of which were very different and radical. It is part of the programme for Government that we intend to carry through. The drafting of a Bill to abolish the Seanad by way of referendum will require the deletion of all references to the Seanad in the Constitution, including Articles 18 and 19, which refer to the composition of the Seanad. There would also need to be amendment of all direct, indirect or implied references to the Seanad, including references to either or both Houses, as well as all references that vest specific functions in the Seanad or its Members. With this point, it would be necessary to consider, for example, if any functions currently constitutionally vested in the Seanad or its Members would need to be performed differently. The types of functions I refer to include, for example, the Presidential Commission, of which the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is a member owing to Article 14. There is also the case of money Bills, as the Seanad triggers the process for determining whether a Bill is a money Bill. This is provided for in Article 22, but has never happened. The Seanad moves motions for the early signature of Bills by the President, as provided for in Article 25. Under Articles 12, 13, 33 and 35 of the Constitution, the Seanad has a role in the removal from office of the President, the Comptroller and Auditor General and judges. The current constitutional mechanisms safeguard the independence of these offices. Clearly, these principles will need to be carefully considered in the context of the proposed abolition of the Seanad. These issues are not to be taken lightly. From that perspective, when the Bill is prepared, it will have to ensure the Constitution is, in effect, squeezed dry of all direct or indirect references to the Seanad, implied or otherwise. No right or facility currently available through the Seanad under the Constitution should be lost by means of the changes that are to be made to the Oireachtas. That is an issue on which I am deliberating. As I said when we discussed the child protection referendum, we do not want to produce something that has not been fully thought through. These are some of the issues with which I have to contend. Obviously, many of them are not to be taken lightly.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Could the Government produce an interim paper on the challenges relating to any constitutional proposal to abolish the Seanad? The Taoiseach has just articulated some of the challenges in question.
Deputy Joe Higgins: Will the Taoiseach agree that, historically, Fine Gael has used the Seanad as a rest home for some aging politicians and a nursery for others? In my memory, the Seanad has never seriously challenged a Dáil majority.
Deputy Joe Higgins: Does the Taoiseach agree that, contrary to what Deputy Martin seemed to suggest, the Seanad does not have any legitimacy as a check on this Chamber? Does he agree that, as an institution, the Seanad does not have democratic legitimacy, given that its Members are selected in a totally undemocratic manner by a very select electorate? Does he agree that we should see the end of it as soon as possible? In three weeks time, the Taoiseach will mark the first anniversary of the formation of his Government. Given that he has had a full year in office, he should set out a timescale for this process and give us a date for the referendum, rather than enunciating all the difficulties associated with it. The Taoiseach has accused the United Left Alliance of doling out “the same old blather” every day. We have to listen to the same blather from him when he restates his political positions.
Deputy Joe Higgins: ——with what is happening during this period of depression in world capitalism. He is living in cloud cuckoo land if he thinks that can be repeated. Does he agree that a referendum is needed, especially to cure his delusion on this issue? We need a deep debate on the matter. Will the Taoiseach be specific on when the Attorney General will report to him or to the Government? When will he report to the people to allow the debate to start in a real way?
The Taoiseach: I set out my views on the Seanad a long time ago. They are reflected in the programme for Government. We will proceed with that in due course, when the Bill is ready. The anniversary of the formation of the Government will fall on 9 March next. I do not have a date for the Seanad referendum. I will not attempt to give a date until I have it right. I mentioned some of the issues that need to be dealt with when I replied to Deputy Martin. I do not live in cloud computing land or cloud cuckoo land — I live in the land of reality.
The Taoiseach: The point I made to Deputy Boyd Barrett was that the reduction from 95% to 35% in the debt to GDP ratio during the 1990s was not brought about by an austerity programme. It was brought about by a programme of growth. That is the fundamental issue in the action plan for jobs and business, which was produced by the Government yesterday. I was asked when the Attorney General will come back to the Government. If I were to say to the House that I attempted to influence the work of the Attorney General, Deputies would have a very different story to tell me, and rightly so. The Attorney General is a constitutional officer of this State. The Government has responded properly and formally to the requirement that she be asked for her formal legal advice on this matter. No pressure is being put on the Attorney General to complete those deliberations within a certain timescale. She will come back to the Government in her own good time. I will report to the House and to the people immediately, just as I did when I referred the text through the Cabinet to the Attorney General for her advice the morning after it had been agreed by 25 of the 27 EU member states.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Does the Taoiseach think the views of the majority of people in this country who want a referendum on this treaty, which will have a profound impact on our economy and on our society for years to come, are “rant” and “blather”? Regardless of the Taoiseach’s views on the matter, does he agree that is a legitimate demand for people to make? They know we are facing a serious crisis. They know nobody has the answers. The public has good reason to believe our masters in Europe do not have the answers because they have not provided them so far. I do not even know if the Government——
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Should the Taoiseach not respect the wishes of the majority of people who believe this treaty is so far-reaching and of such importance for them that a referendum should be held on it? The Taoiseach referred to the need for growth. I agree it is absolutely needed. Can he tell me what precisely in this treaty or in the Finance Bill 2012 will promote growth?
The Taoiseach: It creates a political situation whereby countries that sign on for the conditions of fiscal discipline will adhere to them. That allows the politics of Europe to focus on the extent of the firewalls that are necessary to prevent contagion and look at the question of the potential of the European markets, particularly through the impact of the Single Market. It is a €500 million market, as Deputy Boyd Barrett is aware. It was pointed out in the United States last week that the further €500 million market that potentially exists on the periphery of the EU, for example in African countries that are enjoying growth of 6%, 7% or 8% at the moment, presents an enormous opportunity for Ireland, in particular, and for Europe. European leadership and politics must focus on that potential and the future.
As I have stated before in the House, trust was lacking among European leaders for some time because markets did not believe Europe would follow through on the decisions it made. Now we have the agreement, except for some final adjustments in respect of politicians in Greece who made their decision. In addition, the fiscal compact, when it is ratified, will lock countries and the political arena into budgetary discipline and adherence to the conditions to which they signed up.
When Deputy Boyd Barrett speaks of growth I am sure he welcomes the €350 million from a major pharmaceutical company announced one month ago, the €150 million investment announced last week which will create 500 jobs and the debt swap conducted by the National Treasury Management Agency which saw yields or interest rates being reduced from 14% to 7%, a significant factor and big signal in its own right. I am sure he also welcomes the fact that the country has returned to growth after a period of decline, the fact that there has been a surge in exports which, for the first time, has increased their value to over 100% of GDP and the fact that confidence in our banking system, as expressed by international investors, is leading to a return of confidence. We have a long way to go and I am not saying we do not face daunting challenges in the time ahead because we do. However, we are headed in the right direction and the action plan produced yesterday, which I will oversee from my Department, will create a new environment for companies to do business. I do not know how many times business people asked me, when I was in opposition, why I did not do something about this. While I do not have all the answers, we will try our hardest now. The difference this time is that at least this plan will see action and will be implemented.
The Taoiseach: It is by action and through expressions of hope and confidence that we will prove Ireland is serious about its business. As one serious investor said to me last week in the United States, Ireland must prove it is serious about its business. As leader of the Government, I expect to demonstrate in everything we do that we are serious about the nation’s business. One year ago, people voted for this Government to sort out our public finances and create opportunities for jobs and careers. We will fulfil that mandate in the programme for Government, which people supported in unprecedented numbers.
Deputy Micheál Martin: Less hyperbole, exaggeration and partisanship might be a wiser position for the Taoiseach to take in the fullness of time. North American investors have realised we are serious for more than 30 years. That is the reason the top ten pharmaceutical companies in the world and some of the biggest names in technology are located in Ireland.
Deputy Micheál Martin: It is also the reason we have, across the west, the largest cluster of medical device companies in Europe. Solid industrial advancement has been made in the past 30 years and has stood the test of time. This sector of the economy has proven particularly resilient in the teeth of the worst global recession since 1929.
On the amendment on child protection, will the Government consider accepting the legislation on adoption proposed by Deputy Charlie McConalogue? The Bill the Deputy introduced had all-party agreement, having been agreed in the previous Oireachtas, and has the merit that it could be passed in a reasonably short timeframe.
In an earlier partisan comment the Taoiseach stated this Government was the first to establish an office. The bottom line is that the offices of the Ombudsman for Children and Minister for Children were established previously and progressive work was undertaken by previous Ministers of State with responsibility for children. That should be acknowledged. I do not know if the Government is having difficulty bringing forward a proposal for a constitutional referendum. The previous Government had a proposal which was passed by the Cabinet. Deputy McConalogue introduced a Bill on adoption, which is a subset of the agreed proposal on which there is general agreement. If we passed that legislation, it would at least bring some respite and resolution to those facing challenges in the area of adoption in the absence of an amendment to the Constitution. In the absence of a willingness to accept Deputy McConalogue’s constructive amendment, will the Taoiseach provide a timetable setting out when we can expect a referendum on children’s rights?
The Taoiseach: I fully appreciate the scale of investment from abroad over the past 30 years during which Ireland became both a centre for the manufacture of hardware and later a centre for the creation of software. We have a proven track record of entry into Europe. The attributes built up by this country over a long period, including our taxation system, talent pool, technology and track record, are of immense importance in the considerations of outside investors. The other end of that is that the indigenous economy has been very flat. That is the reason the Government’s action programme is based on opportunities for exports from small and medium sized enterprises. That is a given that most people would support. We also set out the view that cloud computing, digital gaming and the whole information technology sector is of considerable importance. It was made clear to me in the Deputy’s beloved city that 800 vacancies in information technology and other sectors cannot be filled. We need to be able to adjust ourselves, as a nation, to where the waves of change are coming from.
I may have misled Deputy Martin when I said there was not any legislation in respect of adoption. There have been legislative measures in place for many years. What I am referring to is the legislation that the referendum will require in regard to adoption and on which the Minister for Children, Deputy Fitzgerald, is working. I do not propose to accept the well intentioned legislation of Deputy McConalogue. This is something we must get comprehensively right. I do not want to venture a date until I am satisfied that the Bill in respect of the referendum is absolutely comprehensive. The legislation will take account of the well intentioned amendments of Deputy McConalogue, which I know were not introduced for political purposes. The Minister has taken a broad range of views on this matter and we must get the legislation right. That is the reason a senior Minister with responsibility for children is dealing with it in this fashion.
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