Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

Diplomatic Representation Expenditure

Micheál Martin

Question:

1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he held any bilateral meetings on his recent trip to America; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45688/12]

Gerry Adams

Question:

2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the United States on 12 and 13 October. [45696/12]

Gerry Adams

Question:

3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the politicians, business leaders or other organisations he met during his visit to the United States in October. [45697/12]

Joe Higgins

Question:

4. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the US on 12 and 13 October 2012. [49715/12]

Derek Keating

Question:

5. Deputy Derek Keating asked the Taoiseach if he will extend a formal invitation of a state visit to the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, in view of next year's G8 summit taking place in Enniskillen; and if he will make a statement on the matter [52458/12]

Derek Keating

Question:

6. Deputy Derek Keating asked the Taoiseach his views on extending a formal invitation for a State visit to the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama; and if he will make a statement on the matter [52459/12]

Gerry Adams

Question:

7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he has been in contact with US President Barack Obama in relation to his plans to attend the G8 summit in June 2013. [53788/12]

Gerry Adams

Question:

8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he has any plans to extend an invitation to US President Barack Obama for a State visit in view of his attendance at the G8 summit in Fermanagh in June 2013. [53846/12]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to the US on 12 and 13 October 2012; the achievements of the visit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [54225/12]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if it is his intention to invite US President Obama to Ireland given the G8 summit that will take place in County Fermanagh next year. [54226/12]

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, together.

On Thursday, 11 October, I travelled to the United States for a series of engagements in Philadelphia and Cleveland. The visit was part of the Government's ongoing efforts to drive economic recovery and employment by delivering the message to international business people and investors, and to the diaspora, that Ireland is open for business. This was my first visit to Philadelphia as Taoiseach and I was delighted to meet Mr. Tom Corbett, Governor of Pennsylvania, on Friday morning. We noted the special relationship that Ireland enjoys with the state of Pennsylvania by virtue of the presence there of so many people of Irish heritage. We noted in particular the significant contribution of successive generations of Irish people to the building of Philadelphia. I briefed the governor on Ireland's progress towards economic recovery and on our current bilateral business relations with the United States.

I met some of the leading supporters of the American Ireland Funds in Philadelphia. I recognised the contribution made by the Ireland Funds to worthy causes in Ireland as well as to supporting links between Ireland and the US. I addressed the Brehon Law Society symposium on Doing Business in the US and Ireland, attended by over 200 experts and business people. In my address I spelt out how Ireland has become more competitive and represents an excellent investment opportunity for US companies. Later that morning I performed the official opening of the Philadelphia office of Zenith technologies, which is an excellent example of a high-tech Irish indigenous company which is making significant headway in the US market. I am convinced that it is ambitious exporting Irish companies such as Zenith that will drive Ireland's economic recovery. While in Philadelphia I also met briefly representatives of the Irish American Business Network and a number of Irish community groups.

Later I travelled to Cleveland for a series of further engagements, including an address at the City Club of Cleveland, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In this address I again outlined the positive measures being taken by the Irish Government to stabilise our finances and to return our economy to competitiveness and growth, while highlighting the attractions of Ireland as a location for business and investment. I emphasised the importance of transatlantic trade and investment links between the United States of America and the European Union. These links are vital to both the European and American economies, especially given the crucial importance to both of us of growth and recovery. I said that I strongly believed that concluding a comprehensive trade agreement between the United States and the European Union would take this relationship to a new level and I will be aiming to make as much progress towards this goal as possible when Ireland assumes the Presidency of the European Union in January 2013.

While in Cleveland I participated in a number of other business events to support Irish companies expanding into the US, as well as to promote Ireland as a location for inward investment. Some of these Irish companies are doing business with the prestigious Cleveland Clinic in the health care and technology sectors. I was greatly impressed by the first class facilities which I saw at the clinic, where I also met with senior clinical and research teams who outlined the practices and research being undertaken there. While I was in Cleveland, I was delighted to officially announce the new strategic partnership between the Enterprise Ireland supported company i360 Medical and the Cleveland Clinic, including an investment from the Cleveland Clinic in the company.

On Saturday morning, I met the Mayor of Cleveland, Mr. Frank G. Jackson, at the City Hall. Following our meeting we both attended a public event at the Irish Garden, which is part of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. The gardens represent the contribution that immigrants have made to the heritage of the US over the centuries. Mayor Jackson and I both addressed representatives of the Irish American community at this landmark Irish site. I also met members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, where we discussed immigration issues and the prospects of an Irish E3 visa being agreed. I was delighted on Saturday evening to have an opportunity to attend and address the eighth annual charity ball hosted by the Mayo Society of Greater Cleveland and to honour the bonds that connect Cleveland and County Mayo. I returned home later that night.

While in the US I also used my various speaking opportunities to promote The Gathering 2013 throughout the region and was very encouraged by the reaction we are getting to this important initiative, which will be held during the course of 2013. I am delighted that British Prime Minister Cameron has confirmed that next year's G8 summit will be held in Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, as this will no doubt give a great boost to the region. Although it is too early to speculate on an invitation being extended to American President Obama to make a state visit to Ireland around that time, when I recently spoke to the president on the telephone to congratulate him on his re-election, I mentioned my firm hope that he would be in a position to visit Ireland again following his very successful visit last year.

I take it that as Ireland will hold the EU Presidency, the Taoiseach will be invited to participate in the G8 summit. Will the Taoiseach confirm that? Prime Minister Cameron's decision on the location of the summit is important and I welcome it.

The positive relations between the US and Ireland are beneficial in an ongoing sense, taking in social culture and economic life in both nations. I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach made the visit and established contacts as outlined in his reply. Such engagement is extremely important but it is also vital that we use such contacts and visits to push for strategically important matters for this country.

As we can see from the debates leading into the American presidential election, corporation tax loomed large in rhetoric and articulation of policy by President Obama and his team. Has the Government put in place any new initiatives to withstand the pressure that will arise with regard to corporation tax on the American side, particularly repatriation of profits, disincentivising the establishment of companies overseas and so forth?

This occurred during the previous presidential election when the Government of the time put key IDA personnel in our embassy in Washington to lobby effectively on Capitol Hill and among political contacts in the United States on the issue of corporation tax, which is extremely important to our capacity to attract inward investment.

On immigration, the Taoiseach met representatives of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. When I was Minister for Foreign Affairs my Department launched the E3 visa initiative which, owing to political difficulties on Capitol Hill, moved away from a blanket demand for the immigration issue to be resolved. An E3 visa programme would enable us to create a legal framework to prevent illegal inward migration into the United States. From the contacts he made during his visit to the United States, will the Taoiseach indicate the position in respect of advancing the E3 visa and assisting those who are illegal in the United States?

I am pleased the Taoiseach met representatives of Zenith Technologies. Having met representatives of the company many years ago, I am pleased to note it continues to make good progress in the United States. Zenith Technologies illustrates the importance of small and medium sized Irish enterprises which can develop products and services that are needed worldwide and provide solutions to worldwide challenges.

I know Deputy Martin is familiar with Zenith Technologies. It is doing a wonderful job and is an example of a company that is growing in importance. As a consequence, it is able to expand its business and employ more staff.

Prime Minister Cameron indicated to me a number of months ago that it was his intention to hold the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. He also stated he would extend to me an invitation to me, as Taoiseach, to attend. If and when his invitation arrives, I will be very happy to accept it.

I raised the issue of corporate tax with the American companies I met, pointing out that the issue is our business and that a number of other countries in Europe now have corporate tax rates below 20%. While some corporate tax regimes are more complex than others, Ireland's rate has been very straightforward, simple and transparent for many years. It is 12.5% and the effective rate is 11.9%. I raised this matter with all American businesses with which I had contact in terms of their requirement for clarity and a horizon against which they can plan. As we have pointed out at European level, there will not be any change in Ireland's corporate tax rate and we do not have any intention of moving away from it.

I noted the comments made by President Obama following the first meeting of the new US Cabinet. The Administration's focus is clearly on the so-called fiscal cliff, on which the Republican Party, or GOP, presented its options yesterday. I mentioned the difficulties and challenges President Obama faces when I called him on the telephone. The US Government is clearly anxious to have this matter resolved before the end of the year. I hope it achieves this objective which is in everybody's interest.

I did not have an opportunity to discuss immigration policy with the President, although I discussed it with the Irish ambassador who accompanied me in Philadelphia and Cleveland. It is important to allow the new Administration to settle in, as it were. Various members of the Senate and Congress have commented on this issue and the President also spoke about wishing to have a resolution to the immigration problem. I am aware that Deputy Martin and other Members have been involved in this issue and would like a resolution to be found. Once the President has been inaugurated again and his Administration established, this issue will be followed through as a priority. I hope in the case of undocumented Irish emigrants residing in the United States and Irish people who wish to emigrate to the United States that we will be able to follow through on a path that will bring about clarity and provide an opportunity to have their status legalised and be documented. This will be a major issue for the Government. It is clear from comments made by the United States Administration that it will focus on this matter. However, its priority at present is to deal with the so-called fiscal cliff. The Government will take up this issue in the new year, including in its capacity as the chair of meetings during the Presidency of the European Union.

I very much welcome the interest the Taoiseach has taken in Irish-America and note the good work done during his recent visit to the United States. I visited the east coast of the United States and Canada last month on the back of super-storm Sandy. The Taoiseach will be aware of the devastation the storm wreaked, including in traditional Irish communities. Hundreds of homes were destroyed on Breezy Point and Staten Island. The House should extend condolences to Damien Moore from Portnoo in County Donegal and his wife, Glenda, whose two sons, Connor and Brendan, were swept from their mother's arms and drowned. Have our consular services been engaged in providing assistance to any Irish passport holders caught up in the storm?

The Taoiseach's visit to the United States is proof that Irish-America has a major contribution to make to recovery here, although this should not be reduced to a financial role alone. Successive Governments have ignored the plight of the undocumented Irish in the United States and Australia. It is disappointing, therefore, that the Taoiseach did not discuss the issue with the Administration. While it may not have been opportune to do so in the thrust of an election, the Government should raise the issue on a consistent basis.

With The Gathering imminent, when will the Government fulfil its promise in the programme for Government to enact legislation to allow for the publication of the 1926 census? This information would be a valuable resource for those who seek to explore their Irish heritage.

I read Prime Minister Cameron's remarks on the forthcoming G8 summit in which he outlined three main themes for the meeting, namely, the fight against protectionism in global trade, action against tax avoidance and promoting greater transparency and openness. While these are commendable objectives, the Prime Minister misses the point. The G8 must address the economic crisis facing the world, in particular the poor of the developing world. I ask the Taoiseach to raise the grave situation in the Middle East and the failure thus far of the international community to intervene in the conflict there. In this regard, I commend the Government's decision to vote in support of the Palestinians at the United Nations General Assembly last week. Surely it would be opportune to raise this matter when world leaders come to Ireland where we have a successful peace process.

I thank Deputy Adams for his comments. The US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, is due to attend an OSCE conference in Dublin this week, which will bring to Ireland the largest number of foreign ministers ever to visit the country. High Representative, Baroness Catherine Ashton, will attend on behalf of the European Union. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, will also attend, as will the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague. I expect to have a short meeting with Secretary of State Clinton at which I will raise the immigration issue, as I have already indicated.

Publication of the 1926 census is a matter of cost and the 100 year rule. I would like it to be published as it is of great interest to millions of people the world over. However, there is a hefty cost attached to doing so and consideration must be given to the rule precluding publication for 100 years. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, is dealing with the issue.

I spoke to President Obama and sympathised with him in the same way as Deputy Adams has about people from Ireland and other countries who lost their lives. I made the point to him that Breezy Point, Staten Island and New Jersey have significant Irish communities. I said to the President that we had significant numbers of very skilled people here in the country, many of whom were unemployed following the collapse of the construction sector. Be it small numbers of Army personnel dealing with logistics or people who are skilled at driving machinery, demolition experts, roofers or whatever, I said to him that perhaps we should look at the question of what kind of assistance Ireland could give in that context. The President was, I think, very taken with the suggestion. What we agreed was that both the ambassador in Washington, Ambassador Collins, and his counterpart in the Administration would look at how best Ireland might actually be able to contribute in that fashion to restoring and rebuilding the areas that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

I have seen some of the documentaries. Significant areas are entirely Irish, or are certainly Irish connected. In that sense when one looks at a home that was completely flattened as if the place had been by a series of bombs, clearly people are very upset and want to get back to being able to live their lives where they have been for so many years. That issue is being followed through on behalf of this country by our ambassador with the US Administration and we will be happy to assist Deputy Adams in any way that we can in that regard. I think that, with the numbers of skilled people that we have here, we could make a significant contribution.

To be honest with Deputy Adams, the reason that I did not have an opportunity to discuss with the Administration the question of the E-3 visas and immigration was that I left here on Thursday night to fly out, was busy all of the following day and came back on Saturday night after the last function. I got here on Sunday morning. On this occasion, there just was not the time to fit it in. Next time, hopefully, and with a new Administration in office in the US, we will be able to devote more time and follow through on the new connections that need to be made very diligently.

I might point out that, from Deputy Adams's party, Deputy Martin's party, our own, the Labour Party and everybody else's party, there have been delegations to Washington over the last 15 to 18 months. We will keep that up because it requires constant contact. As Deputy Adams is well aware, now is the time to do this - at the start of President Obama's second term in office. Hopefully, we can bring about a resolution to it.

I thank the Taoiseach, particularly for dealing with the part of my parliamentary question that asked the Government to invite President Obama for a formal state visit next June. While I was framing the question, I recalled that I was eight years of age when President Kennedy visited Dáil Éireann. If my sums are correct, the Taoiseach was 12 years of age. What I recalled in particular was that, in the decades since, Irish people still hold that wonderful occasion close to their hearts. This is a mark of the respect, friendship and closeness between the Irish and American peoples.

As the Taoiseach alluded, Prime Minister Cameron's recent announcement that the G8 Summit will be held on the island of Ireland will provide us with an opportunity next year. Given The Gathering and the fact that we will hold the Presidency of the European Union, we are presented with a wonderful opportunity to promote Ireland and its people as a nation with further potential in terms of tourism, and to enhance the Irish economy. The eyes of the world will be on us. For this reason, it is important that we avail of the opportunity and extend President Obama an invitation to visit Ireland. Recently, I visited a school-----

A question, please.

-----that the Taoiseach had the opportunity to visit previously, namely, Lucan community college. He greeted all of its students-----

Could we have a question, Deputy? This is not the time for statements.

-----some of whom have already invited President Obama. Will the Taoiseach give my suggestion the serious consideration that it deserves? The Irish people yearn for and would welcome it.

I thank Deputy Keating. I spoke to President Obama to congratulate him on his re-election and the start of a second term in office. I expressed the wish that, during the course of his term, he would have the opportunity to visit Ireland again formally with Michelle, his wife, and his delegation. It was not the time to say that I was formally inviting him, but I did say that I hoped he could come back to Ireland.

The President has said on a number of occasions that his visit last year had an extraordinary impact on him and was one of the most exciting days of his presidency. In its own small way following that, the Irish community across the United States seemed to have borne this in mind in terms of their support as well.

I recall how, while I was a young lad, President Kennedy came here in 1963 and spoke from this spot. At that time, he quoted poetry: "to come back and see old Shannon's face again." That opportunity did not present itself for him. I wrote to his daughter just last week about the celebrations that will take place in Wexford, to which I have committed my involvement. A number of the Kennedy family are travelling for that.

When I had the opportunity to speak at the Kennedy centre in Boston, I said that perhaps we should look at doing something next year, but in a forward thinking and forward looking way, on the 50th anniversary of the President's anniversary to Ireland, which was the last before the great tragedy of his assassination.

Deputy Keating is quite right. It is an opportunity for us to promote the country fairly strongly in terms of The Gathering. There is a big effort going in there at the moment. I hope that it will pay the dividend that I have heard about.

When the protocol of the visit becomes a little clearer and the President's schedule becomes known, we can reflect on that suggestion. I hope that, during his Administration, he will have the opportunity to come back to Ireland, spend a little longer here this time and, if he could arrange the opportunity, address both Houses. Let me confirm to Deputy Keating that we are working with the American Administration and the Kennedy centre in Boston to do something in June or July of next year in the Kennedy centre with the theme of looking forward for the future as to the significance of that visit and how one might build on the platforms that are there to create a better world for everybody.

If it is the Taoiseach's intention to invite President Obama, I ask him to raise two matters with the President. Given the Taoiseach's comments on corporate tax, I am disappointed that he is still continuing to hold the line and treating the issue as a sacred cow. In the context of the American Government's examination of this matter, would it not be useful to have substantial co-operation between Europe and the US on increasing the corporate tax take and breaking from the policies of tax piracy and tax competition between Europe and America and within Europe that are destabilising the global economy and robbing states, be it this one, European states or the US, of revenues that they could use for stimulus programmes and employment? This type of co-operation between Ireland and the US would be more beneficial to the citizens of both countries.

I seek a specific answer on my next question. If President Obama is to be invited to the South during the G8 Summit, will the Government also invite some of the representatives of the victims of US foreign policy so that we might at least have some balance in the debate on America's role in the world? Several times, I have mentioned that the deputy speaker of the Gaza Legislative Council, Dr. Ahmad Bahar, has asked me to ask the Taoiseach whether he can visit this country to meet the Taoiseach and Irish parliamentarians.

I propose that the Taoiseach invites him-----

That is a separate matter. We are not dealing with it.

-----when President Obama attends the summit. At the same time, could I ask him to invite representatives of teachers and doctors who are being persecuted by the Bahraini regime when President Obama is at the summit?

Hold on a second. We have gone from the United States to Bahrain to Palestine.

It is US foreign policy.

It relates to US foreign policy and it is entirely in order. I am asking the Taoiseach to ask some of those countries that have been at the wrong end of President Obama's foreign policy and who are suffering as a result of it to have an opportunity to give their side of the story during or around the time of the G8 summit while President Obama is in the country. They want to ask the President why the United States refused to endorse their observer status at the United Nations and why it refused to denounce the behaviour of the Bahraini Government.

That is a separate policy issue altogether.

Could the Taoiseach not do that? That is a serious request that the Taoiseach would do so if he is inviting President Obama to the country.

The G8 summit takes place in Lough Erne in County Fermanagh. I have no idea whether President Obama will be attending and, if so, what his schedule might be. As I said to Deputy Keating, I did suggest to the President that he would visit the country if he could do so during his next Administration. I have no intention of using a potential visit of the American President to facilitate invitations from all over the world, as Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned-----

-----of particular sectors of societies that have problems. Clearly, there are other fora and opportunities for those matters to be discussed. As the Deputy is aware, the Irish representative voted in favour of UN observer status for Palestine. That has been this country’s position for a long time.

Corporate tax rates are a matter for the Government. We have been clear about that for many years. Those who wish to invest in this country, in particular from the US, like definition, clarity and a horizon against which they can plan their business. Corporate tax rates in this country have moved neither up nor down. They have been static and everyone is aware of that.

That is our business. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has been examining tax piracy and the double-Irish syndrome, as it is called, in respect of clearing up any perceptions that this country is a tax haven. I raised the point with the President last year when he visited. It is important that everyone understands that this country is not a tax haven for companies which might wish to conduct their business in a manner that is not entirely straightforward. We will see what the President’s schedule is like.

Will there be no invitations for the Bahrainis or the Palestinians?

It is not for me to invite any other individual to this country.

It is, in Ireland's capacity as Presidency of the EU.

I am aware that certain people have been in correspondence with the Deputy. There are other opportunities that will allow them to address issues at a European level or a national level. Confirmation or otherwise from the American Administration of a visit by the American President to this country should not be used as an opportunity to invite all and sundry from all over the globe.

From Bahrain and Palestine.

That is not the intention.

In terms of corporate tax, the issue is not so much our policy, which is clear, in terms of maintaining the rate but that in previous times the Administration did issue documentation suggesting we were a tax haven which it had subsequently to correct. The Taoiseach has contacts with the business community and with American companies. We have double taxation laws with many countries. We are in an above-board, transparent and legal corporate taxation framework. In the aftermath of the presidential election there will be an anti-outsourcing lobby in America which believes that jobs are leaving American shores. In many ways it is a protectionist approach to what is a globalised economy. In order for American companies to gain additional custom and to sell their goods and services they set up overseas in major markets. They have set up in European markets for some time and we have been a beneficiary of that. There is a need for an initiative to be taken. Have we taken any initiative to counteract a campaign that will be under way in the aftermath of the election? After the previous presidential election such a campaign involved situating key expert personnel in our embassy in Washington in order to support the ambassador in dealing with legislators on Capitol Hill and bringing a greater understanding of what is the situation in this country. That is the point I was making to the Taoiseach.

We will do that. We were expecting a report towards the end of last month which will be ready sometime early in December on the possibilities and potential that exists for free trade between the European Union and the US, which holds enormous potential, of a magnitude of at least 2% growth in the economies of Europe as a consequence because of the extraordinary level of trade either way. We will certainly tie it onto that.

What we are seeking from a European point of view is to get a mandate to open the discussions which will clearly go on for a considerable time. This is the appropriate time to do that. The point Deputy Martin mentioned is one that I raised with the President when I met him last year and it is one on which we will follow through. We want nobody to be under any illusion that this country is some kind of tax haven. We will follow through on that and continue the dialogue to clear up any remaining misconceptions on the issue. That is an important element for American investment but also for the perception globally of Ireland being a country open for business where our tax structure is very clear and there are no misconceptions about our position by US companies. That is a matter on which we will follow through. The views of Members will be important in the debate.

I agree with the Taoiseach that this is the time, at the dawn of a new Administration, to press the US Government on the undocumented. I commend the approach and appeal to the Taoiseach to make representation to the Secretary of State, whom we are advised will be leaving her position this year. I am sure the Taoiseach meets people who are variously called undocumented or illegals. They are not there through any fault of their own. I appeal to the Taoiseach to raise their case and to press it in the future.

I welcome the fact the Taoiseach has been invited to attend the G8 summit in the context of the EU Presidency. I wish him well in that challenging role. The G8 is by any definition an exclusive group representing rich states. Mr. Cameron has taken the opportunity to set out his thoughts on what should be discussed. I invite the Taoiseach to do the same, not just as Taoiseach but in the context of the EU Presidency.

The biggest issue facing us in terms of conflict resolution on a global scale is the Middle East. It infects the entire region and spreads with all of the other difficulties that arise from it. The two elements locked in conflict cannot get a peace process in place because there is no leadership to do it within the Israeli Government and no inclination by it to do so. I support the two-state solution. Will the Taoiseach take the opportunity to put that on the agenda? Notwithstanding our difficulties - everything is relative - will he also raise the issue of poverty? He is aware that people in the developing world, in particular the Continent of Africa, live in extreme poverty, almost like our Gorta Mór. The developed world is represented by the G8 and has an opportunity to put in place proper policies to deal with those issues.

I commend that approach and wish the Taoiseach well.

I thank Deputy Adams. I do not believe I would have any influence over the agenda as it is one drawn up by the G8 but if and when an invitation comes, I would be very happy to follow through on that.

The crisis between Israel and Palestine has been raised here on umpteen occasions. I am aware the Deputy has been out there, as has Deputy Martin, and I have been there also. It is a very complex issue. I have seen the scale of housing development on the West Bank and I have been through areas of the Gaza Strip following the second last altercation between Israel and Palestine. It is an issue I will be happy to raise although it will be one for discussion with the American Secretary of State also at the OSCE conference that will be held here.

The issue of poverty raised by Deputy Adams is one we can certainly support. When I had the opportunity to go to the Olympics a special meeting was called by Prime Minister Cameron about hunger, malnutrition and under-nutrition, with particular reference to Africa. He had a number of leaders and those involved with NGOs and agencies at that meeting in support of continuing a high level strategy there to make real inputs into that matter. There will be an opportunity at the G8 summit and if it falls to me to have the opportunity, as the President of the European Council, to raise an issue like that, I would be very happy to do so. Ireland has a very strong record as a small nation in making a disproportionate impact on this not just in Africa, but in other locations around the world. I thank the Deputy for those suggestions.

I thank the Taoiseach for the comprehensive and detailed reply he gave to my question. It is another indication to me that despite the very difficult economic and financial challenges he and the Government face we are determined to accentuate the positive when it exists and remain focused and determined to bring as much inward investment into the country. Next year promises to be a difficult but exciting year with The Gathering initiative-----

Does the Deputy have a question?

-----the EU Presidency and also because of the G8 summit. I have no other question other than to thank the Taoiseach.

That is grand. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

I hope the invitation will come to pass.

There can be no more opportune time than when the G8 summit is taking place in this country at the same time as Ireland will hold the Presidency of the European Union, and when we might have the President of the most powerful state in the world might be visiting this country, to raise issues of global and international importance. We can agree on that. I ask the Taoiseach to raise, not necessarily at the same time and not in a confrontational way, two urgent matters of international importance in regard to the Middle East where Ireland has a particular role. We have a very strong connection to the doctors being persecuted in Bahrain because many of them were trained here and the United States has failed to say what should be said about the persecution of the democratic movement in Bahrain and the persecution of doctors trained in this country. First, I ask the Taoiseach to invite here some time next year representatives of those who are being persecuted to give their side of the story. Second, I ask him to invite a representative of the Gaza section of the Palestinian Legislative Council whose members have asked to come to this country to meet-----

Deputy, it is a separate question.

It is part of the question on the G8.

We are talking about the Taoiseach's visit to the United States.

In fairness, a Cheann Comhairle, and with due respect-----

You can put down a parliamentary question and by all means I will give you time to question the Taoiseach on it, but this question is about visits to the United States.

My question is about the G8 summit.

It is not about the G8 summit.

My question is about the G8 summit.

What is your question?

To ask the Taoiseach about his intention to invite US President Obama here given the G8 summit taking place.

You are asking-----

Come on, a Cheann Comhairle. Deputy Adams just raised the Middle East.

Last week we had an argument here. There are 17 minutes remaining. We have given 43 minutes to this question.

It will take me 30 seconds to finish asking my question.

We are not getting into-----

-----talking about the Middle East difficulties.

We need Dáil reform.

You did not interrupt Deputy Adams when he asked about that.

I did. I asked him to put his question.

Would you please put your question and stick to the subject matter? Put down a parliamentary question on the issue you are trying to raise. It is a separate matter.

Regarding the possible visit of President Obama and the G8 summit, I ask the Taoiseach if he will invite also representatives of the legislative council in Gaza, including the health minister in Gaza who is an Irish citizen and who was trained here - the Taoiseach might not know that - to give them a chance to discuss their side of this intractable conflict.

That is a separate issue.

There is no question that the Deputy's comments are about issues that are very important. I do not have any control over the schedule of the American President. I assume the President's schedule is among matters that are sorted out by the G8. When I spoke to him I told him that I hope he can come to Ireland again. As I said, I have no idea of his schedule but on the question of the Bahraini persecutions and the issue of Gaza, we have a seat at the United Nations. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs has a particular interest in this and in so far as his remit is concerned, not just as the Tánaiste but in foreign affairs holding the chairmanship of the council of the European Ministers, I will ask him to take into account the two points the Deputy raised. I do not think it is for me to invite people here and while they are sensitive issues there are legitimate forums in which they can be raised with validity.

Why not just invite them?

I welcome the Taoiseach's initiative to broaden our base to broker a deal on immigration in the USA for the more than 50,000 undocumented Irish in the United States. This Government and this party supported the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform Bill in the US. I would like to know the status of that Bill. I pay tribute to the many Irish-American lobby groups in the United States which also supported the Bill. We have a duty of care towards our citizens in the United States as in every other part of the world.

That Bill has fallen. There is a new Administration in place. It is a matter for Senator McCain, Senator Schumer, Senator Brown or any of them to raise the matter again and we will be happy to work with them. We are not the only country with an immigrant problem in the United States. We are not the only country on which there is a requirement for visa regimes. President Obama, in the run-up to the election, made particular concessions in regard to the Latino population, particularly about young people who had come to the country as children. It is an issue on which we will work with the organisations and the Administration through our consular offices, the ambassador and the lobby groups in making connections on the Hill, both in the Senate and the Congress, to see how we can play our part in bringing about what is the best and most appropriate outcome for Ireland, whether that be part of a major comprehensive immigration reform policy and platform or something more appropriate to deal with our particular case.

Constitutional Convention Agenda

Micheál Martin

Question:

11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has approached persons to chair the Constitutional Convention and the responses that have been received; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45693/12]

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

12. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Taoiseach if he will reaffirm his commitment that marriage equality for same sex couples will be prioritised in the upcoming Constitutional Convention. [46415/12]

Gerry Adams

Question:

13. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will outline the process used in identifying a chairman for the Constitutional Convention. [47413/12]

Micheál Martin

Question:

14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met the new Chairman of the Constitutional Convention; the areas that were discussed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48012/12]

Gerry Adams

Question:

15. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the date on which the first meeting of the Constitutional Convention is to be held. [49430/12]

Gerry Adams

Question:

16. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his decision to appoint Mr. Tom Arnold as chairman of the Constitutional Convention. [49431/12]

Micheál Martin

Question:

17. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the date on which the Constitutional Convention will convene its first plenary meeting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49611/12]

Gerry Adams

Question:

18. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the contact he has had with representatives of the Irish diaspora in relation to the forthcoming Constitutional Convention. [49614/12]

Joe Higgins

Question:

19. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on any discussions he has had with the new chairman of the Constitutional Convention. [49713/12]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

20. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will provide the timeline for the different meetings and topics of the constitutional convention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [54227/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 20, inclusive, together.

As I announced in the House on 24 October, the Government appointed Mr. Tom Arnold as independent chairperson of the Constitutional Convention. Deputies will agree that Mr. Arnold's personal commitment, qualities and experience make him an ideal choice to lead the convention. Mr. Arnold paid a courtesy call on the Tánaiste and myself on 5 November last when we thanked him for agreeing to chair the convention and wished him well in this important role.

The convention held its inaugural meeting in Dublin Castle on Saturday, 1 December. The Tánaiste and I attended the meeting to wish the members well in their work, as did other party leaders. The convention operates independently of the Government and will report directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It decides on all matters relating to its operation, including its rules and procedures, the timing of its meetings and, subject to the resolutions passed by the Houses, the prioritisation of its work programme. I understand these matters were discussed in private session at the inaugural meeting.

The Government is keen to ensure the views of the diaspora will be heard as part of the convention process and I understand the convention's website has been designed specifically to facilitate the involvement of those currently abroad. I am told the convention secretariat is working to ensure our network of embassies and community groups abroad will receive as much information as possible about the work of the convention, which can then be widely disseminated.

The convention is a new and exciting way of considering constitutional reform. For the first time, ordinary citizens will work side by side with elected representatives from North and South in a dynamic approach to examining constitutional change. I am sure every Member will join me in wishing it well in its work. I also trust that Deputies who are members of the convention will be anxious to work co-operatively with the convention chairperson and the other members to ensure the convention carries out its tasks in an exemplary manner.

I met citizens who have been selected to work with the convention. They are excited about it and many see it as a brand new opportunity for involvement in the political system and working towards improvements, if that be so, of a document that belongs them, the Constitution. It belongs to the people and no one else. I felt a sense of excitement among those nominated as citizens and I wished them well in their endeavours. While it is a completely independent operation, we will respond appropriately when the convention reports to us.

The following information was provided under Standing Order 40A.

The Resolution passed by Dáil Éireann on 10 July (and by Seanad Éireann on 12 July), agreeing to the setting up of the Convention, set out the matters to be considered by the Convention, including provision for same-sex marriage.

The Resolution also noted that, not later than two months from the date of the first public hearing held by it, the Convention will make a report and recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas on each of the following (two) matters set out in the Resolution: reducing the Presidential term of office to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections; and reducing the voting age to 17.

As I said in my reply on 4 December, the Convention operates independently of the Government and will report direct to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It decides on all matters relating to its operation, including (subject to the Resolutions passed by the Houses) the prioritisation of its work programme. Accordingly, once it has reported on the two matters mentioned above, it is a matter for the Convention to prioritise its consideration of the other matters referred to in the Resolution, including the issue of same-sex marriage.

I welcome the appointment of Mr. Tom Arnold. On Saturday, it became clear that there is a restricted agenda imposed by the Government on the work of the convention. It has undermined the idea of radical reform of the Constitution. The difference between the rhetoric of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and the reality of the agenda was striking. On Saturday, the Taoiseach gave a commitment to a Government response to the recommendations but not a commitment that the Dáil or the people will have the chance to decide on recommended amendments. It appears we are talking reform but keeping all power in the hands of the Government. Can the Taoiseach state whether he will allow the Dáil and the people the right to vote on the convention's recommendations, irrespective of the Government's view on the recommendations?

I am pleased with the chairperson but I am concerned there is no formal requirement that groups on whom decisions of the convention will have an impact are involved in all stages of discussions. With regard to marriage equality, it would be shocking if same-sex couples were only heard as outsiders rather than entitled to be there for detailed debate. The same applies to the diaspora.

There is a major suspicion that marriage equality is being put into the convention to be kicked down the road for a while. Is it the understanding of the Taoiseach that groups affected by issues such as this will be included in the convention's deliberations, regardless of whether they are members with votes? Is it the understanding of the Taoiseach that the marriage equality recommendation will go to the people and will be dealt with during the lifetime of this Oireachtas?

I have discussed the matter with Deputy Martin before. The convention is set up and is independent in how it does its job. We set out a number of issues on the agenda and asked it to consider, in the first instance, two simple issues that require a "Yes" or "No", although one issue may require a constitutional bridge if it was to make such a recommendation. I wanted that to happen so that the convention, of which Deputy James Bannon is a member, could see how effectively it works. We may have to tweak its capacity to do its job well. The convention has had a discussion in private about how it wants to conduct its business. We have said that, if there are other constitutional issues the convention thinks it appropriate to raise, it is the remit of the convention to do so in working with the convention chairman.

I am not sure what Deputy Martin meant when he referred to the convention making a recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The commitment I gave on Saturday, which will be honoured, is that the Government will respond within four months. If there is a positive response, we will set out a tentative timeline. I am not sure if Deputy Martin intended for a debate in the Dáil on the recommendation.

The recommendation should go straight to the Dáil, for the Dáil to have an opinion on whether it is good idea. The Taoiseach is proposing the Government takes possession of it and that the Dáil does not see it until the Taoiseach has made up his mind whether it is a good idea. That is the problem.

As I understand it, the convention will report directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas but the Government will give its response because it must set out whether it will prepare for a referendum, including preparing Bills. I do not have any difficulty with this and there is no reason the Oireachtas cannot have a discussion on the recommendations that arise. If the chairman and the convention wish to reorganise the priorities attached to particular issues, it is their right. They are not set beyond dealing with the first two to see how effective it is in the order in which it does its business. I had said that we will hold the children's rights referendum separate to it and that, next year, we will hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. Beyond that, the convention, the chairman and its members are fully entitled to say they consider Dáil reform, electoral reform and whether the electoral system should be proportional representation, PR, or straight vote to be the priority. It is absolutely the right of the convention to make recommendations where it considers there is an issue of constitutional importance and on which it wishes to make a recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas.

I asked a question about marriage equality.

If the chairman and the convention decide that is the next issue to deal with, it is the right of the convention to do so. The convention can make a recommendation and we will respond to it.

I call Deputy Adams.

I asked a question on whether particular groups would be invited.

I do not want to go down the road of having the convention hear endlessly from different lobby groups. We had this in the Forum on Europe, with an endless stream of them. It is an important sector with a particular issue but if the chairman wishes to do so, he is entitled to take into account the requirement for hearings from various groups. That is the business of the convention and it is not set in stone in that regard. It is a matter for the chairman and the members, political and lay.

I agree the first meeting of the convention was an important day and contributions were informative and educational. The citizen delegates, along with the rest of us, were buoyed by the great privilege of being able to fulfil the patriotic role they were asked to complete. That is all to the good. However, the Government has put the convention on a very tight leash. Voting age and the length of the presidential term are important issues but we do not need a convention to tell us what to do about it. There are more contentious and difficult issues such as marriage equality, which Sinn Féin believes is a civil rights issue for same-sex couples, and the role of the diaspora.

We were talking earlier about the diaspora. The importance of President Obama coming to Ireland, whatever part of the island, is not just because he is the President of the United States of America, although that is a huge thing because the US is such a powerful nation, but because of the connections we have with the USA. Despite this, we have no place for the diaspora in the convention. Next year we will ask them to come for The Gathering and we ask them all the time to assist us in our economic regeneration. We know of all the nascanna idir an oileán seo agus an oileán úr. The Government must repair them.

The issue of our ethnic minority is not raised very often. Our ethnic minority, the Traveller community, are treated dreadfully. They are discriminated against dreadfully and yet they are part of what we are and, rightfully, demand to be treated as an ethnic minority. Could that not be looked at by the convention?

Similarly, there are new folk who have come to live on this island. Some people refer to them as the new Irish. They bring great colour, history and culture to mesh with our history and culture. Do we not do outreach with them? Why can we not go into the North, into Gaeltacht areas or the Border corridor? Why can we not make this a living example of what a constitutional convention can be?

On a previous occasion I commended the approach of the conference put in place in South Africa as it moved into democracy. A wonderful job was done there. We, obviously, have to do it within our own lights.

I throw these ideas forward. I commend and congratulate Mr. Tom Arnold and I wish him well in his role as chairman of the convention. I still think the Government is missing a great opportunity to re-imagine Ireland and to re-imagine a real constitution for a real republic.

In light of the fact that our independence and our sovereignty was handed to the International Monetary Fund by the previous Administration and the banking debt of this country has become the personal debt of every man, woman and child in the country, our sovereignty needs to be debated. The previous Administration handed our sovereignty over to the EU.

Deputy Bannon, we are discussing the Constitutional Convention.

Was that a question or a statement from Deputy Bannon?

It was symbolic that the leaders of different parties and representatives from Northern Ireland attended the launch of the Constitutional Convention in the great hall of Dublin Castle.

I apologise for not giving a full answer to Deputy Martin. Any proposal that comes from the convention, be it about same-sex marriage or whatever, will be responded to by the Government within a four-month timeframe. We are not going to hang around. There may be a recommendation regarding the Traveller community. That is a matter for the convention itself. There may be a recommendation about Irish sign language. I know this is a small issue but it is important for those who use sign language.

It will be up to the chairman to take the convention to locations throughout the country. That was done with the forum on Europe. It remains to be seen whether the members of the convention will speak to one another or whether there will be sufficient interest from groups who might want to watch the proceedings or listen to the discussions that take place.

With regard to the diaspora, the convention website is flexible and vigorous. It may well be extended to video links to groups on the far side of the United States or to individuals who want to speak from New Zealand or wherever. These are all matters that the convention can consider.

I would like this to work and to work well. The convention has been inaugurated and is in place now. It has got its remit and independence and has a very good chairman. Let us see how it operates at its first meeting when it meets again in the spring and move on from there. It may be that the excitement I felt from the citizens in Dublin Castle will be reflected in the energy that is put into the work of and the output from the convention. At this end of the spectrum we will not be found wanting in giving a response to the convention. Let us see how effective it can be. It is new and untried in Ireland. It is an opportunity for ordinary men and women to work with politicians from all parties, North and South, on a document that belongs to them and to no one else.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.