Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)

Seanad Referendum

Micheál Martin

Question:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if officials in his Department prepared extensive notes on the Seanad Éireann referendum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39495/13]

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

These questions relate to work undertaken by my Department regarding the Government's proposal to amend the Constitution to abolish Seanad Éireann.

The legislation to abolish the Seanad has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas and is now before the people. They will make their decision on 4 October. As my Department has responsibility within Government for constitutional matters, the legislation on Seanad abolition was prepared by my Department. My Department set up a small unit to deal with the proposal to abolish the Seanad. This unit was initially staffed on a part-time basis. It now consists of two full-time staff - an assistant principal and a clerical officer - within my Department's protocol and general division. Other members of staff are available to assist on a part-time basis as required.

The officials in my Department provide appropriate support to me, as the member of the Government who brought forward the legislation. The legislation was, of course, drafted by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, in conjunction with my Department and approved by the Attorney General before it was submitted to the Government. While the workload involved was significant during the period of preparation of the legislation and during the passage of the legislation through both Houses of the Oireachtas, it has diminished very significantly since the referendum campaign itself commenced.

The bulk of the documentation in my Department, therefore, relates to the preparation of the legislation and the Oireachtas debates. The officials in my Department operate in accordance with the law relating to referendums and in accordance with relevant court judgments. Once the polling date was set, an instruction issued to all relevant staff setting out the implications of the McKenna judgment and the restrictions that apply to the Civil Service during a referendum campaign.

As the Government is not conducting an information campaign, the amount of work required by officials in my Department is greatly reduced by comparison with previous referendums. In fact, reflecting that position, one of the staff members is currently on annual leave.

As Deputies are aware, the provision of public information is a matter for the Referendum Commission. My Department has put in place arrangements for funding the commission with respect to the Seanad referendum. The total funding allocated is €1.8 million. A further allocation has been provided by the Department of Justice and Equality in respect of the court of appeal referendum. The funding provided to the commission by the Government has enabled it to run a very comprehensive public information campaign.

My officials circulate articles in the daily print media within the Department and provide information relating to the proposed constitutional amendment, as required. They also compile a factual bulletin every few days briefly summarising recent developments in the referendum campaign and containing a short summary of the main proposals in the referendum Bill. The Government information services, as with press offices in all Departments, provides a series of services to Government, including a media monitoring service which is a basic function of any efficiently run Government press operation.

If the proposal to abolish the Seanad is approved by the people, I envisage that the staff currently assigned to the protocol and general division to deal with the legislation will remain in place to work on the implementation of the people's decision and associated Dáil reform measures.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I tabled three questions on this issue. The Taoiseach has made many claims in recent weeks, including that he believes in being accountable to the Dáil. He even held a press conference recently where he brandished the Constitution and said it was only to the Dáil that he was accountable. I invite the Taoiseach to practice some of what he has been preaching lately in that regard.

Will the Taoiseach explain to me the basis of a claim he made during the passage of the legislation in the House? When proposing Seanad abolition in the House, and many times since, he said that abolishing the Seanad would save €20 million per annum. At the time he did not say that was its cost, he said it would actually save that amount. Further, the Taoiseach has said that he would hire 350 extra teachers with the savings. The problem is that no other person has said that would be the saving. It is important that we do not misquote what staff of the Oireachtas have been saying. No other person has said that would actually be the saving. The €20 million costs figure includes pensions, which will continue to be paid, and services shared with the Dáil, which will be retained. As we know, many millions of that figure have to do with ongoing expenditure not purely related to the Seanad. In the spirit of the Taoiseach's commitment to start being accountable to the House, can he now withdraw his false statement to the House to the effect that €20 million will be saved as a result of the abolition of the Seanad?

The answer to Deputy Martin's question is "No". The total running costs of the Seanad have been estimated independently by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to be in the region of €20 million per annum. That is based on the 2012 out-turn and includes all direct and apportioned or indirect costs. Direct costs relating to Seanad Members' salaries, expenses and staff costs amount to €8.8 million. Indirect pay and non-pay costs of the supporting sections, that is, the information and communications technology section, the office of the superintendent and the procedural and support sections amount to €9.3 million. There is also the annual cost of approximately €2 million in pensions. The pensions for former Members are paid by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission under subhead 2.1, grant-in-aid in respect of ciste pinsean Thithe an Oireachais. Clearly, the amount of money involved, between direct and indirect savings, is the only figure that has been put out by an independent entity, that is, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. It is based on the commission's figures that the saving of €20 million on the abolition of the Seanad will take place.

Clearly, if the people decide to approve the referendum question and abolish the Seanad - I hope they will - it will mean that from the commencement of the next Government there will be no further Senators elected and therefore the direct costs of that will not apply. Pensions do apply, of course. However, in the case of that becoming a fact and the Seanad being abolished, no more than with the amalgamation and redeployment that has occurred in so many areas of the public service generally, persons currently working in areas associated with the Seanad will be deployed and work elsewhere. These figures stand up. They are the figures set out by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and I do not intend to reverse that.

The commission and others are clear that it is not possible to estimate the actual amount of net annual savings that would arise if the Seanad was abolished. A strong caveat has been entered. The Taoiseach is now the only person, along with others in Fine Gael, who is sticking to the untruth and the dishonesty that has been perpetrated in respect of a claim which is patently false. No other person outside the Fine Gael Party, other than perhaps some Labour Party acolytes or others on the "Yes" side of this campaign, has dared to suggest that the actual saving would be €20 million, unless the Taoiseach is suggesting that he will in some way stop all pensions relating to the Seanad, lock up half of Leinster House, turn off the heat or many other things that would be necessary. Furthermore, the cost will be €14 million in terms of running the referendum.

It is a con job. The Taoiseach has decided to go on the attack on this issue. This is his major plank in terms of the abolition of the Seanad. He is adopting tactics that would make Libertas or Youth Defence blush. He keeps repeating the mantra. His view is that even if it is untrue, it does not matter. He will simply carry on, keep on regardless and keep up the untruths because that is all that matters now for the duration of the campaign. Let us reflect on previous referendums and changes to our Constitution. I do not believe any former Taoiseach would continue to uphold a blatant untruth like this. The Taoiseach should take the opportunity afforded to him in the House to change that.

I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the notes prepared for him in respect of his speech and the various speeches as the legislation went through. Will the Taoiseach make those available to Members, as well as other documentation relating to the special unit established by the Taoiseach in preparation for the abolition of the Seanad? Will the Taoiseach make all that documentation public or available and share it with other Members? I asked for it some time ago in advance of the legislation. It is important that the Taoiseach would make it public and available not only to Members but to the public in general.

I do not accept Deputy Martin's assertion that this is a con job.

I am referring to the €20 million.

Deputy Martin has made statements about the abolition, retention and reform of the Seanad. He has not been consistent in his view about Seanad Éireann. He made an assertion recently to the effect that every party in the House campaigned with the statement that they would give the people an opportunity to vote on reform. Deputy Martin will recall that four years ago I set out a view on this that was very clear and that was in fact the view of all the parties before the last election, including Deputy Martin's party. It was that a referendum of the people would be held to ask them for their approval to abolish Seanad Éireann. Many people thought it would never happen, many people thought it was a con job and many people thought it was some sort of political gimmick or stunt that would not actually apply, but now they know because the question will be answered by the people on 4 October. It is far from being a concept of a political power grab. In fact, there is nothing more democratic than asking the people for their approval to a question on whether they want to abolish the Seanad or keep it. I hope that they will answer that question very strongly.

The €20 million is not a figure created by any political party or individual. It is a statement of the costs, indirect costs and pension requirements set out by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. It is completely independent of my party, Deputy Martin's party and every other party in the House. I accept the commission's figures and I stand by them.

This is not just about this particular issue. This is part of the process, as we have discussed before, of changing the way politics operates in the House.

My questions were about the costs and the Taoiseach's false claim.

Article 28.4 of the Constitution makes it clear that this House has the constitutional responsibility to hold this Government or any other government to account. This is where the authority is vested, but it has never been translated into a factual demonstration of the involvement of the people in a real way. However, that is what will happen with the changes in the way this House, Dáil Éireann, will be reformed. It follows on reducing the number of Deputies, dealing with the question of Ministers' salaries and pensions, limiting corporate and political donations, regulating lobbying and the changes that are being introduced to reform the way the House actually operates. It relates to the broader impact of how we interact and engage with the European Union. Central to this will be the demonstrable change in the way committees are operated and run and the way they engage with people. I do not accept Deputy Martin's view or what he has said.

As I understand it, all the information Deputy Martin has looked for is available under freedom of information and I do not have a problem in supplying it.

Without having to go through freedom of information, will the Taoiseach make it available?

Please, through the Chair.

I do not have any difficulty in putting that-----

I am not asking the Taoiseach whether he has difficulty.

I do not have any difficulty in making available that information on the website of the Department. There is nothing to hide in it in any event.

Will the Taoiseach do that?

As I indicated to the Deputy, in the case of every Minister in every Government-----

The Taoiseach did not do it all along.

-----who has responsibility for a legislative item, it is that Department and officials of that Department who prepare the proposition and, thereafter, the Parliamentary Counsel actually drafts the legislation. As the Department of the Taoiseach deals with protocol, constitutional matters and so on, the aforementioned small number of officials - who already are working in other areas in the Department - worked on that proposition and proposal and the Bill was then prepared by the Parliamentary Counsel. Consequently, I have no difficulty in making available information that is available anyway. In fact, I will forward it to the Deputy.

As the Taoiseach is aware, Sinn Féin seeks the abolition of the Seanad in its current form. However, it takes serious issue with the manner in which the Taoiseach has dealt with this matter. I have asked him a number of times to include this matter for discussion in the Constitutional Convention but he has refused to do so. I attended the Constitutional Convention session at which the citizen delegates were limited to discussing electoral reform. In his response to Teachta Martin, the Taoiseach stated this is about changing the way politics works. My party has put forward a number of proposals for political reform that it has sent to the Government. I ask the Taoiseach to examine them seriously because I have not been consulted on the political reforms the Taoiseach claims to wish to bring in. While one reads a lot of these in the media and promises have been made a number of times that leaders of the Opposition will be brought in, consulted, engaged in discussions and be part of the process, this has not happened. Sinn Féin is putting forward proposals to introduce equality proofing for spending priorities, to look at how the Parliament, the Executive and public bodies work, to extend votes in presidential elections to citizens living in the North and to Irish citizens living and working abroad, as well as bringing into this Chamber speaking rights - for those who want them - for Northern MPs. This a large pile of stuff on which the Taoiseach could easily consult Sinn Féin in the first instance and then bring it forward to this Chamber.

I must state I find hard to take seriously Teachta Martin on this issue. Since 1970, there have been 12 reports that proposed reform of the Seanad, not one of which was implemented. Teachta Martin was in government for 14 years and Fianna Fáil did nothing to reform the Seanad but in many ways, it used it to reward political cronies. During the last election campaign, its manifesto called for the abolition of the Seanad and it received a mandate to do so-----

That is not correct. The Deputy should read it.

-----but it now seeks to retain it. No democrat can defend the current position in which a small minority elects the Seanad. There is no universal franchise, some folks have multiple votes but the vast majority of people have no say.

Has the Government sought legal advice on the conduct of its campaign and in the role of departmental officials or of the Government Information Service? I listened intently to the Taoiseach's initial response and he will be aware that the Supreme Court found unanimously that parts of the Government campaign for the children's referendum were not fair, equal or impartial and that the Government had acted in clear disregard of the McKenna principles. Have these lessons been learned and what has the Government done to ensure citizens receive independent and unbiased information in order that they can make an informed decision on polling day?

I certainly agree with Deputy Adams on one point, which is that for more than 50 years, the political process failed to deal with report after report regarding the potential of Seanad Éireann or its reformation. I examined this issue myself and it is impossible to reform a system that would still be discriminatory and minority-based and still would not involve people in the manner in which this House operates. It is not a situation in which one would seek to have some sort of subset of Dáil Éireann set up in which everyone, including those abroad, would have some measure of votes. Consequently, the question posed is a straight question as to whether one wishes to keep it or to abolish it. I hope people answer that question strongly on the abolition side.

I have answered Deputy Adams previously on the reason this matter did not go before the Constitutional Convention. The Constitutional Convention was part of the programme for Government, as agreed by the two parties in government, to engage with citizens in an analysis of various issues relating to Bunreacht na hÉireann with the intention that the Constitutional Convention, which has worked well in a thoroughly engaging and comprehensive fashion, would make known its views on a range of issues for consideration by the Government. In the case of the abolition of the Seanad, however, the Government already was clear as to what it wished to do. The Government made a decision and an agreement as part of the programme to put this question to the people. Consequently, from a Government point of view, it was not necessary to have an engagement with the Constitutional Convention for its consideration because a decision already had been made in this regard.

As I often have pointed out, a five year period is relatively very short for a Government that has an entire programme to implement, given the unprecedented scale of economic deprivation and calamity that afflicted us. Deputy Adams mentioned the conduct of the campaign and officials working on papers, and one should be clear that the small unit in the protocol section of the Department of the Taoiseach, three of them, was charged with the production and work on the proposal to give effect to the abolition of the Seanad. This is normal for any Minister or any Department and this is what happens. When such a proposal is worked up, it is sent off to the Parliamentary Counsel and the legislation is drafted on that basis. The Government is not running a campaign here because this case was taken to the court arising from the children's referendum and the Government clearly obliged immediately in respect of the findings of the court. Consequently, there is no Government campaign in respect of the abolition of the Seanad although the parties in government and members of those parties obviously do campaign. In that sense, there is not a formal Government campaign and it does not apply. The Government abides fully by the decisions of the court arising from the children's referendum.

As I indicated in response to Deputy Martin, the volume of work involved for the very small unit in the Department of the Taoiseach which worked on the proposal to give effect to the abolition of the Seanad, that is, on the question being asked, has diminished greatly because there is no further engagement from that perspective. Consequently, I reiterate there is no Government campaign and, therefore, there is no requirement for legal advice in respect of any of that. It does not apply. The parties in government run their own campaigns nationwide and it is perfectly normal for officials in whatever Department is sponsoring legislation to work on the preparation of a proposal to be put in a referendum.

I also inform Deputy Adams that all the officials involved were notified by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and, to be clear in this regard, the legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General in respect of the application of the principles of the McKenna judgment applies here. During the referendum, the Government has a right and a duty to give information to clarify situations or to give explanations and deal with unforeseen matters in emergencies. The Government is not entitled to expend public moneys for the purpose of promoting a campaign for a particular outcome. The McKenna case concerned money specifically voted to the Government for the referendum campaign. Neither the McKenna decision nor any other decision determines that departmental resources may not be used by a Minister in a referendum campaign. It still is permissible for the Civil Service, in support of the Government's policy and leadership role, to continue to provide information and material to Ministers in the form of speeches or reports of briefing material, including during the referendum campaign itself. Were I to attend a public meeting dealing with a referendum that had been organised by my own party, I would not have any material for that supplied to me by the people working in the Department because it is not a departmental meeting.

Under the instruction it received, the Civil Service can never go beyond its normal activities so as to ensure it never promotes, directly or indirectly, a particular outcome in a referendum or indulges in what might be termed partisan propaganda. The letter from the Department of the Taoiseach on 31 July is also very clear that on no account can civil servants provide support for or participate in party political events connected to the referendum campaign, nor should statements made at party or campaign events be referred to on Government websites. Government resources which are normally available to Ministers, such as Government websites, can refer to statements made by members of the Government in their ministerial capacity, but any passages in statements that advocate a "Yes" vote, for example, should be and must be redacted. That is consistent with the practice in previous referenda.

The principal officer and the two persons working there do their job in respect of the normal promotion of the proposal by the sponsoring Department and me as the sponsoring Minister in this case. That goes to the Parliamentary Counsel, who drafts the legislation. I wish to be perfectly clear about that.

I would not be surprised if the Taoiseach needed to have some of his staff working on the referendum. I remind the Taoiseach that he now stands for the abolition of the Seanad but for the 30 years that I and a few others, both in this House and outside, demanded the end of that undemocratic, elitist institution, he was busily working the system to get his cronies in here and to continue the undemocratic rule of the 1%. He might lend another member of staff to the leader of Fianna Fáil to remind him of what he was saying two and a half years ago, when he was castigating that 75 year old institution for its ineffectiveness. Now, apparently, he is championing its continuance. Is it any wonder the people are cynical?

The cost is not the key plank in this. It is the question of the democratic rights of every citizen. Does the Taoiseach agree that he has no credibility whatsoever in proposing to get rid of an undemocratic institution, having submitted the Irish people to the two most undemocratic institutions in Europe, the financial markets and the troika, and having submitted to their demands that the Irish people should carry the burden of private debts of speculators, bankers and bondholders? The Taoiseach has submitted the Irish people to that huge, undemocratic attack on people's economic rights, living standards and so forth, but now he stands as a champion of democracy. When I call on people to vote "Yes" to abolish the undemocratic and elitist institution that is the Seanad, the biggest obstacle to winning that is the hypocrisy and lack of credibility of the two Government parties proposing it.

On the point about my standing for the abolition of the Seanad, this is the first time I have had an opportunity to do something about it. I made it perfectly clear when I spoke about this matter a number of years ago, that I would carry out an in-depth analysis of Seanad Éireann. Before the previous general election, we made our position clear, as all parties did, for abolition of the Seanad. We have carried that policy through to the question being asked on 4 October. I do not speak for the voting records of anyone in the Seanad. I have encouraged Members elected from my party and Government Members to turn up there, but some of the activities in the Seanad have not done public representation in general any justice.

The people have answered the question about the financial markets. They answered very clearly, 60% to 40%, in respect of the fiscal stability treaty, despite the fact that the Government was dealing with an unprecedented economic situation in this country. People in Ireland, in the most democratic way of all, by way of secret ballot in a referendum, gave a strong endorsement of being linked to the euro and the European Union because of the opportunity and potential that a market of 500 million people can provide and because of the way this country has been transformed over the past 40 years, under all Governments, by virtue of the assistance, co-operation and help it received from the European Union. As I said earlier, the engagement of the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform with the troika has brought about a situation where we have been able to honour the contracts our sovereign country entered into previously, with some details changed because of our concern for those who are more vulnerable than others and the emphasis the Government has on using whatever flexibility and assets there might be for job creation and getting people back to work, which is where the economic salvation of the country lies.

I thank the Deputy for the clarity of his stance in respect of the abolition of the Seanad. I hope that on 4 October the people give a resounding "Yes" to the question being asked.

These questions relate to the issue of savings of €20 million, the background to that and the basis on which the Taoiseach made that claim to the Dáil during the passage of that legislation. Regardless of how the Taoiseach tries to get around it, there is no basis for making the false claim that the abolition of the Seanad will save €20 million. Indeed, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission said it is not possible to estimate the amount of net savings that would arise if the Seanad were abolished and that while there would be savings relating to salary costs, parliamentary printing, ICT and support costs, there would be substantial increases in the pension costs and redundancy payments. The Referendum Commission has been unable to substantiate or support the €20 million claim.

The Taoiseach has been a Member of this House for 38 years and he spent 34 of them as a staunch advocate and defender of the Seanad. In advance of stating his commitment to abolish the Seanad, he put forward a detailed proposal to the MacGill Summer School for the reform of the Seanad. The Taoiseach can reform the Seanad if he wishes. The people should have been given the option of a reformed Seanad directly elected by the people. That option is available if the Taoiseach wants it. As regards our position, I made it clear during the general election, which the Taoiseach and my opponents refuse to quote, that fundamental reform of the Government, how the Government is formed, the Dáil and, indeed, of the electoral system would be required if Seanad Éireann were to be abolished. None of that has happened. Our position was clearly stated on page 30 of our manifesto.

Accountability in this House has been reduced since the Taoiseach took office. The property tax legislation went through this House in 24 hours. The Government rammed it through so quickly that nobody could table an amendment. Last Christmas, nobody could table an amendment on the child benefit cut-----

Perhaps the Deputy would put his question.

-----because it was rammed through in 24 hours. The same happened with the respite care grant. David Farrell, a noted political scientist, told a gathering last week that Dáil Éireann is the weakest parliament in Europe. The Taoiseach is trying to get rid of the Upper House but the people might have something to say about that. People are very worried about an excessive concentration of power in the hands of a small group of Ministers. That is what will happen. It has happened with the Economic Management Council. A small group of Ministers will end up running the Dáil, which will become a mere rubber-stamp for their activities, as it has been for the past two and a half years. That will be the real democratic deficit.

There is no official basis for the €20 million savings which the Taoiseach has claimed. He has put a false proposition to the people.

I reject that. These figures were provided by the House of the Oireachtas Commission-----

They are not a claim made by a politician. They are the figures contained in the formal letter from the House of the Oireachtas Commission setting out the direct, indirect and pension costs accruing to the running of the Seanad. I do not accept what Deputy Martin has said in any circumstances. Clearly, when an entity is abolished, merged or changed, direct and indirect costs move on, just as this debate has moved on.

The Deputy says I have been defending the set-up in Seanad Éireann for 34 years.

I did not say that at all.

Did I not read the Deputy's words on the matter earlier today?

The Taoiseach should answer the question. He is just filibustering.

The Deputy stated that reducing the number of Ministers of State would result in savings for the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin.

About what is the Taoiseach talking?

Ministers of State are not appointed by the Taoiseach, they are appointed by the Government.

We should return to discussing the Seanad. We have already spent 35 minutes on these questions.

The Deputy sat at the Cabinet table but he did not open his mouth - perhaps he did but, as far as I can ascertain, there is no record of him doing so - when the Government of which he was a member appointed 20 Ministers of State-----

Is the Taoiseach's Government leading the purge?

-----and went on a spending spree in respect of appointing chairmen, vice chairmen and convenors of committees, etc.

Deputy Martin also made a point regarding an over-concentration of power. This is absolute nonsense.

No, it is not. The Taoiseach need only ask the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, whether it is nonsense.

The Economic Management Council, which I chair and on which the Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, serve, is merely a vehicle-----

The Taoiseach should ask the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, about the matter.

-----to streamline matters which must be brought before the Government for collective decision and are, therefore, the subject of collective responsibility. Many years ago, perhaps before the Deputy became a Member of the House, the late Deputies Jack Lynch, George Colley and Martin O'Donoghue and former Deputy Des O'Malley had their own quartet which dealt with all - or the vast majority of - matters relating to the budget. Perhaps Deputy Martin's memory has slipped a little in that regard, I am not sure. However, I assure him that the Economic Management Council does not represent a concentration of power.

Last week the Deputy claimed that the council's actions reflect those of Mussolini and today he states that they mirror the antics of Libertas. I must inform him that this is the fairest and most democratic way to obtain results from people. The political process failed to obtain such results in the past because those in it did not have the courage to recommend decisions. In addition, the various reports that were compiled were never implemented. This is no over-concentration of power-----

It is a gross-----

-----it is a genuine attempt to proceed in such a way so as to ensure that the people will be far more engaged and that this House, under Article 28.4 of the Constitution, will be seen to be able to live up to its responsibilities. In the period 1977 to 1979, the Lynch, Colley, O'Malley and O'Donoghue quartet ruled the roost in so far as the preparation and implementation of the budget was concerned. That was long before the economic management council was ever heard of and it was a time when those to whom I refer had their own cabal which dealt with matters in the context of how politics was delivered. I recall this because I was a Member of the House at the time.

The Taoiseach was a member of that Cabinet, was he?

No, I was not a member of it. The Deputy sat at the Cabinet table-----

Not in 1977. I was still doing the leaving certificate.

-----and allowed 20 Ministers of State to be appointed. It was a case of "Have one for yourself and have some responsibility assigned to you, whatever it might be".

Will the Taoiseach engage in a debate with me on the matter?

I am engaging in a debate with the Deputy now.

The Taoiseach is not doing so.

We have spent 38 minutes on these questions.

That is because the Ceann Comhairle is allowing the Taoiseach to go on and on.

I will take final supplementaries from Deputies Adams and Mathews and I will then move on. Deputy McHugh has tabled two questions in the next group and he is waiting to hear the reply.

So the Taoiseach is saying that the "gang of four" is a reflection of an honourable tradition in Irish politics.

Sinn Féin is calling for a "Yes" vote in both referendums. For the reasons to which I referred earlier, that is the right thing to do. However, I agree with An Teachta Higgins' assertion that one of the big problems which exists on the hustings is the Government's support for this position. The reason it is a problem is reflected what the Taoiseach stated earlier, namely, that it was not necessary to refer this issue to the Constitutional Convention because the decision had already been taken. What does that say about the role of the Opposition? I attended the discussions the Taoiseach chaired on the Constitutional Convention - I do not recall An Teachta Martin being present but he may have been - and I made this very point. The Taoiseach's earlier utterance goes to the very nub of the matter, namely, what is the role of the Opposition and how does it get its point of view across? The latter is difficult and the Government Chief Whip has stated that its record of political reform is deplorable. It is not, therefore, just a question of being able to ventilate our views, it is a matter of trying to encourage the Government to take them on board. Citizens should vote "Yes" in both referendums but the Government has no credibility in respect of the need for root-and-branch political reform of this quite dysfunctional institution.

I have been a Member of the Oireachtas for two and a half years.

That is grand, Deputy.

I am just offering a little preamble. Deputy Martin has been here for 24 years, while the Taoiseach has been a Member for almost 40 years. Considering the obstacles and the limitations which apply and the nature of the Whip system, I am of the view that the Seanad has done a very good job in the time I have been here. Many amendments to legislation have been made in the Upper House, which has the capability to delay Bills from being signed into law for 90 days.

Does the Deputy have a question?

The latter provides a chance to pause and reflect.

We cannot have speeches from anyone. We have spent almost 40 minutes on these questions.

I accept that. Why the haste in making a decision on this matter? I do not think abolition is a good idea. Senator Feargal Quinn introduced what became the Construction Contracts Act in the Upper House.

At this point I must ask for the Deputy's co-operation.

I hear what the Ceann Comhairle is saying but this is a very important matter. Senator Crown has introduced two Bills in the past two and a half years.

It is very important but it is not as important as Standing Orders.

I wish to place on record my view that this could be a very grave and great mistake.

I take Deputy Adams' point. The role of the Opposition is to hold the Government of the day to account. That role is defined in Article 28.4 of Bunreacht na hÉireann which states that it is the constitutional duty of the Dáil to hold the Government - the Executive - to account.

We try to do that.

There have been examples during the past ten years whereby issues raised by the Opposition have seen the Government held to account. We want to enhance the position in this regard because, in the interests of the people and our democracy, all Governments need to be held to account.

The second point I must make in respect of this matter is that Governments must make decisions. It is no secret that I have informed members of my party and the Cabinet that for 15 years all one could do was make propositions. It is different when one is obliged to make decisions and then stand over them. From that point of view, the Constitutional Convention's responsibility is not to make decisions. I accept that it makes decisions about recommendations. However, the Government is obliged to decide, on the basis of those recommendations, what it wants to do.

The Taoiseach would not even allow the convention to discuss the matter.

If the Constitutional Convention were to consider the question of the Seanad and state that it should be retained-----

The Taoiseach would not let it do so.

-----the Government would then say that it did not agree and that it was going to proceed to hold a referendum. In this instance the views of the parties in government were very clear prior to the general election and these were reflected in the programme for Government. The Government has also been clear in the decisions it has made in the context of asking the question. There was no need for reflection on the Government's view on this matter. I commend the Constitutional Convention on the way in which it has gone about its business.

I do not accept Deputy Mathews' proposition.

It was an observation.

No, it was not. The Seanad was never a second House. It was, rather, a break on the proceedings of the Dáil. While it has the right to delay legislation, this mechanism has only been used in very rare circumstances.

It is one of the three parts of the Oireachtas.

My problem with the Seanad is that the founding principles of engagement and representation of civic society on which it was based were never adhered to there. This is because the Upper House was hijacked by the political process, including my party.

What about the Whip system?

The Taoiseach did not say anything about the matter for 35 years.

That is one of the reasons the majority of persons I, as Taoiseach, was able to appoint to the Seanad are completely and utterly independent of politics. Those individuals have not been asked by me to vote in favour or support the Government on particular issues since their appointment. That has not always been the case.

I am just trying to take an honest and forthright look at the matter.

There were occasions in the past where people were rewarded with appointment to the Seanad on the basis of services they had previously rendered.

It has a constitutional basis.

Northern Ireland Issues

Joe McHugh

Question:

4. Deputy Joe McHugh asked the Taoiseach if he has discussed with the British Prime Minister this summer's Northern Ireland stimulus package as announced by the British Government; if the Irish Government will measure the impact of the Northern stimulus package on the Border counties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39052/13]

Micheál Martin

Question:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when the next North-South Ministerial Council is taking place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39054/13]

Gerry Adams

Question:

10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach his plans to meet with US envoy to the North of Ireland, Dr. Richard Haass. [39073/13]

Micheál Martin

Question:

17. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met or has plans to meet Dr. Richard Haass; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39492/13]

Micheál Martin

Question:

19. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met representatives from the Unionist parties recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39494/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 19, inclusive, together.

The events of recent months surrounding disputes over parades in particular and the tensions and disorder they have provoked, alongside the unresolved issues of how to deal with the past, are exerting a harmful and even regressive effect on politics and community relations in Northern Ireland.

That is why I very much welcome the commencement of the all-party talks under the independent chairmanship of former US Envoy to Northern Ireland, Dr. Richard Haass, to consider and make recommendations on these contentious issues. As Dr. Haass has publically stated, Northern Ireland has been transformed as a result of the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements. Issues such as flags, parades and the past are deep rooted issues that need to be addressed. Dr. Haass brings to bear a wealth of skill and experience on these issues. However, people and their political leaders will need to be prepared to move ground and compromise if these talks are to succeed. I issue a call to all parties to approach these talks in a spirit of genuine compromise to enable a clear way forward or road map to be found on all of the contentious issues - flags, parades and the past.

The Tánaiste will meet Dr. Haass in New York tomorrow. I understand Dr. Haass will visit Dublin next month and I will avail of the opportunity to meet with him at that time.

I have not discussed Northern Ireland's stimulus package or the parades issue with Prime Minister Cameron since the summer recess.

I met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary which I hosted in Dublin Castle in July. We had an open and a very productive discussion across a range of issues that are important to people in all parts of this island. We recapped on the achievements of the Irish EU Presidency and the good co-operation between both jurisdictions during the Presidency. We will continue to engage closely on European Union issues in the future.

We discussed the Northern Ireland Executive's strategy for good relations and the economic package agreed between the British Government and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. This is important work in delivering the forward-looking, prosperous and reconciled society we all wish to see in Northern Ireland. I took the opportunity to again congratulate the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on their achievement for all the people of Northern Ireland.

We also discussed the fiscal and economic challenges facing both jurisdictions and the opportunities for more practical co-operation. We discussed youth employment and how we might work together to tackle this issue which is of vital importance to both jurisdictions. The meeting provided an opportunity for me to update the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on the round table discussions on youth employment hosted by Chancellor Merkel in Berlin on 3 July and also to outline the major steps taken on youth employment under the Irish Presidency.

The Council received an update on the current state of play in regard to the remaining elements of the St. Andrews review. Officials have initiated a work programme and will conclude their work and present proposals to the next North-South Ministerial Council institutional meeting in the autumn.

I have already reported to the House on my most recent visit to Northern Ireland to attend the British-Irish Council summit in June. I will visit Armagh to attend the next North-South Ministerial Council plenary in November where I expect to meet the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I also hope to visit Belfast in the near future.

I have not met any other political leaders in the North since the summer recess. The Tánaiste visited Belfast on 29 August and met a range of community contacts, including the business sector and has also had discussions with political leaders including at the British Irish Association Conference. He met the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 23 September, when they focused on the need for a clear way forward to emerge from the all-party talks on contentious issues in Northern Ireland being chaired by Dr. Richard Haass and how the two Governments can best support that process.

I have received a request to meet relatives of those killed in the Omagh bombing and I am open to meeting them in due course when that is appropriate. As I have previously stated, what happened at Omagh was a brutal act of mass murder. The criminal terrorists who carried it out had no sense of humanity and displayed a complete disregard for life. For the families of those who were killed in the atrocity at Omagh, the pain of that loss can never go away.

As the House is aware, my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, met the Omagh support and self-help group in July 2012 and received a copy of the document they have compiled on events surrounding the Omagh bombing in August 1998. He received a presentation from them on the matters raised and on their call for a public inquiry. I met them briefly in the corridor on the day they were making one of those presentations. The Minister is currently in the process of finalising his consideration of the issues that have been raised by the group. He hopes to be in a position to conclude this process soon and once a conclusion has been reached he will communicate directly with the Omagh group.

I thank the Taoiseach for a comprehensive response. The 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is a time for us to reflect. Obviously, the process is very much in its infancy. We are all very aware of the challenges which arose this summer and of the work which still needs to be done. I would like to acknowledge the participation of Dr. Richard Haass in very important consultation around flags, emblems and the legacy issues of Northern Ireland.

I would like to focus on the Border conversation. Colleagues who represent Border constituencies, including Deputy Gerry Adams, sometimes exclude other colleagues, whether from counties Clare or Kerry, when we start to talk about the Border. There is an opportunity to extend the conversation to other counties. People from Cushendall to Cahirciveen signed up to the Good Friday Agreement and there is a role for local authorities to be more proactive and to engage more in terms of joint participation North and South. However, I do not know how we will go about that. It is not about setting up another mechanism. The Taoiseach and I are in agreement that we do not want another mechanism or another bureaucratic piece of machinery, as there are plenty of them. The North-South Ministerial Council has its job to do.

Will the Deputy put his questions because we are short on time?

Community groups are doing good work.

Can we look at leadership within local authorities? I refer to the likes of Peter Hynes in the Taoiseach's county and Seamus Neely in my county who are all doing good work in their own right. Can we have greater participation among local authority leadership North and South? I would like to name one person because the mechanism is in place in Northern Ireland. Derek McCallan is the chief executive officer of Northern Ireland Local Government Association. We, in the South, need to reach out, whether at the level of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport or the Department of Health, and look for leaders in the local authority sector.

Can we embrace the Good Friday Agreement which was democratically supported by people in every county in the Twenty-Six Counties and in the Six Counties 15 years later? Can we create some sort of political partnership panel, involving local authority leadership at a civic level?

As there are just five minutes and 27 seconds remaining in this slot, I suggest that the three Deputies who are seeking to ask questions might ask them all together before I call the Taoiseach to reply. Otherwise, we will run out of time.

On a brief point of order, the situation in the North, which is undergoing some turbulence at the moment, is quite serious. I would like us to return to this issue on another day. Today's session is not sufficient for me.

I appreciate that, but we spent 40 or 50 minutes on the Seanad.

I understand that.

I tried to bring some sense to it, but people were making all sorts of statements.

.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Part of the problem, a Cheann Comhairle, is that-----

If you want to arrange statements on Northern Ireland, do it through the Whips.

I would not have a problem with that.

I do not want to do so.

We had better not waste any more time.

I thought the Ceann Comhairle was going to go around. Seven of these 15 questions are in my name.

I appreciate that. I cannot do anything about it, Deputy.

I know you cannot. I am not saying anything to you at all, in fact. I was merely making the point that the Taoiseach could have done this differently,

Can the Deputy get on with putting a question?

If the Taoiseach really wanted accountability to the House, rather than including in the same group 15 questions about diverse issues like the Omagh bombing, capital investment, the Haass talks and contacts with the British Prime Minister, he could have segregated them. I would like to register with the Taoiseach a strong protest about the manner in which he has grouped these questions. It reduces accountability and reduces the potential for any meaningful treatment of the issues. The Taoiseach keeps going on about accountability to this House. This is the opposite of accountability.

Would you put this question and allow others to speak?

It has been clear to anyone paying attention that this Government has disengaged significantly from matters relating to Northern Ireland and there is a growing-----

(Interruptions).

Sorry, there is a telephone ringing in the Chamber.

The Deputy should throw his telephone in a lake. It has been going off all day.

He should switch it off.

The amount of negative commentary about the level of this engagement has increased. I ask the Taoiseach to comment on that. The Irish News recently pointed out that the non-involvement of our Government in a formal way in discussions on the economic development of the North and the stimulus package, or indeed the Haass talks, is without precedent in almost 30 years. That is something that needs a response. I would like to hear the Taoiseach's views on what the Irish News reported because I believe it is true. The only people who appear to be happy are the DUP and Sinn Féin, both of which agree that Dublin should not have a role in the announcement of a new economic pact for Northern Ireland. The failure to look at the totality of the island from an economic perspective is a central aspect of the North-South issue. This is reflected in a practical way in the lack of engagement on the Narrow Water Bridge project. Can the Taoiseach update us on any initiative being taken by the Government on that project in the context of the stimulus package? We need to ensure we can draw down European funding so that this vital North-South link is developed.

I would like to repudiate absolutely Deputy Martin's assertion that the DUP and Sinn Féin are the only people who are happy. Sinn Féin is most unhappy about the situation. The Deputy must know that the difficulties in the North are not caused by Sinn Féin. These have not been good months for the political process. It is clear that there is a crisis within political loyalism and Unionism. We have seen months of organised sectarian violence on the streets of Belfast. The mayor of Belfast was attacked and assaulted while carrying out his civic duties. Hundreds of members of the PSNI have been injured. When Martin McGuinness stood shoulder to shoulder with Peter Robinson and the chief constable after so-called dissidents killed PSNI officers and British soldiers, he was leading in an assertive, robust and clear manner. Why has Peter Robinson not stood shoulder to shoulder with Martin McGuinness and done exactly the same thing? The reneging on the programme for Government commitment to the development of the site of the old prison in Long Kesh, as set out in the infamous letter from the USA, is clearly a big problem. There are many issues. There have been some recent arrests. I have done my best to brief the Government privately and in these sessions on all of these matters. The interventions of the British Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, over the summer months were most unhelpful. Obviously, we have to do a great deal of work to encourage unionism in all of its manifestations to be part of this process for change. The Government, as a co-guarantor, has a duty and an obligation to make sure the British Government keeps to its obligations too. To the best of my knowledge, Deputy Martin has not reached out to the First Minister or the Deputy First Minister by asking for a meeting with them on these matters. It is reasonable to expect all leaders in this Chamber to try to be up to date on what is happening in the North-----

I am very up to date.

-----as opposed to trying to score party political points against Sinn Féin. I commend to the Taoiseach the need for the Government to be very alert and vigilant. It needs to be reasonable and clear about how we proceed. There is an international agreement, as Deputy McHugh has said, and the Government has a responsibility to ensure it is upheld.

Is it not clear that this year's sectarian tensions point to significant sections of Protestant and Catholic working-class populations, especially the young members of those populations, being seriously alienated? Is it not clear that the Good Friday Agreement has not delivered for them by bringing an end to unemployment, poverty, the housing crisis and other problems? How it could be otherwise when the power-sharing Executive is merely a conveyor belt for Tory-Liberal austerity, as our Government is in conjunction with the troika? Is it not the truth that the main political parties played the sectarian card on a regular basis this summer and used marches and emblems, etc., to do so? That is the reality. Can I put it to the Taoiseach that it must be a bad joke to bring in a right-wing member of the American Republican Party to bring the communities of Northern Ireland together? The American Republican Party has fostered more inequality and polarisation and imposed unequal suffering on the American people since slavery and has not done anything for the North of Ireland. Is it not clear that sectarianism cannot be overcome other than by working-class communities coming together to direct their energies to mobilising for the eradication of the problems and policies that create such poverty and hardship?

Deputy McHugh made a point about the further potential for North-South engagement. As a Border Deputy, he will be well aware that the facilities which now exist, including the North-South Ministerial Council, the non-formal connections between Ministers and Ministers of State on cross-Border issues and the connections between agencies and organisations on either side of the Border, have increased greatly over recent years. I met the Deputy and a number of councillor representatives from North and South earlier in the summer, and this speaks volumes in this regard as well.

I commend the Ceann Comhairle on the work he did, along with the Speaker, in putting together the North-South Parliamentary Forum. As the forum is a political tier, it does not relate directly to the local authority system. It has some potential if it finds its feet and if it can develop in the way we would think. There are many community engagements that are very fruitful. I met members of a choral society from Ballymena earlier this year. It has been twinned with a similar group in my home town since 1969. While the connections might not have been as strong as they should have been in the intervening years, a very strong connection is building up again, purely on the basis of community and social activities, including music, culture and everything else. This is certainly something we can look at on the basis of what Deputy McHugh has said. I am not sure a sort of formal structure for local authorities is the way to go here because, as the Deputy knows, a great deal of cross-Border activity applies at the moment.

Deputy Martin raised the question of Narrow Water Bridge. The bridge order was signed by Minister Wilson on 28 May last. Louth County Council announced on 9 July that the Narrow Water Bridge proposal was on hold because of cost issues regarding the extent of the tenders received. As the Deputy knows, funding was approved by the Irish Government, by the Northern Ireland Executive, which issued the bridge order, and by the EU.