Leaders' Questions

We now move to Leaders' Questions.

On a point of order, why are we not permitted to deal with a private notice question which I submitted on Priory Hall? I refer to the importance of the matter. I asked the Ceann Comhairle to allow a private notice question to be taken in order that the Minister-----

I ask the Deputy please to resume his seat.

The Deputy should not be like that.

The Ceann Comhairle is regretting that he gave the Deputy leeway.

I ask Deputy Broughan please to resume his seat.

I tabled a private notice question to allow the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, to answer to this House for the situation in Priory Hall. It is not funny, Minister.

I am on my feet and ask the Deputy please to resume his seat.

I am not laughing.

The son of a friend of mine is dead and people are in a desperate situation. The Minister and the Taoiseach did nothing.

I ask the Deputy please to resume his seat.

In 16 days the people will vote in a referendum on the abolition or retention of the Seanad. The Government has decided not to give the people the option of reform and it is fair to say this is the only major constitutional change to our political system that the Government is planning. It involves over 40 amendments to the Constitution. The people take the Constitution seriously. The Government is spending over €14 million on the referendum - €14 million that will be taken from public services this year. This hides the fact that not one red cent will be saved during the lifetime of the Government until 2016. The Taoiseach and people around the country have yet to receive the Referendum Commission's leaflet. I have been on doorsteps talking to people, many of whom have not yet engaged in the debate. Time is running out. Given that this is the Taoiseach's initiative which he is putting to the people, will he explain why he will not take part in a debate on the national airwaves with Opposition party leaders, including Deputy Gerry Adams, to argue the merits or demerits of a fundamental change to the Constitution? It involves the elimination of one tier of our parliamentary system. It is an important tier and an important issue which merits debate between the political leaders of parties and others. Will the Taoiseach explain why he will not take part in such a debate?

The second question is whether, in the event that the referendum proposal is defeated, the Taoiseach can confirm that he will facilitate radical reform of the Seanad, beginning with giving people the right to vote for their own Senators, which could be done through legislation.

For 50 years the political system has failed to deal with Seanad Éireann. That is why, having looked at the question of reform of the Seanad, I came to the conclusion that it was not reformable. It either still involves a minority, is discriminatory or a replica of this House. It has no constitutional function in holding the Executive of the day to account. That constitutional responsibility rests with this Chamber, Dáil Éireann. The people are being asked a straight question as to whether they want to retain or abolish Seanad Éireann. I am very strongly in favour of the latter. It is not necessary in a country of this size, where constitutional responsibility is vested in this House, where the changes being made will engage with civic society and the people in a way intended by the original principles of Seanad Éireann but which never happened because of the process being hijacked by all political parties for many years.

Except the Independents.

That is the answer to the second question. The answer to the first question is that I do not want to embarrass Deputy Micheál Martin.

Brian Dobson did that last night on "Six-One".

This will abolish democracy.

The Taoiseach has failed to answer the two questions I asked, not for the first time in this Chamber and not for the first time during Leaders' Questions. Despite his protestations about being accountable to the House, he shows little sign of wanting to be accountable to the House or the people.

On the question of why he will not take part in a televised debate, I would put it to the Taoiseach that he owes more to the Irish people. In any modern democracy, it is the least that one can expect of leaders of political parties or those who put forward substantive fundamental reform of the Constitution. The Seanad has important constitutional functions. We would not be going to the people with this referendum if it did not.

A question please.

It is incredible in a modern democracy that the Taoiseach put forward a proposal to fundamentally alter the Constitution and yet is not prepared to take part in one of the basic elements of democracy, which is to debate and argue the merits or demerits. The Taoiseach may give a glib smart reply today but that does not really answer the substantive point I am making to him, that is, the obligation on a leader of Government to come out openly into the public domain on the national airwaves and argue the merits or demerits of a particular proposal.

The second point is that, of course, the Seanad is reformable if one wants to reform it. What I asked the Taoiseach was, in the event of the Seanad proposal being defeated-----

Why did Deputy Martin's party not do so?

Would Deputy Doherty please adhere to the rulings of the Chair?

(Interruptions).

The Independents are trying to reform it and the Government blocked it. The only ones who knew what it was.

In the event of the proposal being defeated, would the Taoiseach then facilitate reform of the Seanad?

The Independents are trying to reform it and the Government blocked it.

That is all I asked the Taoiseach. If it was defeated, would the Taoiseach - yes or no - facilitate the reform of the Seanad because he is not giving the people the option? If the people vote him down, will the Taoiseach then facilitate it?

Deputy Martin is over time.

It is an important point.

Deputy Martin will not walk me down that avenue.

The Taoiseach is not answering the question.

I am around long enough to have every faith and belief in the decision of the Irish people.

The Taoiseach should deal with the cost issue, that the Government is making up the figures.

The people are being asked a very straightforward question, which is part of the process of changing the way politics should be run in this country which Deputy Martin and his party failed to deal with over the years. We are now, as part of a process of reducing the number of elected councillors with the elimination of town councils-----

Is that supposed to be good?

-----and by the amalgamation of a number of county council, by a changing of the relevant electoral areas for those councils, and by reducing the numbers in the Dáil, admittedly by a small number, providing an opportunity to abolish Seanad Éireann and transform this House into what it should be - a Chamber where the elected representatives of the people can hold the Executive to account.

A Chamber of guillotines.

That is why the changes that are happening here will engage with the Irish people in a way that was never done before, except in the most recent cases of the legislation dealing with the loss of life during pregnancy.

Deputy Martin set out his own programme. It is difficult to debate with somebody-----

It is not; it is very easy to debate.

(Interruptions).

One day Deputy Martin states his party is for the abolition of the Seanad and wants to get rid of the Seanad and the next day states his party thinks it should be retained.

Deputy Martin should debate that one.

The Taoiseach himself did a bit of that. He was for it one day and he was getting rid of it the next.

It is always a difficulty to know which Deputy Martin will turn up in a debate, wherever around the country.

The Taoiseach was 34 years supporting the Seanad.

I would also make the point to Deputy Martin that it was his own party that shot down the proposals put forward for Seanad reform by former Minister, Ms Mary O'Rourke, in 2003.

Let us debate it.

The Taoiseach is like Big Bird over there with yellow feathers.

Deputy Martin could have implemented those with the assistance of those who were in the Progressive Democrats party at the time.

The Taoiseach should debate with me. All I am asking him is to debate it.

There is only one minute left.

Deputy Martin also shot down the changes that were proposed for the committee system and what he did, in fact, was try to buy them off by having Chairs, Vice Chairs and convenors.

The time is up; the debate is over.

(Interruptions).

All of these positions that were paid for by the taxpayer are gone. That is all gone.

Will the Taoiseach debate?

Is that a "yes" or "no"? Will the Taoiseach debate it?

The position is: I look forward with enthusiasm to the decision of the Irish people.

The Taoiseach is chickening out of a debate.

The people know their politics.

The people know the value or otherwise of Seanad Éireann and they also understand that it is in this Chamber that the Government of the day must be held to account and that we will see to it that that is allowable for the changes that are taking place in terms of legislation, analysis, etc.

Let us debate it.

That is why, if Deputy Martin thinks about it, one does not have written questions or questions to Ministers from the Seanad. It is not the body to hold this place to account. That is another reason.

That is wrong. Ministers went before the Seanad a couple of times with amendments. Ministers are accountable to everyone; of course they are. The Taoiseach should know the Constitution.

Would the Deputies please adhere to the Chair? We are away over time.

The people in this country like to be very clear about where they stand. The question, yes or no, is "does one want to hold on to the Seanad or does one want to abolish it?".

The Taoiseach has bigger numbers in there and he can get his own way more easily. Will he debate, yes or no?

The Taoiseach can railroad matters through. He has a much bigger majority.

I hope that the people give a resounding answer to abolish it and let us get on with our business here of making this place truly democratic and truly answerable to the people of the country through the elected representatives of this and all other parties.

Ar dtús baire, cuirim fáilte ar ais roimh na Teachtaí go léir. Roimh tosú, b'fhéidir go nguífidh sibh lá breithe sona dár gcara, an Teachta Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, atá ag ceiliúradh breith lá tábhachtach inniu. Ar aon nós, tá súil agam go bhfuil an Taoiseach agus na Teachtaí ar fad réidh don téarma atá romhainn. Tá an Taoiseach agus an Rialtas ag cur buiséid le chéilé, ach níl seans ar bith ann go mbeidh daoine in ann glacadh le droch buiséad eile.

The Taoiseach knows that working lower and middle-income families and communities out there just cannot bear another heavy budget. The Taoiseach has spoken about a tough budget. Does the Government intend, like an austerity junkie, to continue with this programme and the €3.1 billion target? It is not just about how much the Government will take out of the economy. It is also about who pays for it and what the Government does with the money which is accumulated.

It is clear that the Government's previous budgets have failed the fairness test. The Government refuses point blank to equality proof its policies to identify the human costs of these policies on citizens and it has cut child benefit and carer's allowance. The Government has even cut allowances for those with disabilities. It has miserably failed those families and households who are in mortgage distress.

This budget is an opportunity to lessen that burden. Will the Taoiseach take the opportunity now to confirm that the vulnerable will be protected? Would he give a commitment that the Government will not go for a €3.1 billion adjustment? Will he confirm, for example, that class sizes will not be increased and front-line health care services will not be slashed, or that those on social welfare will not be targeted? Tús maith, leath na hoibre. Anois, is féidir leis an Taoiseach a fhreagra a thabhairt.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte thar n-ais a chur roimh an Teachta Adams. Níl a fhios agam ar mhiste leis go mbeadh lá saoire náisiúnta ann le lá breithe an Teachta Ó Caoláin a cheiliúradh, ach ní dóigh liom gurb é sin atá i gceist. Tá súil agam go mbeidh lá breá ag an Teachta agus go n-éireoidh leis féin agus lena chlann an lá a cheiliúradh.

The question Deputy Adams raises about the budget is obviously one about which there will be a great deal of discussion. Everybody knows it has been difficult over the past period of years to make changes and take decisions that are very difficult in the interest of getting the country and its economy back on track and allow for a position where we can get our people back to work. As I have stated already, it is not possible and I do not intend to speculate on the final decision that the Government will take here simply because all of the information in respect of tax, income and growth projections, and the figures from the CSO in respect of the national accounts provided for the Minister for Finance, are on their way. In the next short period, we will see all of that detail made available to Government so that it can make its collective decision in respect of the budget for 2014.

While this has been very difficult for a great number of people, there are signs of confidence in particular sectors. I am happy to note that, having come from a background where we lost 250,000 in a three-year period, job creation is now running at 3,000 net new jobs per month, or just over 600 per week, in the private sector which is a start. It is heartening to note that the live register has now reduced for 14 consecutive months and is heading in the right direction. Government is about making decisions that can build on that momentum. It is difficult for a great number of people, but I want Deputy Adams to understand, as we all do, that the Government will do its utmost to be as fair as possible in the difficult choices that it must make.

I will not speculate on the extent of any adjustment to be made until the Minister for Finance is in possession of all the financial details - income tax receipts, etc. - and brings those to Government where there will be a collective decision taken about budget 2014.

It is also important to note that we see this budget as a serious stepping stone towards the country's exit from the programme in which it has been for the past number of years. If this could be achieved it would send out a strong signal that a country in the European Union has emerged from a programme. This in itself is a signal of continued strong progress, which will provide a continued attraction for investment by the markets and by those wishing to create jobs.

The Taoiseach says he is waiting until all the information is available. We know that half a million people are unemployed and that there are thousands and thousands of families in mortgage distress. We know that every single week 1,700 citizens, mostly young people, leave this State. We know that people have had their child benefit cut and people who are carers have had their benefits cut. We know there is a dreadful social consequence to the decisions that the Taoiseach is taking. Either the economy serves the people - and his Government and its Labour Party component have the opportunity to see this happens - or we simply have the people working as slaves to serve the elites who benefit most from the types of policy his Government is implementing. The information is there and I was simply affording the Taoiseach the opportunity to send a very clear signal that he will move away from this policy of austerity, which is not working, in the interests of ordinary citizens or lower- and middle-income families. There is no evidence to suggest otherwise; on the contrary, people are suffering more and more. Fianna Fáil created the mess - that is certain - but the Taoiseach's Government has perpetuated the mess.

The Deputy himself created a bit of a mess.

I ask the Taoiseach to give a very clear commitment that he will lift the burden of austerity from the citizens of this State.

One of the principal routes to getting our country back to a point of progress and growth is to create jobs and to allow for that to happen. The evidence is before our eyes that 3,000 jobs per month are being created in the private sector. That is progress, in my view. There has been an increase of 30,000 jobs since the Minister, Deputy Bruton, launched the action plan for jobs in February of last year-----

Those are like the Taoiseach's Seanad figures.

-----with 33,800 people in employment in the past year and 9,600 in the past quarter. These people are now in employment. There has been an increase of 20,000 in the number of people in full-time employment in the past 12 months. The IDA figures show a net increase of 12,500 in employment in its supported companies in 2011 and 2012. Enterprise Ireland had a record year in 2012, with a net increase of 3,000 employed in supported companies last year. It is important to note that exports have hit their highest level of €182 billion, which is 16% above the level in the crisis year. Jobs in the exporting sector have increased by 15,000 over the past two years. I note also the announcements by Kerry Group, Glanbia, Mylan and PayPal, for example. Recent figures show encouraging movement in the unemployment figures, particularly with regard to long-term unemployment. The level of unemployment has dropped from a peak of 15.1% to 13.5%. The long-term unemployment rate has fallen from 9.5% to 8.2%. It is heading in the right direction but it is still much too high and a great deal of work remains to be done in this regard. These are real people who have left long-term unemployment, who have come off the live register and are now back in gainful employment. That is where we want to be.

I made the point the other day that there is the difficulty of the welfare trap, whereby a person moving from unemployment into the world of work automatically or instantly loses benefits. This system needs to be changed to allow for a tapering effect in order to encourage and incentivise people to get back to work. I refer to the example of the new housing assistance programme, which will allow for a tapering-off period while people come off the live register and go into the world of work. There has been progress, but it is nothing like what we have to achieve. The budget for 2014, in so far as we can do it, will focus on providing opportunities for further expansion in employment and jobs. This is the key to future prosperity for our people.

There is no doubt that people the length and breadth of the country are greeting the start of this Dáil term with a certain amount of horror and fear about what the Government intends to unleash in the butchering of living conditions. It is also quite clear, given the Taoiseach's reply to Deputy Adams, that he has no intention of answering these questions in here and that it will probably be the people outside the gates who will have to force an answer from him.

Seeing as he is not interested in answering questions on domestic policy, we might focus his attention on some issues of foreign policy. I ask the Taoiseach if he is aware that yesterday the Peace and Neutrality Alliance launched its findings from a Red C opinion poll conducted over the weekend which revealed that almost 80% of Irish people are in favour of a policy of neutrality, that over 80% do not support a war on Syria without a UN mandate, and that 67% are opposed to the sending of arms or military supplies by Ireland or the EU to anti-government groups in Syria. These are very clear findings. A total of 61% of Irish people do not now think that Irish troops should be sent to Syria. At the same time, last week, Ireland was lambasted by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights for colluding in the illegal CIA kidnapping and torture of terror suspects. He demanded that we investigate the use of Shannon Airport and demanded an end to our violation of human rights. He demanded that we atone for those activities. Yet, despite the views of the Irish people and despite the views of international human rights organisations, the Government continues to facilitate and actively assist the warmongering of the US military. I find it somewhat ironic that in the same week that Irish citizens protesting for peace were brought before the courts in Ennis, there was a spike in US military activity in Shannon as the pressure on Syria was ratcheted up. I ask the Taoiseach to comment on the irrefutable evidence produced at that time of armed soldiers on the ground beside those US aircraft. These were either Irish soldiers offering support services to the US, in which case it was a breach of neutrality, or they were US soldiers not only breaching neutrality but illegally engaging on Irish soil. They are only supposed to be here if unarmed. The Tánaiste is always fond of telling us that they are unarmed. I ask how he knows that, because it is never investigated.

What is the Taoiseach going to do about these unlawful acts? In keeping with the views of the majority of Irish people, can he now confirm that he will not send Irish troops to Syria? When will he behave like the leader of a sovereign nation with an independent foreign policy which is making its mark on the world stage, or is he happy to continue being the governor of the 51st state of the Union?

I do not agree with the Deputy's last assertion, nor do I agree with her first assertion. It is not the case that the Government, in its preparations for the budget, is unleashing a wave of fear on the people of the country. I am glad the European Union calendar has changed to allow for the budget to be announced on 15 October. This avoids months of wild allegations and speculative comments about what might or might not happen in the budget. It is only appropriate that the budget be based on true, exact and detailed financial figures, which are now in the final stages of preparation before presentation to the Minister for Finance. I can assure Deputy Daly, Deputy Adams and the House that there will be ample opportunity to discuss and debate the questions surrounding the budget decisions taken by the Government both in this Chamber and in the relevant committees.

As an Irish citizen I am very proud of the part that our country, our Army and Garda Síochána personnel have played over many years in peacekeeping arrangements in various locations around the world, from the Congo to the Lebanon to Chad to Cyprus and now the Golan Heights. The decision has been made by the Government to send a contingent of troops to the Golan Heights, based on the evidence supplied by the chief of staff, on the decision of the Houses of the Oireachtas and on the international situation.

It is not the first time Irish troops have been in service on the Golan Heights, and they have carried out their duties and responsibilities with great distinction over the years.

As a non-aligned country, Ireland has continued to make a disproportionate impact in many ways around the world. I saw evidence of this first-hand a couple of years ago when I had the opportunity to travel to Kosovo and see Irish troops in very difficult positions show equal courtesy to both sides, and they were regarded as exceptional troops in uniform and carrying the beret of the United Nations. They worked with Finnish troops on those occasions. It is a case of Ireland continuing to operate to the highest standards with regard to international participation.

The discussions that took place at the European Council meeting earlier in the year concerning the Syrian matter had very divergent views from a number of leaders. They were also focused on a range of evidence and information, as well as the disparity of views, regarding opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. The atrocities carried out, with so many people losing their lives by the use of chemical weapons, speak for themselves. The agreement reached by the various international countries, including the US and Russia, has brought about a position where we must examine exactly what happened.

I hand it to the Taoiseach, who has demonstrated by his answer that he has no more interest in being the leader of a sovereign nation than I thought he had. He has patently failed to address any of the issues I raised, including the illegal use of Shannon Airport by the US military, and there is concrete evidence that what exists is not what the Tánaiste has told us on repeated occasions.

Many Irish people are proud of our troops, and I am proud of them as my own father was in the Congo and I come from an Army family. That is nonetheless different from sending troops into the illegally occupied Golan Heights. The Taoiseach has gone on about the appalling Assad regime and all of us would agree with such a statement but not with the the idea of facilitating the United States, which is the biggest user of chemical weapons on the globe. It turned a blind eye to Iraq when it used chemical weapons on Iranians: how could the US say anything when it provided the co-ordinates to unleash the chemical weapons? Agent Orange was used in Vietnam and white phosphorus has been used by the Israelis in Gaza. If the Taoiseach was the leader of a neutral country, he would now see the opportunity to put chemical weapons beyond use in Syria as a good thing. It is not just about Syria and we should take them out in the Middle East, including in Israel, which is at the heart of the matter.

Given that we fought to be on the human rights council as an independent nation, why should we not take the role seriously and stop being a lap dog to the US authorities?

I pointed out the exceptional competence and professionalism of Irish troops over the years and I am glad the Deputy shares the view, although that is slightly different from what she stated initially. We have a very clear view which has been stated on more than one occasion of our complete and utter abhorrence and opposition to rendition flights. We have had very close relations with the United States over very many years and we have been assured - and can be happy - there are no rendition flights going through Shannon. If the Deputy has evidence to the contrary, she should produce it. Shannon Airport has been used for very many years for flights in transit to various locations in the world, including by the American military. It has not been used by passengers or travellers on rendition flights. The issue has been raised in a serious fashion on a number of occasions.