Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

Seanad Referendum

Gerry Adams

Question:

1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach his plans to bring forward a referendum on the future of Seanad Éireann. [2321/13]

Joe Higgins

Question:

2. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if it is his policy to hold a referendum on the future of Seanad Éireann. [12515/13]

Simon Harris

Question:

3. Deputy Simon Harris asked the Taoiseach his plans for a referendum on the future of Seanad Éireann. [20169/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The programme for Government contains a commitment to put to the people a referendum to abolish the Seanad and the necessary Bill is currently being drafted. It is the intention to publish the Bill in the current session in order that there will be ample time for debate on it prior to a referendum later in the year.

The programme for Government, when published, accepted the need for further scrutiny of government, greater government accountability and reform. In reality, the abolition of the Seanad will mean there will be less rather than more accountability. In this term, the Government has consistently used its majority to ram through legislation, impose guillotines and shorten debates.

In some instances we have ended up with very poor quality and flawed legislation as a result. I completely accept that the Seanad, as it is currently structured, has a democratic deficit. We are of the view that the current version needs to be scrapped and then reformed rather than abolished.

If the Taoiseach had been thoughtful and serious in respect of the Seanad, he would have referred the matter to the Constitutional Convention. As he is aware, the latter is currently meeting to consider eight - perhaps nine - different proposals for constitutional change and reform. I do not understand why the Taoiseach did not avail of the opportunity of the convention to allow citizens, alongside political representatives, to consider the matter of the second Chamber and to take a view on it. Ultimately, the Taoiseach has chosen not to do that and has indicated that he will bring forward legislation. Will he be a bit more specific and indicate the point at which that legislation currently stands? I do not know why the Taoiseach is grinning. I am asking him a serious question.

I was not grinning. I have just taken a drink of water.

So the Taoiseach grins upon consuming water.

Will the Deputy pose a question? This is Question Time.

The people will ultimately decide should the Government put this matter to a referendum.

Was the Deputy grinning last-----

Does the Taoiseach have any idea when that referendum might take place? Does he have any intention of allowing for debate or consultation with broader sections of society prior to its being held? I presume the normal rules relating to the funding of referendum campaigns, the information provided by Government, etc., will apply. How much consideration has the Taoiseach given to these matters?

I thank the Deputy for her question. The reason this is not a matter for the Constitutional Convention to consider is because part of the programme of Government was to establish that convention in order to see how it might work. Also, we specifically decided to put to the people a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. In March the Government commissioned the work relating to the preparation of the relevant Bill. That Bill will be published this session and a full-scale debate will take place on it.

There is broad-ranging consultation occurring in respect of this issue. Obviously, citizens cannot be left bereft of anything which might be removed from our system if the people decide to abolish the Seanad. This means that there would be changes with regard to the way the Dáil does its business. Changes would also arise in respect of the specific references to the Seanad in the Constitution. I refer, for example, to the Seanad being mentioned in the context of the removal of a member of the Supreme Court or the High Court and in respect of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the President, the determination of money Bills.

In the event that the people decide to abolish the Seanad, questions arise as to when it would be phased out. For example, would this occur prior to the commencement of the lifetime of the next Oireachtas? Further questions arise as to what would happen to business that was under way or nearing completion if the Seanad ceased to exist. Other instances where the Seanad is mentioned in the Constitution relate to the Presidential Commission, the early signature of Bills by the President, etc.

All of these issues will be dealt with in the Bill that is to be published this session. We will make arrangements, in good time, for a proper, constructive and open debate on the matter. The referendum will take place in the autumn. It will probably be held in the month of October but I cannot be too definite on that matter just yet. There is a very busy schedule of legislation to be dealt with in October. In addition, the budget will be introduced on 15 October. This will be followed by the finance Bill, the social welfare Bill and so on. When the Bill is prepared it will come before the Cabinet which will then approve and publish it and make arrangements for the establishment of a commission to deal with the matter. We will then let everyone have his or her say.

The Socialist Party was decades ahead of the parties in government in demanding the abolition of the Seanad. The Seanad is an elitist entity, some of the Members of which are voted in by university graduates. There is no vote in the Seanad for ordinary working people who did not have the opportunity to attend third level. Even some of those who have attended college, have been denied a vote as well. The Seanad is, therefore, full of anomalies and elitism. It is a vehicle of patronage for the political parties in power and for the Taoiseach of the day. In many ways, it is a rotten borough. The vocational panels relating to the Upper House were supposed to gift to the nation legislators of particular expertise. However, this has not proven to be the case. It is high time the Seanad was abolished.

I ask that the Taoiseach be more specific. He stated that the Bill providing for the abolition of the Seanad will be published this session. Will this Bill contain all the details in respect of the legislative and constitutional changes that will have to be made if the people choose to abolish the Seanad? Will the Taoiseach indicate when he envisages that the referendum will take place?

I thank Deputy Higgins. As I informed Deputy McDonald, it is proposed to hold this and a number of other referenda in the autumn. I cannot provide a specific date as yet because the Government has not made a decision in that regard. When the Bill is published, it will deal with all the issues relating to the removal of references, direct and indirect, to the Seanad in the Constitution. It will also deal with how the consequences of the abolition will be catered for by means of changes to the Oireachtas, particularly the Dáil. The Bill will be published this session and the information relevant to it will be made available to everybody. Clearly a process must be undergone in respect of any referendum. That relating to the Seanad is one among a number that will be held. The Government decided this morning that a second referendum will be held in respect of the court of civil appeal as a result of the backlog that has built up in the higher courts. The latter is an issue in respect of which the Minister for Justice and Equality will proceed to prepare legislation.

The first report of the Constitutional Convention is due to be submitted to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government shortly. Arising from that report, the Minister will bring a memo to Government for its consideration. The Government will make a decision at that stage as to whether there should be one or more referenda on foot of the first report of the convention.

I thank the Taoiseach for his commitment on this issue and for the clarification he has provided in respect of it. When he placed the issue of the abolition of the Seanad on the public agenda before the most recent general election, it moved the conversation on significantly. Some 12 reports on Seanad reform were compiled in the past but no action was taken in respect of any of these. Even those about whom we read in the media and who are concerned with regard to the abolition of the Seanad would agree that a referendum will at least progress the issue of proper political reform.

In advance of the referendum, will any discussion take place in respect of changing the electoral system for membership of this House in order to ensure that the varied voices which are heard in other Chambers and who might not be elected to the Dáil might continue to play their part? A total of 14 of the 27 member states of the EU have unicameral systems. Is consideration being given to what other countries with such systems have done to ensure that there is a level of scrutiny such as that to which Deputy McDonald refers?

What was the Deputy's first question?

It refers to learning from the experience of other countries. As stated, 14 of the 27 member states of the European Union have unicameral systems. Most countries with bicameral systems have populations greater than 10 million.

What was the Deputy's point about public representatives?

It relates to the electoral system. Prior to the election, there was a discussion as to whether we would consider having some Members of this House elected in a way different to that in which we are all currently elected. This would ensure that there would continue to be varied voices heard within the political process.

There are a number of countries, such as New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden, that have unicameral systems. The situation, in so far as people being elected by a different method to the Dáil is concerned, is that the Consitutional Convention will look at the electoral system. Clearly, it may make its views known as to the kind of electoral system, the issue of constituencies, boundaries, independent commissions and all of that, and the scale and nature of the Oireachtas, including the Dáil, how it should be constituted and the numbers to be elected thereto. These are all part of a new reflection by the combination of public representatives and ordinary people selected from the Register of Electors to give their views.

For the Deputy's information, the second report of the Consitutional Convention is due to be received by the Government by July. We will then consider that report here in public discussion and the Government will make its views known on the issues that are also considered in the second report, possibly or probably for a decision by referendum in 2014, where I would expect to have a number of other issues decided by a vote of the people also.

Previously, I asked the Taoiseach to publish the material that he has consistently stated has been prepared on a referendum to abolish the Seanad. He has now confirmed that the appeals court legislation will be laid before the Dáil. Some weeks ago, we were briefed that a referendum on the patents treaty would also be considered in the autumn. That is three referendums for the autumn, yet we are heading into May and it seems that we will have less information than we have ever received on a proposal in the past 20 years. The timeline is important in terms of Members and the public having an opportunity to digest the issues. For example, the Taoiseach referred to issues with phasing out the Seanad and the date the decision would take effect. Does this suggest that the Seanad might not be abolished immediately following a vote and that it would be in existence for a further four years?

On the same note, it is assumed that the referendum will be held in the autumn. In the event that the people decide to vote for the abolition of the Seanad, will their decision take effect immediately or will the Seanad serve out its term?

The Bill will be published this session. All of the information available will be published at the same time and will be made available to everybody. On the question of when, if the people decide in the autumn to say that they, by referendum, want to abolish Seanad Éireann, their decision will become effective, my view is that it would happen just before the commencement of operations of the next Dáil. The Seanad is a constitutional entity and the people may make their decision, but the current Seanad has work that it will have to complete and address. Let us say that the referendum is on date X. If people decide to abolish the Seanad, it will continue with its work in its constitutional position until just before the next Dáil will meet in session. All of the material that is relevant will be published.

Is there a reprieve of two years for existing Senators?

For the Deputy's information in regard to the unitary patent, the position is that the Government decided this morning that it would not be feasible to do that this year because there were a number of issues from a European perspective that were not clear yet. This will require some legislation. The Government reflected on this. It would be more appropriate to hold that referendum as one of a number next year. The unitary payment referendum will not be held this year - it will be next year. When the Government reflects on the first report of the Consitutional Convention, it may decide to hold another referendum or whatever together with the Seanad question and the question on the court of civil appeal.

Official Engagements

Micheál Martin

Question:

4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the bilaterals meetings he attended in Davos in Switzerland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5084/13]

Micheál Martin

Question:

5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the issues he discussed with Ms Christine Lagarde of the IMF; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5085/13]

Gerry Adams

Question:

6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. [5088/13]

Gerry Adams

Question:

7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he held any bilateral meetings during his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. [5089/13]

Joe Higgins

Question:

8. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. [12517/13]

Micheál Martin

Question:

9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting in Dublin with Ms Christine Lagarde. [13590/13]

Gerry Adams

Question:

10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he met with Ms Christine Lagarde during her visit to Ireland on 8 March 2013. [13611/13]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on all meetings he had during the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland and the issues raised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18599/13]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent meeting with Ms Christine Lagarde; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18601/13]

Paschal Donohoe

Question:

13. Deputy Paschal Donohoe asked the Taoiseach if he will detail his engagements at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos; and if he will outline the way these meetings will contribute towards our economic recovery. [20170/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 13, inclusive, together.

I travelled to Davos, Switzerland, to attend the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, from 23 to 25 January. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, was also invited by the WEF to attend the forum on this occasion, noting that it was taking place during Ireland's Presidency of the European Union. The World Economic Forum annual meeting is attended by political and business leaders and heads of international organisations from across the globe. The theme of this year's meeting was resilient dynamism.

On the Wednesday evening, I attended a function hosted by Professor Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the forum, and also attended by other Heads of Government and the business council of the WEF. I participated in a number of formal events on the programme on prevailing global economic matters. These included a plenary panel session, entitled "Eurozone Crisis - the Way Forward", where I was a panellist alongside the then Prime Minister of Italy, Mr. Mario Monti, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mr. Mark Rutte, and the Prime Minister of Denmark, Ms Helle Thorning-Schmidt. I also participated in a formal session on the theme of restoring Europe's dynamism beyond the current crisis, as well as a high-level discussion session on the prevailing global themes for 2013, such as the consequences of the US elections and China's 18th party congress, ongoing turbulence in the Middle East and the global financial issues.

During my time at the WEF, I also held bilateral meetings. I met Ms Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, IMF, along with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan. We discussed progress in implementing Ireland's EU-IMF programme and noted that, in each of the quarterly reviews completed to date, Ireland was deemed to have achieved all of its commitments in terms of both policy reforms and quantitative targets set under the programme of assistance. I assured Ms Lagarde that the Government remained committed to achieving the fiscal targets set under the EU-IMF programme. We emphasised that our focus was on our exit strategy from the programme, our re-entry into the financial markets and our overall debt sustainability. We discussed progress in restructuring our banking system, including our ongoing negotiations with the ECB regarding the possible restructuring of the promissory note repayment schedule. We also discussed the Government's ambitious programme of structural reforms to support job creation and to generate economic growth.

I also met Ms Lagarde on 8 March during her visit to Dublin. We engaged in a productive and wide-ranging discussion, which included priorities being progressed as part of the Irish Presidency.

As regards other meetings while I was at the WEF, on Thursday evening, 24 January, the Minister, Deputy Noonan, and I participated in an event in Davos organised by IDA Ireland and attended by over 40 senior executives of major international companies. I outlined why Ireland remained one of the best locations in the world in which to invest and to do business. I also outlined the emphasis we would place on stability, growth and jobs during our Presidency of the European Union, which we have been doing. I acknowledged the vital contribution that many of the companies represented had made to Ireland and to our economy and urged those who were looking at potential locations for investment or expansion to consider Ireland very seriously.

The following day, I addressed the transatlantic business dialogue, which brings together leading figures from US and European business. The main focus of the meeting was to set out the priorities for Ireland's Presidency of the Union, including strengthening the EU-US trade and investment relationship. I also met individually with leaders of several major multinational firms from a variety of fields, principally in the high-tech and financial services areas.

The WEF provides an exceptional opportunity to interact with key players in the business world and I availed of the opportunity whenever possible to promote Ireland as a location for international business and investment.

The Taoiseach let it slip in the Dáil the last time this issue arose that he had been taking an active interest in the Burmese mobile telecommunications situation during the Davos forum. He did not have time to follow up on that matter in the House, but will he explain why he was having discussions on this issue? Were they entirely coincidental or was he particularly interested in the Burmese situation?

On the Taoiseach's meetings with Ms Lagarde, she and the IMF have been calling for an easing of current policies within the EU, including further debt relief for Ireland, Portugal and others. Did the Taoiseach discuss these issues with her in Davos and Dublin? Does he support those calls? There is a sense from within the IMF, added to by President Barroso more recently, that the current policies emanating from Europe are too one-dimensional and that the focus on balancing the books alone and no other strand is damaging European economies. Our retail sales fell by 2% in the past month. The IMF has asked the UK to pull back on its deficit targets because the latter is going too quickly.

In respect of telecommunications and Myanmar, I had a visit from a company interested in Irish potential in the area. I had an engagement with it about the possibilities it sees for Irish involvement in trading with a country that has enormous resources and has distinct possibilities for a trading nation such as this country. I have never been there. I discussed the matter briefly with a member of one of the international telecommunications companies in Davos, who attended the IDA-sponsored function where there were 40 chief executives of international companies. In Myanmar, less than 2 million people have had access to mobile communications out of a population of 60 million. A quantum leap will be involved in going from no communications to all the modern methods of communication. In many ways it will be a social experiment for a people who have had centuries of limited capacity to connect around the world.

I and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, met Christine Lagarde, the director of the IMF, and we discussed the issues of the day, namely, the promissory notes, debt reduction and the ongoing programme with this country of troika visits, including the IMF. We also referred to the decision of the European Council of 29 June 2012 to break the link between the sovereign and bank debt, the importance of the single supervisory mechanism being set up by the Ministers and approved by the European Council, with the architecture to be available by June of this year and to take effect on 1 March 2014. We discussed the question of banking union and the impact that could have on fractured systems throughout Europe which are very important for all the economies. It is clear that will be a test of credibility for the European Council meeting in June of this year, which is now being pursued by us as Presidency in respect of resolution and the issues that will have to be decided in that regard.

On whether I share the director’s view, the meeting was in advance of the promissory notes and we made the point about the difficulties it was causing for this country’s economy and people. We have already availed of a one-year extension. We have clearly set out our plan to have our deficit below 3% by 2015 and we intend to stick to that target. The IMF has in general been most supportive of this country’s claims for dealing with debt levels and the challenges we have and will face in the future. In that sense, it was a general discussion about European issues - our incoming Presidency; the priorities for us of growth, stability and jobs; the co-operation of the IMF in seeking to get the agreement and consent of our European colleagues for debt reduction in the extension of maturities, which has now happened; the question of the promissory notes; the structure of banking union; and how it might be possible to construct a situation where we could get money back for taxpayers arising from the recapitalisation this country was required to make a number of years ago.

In recent times President Barroso of the European Commission thought out loud and said in his view that austerity had reached its limits. Prior to that a former employee of the IMF, Ashoka Mody, said that reliance on austerity is counterproductive. Did the Taoiseach discuss any of those matters with Ms Lagarde or did he draw her attention to the huge dilemma we face within the domestic economy? Did he discuss with her growth-focused initiatives and policies that would be most suited to this country? Did the Taoiseach tease out with Ms Lagarde that people are now saying that the view within officialdom is that austerity has either run its course or is in some cases deepening problems? He knows as well as I do that as long as domestic demand and confidence are on the floor, we have a big problem in the domestic economy and, by extension, in respect of employment and unemployment rates. Did the Taoiseach explore any of those issues with Ms Lagarde?

The previous time the Taoiseach referred to discussions in Davos with people about the opening up of telecommunications was in the context of the G8 summit. I remind him that he said:

When speaking to people in Davos, the issue of the opening up of Myanmar, the former Burma, arose. It is a country of which we do not have great knowledge, although there were real connections between Ireland and Burma as it was called. That country of 60 million has a huge range of natural resources, yet some 58 million of its people have never had access to communications. That country will move from what might be termed ground zero to cloud computing and cloud access straight away. The scale of the investment there will be enormous.

That is what the Taoiseach said on 12 February. He clearly recognised a big investment opportunity in that regard. Will he elaborate a little more on whom he discussed those matters with in Davos? He said it was a member of an international company. Does he recall who it was or who they were? I ask that because I understand that Digicel, the company controlled by Denis O’Brien, is pursuing one of the two telephone licences currently on offer in Myanmar. Did that form part of the discussion?

No, I did not discuss the questions Deputy McDonald raised arising from Mr. Barroso’s comments or the comments of Mr. Ashoka Mody, the former IMF employee, because they had not been made at that time. As I indicated to Deputy Martin, we discussed the range of priorities for our Presidency, the challenge for this country and the difficulties people were experiencing because we did not have a resolution on the promissory note, nor indeed a resolution in respect of an extension of lower maturities to flatten the debt profile. Neither did we have any real fix on the single supervisory mechanism. At that time, not much progress had been made on banking union, which will have an important part to play.

I made the point previously that when the gentleman from the IMF was in this country as one of the lead persons, he spoke in a very different way about the issue and the challenge arising from the much abused term, austerity. It is clear that one can neither tax one’s way back to prosperity nor achieve it through austerity. The challenge for us is to stimulate the indigenous economy and to restore a sense of confidence. In that sense, decisions made by Government have impacted on competitiveness, which has increased by 20%. We are creating 1,000 jobs per month in the private sector, which is important when compared with a loss of 7,000 a month for a number of previous years. An example of the progress made is the major announcement today by Glanbia of a significant investment which will create 500 jobs on the construction of the new plant in the south Kilkenny-Waterford area, which will provide up to 1,500 jobs on family farms from north-east Cork up to Louth, with the abolition of milk quotas. They are important signs of confidence. One should also note that a contract was signed this morning for the N11 and the Newlands Cross junction, which is a significant road development that will provide both transport links and contract jobs. It will allow the Government to move on to the next public private partnership priority, which is the road from Gort to Tuam.

What was the name of the company?

The foundation that organises the World Economic Forum is funded by about 1,000 of the biggest multinational corporations, typically grossing more than $5 billion in turnover annually. The gathering in Davos that the Taoiseach attended is by invitation only, bringing together the world's biggest capitalists, quite an array of leading right-wing politicians, including the Taoiseach, and the media. When the Taoiseach went strolling around the streets, if he had any spare time, he would be unlikely to run into a few plumbers from Castlebar or shop stewards from the local factory. It is fat cats all the way, representing big business interests and the philosophy emerging is overwhelmingly to propagate neo-liberal, right-wing economic policies. The philosophy is pro-privatisation and pro-race-to-the-bottom in terms of workers' rights. What is the purpose, therefore, of the Taoiseach visiting Davos and spending taxpayers' money rubbing shoulders with these people? The taxpayers funding his trip are the victims of this whole system. I have no doubt that many of the biggest financiers and bondholders who crashed the world economy and financial system, and who were doubtless investing here and gambling on the Irish property bubble, were rubbing shoulders with the Taoiseach as well. I ask him to desist from attending this particular forum in the future. Perhaps he could redeem himself by saying that he got some big, new idea coming home from Davos to transform our situation here but I cannot see any evidence of that, given that he is continuing the disastrous austerity policies right up to this moment. I ask the Taoiseach to explain himself and we can see if there is any justification for this visit.

The World Economic Forum in Davos was in operation long before I occupied these benches. It is an opportunity to meet chief executives and senior business personnel from around the world, many of whom have investments in this country and who create jobs as a consequence, which is very important for our economy. It is not a case of rubbing shoulders with superior capitalists, as Deputy Higgins would call them. I did actually walk down the street to get something to eat in a non-exclusive restaurant. The Swiss manager there told me that he only serves Irish beef to his customers-----

Without added horsemeat, one hopes.

-----which is an indication of his connection with Ireland. He had been here on holidays on a number of occasions. It was far from the Deputy's vision of me rubbing shoulders with the elite, eating caviar and drinking wine because I know where I come from.

So does the Minister of State, Deputy Ring.

Deputy Higgins asked if I learned any new ideas at Davos and the answer is "Yes", quite a number. I did not meet any plumbers from Castlebar but the chief executive of the World Bank said in his contribution to the meetings that in the next 30 to 40 years, water will be one of the most critical issues, globally. In fact he argued that its shortage, use or misuse will be a cause of international concern within the next decade or so. It is also evident that Europe needs to get its act together in terms of developing an energy grid for the continent. The extent of drilling for shale gas in the United States is causing energy prices to drop there while in Europe, prices are 300% higher. This is of enormous significance, in terms of huge investments by international companies. That is why it is important that the inter-connector between Ireland and Britain is now up and running. Furthermore, the memorandum of understanding signed by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, and his British counterpart recently for the sale of Irish renewable energy directly into the British market is also significant. I spoke to the Prime Ministers of Portugal and Spain yesterday about the importance of interconnection between both countries and connection on into France. This is an issue that cannot be allowed to drift on for years because it is very important for jobs in all of those economies.

The real value of Davos is the importance that others attach to discussions with them about their industries here, the productivity of the Irish work force and the extent of their public proclamations about doing business in a country like Ireland and the fact that they consider it important that one takes the time to talk to them about any concerns or anxieties they might have about corporate tax rates or other issues. It is important that one can provide reassurance to companies so that they will continue to want to invest here. The forum also allows one to meet particular chief executives or business people who are considering investing in Ireland. In conjunction with the IDA, it is important to be able to make a strong sales pitch for investment in Ireland.

When I had the privilege of opening the e-Bay-Paypal facility in Dundalk recently, the chief executive spoke to me of the company's happiness with the workforce, their productivity and the general business environment in Ireland. Positive comments about the workforce coming from individuals like that are much more important than similar comments coming from politicians. They are, after all, the front-line investors who actually make the decision to invest in this country, as distinct from others. It is all part of the programme to make us the best small country in the world in which to do business by 2015.

Last weekend I was involved in organising a protest in Wicklow that saw 4,000 people come out and demonstrate at the Avondale Forest Park, the former home of Charles Stewart Parnell, against the Government's plan to sell off the harvesting rights to Ireland's forestry. In that context, while the Taoiseach was in Switzerland, did he speak to any foresters or anyone in the Swiss Government involved in the area of forestry? Had he done so, he might have discovered that the Swiss have a flourishing forestry sector and that a country half the size of Ireland has over 100,000 people working in forestry and would not dream of selling that resource to anyone. While the Taoiseach was rubbing shoulders with the great and the good at Davos, did he meet any representatives of Helvetia Wealth, the Swiss bank, a subsidiary of which is chaired by the former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, which has expressed an interest in taking over our forests? The Swiss certainly seem to understand the value of forestry. The Taoiseach, while in Davos, should have examined the question of how to manage public forestry properly and how to harness the value of public forestry for the economy.

In the Taoiseach's discussions about Ireland's economic plight and debt position, did he point out to Ms Lagarde, the people from the European Central Bank and those who are overseeing the austerity programme in this country that this year and for the following three years, 20% of all tax revenues in the State will be used to pay off debts? As of next year, this country will bring in more in tax than we are spending, meaning that 20% of all revenues will purely be used to pay off debts. It will not be used to pay nurses and doctors or front-line public sector workers, as the Taoiseach has claimed so often, but for next year and for many years after, we will borrow billions of euro purely to pay off debts, which were largely incurred as a result of the activities of private financial institutions.

Did the Taoiseach make that point to people like Ms Lagarde? We are paying our way and by next year we will be more than paying our way. It is grossly unjust, in that context, for a fifth of our tax revenues, according the Department of Finance figures, to be paid out in meeting the debts of private institutions. Did the Taoiseach point out the gross injustice and economic stupidity of this? Did he tell these people that the process is not sustainable?

I am glad the Deputy was down in Avondale, which is a beautiful place, with a wonderful arboretum. It is a great place to go to reflect on the uncrowned high king of Ireland. In times to come, when the Deputy is sitting at the Cabinet table, he will be able to see the portrait of Mr. Parnell on the wall. The Deputy should think about that.

He would turn in his grave if he thought the forests were being sold.

He would turn in his grave if he thought the Deputy was there.

The Deputy can take up his discussions with our former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, who has some involvement in the matter, if he wishes to do so.

I was just wondering if he was at Davos.

I had no meeting with foresters in Switzerland but I did notice snow on the pine trees high in the mountains. The Government has not yet made a decision on the sale of State assets, including Coillte. I know that every weekend thousands of people avail of the beautiful opportunity to use the State forests for recreation purposes, including the trails, waterfalls, pathways, stiles and gates. I have been through many of them. When the Government makes its decision, is there a serious suggestion that all these amenities will be cast aside? We are talking about the potential that would arise from a cash crop of timber, and that clearly does not include the recreational areas of which people avail every weekend.

We discussed the question of debt sustainability and repayment with Ms Lagarde, as I noted in answer to Deputies Martin and McDonald, and we also discussed the question of having a requirement of borrowing €3.1 billion every year for ten years to deal with the promissory notes, which matter is now dealt with. The IMF was very favourable towards this country because of the steps being taken by the Government and the people to deal with these challenges. On every occasion that she could, Ms Lagarde was very forthright in her support for Ireland and in getting economic concessions from European colleagues.

It is true that we have made some improvement in the debt position and flattening the debt profile. Given our overall debt, there are serious challenges ahead, and we will not be able to deal with that until we get our public finances right and further increase our competitiveness and restore a sense of confidence to the national economy. The Government will continue to focus on access to credit for small and medium enterprises, SMEs, and opportunities to open those doors for those SMEs to feed off larger enterprises. We support the setting up of new businesses very strongly. I will meet the chief executive of the European Investment Bank later this afternoon to discuss further investment in potential infrastructure and, as a consequence, job opportunities in Ireland.

I have three questions on the Taoiseach's engagement in Davos. The first relates to changes taking place in other countries with regard to corporation tax rates and the taxes levied on businesses. Were the investors to whom the Taoiseach spoke asking questions about our plans for the future, recognising that the environment in which we operate is getting more competitive by the month?

My second question relates to the meeting with the managing director of the IMF and what discussion is being given to allow countries successfully exit and stay outside bailout programmes. This Government will ensure that Ireland exits the bailout programme but we will do so in a very uncertain and volatile international environment. What planning is being done by the IMF to ensure that countries meeting programme requirements can stay outside bailout programmes when they are completed?

My third point relates to deficit reduction. The Taoiseach made a very fair point that the report from President Barroso that set off some debate on austerity came after the meeting in Davos. The same report and the table within showed that Ireland is one of the few countries that have been successful in reducing the amount it needs to borrow every year. This Government inherited an unsustainable borrowing requirement from Deputy Martin's party and, year on year, we are reducing that cost. It is down €3 billion from last year. What recognition is being given by the IMF and other bodies for the progress being made?

With regard to speaking to investors about their views on Ireland as an environment for investment, they like clarity, decisiveness and a horizon against which they can plan. For that reason, the Irish corporation tax rate of 12.5% is a cornerstone that can be taken as fixed. It is not the only issue on which investors place importance as they take into account technology and our capacity to measure up to certain expectations, our track record on productivity and output and, most importantly, the real emphasis on the talent pool. The world is changing at bewildering speed with nanotechnology, robotics, genetics, biotechnology and other areas, so the bar being set higher in an international context is always measured up to by young Irish. I have seen this personally when I visit places like Microsoft, Intel, Dell or EMC. People have extraordinary vision as to where the next wave of investment and employment will happen. The areas of tax, track record, technology and talent are the considerations sold to potential investors by the IDA. When speaking to investors, whom I meet pretty regularly, I know they are extraordinarily committed to what they find here when they set up companies in the country. It is an important issue.

Ms Lagarde and I discussed the question of Ireland's exit from the programme.

Legislative Programme

Micheál Martin

Question:

14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his legislative priorities for 2013; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9701/13]

The legislative priorities of the Government for the current Dáil session are set out in the legislation programme which was published on 16 April last. The Government will as usual publish its legislation programme at the beginning of each session throughout the remainder of the 31st Dáil.

With regard to my Department, the priority will be the preparation of legislation to enable a referendum to be held on the abolition of the Seanad later in the year. That Bill will be published in this session.

My Department is also preparing proposals to place the NESC on a statutory basis, thereby dissolving the NESDO.

On the sale of Coillte and State forests, and forthcoming legislation to give effect to that, I read at the weekend that sources in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are now indicating the Government may have reversed its decision to proceed with the sale of woods owned by Coillte. Is that now off the table? It would be a retrograde step; the forests are an enormous economic and a significant environmental resource with implications in terms of meeting climate change targets in future. Thousands of families and walking clubs enjoy the amenities the forests provide. The sense is that once the sale of forests starts, the freedom to enjoy those amenities will be extremely limited and it might not be the most economic use of a valuable medium to long-term resource, as pointed out in the report in The Sunday Times. A reply to a parliamentary question on the privatisation of State assets did not mention the sale of forests. The Minister said in the last hour that he still supports the sale of Coillte's forests. Will the Taoiseach confirm that is on the legislative programme?

The Government set out its stall in respect of the memorandum of understanding about the possibility of the sale of State assets. Originally, the troika required that any revenue coming from the sale of State assets would have to go in its entirety to debt reduction. Following a number adjustments to the programme and having built up a strong relationship between the troika and both Ministers, that was changed. The Government has since approved the setting up of the NewERA entity to deal with evaluations and assessments for potential sales of State assets. The Government has not made any decision about the decision to sell, other than to list a number of opportunities for the sale of State assets. One of those, of course, was Coillte. Work is proceeding on the assessment and valuation of this and a number of other assets. I would not be too far gone on reports in the newspapers.

So the policy is to continue with the sale?

The Government set out a list of potential assets that could be sold, including Coillte. That situation has not changed.

Is any legislation planned in light of the Supreme Court judgment yesterday in the case of Marie Fleming, a constituent of mine, on the assisted suicide issue? It clearly seemed, as the Chief Justice stated in his summation, that the ball is firmly back in the court of the Oireachtas.

No legislation is contemplated in that area.

I met the troika on Friday and it stated that as far as it understood it, there was a commitment to sell off the harvesting rights to Coillte.

The Taoiseach is saying it is being considered. Could the Taoiseach clarify for the House if it is a commitment or a consideration of a commitment? That is what we want to know and, more importantly, that is what the thousands of people who came out to Wicklow from all over the country at the weekend want to know. Is the Government required to do this under the troika programme? If so, when? Will there be legislation to do this? We would like to hear the Government is not required to do this but the troika told us on Friday that it is in the programme and the Taoiseach had not given any indication that commitment was changing. Could the Taoiseach clarify this? Is the Government going ahead with the sale of the harvesting rights of our public forest estate, which the people do not want the Government to do, or is it not? If it is, when will happen and when will the legislation come forward?

The article on Sunday said the Minister was pulling back from the sale of the harvesting rights. Fianna Fáil met the troika on Friday and it said in the second memorandum that was negotiated, it was clarified that the sale of State assets is entirely a matter for the Government. The first memorandum only talked about a review of the situation but stated that it was entirely up to the Government to decide what assets to sell, if it wanted to sell them. I would like clarification on whether it is Government policy to proceed with the sale of the harvesting rights of State forests to private companies. That has wider implications than we might think, given what we have read from the sources close to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform who seem to be endeavouring to pour cold water on the idea. Clarity is urgently required on the Government's priorities in that regard because many people are concerned about this, including those who use the forests for recreational, sporting and outdoor pursuits who feel their rights will be traversed. If this proceeds, the economic dimension has not been fully fleshed out and the environment damage remains unquantified. The State forestry is one of the most important climate change abatement instruments we have.

Would the Taoiseach agree the position is that the policy has been declared that the harvesting rights of Coillte might be sold? That has been examined by the Government to see how it is possible and if it is feasible. The Minister, when he was questioned in detail in the House on this recently, outlined the real difficulties that had been found in seeking to implement that policy. The difficulties were such that he was doubtful the policy could be implemented. I am perhaps putting words in his mouth, but that was the thrust of his remarks. There are real difficulties in implementing this policy and they are still being examined.

I am on to something so.

I call Deputy McDonald.

Deputy Martin was not here the day that happened.

Through the Chair. Deputy McDonald, without interruption.

There is a good man here.

I call Deputy McDonald. The time is up.

We know that the troika has made clear from the get-go in respect of the sale of any asset or licence on behalf of the State that the decision rests entirely with Government and any attempt to seek refuge behind the cloak of the troika or to insinuate that it is making the Government sell off Bord Gáis Energy or any of the other assets is not true. It has been remarked in recent times that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, has backed off the issue of selling the harvesting rights of Coillte and-----

He has not told the Taoiseach.

-----I can only surmise from the conditionality that the Taoiseach is building into his responses, echoed by Deputy Stagg, that in fact there is a change of heart afoot within Government. If that is the case, it is very much to be welcomed but it would be great if the Taoiseach could say that out loud here today in the Dáil.

I am not sure what Deputy McDonald means by convictionality. It is an unusual term.

Of course, when shortened, it means something else. In any event, the position here is that the Government set out a list of potential assets belonging to the State that could be sold to help deal with our debt problems and whatever. These were discussed by the troika. The NewERA entity has done much work in evaluating the potential of the sale of the list of assets that were deemed liable for consideration in that regard, and that work continues. It will be a matter for the Government as to what assets are sold and it will be a matter for the Government as to when they should be sold and, if the Government decides to make that decision, in what fashion.

I take Deputy Stagg's point of view. As these matters evolve and are evaluated and discussed, the situation can become clear or whatever else.

The Minister, Deputy Howlin, did not tell the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach is getting flaky.

There will be no decision to the contrary in any of these until the Government considers the evaluations carried out by the NewERA entity in these matters-----

When will that happen?

-----and that work is still ongoing.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.