Leaders’ Questions

The decision of the Government to close the embassy to the Holy See is, I believe, a mistake. It is a wrong choice diplomatically, politically and economically and it certainly will not add to Ireland's position in the world. The saving involved could have been found quite easily by making other adjustments within the €150 million overhead Vote of the Tánaiste's Department.

The Tánaiste himself said that this decision was taken because the Vatican or the Holy See has no economic importance. When has Ireland decided that issues such as human rights, Third World aid, freedom of religion, the environment, disarmament or democracy, are no longer important and that everything is just a matter of economic gain? It is interesting to note that in taking this decision, the Tánaiste is going against what is happening in other countries. Britain, Australia and Russia, have all chosen to upgrade their diplomatic missions to the Holy See while we are deciding to take away the resident ambassador.

The Vatican is a major player in world diplomacy. The Tánaiste said last July that the Holy See has one of the largest diplomatic corps in the world, making the Vatican an important listening post and crossroads on a range of global, social, political and international issues of interest to Ireland. What has changed in the meantime to change the Tánaiste's opinion? It adds nothing to our international reputation to be closing down missions when what we could be doing, as did the Tánaiste's predecessors, is ensuring that efficiencies are made in other ways.

Is it the Government's intention to reverse the decision regarding the Vatican and the other two missions involved and to find savings within the Department's Vote in other ways?

I also said at that time and throughout the summer that the Government has been conducting a comprehensive review of expenditure across all Departments. As part of this exercise, I reviewed the diplomatic service and the diplomatic missions and I decided to recommend the closure of three resident missions and the Government agreed to this recommendation. These are the missions in the Holy See, in Teheran and in Timor Leste. I regret it is necessary to close any missions and I would hope that in the course of time, as the country recovers, that we will be able to return to the question of whether we should have resident embassies in those locations. However, at this time, it is not the Government's intention to reverse the decision and that decision will stand.

This country will continue to have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. We intend to appoint an ambassador to the Holy See who will be a senior diplomat located in Dublin and who will service the Holy See directly from Dublin. In respect of the other two missions, it is our intention to accredit an ambassador in a neighbouring country to Teheran and to have the ambassador in Singapore service Timor Leste.

Can the Tánaiste say exactly how much money will be saved by the withdrawal of the resident ambassador to the Holy See? Were there no other options to make what in total is a savings of approximately €1 million — €1.2 million — out of €150 million spent in overheads in the Department? Will the Tánaiste not agree that the €500 million expenditure on Irish Aid is very important and that much of this funding goes to sub-Saharan Africa, where the church, for example, is involved in 25% of the health care providers and where 12 million young children attend church schools? In that connection, does he not agree that our contribution to Irish Aid is very important? Does he not believe that a connection with an organisation that has 1.3 billion people or 17% of the population of the world as adherents, which has 220,000 parishes throughout the world——

This is a homily.

——is an important place for us to be in terms of the issues I have raised such as human rights, disarmament, the environment, etc?

Does the Tánaiste not find it extraordinary that we have managed to fund this residency over all the years when we were a much poorer country and that he has to make this decision now? I do not believe it was made for money reasons because I do not believe he could not have found the money elsewhere within the Vote.

Did Opus Dei prepare the question?

The total savings are in the order of €1.2 million. I acknowledge and I agree with the Deputy that it is important to maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See——

——and diplomatic relations are being maintained with the Holy See.

I also agree with the Deputy that it is important to respect the position of the Catholic Church in this State and that is the reason when the Government made the decision to close the embassy in the Holy See, I communicated that decision personally and immediately to both Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin. I agree that on issues of human rights and the environment and a whole range of areas it is important for this country to be actively involved. This is why we will continue our engagement in the multilateral organisations which are established by the United Nations and other bodies for the conduct of those matters. We will work with the Holy See through those agencies.

Similarly, our aid programme is not channelled through the Holy See or any other state but is channelled in a bilateral way by the State and, in a number of cases, through multilateral agencies. That is why, in our review of the embassies, we believed it important to maintain our embassy network, especially in those countries in which we have a significant aid programme.

Later today the Government is set to announce the slashing of a further 14,500 staff from the public service. Has the Tánaiste, or the Government, given any consideration to the impact these cuts will have on frontline services which, as we speak, are already under immense pressure? Has the Tánaiste considered that his agenda, rather than delivering public service reform, will create a public service slum in this State?

When the Tánaiste came into office he pledged that the choices his Government would make would be fair. What we have seen is, on the one hand, 14,500 jobs to go, adding to the 450,000 people on the dole and, on the other hand, another senior civil servant about to walk away with a pension of €114,000 and a lump sum of €204,000. Where is the fairness in that?

We have already seen the scandal in which more than €8 million of taxpayers' money goes to the pensions of former Ministers, many of whom, such as the former leader of the Tánaiste's party, Dick Spring, are still in employment. We see the cronyism of the last Government continue. Twenty people with affiliations to Fine Gael or the Labour Party have been appointed to State boards since the Government took office. Five of the six judges appointed by Government on the Tánaiste's watch have political affiliations to Fine Gael or the Labour Party.

Not to yours, anyway.

At the same time, the Government refuses to call for accountability at the very highest levels of the Civil Service and insists in continuing with the appointment of the outgoing Secretary General of the Department of Finance, Mr. Kevin Cardiff, to the European Court of Auditors.

Thank you, Deputy.

I understand the Tánaiste's party has gone so far as to ask one of its elected officials to be silent in her criticism of that matter. How does the Tánaiste square that circle? Public service reform is not about slashing numbers in the service. More important, what has the Tánaiste to say to citizens who rely on public services and who do not, at this time, receive the services they require? What will the slashing of further resources from those services mean for them?

Deputy McDonald asked whether the Government had considered the impact of the reforms to frontline services which the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, will announce today. Yes, we have.

Her second question asked how we could square that circle. I will tell her how. This Government believes in public services. We need good, efficient and well-run public services in this country.

That is why we are undertaking to reform our public services. Those reforms will be announced later today by the Minister. They will involve a reduction in the number of——

Labour Party Deputies.

——public servants which will be done through the mechanisms provided for in the Croke Park agreement, in other words, by voluntary arrangements that have already been negotiated and provided for.

Which were opposed by the Tánaiste.

In addition to believing in public services we also respect public servants.

What about the soldiers?

That is why it is so wrong for the Deputy to come to this House and name individual public servants who do not have the opportunity or the privilege she has of responding to those allegations.

That shows disrespect for our civil servants and I ask the Deputy to desist from doing this.

Do you want to talk about it among yourselves?

I, too, believe in public services and have the utmost respect for public servants. I also believe in the accountability of public services and the Civil Service at the highest leadership levels. I put the matter of his proposed appointment to the European Court of Auditors directly to the outgoing Secretary General from the Department of Finance, and he answered my question although the answers were not very convincing.

The Tánaiste cannot run away from the issue of high-level accountability if he is serious about reform. That is a fact.

A Deputy

You would not know much about that.

It might fit the Tánaiste better to demonstrate respect to the ordinary citizens of this State who rely on public services.

Can we have a question, please?

Those public services require to be staffed adequately. The Tánaiste told me he has considered the consequences of the loss of a further 14,500 jobs. Those consequences will be diminished services that may be less efficient and may cause more hardship for citizens. How can a quality service be delivered to our people when there is to be such an exodus from the service? The Government's mantra has been "doing more with less" but if there are not adequate staffing levels it cannot deliver the service.

In the first place, there will be an adequate staffing level. I reiterate, the quality of the service to be delivered to the public has been at the centre of decisions on re-organisation and reform of our public services made by the Government and which will be announced later.

I do not believe that even Deputy McDonald would argue there is no need to reform our public services, in part for the reasons she stated. We need to have a more efficient public service that delivers value for money and has accountability. We need change. Public services and the demands of the public for services change over time. There comes a time, therefore, when it is necessary to change the way in which public services are delivered and to change the institutional arrangements provided for them, along with the number and nature of the agencies in place for providing public services. All of that forms part of the package of reforms the Minister, Deputy Howlin, will announce later today. That is being done so that we can deliver better and more cost effective services to our public.

We also need accountability. We will have a considerably improved accountability. I reiterate, we must respect our public servants.

We do respect them.

Our public servants do a good job. They have been the subject of ballyragging for far too long——

(Interruptions).

Does the Tánaiste remember when he used to sit over there? Is that memory obliterated for him? Unbelievable.

——sometimes in the media. The Deputy cannot point to a single occasion during the time I sat on those benches when I attacked public servants, individually or generally. I respect public servants and the work they do. Members of this House should also show that respect.

Walking away with a big pension is a rare form of ballyragging.

What we need is a better, more efficient and focused public service and that is the nature of the reforms the Minister will announce today.

I raise the very important issue of intercountry adoption and the urgent need for our Government to improve the situation, in particular as it relates to Ethiopia. Before I get into the detail of my questions, I would like to commend and thank all of our adoptive parents for their supportive and valuable contributions to the lives of children. In particular, I thank the 300 Irish families that are dealing with the specific matter I am raising this morning. Will the Tánaiste, in his capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, support intercountry adoptive parents? I refer particularly to the 300 families I have mentioned but also to other potential adoptive parents. The Tánaiste is probably aware that there are 5 million orphans in Ethiopia, which has a huge population of 80 million. Just 3,031 Ethiopian orphans are involved in intercountry adoptions. The direct connection with Ireland is that 300 of them are being adopted by Irish families. Will the Tánaiste support these families as a matter of priority? Will he revisit and implement further the Hague Convention on the protection of children? Will he push the issue at Government level? Will he take steps to ensure the adoption authority is authorised to commence negotiations with the Ethiopian authorities?

The answer to the Deputy's question is that I am working with adoptive parents and families that are seeking to adopt children through the intercountry adoption method. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and I have been working on this matter for some time. In the course of my work as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I regularly raise this subject with the authorities from other countries where this issue arises. When I recently visited Russia, for example, I discussed the difficulties that are arising with regard to intercountry adoptions from Russia with the foreign minister there. We will pursue the Ethiopian issue that the Deputy has raised. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has been pursuing the issue of intercountry adoptions with African countries. We will pursue the issue. As Deputy McGrath is aware, complex issues arise in some of these cases. The legislation and the regulations that apply here in relation to adoption and child custody can sometimes be quite different from those in the countries from which these children are being adopted. Difficulties and delays can arise when efforts are being made to square that.

I thank the Tánaiste for his response and for the work that is being done with Russia. I ask the Tánaiste, in his capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, to further develop Ireland's relationship with Ethiopia. We have a long history of connections with that country, including adoptive connections over the past 20 years. Is the Tánaiste aware that Irish people who were approved for adoption prior to the enactment of the Adoption Act 2010 are continuing to effect Ethiopian adoptions that are carried out to the Hague standards? In other words, the children involved in these adoptions are very safe. People in countries like the USA and Sweden are continuing to adopt from Ethiopia. Why can Ireland not assist these families? I take the point that complex issues arise in this context. The USA and Sweden are getting on with the job of resolving these complex child safety issues. Is the Tánaiste aware that there has never been any controversy surrounding Ethiopian adoptions? Can he verify, as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, that parents will not be in a position to adopt a second child if we do not act over the next few months? I ask the Tánaiste not to close the door to adoption from Ethiopia. These families are very concerned.

As the Deputy is aware, the adoption arrangements have to comply with the Hague Convention. The arrangements that apply in individual countries have to be consistent with the Hague conditions and arrangements. I am very much aware of the difficulties being experienced by adoptive parents. I want to assure the Deputy that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and I, as well as our respective Departments, will work to resolve these difficulties.