Leaders’ Questions.

I do not want to argue the merits or demerits of decentralisation. As far as I know, no Member of the House is opposed to a well-managed well-structured and well thought-out programme for decentralisation. However, the statement made by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, over the weekend, that "a hanging job" was in prospect for the Government if this programme was not delivered before the next general election appears to be the first public occasion where this Administration has blatantly attempted to politicise the Civil Service. Does the Taoiseach accept and endorse the validity of the statement made by the Minister for Finance that despite the fact that this is a voluntary scheme it will be implemented, with 10,000 civil servants to be moved inside three years? Is this not evidence of standing by the Government's stated code of ethics, "Get in here and stay in here"?

Is not clear that the philosophy arising from this is that the running of the country is predicated not for the good of the people or in the public interest but in the interest of the political party and the Government lead by the Taoiseach? In other words, everything is determined by the date of the next general election. The Civil Service was never meant to be a tool to be used by Government in this fashion.

Does the Taoiseach endorse and agree with the statement by the Minister for Finance? Does he not accept that the consequence of his statement is the naked politicisation of the Civil Service which has served all Governments well over the past 80 years? Will the Taoiseach comment on that?

I am happy to comment on that. The Civil Service has never been politicised and I do not think it every will be. It stands on its own standards and rules, and any legislation that governs it is passed by this House — that is infrequent enough. Most of the legislation on this issue dates back close to half a century.

The Government has announced the next phase of the decentralisation process. When the announcement was made we set out the timescale within which it was hoped to achieve it. The Minister for Finance merely said that we have to demonstrate that we are serious and committed to it by implementing as much of the decentralisation programme as possible within that period. We all know that it is a voluntary process. It has to be negotiated. There is no compulsion and there will be no redundancies involved. It has to be done by upfront negotiations, and that process has already started.

A meeting with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is due to take place shortly. Under the Civil Service conciliation and arbitration agreement, a sub-committee of the general council has already been established to discuss all the issues relating to decentralisation. The Flynn group presented its first report to the Cabinet sub-committee last week and will present its implementation plan at the end of March. The report was well received by the sub-committee.

There is no question of politicisation, we are trying to implement the plan in a certain period of time if possible. Deputy Kenny would not accuse me of political expediency in setting targets for moving on the plan. I was asked less than an hour ago if we benchmark decisions under the programme for Government against a time scale for implementation. Moving more than 10,000 jobs to 53 centres will not be easy but there is no point in Government saying it will implement a plan if it then sits back and does nothing. For the period that any Government is in office, it should be intent on doing what it says it will do, and that is what this Government will do. That does not politicise the Civil Service in any way.

I understand the personal issues surrounding the exercise. In some of the lower grades the take-up rate is four times what we need while in other grades we have difficulties. That also happened ten years ago but we cannot do much more than say that it is entirely voluntary and no compunction or redundancy will be involved to ensure it is not politicised. We have already started the negotiating process.

This contradicts directly what the Minister for Finance said last week, when he stated that he makes no secret that he set a December 2006 deadline because the next general election is due in 2007. That politicises the Civil Service regardless of whether the Taoiseach likes it.

It is a fact of life that the accounting officers in every Department have to produce a risk assessment in any major move like this. The Minister for Finance said that no one was involved in this decision and the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, knew nothing about it at the time. Will these risk assessments be published? If they are not used by the Minister, they must be reported to the Comptroller and Auditor General.

It is obvious that only 20% of public servants have confidence in the plan. In the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, 69 out of 503 surveyed want to move to Carlow, where 250 are required. Only three out of the Department's 103 senior staff want to move. In the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, 35 out of 40 senior civil servants indicated that they did not wish to move to Wexford, although others might.

This programme was criticised by the ESRI, the Royal Institute of Architects, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Institute of Engineers among others. Given that is the case and given that it is inherent in the standards of public office that public interest should always take precedence over the interests of the individual and, more importantly, the interests of a political party, will the Taoiseach go back to the drawing board and produce a programme which is realistic and acceptable and which does not politicise the Civil Service, as has been blatantly attempted by the Minister for Finance in the interests of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government?

I do not believe that trying to implement the decentralisation plan, achieving balanced regional development and moving people out of greater Dublin, where the population now exceeds 2 million, politicises anything. If the Minister for Finance had taken a relaxed view and said that we might have the plan implemented by December 2010, at least four years after we leave office, Deputy Kenny would be the first to ask what kind of commitment we were displaying to decentralisation.

I am well aware of the rules that govern the implementation of policy and we must always take the correct decisions. We must follow the correct procurement and legal positions and negotiate with the staff. I am not sure about figures at this stage because, until things are explained to people, their questions are answered and the Government provides reassurance to those involved, figures will not be everything.

I remember the battles I fought to move the CSO to Mahon in Cork when I was Minister for Finance. At that stage Mahon was an area of social exclusion and I was told the CSO would never move there and should give up the idea. I recently visited the CSO and the people working there are happy.

The Taoiseach did not propose to move anyone to Tallaght.

We will follow proper procedures and negotiate with staff. It is difficult to say when the plan will be complete but hopefully the Government will achieve as much as possible.

Has the Taoiseach sought advice from the Attorney General following yesterday's Supreme Court ruling on the intoximeter that, since the machine is not susceptible to independent analysis or confirmation of findings, struck down the cases before the court? Has he sought advice on the obvious implications of that decision for electronic voting? If he has taken advice, will he tell us what it is? When will the legislation come before the House? Is it still the intention of the Fianna Fáil director of elections to proceed with the appointment of what he calls an "independent panel"? Does the Taoiseach accept that the electoral system is not the property of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats and that, therefore, if an independent panel is to be established, it ought to be done by decision of this House and the Opposition ought to be involved in it?

Does the Taoiseach think it is appropriate or fair to dragoon the Clerk of the Dáil and the Clerk of the Seanad into what is now manifestly a partisan row about something as fundamental as the electoral system? Is it appropriate that for the first time in the history of the office, the Ombudsman should have been shafted, presumably because she delivered herself of an opinion that did not recommend itself to the Minister, who is making these decisions?

What are the terms of reference for the independent panel and when will we see them? Will the Opposition parties be consulted about them?

The Supreme Court issued a judgment yesterday on the intoximeter. It was a criminal case with no bearing on electronic voting. I briefly discussed the matter not in conjunction with electronic voting but because we have recently seen a number of cases related to the enforcement of road safety issues and the judgment is being examined in that light.

I am not sure if the Deputy is trying to draw a similarity in the case, but I cannot see how any similarity could be drawn between the two — it would be very tenuous. In this case there is a machine and it records on its memory. If need be, a High Court petition can be sought if there is a difficulty. It is an entirely regulated area that will be operated under electoral legislation so I cannot see any similarities. Yesterday's judgment is important, however, because it finds an area of our legislation wanting on a legal point and we are looking at it because it is serious.

The Government is about to appoint the independent commission and has cleared the terms of reference. The legislation is being prepared as a matter of urgency. I do not see including members of the Standards in Public Office Commission or the Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad as anything unusual. Most are from independent bodies, and while there is an argument about this issue, I am not sure that it is significant.

As far as I am concerned, people want to move on with electronic voting. I am sure Deputy Rabbitte would have noticed that in India, a country with many difficulties and a large middle class, which has 850 million voters, they use electronic voting in a few hundred thousand polling areas. We want to keep away from counting a haon, a dó, a trí on paper in this day and age. I hope that we are not arguing about that. We will not have that political argument when everyone in the House uses such technology every day of the week.

It is not Indians that worry me but the cowboys opposite, who are trying to impose a change on the electoral system unilaterally, as the Taoiseach did twice with the PR system. He tried to change that, but now he is pushing ahead despite the myriad representations being made to us all and the sheaves of academic articles written by heavyweight experts and academics on the subject. With all due respect to the Taoiseach, as a decent man, rolling out the Tánaiste's director of elections for the past 25 years for ten minutes on "This Week" to tell us why it is safe is hardly an antidote to the academic work prepared on the subject.

I ask the Taoiseach once more if he intends to press ahead with this. How can he discount yesterday's decision by the Supreme Court? On whose advice did he base his meandering about whether it has implications for the electronic voting system? The reason the machine in question was struck down was that it was not susceptible to independent confirmation of its findings. That is the issue. I do not know how the Taoiseach can dismiss that as having no relevance. When will we see the terms of reference? Will the Taoiseach involve the Opposition in agreement of the terms of reference? Will he insist on officers of this and another House being dragooned into what is now a partisan situation? What is the hurry? Why can we not implement this at our convenience, when all sides of the House are satisfied?

Yesterday's case was a Supreme Court decision overturning a District Court's refusal to allow seven people convicted of drink driving to have their cases adjourned so that an evidential breath-testing instrument could be inspected. The Supreme Court found that the application to inspect the intoxilyzer was unfairly refused. We are talking about people going into a polling booth to vote in a regulated election where there is modern technology in an entirely regulated area.

The intoxilyzer is modern technology.

The Deputy had his minute.

Allow the Taoiseach without interruption, please.

Perhaps Deputy Rabbitte is worried about people being intoxicated when going to vote electronically. They might fall over themselves and that might be a problem, but that is not what we are talking about. We are trying to deal with a system that 400,000 people have already used to vote. The system has been internationally tested.

The Taoiseach is the salesman.

We are told by those who advise on such matters, who are the experts in this area, that they allowed their system to be subject to thorough examination. We are appointing——


Allow the Taoiseach without interruption, please.

We are appointing an independent group.

How could they be independent if the Taoiseach is appointing them?

Mr. Justice Matthew Smith, a judge of the High Court and chairman of the Standards in Public Office Commission, will chair the commission. The Clerks of the Dáil and Seanad, the former president of Dublin City University and former chair of the Government task force on physical sciences and the expert group on future skills needs, Dr. Danny O'Hare, and Mr. Brian Sweeney, chairman of Siemens Limited, Dublin, who is also currently chairman of the technology foresight group, will make up the committee. It will have satisfactory terms of reference.

How do we know?

Allow the Taoiseach without interruption, please.

The members were announced today, and I hope we will get over our fixation with trying to block the advancement of technology.

Perhaps the Taoiseach might clarify the remarks made last night by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, on the "Questions and Answers" programme. He stated that the very substantial act of decommissioning carried out by the IRA last October was insufficient for both the British and Irish Governments. As I have not heard that statement before from the Taoiseach or any other Minister, does the Taoiseach agree with his Minister? Was that statement on his part correct, and was it an insufficient act in the view of the Irish Government? Is that the case even though the act was carried out following a sequence of actions and statements agreed between Sinn Féin, the UUP and both Governments? Was the act not carried out under the direct aegis of General de Chastelain of the IICD and witnessed and verified by him as a very substantial act of decommissioning — the most substantial act carried out by the IRA during the entire process? One must remember that there had been another act of decommissioning only the previous April.

Is it not the case that the recent sequence of remarks by both the Taoiseach and some of his other colleagues should be viewed as unintentional errors, given that they seem collectively to have slipped into a careless mode? In that vein, regarding the Taoiseach's remarks this afternoon, when he said that the current difficulties have nothing to do with the British Government, can he——

The two minutes are concluded.

Can the Taoiseach clarify that statement, particularly in the light of the British Government's failure to publish the Cory report or act on collusion, demilitarisation, the equality agenda, the Irish language or the recommendations on policing? In conclusion——

Deputy, please conclude.

Does the Taoiseach not agree that——

The Deputy has gone well over time. In fairness to the Taoiseach, who must reply within a limited time, I ask Deputy Ó Caoláin to resume his seat.

——what we need is progress by all parties to the agreement, including republicans, I emphasise?

The Deputy has asked me several unrelated questions——

They are all very much related.

——but I will try to answer them quickly. On the last point, the Deputy was here today and knows what I said. I said as far as dealing with the twin issues of the ending of paramilitarism by all parties who were involved in it, and making progress on cross-party working in the institutions, these are not matters for the British Government. However, all the other matters are, and it is on that point that I made a quite clear reference. The British Government will not change either of those points. All the other issues that I mentioned, such as criminal justice and equality, are relevant. I did not see the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, on television last night, but colleagues tell me that he was referring to past issues of decommissioning and not the act which occurred in October. I did not see it, so I cannot say if that is correct.

Last October, there was agreement between the two Governments and General John de Chastelain and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning that the act of decommissioning was substantive. That was and remains the stated position. It was considered satisfactory and in line with what we expected. It was a commitment with which the two Governments were happy. Unfortunately, it did not satisfy others. Certainly, there was no difficulty with the two Governments about it.

I do not believe we are slipping in matters. The Deputy is asking me questions and when I am asked a question, I will answer it to the best of my ability. Sometimes the answer does not suit everybody but I do not consider that slipping into error. Unfortunately, one thing I have not yet managed to master in my political career is to decide what questions journalists ask me.

I thought the Taoiseach was a master of everything. I welcome the Taoiseach's clarification that the actions of the IRA last October were substantial. That is the official view of the Government. Clearly, there appears to be a dichotomy or difference of opinion here. How many tonnes of weapons that were imported by British Government agents, acting at the behest of the British Government through its various arms, to arm the loyalist paramilitaries, have been decommissioned? These arms have been and continue to be used against innocent members of the Nationalist community. These actions continue almost daily and are broadly overlooked by the majority of those in the media who are so taken up with the frenzy to blame all impasses and difficulties in the process on republicans. How many arms have been decommissioned by——

The Deputy's minute has concluded.

——the Official IRA, whose colleagues or former colleagues are senior voices in this House today? How many tonnes of weapons were decommissioned by those in the IRA who supported Fianna Fáil when it first came into this House——

The Deputy's minute has concluded.

——or ascended to Government in 1932, an ascension that was secured with the help of the IRA of the time? We have to see this in its total historical context. Will the Taoiseach not agree that it is very——

I ask Deputy Ó Caoláin to resume his seat. It is not possible to conduct Leaders' Questions if the questioner continues to ask a series of questions after the minute is concluded and the Taoiseach is obliged to answer those questions in one minute. There must be fair play for everybody.

I would like to be able to cover all the answers since 1926. My predecessors could not extract themselves from the armed movement so they decided to set up a political party. They decided that after giving it three years of effort they should try another way. Perhaps Deputy Ó Caoláin, after ten years of effort, should take that into account and we could all move on.

I agree that we should try to implement the Good Friday Agreement in total. We should try to move on from armed conflict by all participants and try to decommission, demilitarise and implement the agreement in total. This brings me back to what is delaying progress at present——

The Taoiseach's minute has concluded.

——which is to secure an end to paramilitarism. That would allow us to get agreement on an inclusive executive and, hopefully, that will work successfully.

For the second time today the Taoiseach——

Deputy Ó Caoláin should allow the Taoiseach to continue.

——has prioritised one issue and made it a precondition to progress and that is in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement.