That Dáil Éireann calls on the Taoiseach to request the Minister for Defence to resign.
It is with regret that I move this motion. I regret that the occasion has arisen at all. I regret that the Minister himself has not seen the gravity of the offence in such a way that he would tender his resignation. I also regret the Taoiseach has similarly not seen the gravity of it in such a way as to demand the resignation of his Minister.
There is no question here of a witch hunt. There is no question of pursuing vindictive action against the Minister for Defence. There is no question of the pursuit of any individual for party political gain. I want to say specifically that there is no question of this party looking for its pound of flesh as was alleged in the leading article in one of our daily newspapers today, a newspaper apparently that does not see what has happened with the same sense of gravity and concern as its contemporaries do.
I have a certain amount of sympathy for the Minister. There is, as we all know, in the Irish character a propensity for sympathy for people who find themselves in difficulties or in trouble for one reason or another, and I share that characteristic in many respects. However, sympathy or sentiment can and should play no part in the exercise of one's duty where one's duty is seen to be clear, especially in a case like this. I would have hoped the Taoiseach would see the whole issue in this way and act accordingly.
Let us look at what is involved as detachedly and objectively as we can now at this remove, some three days away from the event. The Minister for Defence, in an unscripted statement to members of the Defence Forces, at Columb Barracks, Mullingar, was reported to have said—and these reports were not denied—that the President of this country was a thundering disgrace. The reason he gave for coming to this extraordinary and deeply damaging conclusion in his statement, damaging not only to the President but to the institutions of the State, was that President Ó Dálaigh had referred a Bill passed by the two Houses of the Oireachtas to the Supreme Court under a provision of our Constitution.
It was a statement of the greatest importance from a member of the Government, a Minister of State, reflecting on the integrity, the capacity and the constitutional status of the Head of the State from whom he, like every one of his ministerial colleagues, received his seal of office. It was a suggestion that in some way the President appointed under the Constitution and acting strictly within the terms of the Constitution was behaving in a disgraceful manner. If some political outcast or some remote person were to make such a statement, one would perhaps understand if not forgive, but coming from a member of the Government, it is neither understandable nor forgiveable.
A member of the Government deliberately insulted and assailed the President because he disagreed with the way in which the President conscientiously and properly exercised his functions in relation to a measure passed by this Parliament. Incidentally, when that legislation was being debated here in the House, the Minister himself most arrogantly and undemocratically said that not one iota of that legislation would be changed no matter what this House or the other House thought. Of course it was changed and changed to some advantage and in a democratic manner.
Under Article 15.1 of our Constitution the President is one element of the Oireachtas, the other elements being the two Houses of the Oireachtas. Under Article 12 of the Constitution the President is charged specifically with upholding the Constitution. He is the prime guardian of the freedom and other guarantees to the citizens enshrined in that Constitution. He is the prime guardian of the institutions of the State which that Constitution provides, but next to him must come the Government who hold office under that Constitution as the guardian of the institutions of the state. No other person or no other body has a higher duty in this respect than the Government collectively and in its individual membership. Yet here we find a member of that Government attacking and insulting the President in language that would ill become any citizen much less a member of the Government, attacking the President because of the way he legitimately and constitutionally performed his functions.
The Minister's remarks have been referred to by some persons, who would wish us to forget completely that they were ever made, as a gaffe, or faux-pas or a clanger. I am prepared to accept that it was any one of these or something else but whichever it was, it was a gross insult and, according to information available to me, it was premeditated, calculated and deliberate. I believe also, as was said in the statement issued on behalf of this party immediately it became known, that it was compounded because of the location and of the people in whose presence it was delivered.
Under Article 13.4 of the Constitution the President is the Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces. Deputy Donegan was assigned by the Taoiseach, approved by this House and appointed by the President to the office he now holds, that is chief political administrator and executive of the Defence Forces. Therefore, the fact that the Minister chose this location—the military barracks in Mullingar—and his audience—members of the Defence Forces—makes his allegation, his insult, his damaging attack all the worse. When I put it to the Taoiseach yesterday that the remark was, as I indicated in the question, a gross insult offered to the President and a grave reflection on his integrity, capacity and constitutional status as Head of the State, the Taoiseach denied that the remark could be given the particular construction that I had given it and concluded by saying that the Minister had offered "a full and unreserved apology to the President"—these were his exact words.
We read in yesterday's newspapers that, the evening before, the Government spokesman—presumably the head of the Government Information Services or some official of that office —told correspondents that an apology had been sent to the President and, quoting his words again, "that was the end of the matter so far as the Government were concerned". If that were the end of the matter it would have shown on the part of the Government and certainly on the part of the Opposition a complete and utter rejection of responsibility, a dismissal of our function as public representatives and as upholders of the institutions of the State. Of course it could not be the end of the matter and the Taoiseach and the Government must have known that before they authorised their spokesman to say that it would be the end of the matter.
I am not aware—I did not inquire nor was I told—of the circumstances in which this apology was delivered. What I have heard and read in the news media is the only information I have, but one is entitled to question whether in fact it was, as the Taoiseach said, a full and unreserved apology. When it was learned in Government Buildings on Monday and became known generally through the radio and television service that the Minister had made such a remark, a statement was issued by the Government Information Services on behalf of the Minister that the Minister would apologise "as soon as possible"—again, as far as I can recollect, these are the exact words. This message was issued by the Government Information Services but one is entitled to question in the circumstances whether it was issued with the Minister's knowledge and authority at the time, and if it was, why did the Minister not there and then make his apology? Is it not obvious what happened? I do not have to test the mentality of any individual to come to his own conclusions on this particular issue. Whatever the manner of the apology or its delivery or its receipt, we have here one institution of State insulting and denigrating another, one element of the Oireachtas undermining another, and then we are told it is all over and that it should be forgotten because an apology has been offered. One might ask: can one institution of State apologise to another institution of State?
I do not know what attitude the President has taken; I have not inquired and we have not been told. He is a brilliant, scholarly, internationally-respected man and, as I said yesterday, a man of such calibre that we can feel proud to have him as our President. He is in fact a man who was elected President with the approval of all the political parties represented in the Oireachtas. No matter how scholarly or how fitted by way of his dedication and integrity the President is for office he is intrinsically a humble man and I do not want to bring him in his personal capacity in any way into this debate except in his capacity as one of our principal institutions of State and one of the two elements in the Oireachtas, the other element being the Houses of the Oireachtas. Whatever personal hurt the President may have felt, I believe he was aggrieved mainly if at all—and he must have been aggrieved —by the attack on the presidency, on the institution, on the office which he holds with distinction.
In his official capacity the President is very much inhibited by the Constitution in any action he might wish to take in connection with this incident. Under Article 13.7 of the Constitution the President may communicate with or address the Houses of the Oireachtas and he also may, after consultation with the Council of State. address a message to the nation at any time on any such matter—and the matter on which he is entitled to communicate with the Oireachtas, address the Oireachtas or address a message to the nation must be a matter under Article 13.7.1º of national or public importance. This is a matter of national and public importance and one on which the President might well feel motivated to address such a message.
Under Article 13 every such message or address must have received the approval of the Government. Therefore, if the President wished to address such a message to the Oireachtas or to the nation he would have to get the prior approval of the Government. If the Government took the same view as the Taoiseach apparently has of the gravity of this matter, what chance would a statement of the President have of ever seeing the light of day? What chance would it have of getting the approval of the Government who, apparently having expressed approval of the Minister's remarks, now condone his remarks to the extent that he had apologised. How could he expect to get the approval of a statement from a Government who have treated the remarks of the Minister for Defence so lightly?
There is another important reason that we on this side of the House take a most serious view of the insult offered to the President. We, as every other citizen does, value our democracy. We seek to protect the institutions of our democratic system. We ask the people we represent to respect and defend these institutions. If we ourselves attack these institutions or permit attacks from among ourselves to be treated lightly, then we are undermining the very institutions of State that we exhort the people we represent to uphold and defend. Are we not then undermining our democratic institutions? Therefore, any attempt to do so by a Member of this House, especially a Member of the Government, can serve as a means of undermining our democracy. Therefore, in defence of our institutions and democracy we must demand that the most serious from of censure should follow the attempt to so undermine our institutions. The remarks of the Minister for Defence must be construed as such. Failing to do this, we ourselves could be marking the beginning of the erosion of our democracy, the erosion of respect for the institutions of State leading to the undesirable consequences and the type of regimes that we see and abhor in other parts of the world.
I have stated our case simply and, I hope, unemotionally. I have given clear reasons for submitting this motion. It is now clear that if the Taoiseach, who I know personally to be an upholder of our democratic institutions, wants to ensure that they be upheld by the Government which he heads, it is his duty to dismiss any member who, like the Minister for Defence, has assailed these institutions, if he himself has not submitted his resignation.