I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The Government invited the consultation partners who had been engaged in developing the arrangements for the process of structured dialogue between Government and the churches, philosophical bodies and non-confessional organisations of Ireland to Dublin Castle on 26 February 2007 for an inaugural event and a reception.
The occasion was arranged to bring the partners together for the first time in this process and to build public awareness of the dialogue process from the outset. Both the Tánaiste and I addressed the meeting on behalf of the Government. As I indicated on the occasion, I believe this dialogue will be a new and important strand in the civic and political culture of this State. This process will build better understanding across a more diverse society. It will also advance to a new and more appropriate basis the relations of mutual respect and engagement between the civil authorities and those who lead our churches, faith communities and non-confessional bodies, which have been so significant in shaping the ideas, values, and even identity of so many of our people.
The inaugural event of 26 February is being followed by a series of bilateral meetings with the dialogue partners. The optimal arrangements for meetings are still under consideration, including the potential for combined representation of natural groups and smaller communities. The dialogue partners are being invited to set the agenda for their initial meetings with Government, with both sides adding themes and issues to the dialogue as it develops. I would not envisage the Government meeting any partner through this process more than annually, although the dialogue could continue through correspondence or with officials.
The series of bilateral meetings commenced this week. There was a meeting with the Church of Ireland on Monday and there will be meetings with the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish community later today.
Having regard to the functional responsibility in the first instance of Ministers and Departments, I would not propose to comment publicly on each meeting and every issue raised. However, I have no objection to the dialogue partners declaring their agenda and discussing their perspectives in public and through the media. It is an envisaged goal of the process that the dialogue would stimulate public interest and debate on important issues, providing a constructive contribution to public policy development.
I would also like to preserve and develop the annual assembly of the dialogue partners, perhaps involving a themed address and a reception. I believe that this is conducive to good relations generally and contributes towards an improved sense of community.
There is of course a limit to what can be accommodated within this dialogue. We embarked on this programme with a significant number of churches and bodies, reflecting the pattern of initial consultations and representing the faiths and beliefs of a large majority of the people living in Ireland today. There remain several groups whose interests have yet to be addressed. Over the coming months, officials at my Department will seek to develop appropriate arrangements to facilitate their association and contribution.
I am pleased with the positive response of the dialogue partners to the initiative. I believe they welcome the opportunity to present and explore perspectives on important themes, to contribute towards the development among the public and in the media of an informed understanding of the issues and to contribute to a general discussion in wider society of issues of interest.