Leaders' Questions

I welcome members of the Irish Deaf Society in the Visitors Gallery and commend the Ceann Comhairle on arranging, for the first time, to make a sign language interpreter available in the Dáil for the occasion. This is a welcome and notable occasion for the deaf community.

I condemn the ongoing attacks on civilians in Gaza and send my sympathies to the families of all the deceased. The reports on an air strike on four young boys playing football on a beach in Gaza have been appalling. While Israel has a right to defend itself, its response is totally disproportionate to attacks from Gaza. It has also shut down all access to Gaza where more than 210 people have died, many of whom are civilians, including women and children. Gaza is also running out of medical supplies and its people are in dire straits. While the five-hour ceasefire is welcome, it is too little. The Government should immediately invite in the Israeli ambassador and express its concerns in a clear and forthright manner.

Moving on, my question to the Tánaiste relates to the establishment of a commemoration centre at 14 to 17 Moore Street in advance of the centenary events marking the Easter Rising.

The Deputy may only deal with one issue.

As the Tánaiste is aware, after years of campaigning by relatives of the leaders and veterans of the 1916 Rising, 14 to 17 Moore Street was granted protected national monument status in 2007. Since then, many reports and recommendations have issued on how the General Post Office and Moore Street should be preserved. This has involved all parties in the Oireachtas and Dublin City Council. The most recent report on the matter was published by Dublin City Council in April 2013. The former Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, signed an order of consent in July 2013 and new designs were submitted in March this year. In April, the former Minister approved-----

I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy but as I stated, Deputies may raise only one topic on Leaders' Questions. I assume Gaza is the topic the Deputy wishes to raise with the Tánaiste. Deputies may not deal with two topics.

I wish to note-----

The second matter the Deputy raises was dealt with in the Chamber not later than yesterday. I cannot allow the rules to be breached. If the Deputy wishes to speak to the issue of Gaza, he should please do so.

I will facilitate the Deputy if he selects a topic.

No, he has already made a case on the issue of Gaza.

I accept the ruling of the Chair on the matter.

I ask the Tánaiste to address developments in Gaza. Deputies will have seen a newspaper photograph this morning of the father of two of four children who died as a result of a missile attack on a beach in Gaza yesterday. It was an abhorrent sight. I ask the Tánaiste to outline how the Government intends to respond to developments in Gaza.

I also note the first ever appearance of a sign language interpreter in the Visitors Gallery and thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this for members of the deaf community who are with us.

The Government should give back the €1.2 million that was cut from disability groups.

On the pressing issue of Gaza, I draw the Deputy's attention to the statement issued by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on Monday in which he condemned unreservedly the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel, which are largely aimed at civilian targets. His statement equally condemned the mounting civilian casualties, including a large number of women and children, resulting from Israeli air strikes against Gaza. This followed and reinforced a statement made last week by the former Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore. I and most Deputies will have heard of further deaths in Gaza in recent hours.

The people of Gaza and Israel have the right to live in peace and security without the threat of indiscriminate violence being visited upon them. The dreadful episode yesterday in which four Palestinian children were killed by an Israeli shell at the Gaza port underlines the absolute urgency of bringing the exchange of fire to an end for the sake of both communities. Regrettably, a serious effort to reach a ceasefire on Tuesday, which was proposed by Egypt, did not take hold, although it is positive that Israel ceased firing for six hours. Today, there has been a five-hour humanitarian pause at the request of the United Nations to allow people to buy food and engage in necessary activities and movement. This is a hopeful development and it may be possible to build on it to achieve something more lasting.

As I stated last week, the Department of Foreign Affairs is closely monitoring developments and maintains contact with our missions in Tel Aviv and Ramallah. Last week, I also advised Irish citizens in the area to keep in contact with Irish embassies in the region.

The weeks following the recent horrendous murders of four young people have been incredibly difficult for all of those who are concerned with promoting the cause of peace in the Middle East. Despite this, we cannot be deflected from addressing the underlying causes of the conflict and redoubling our efforts to promote a viable two-state solution, the only sustainable basis for a just settlement and resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

The Israelis will never accept a two-state solution.

The Government should bring in the Israeli ambassador.

While the five-hour ceasefire today is welcome and greatly needed, it is not enough. The ongoing situation is unacceptable for the citizens of Gaza who cannot access essential medicines. Apart from a five-hour period this morning, goods are restricted from entering the area. While Government statements setting out its position on the matter are welcome and necessary, it must also meet the Israeli ambassador to outline its position. Ireland may be a small country but, like every other country, we have much to offer in terms of setting out our views and trying to find a resolution to the problem. In particular, we must provide some relief to those in Gaza who are suffering from disproportionate actions and missile attacks by Israel. All of us will have seen the evidence in the images being relayed daily from Gaza. Will the Tánaiste agree to meet the Israeli ambassador immediately to relay to him the Government's views on the situation?

I agree with Deputy McConalogue that the important thing is to seek to extend the ceasefire. It got off to a shaky start for a limited period yesterday and there is a further period today. If that could be extended to stop the armed conflict it would be a significant achievement.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will have absolutely no difficulty in meeting the Israeli ambassador and making arrangements to meet him.

He should call him in.

In addition, EU Foreign Affairs Ministers will be discussing the issue immediately after the weekend. Every effort should be used by all countries that have diplomatic relations both with Israel and Palestine. At the end of the day the attempt at a ceasefire, which is being brokered by Egypt and is assisted by the UN, is the most important way of ending the bloodshed and dreadful deaths, particularly of children. We all know that living conditions in the area are very difficult.

Going back to my own time as Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development, I was involved in initiating and expanding the programme of assistance into Palestine and the territories. That was followed by successive Governments, including Fianna Fáil Administrations. I want to acknowledge the Deputy's concern about the matter.

Call in the ambassador.

A significant amount of aid and development money from the Irish Aid programme is spent in Palestine, as is correct. We will lend every support we can to the expansion and continuation of the ceasefire in order that there will be an opportunity for innocent civilians to be protected.

I also extend a warm welcome to members of the deaf community in the Visitors Gallery. They are very welcome and it is great to see an interpreter in the Gallery for the first time.

I had intended to raise a different issue with the Tánaiste concerning mother and baby homes but, having heard her entirely limp and lily-livered response to Deputy McConalogue's question on Gaza, I feel I must question her further on the matter. I cannot believe that for a second week in a row, when the Tánaiste was asked about casualties and the deaths of Palestinian civilians, including children, she reverted in her answer to giving advice to Irish citizens who may happen to be in the vicinity or the region generally.

It is not sufficient for the Government or any Minister simply to issue a statement on this matter. There is an obligation to act. To clarify matters for the Tánaiste, in case she is not aware of this, the crux of this issue revolves around the Israeli Administration and Israeli state's failure to abide by international law. It is long past the time that the Israeli Administration was called to account. It is also long past time for the Irish Government to tell the Israeli Administration that it cannot act with impunity. There are no excuses or alibis for shelling and bombarding a civilian population, for inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinian people, and for murdering Palestinian children. That needs to be the message. If it is not the message then, frankly, we are all wasting our time. The power disparity between Palestinian civilians and the Israeli military and political apparatus is very clear.

When the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade meets the Israeli ambassador, what will be the Government's position on this matter? What is the Government's position on the bombardment of a civilian population and the collective punishment of the Palestinian people?

Let me make it clear what Ireland's interest in this is. We want to see an end to the violence from both sides because we want to see an end to the deaths and injuries, in particular of innocent civilians - men, women and children. That is the role a country like Ireland can best play in a conflict like this one. Over the weekend, for instance, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has been in direct contact with his counterpart in Egypt concerning the ceasefire and bringing the violence to an end in an orderly way.

Deputy McDonald may want to make an issue about warnings by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to Irish civilians who are working in a danger zone. As somebody who in a previous capacity worked in such zones, I can say that it is extremely important for Irish individuals and their families here to have the full help and resources of that Department. Notwithstanding the Deputy's passionate concern for civilians who come from the conflict zone, which I accept, she should not equivocate. She should equally have regard for Irish citizens or others who have been resident here, who may face dangers. They should keep in touch with the official advice available from this country. There would be an awful lot of grief for families in Ireland if Irish people living in the region put themselves in danger. It is absolutely appropriate that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and his Department should be concerned about that.

They are bombing them.

(Interruptions).

Excuse me, we do not shout down people in this Chamber.

They know all about bombings and how to deliver bombs.

And you too, Deputy Byrne. I call the Tánaiste to proceed.

We saw it in Colombia.

In case the Deputy did not hear me, we do not shout down people in this Chamber. Deputy Eric Byrne should stay quiet and allow the Tánaiste to reply.

Given the Deputy's comments, it may seem unsatisfactory that seeking to broker a ceasefire is somehow inadequate as an expression of Irish foreign policy. Ireland's helping to make peace in conflicts is at the heart of what Irish foreign policy has been about since this State was formed.

The Tánaiste is eroding our foreign policy.

I will not apologise for the work our soldiers and gardaí have done right around the world. Coming from the background of her particular party and her involvement in a peace process which had a successful outcome, I am surprised the Deputy would belittle the value of a peace process and a ceasefire.

I reiterate that the important issue is to get a sustainable ceasefire under way. That is the best way of protecting all the civilians, including men, women and children. One would want to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the appalling deaths of young children over this period of escalating violence.

A Deputy

You obviously do.

Tell that to the Israeli ambassador.

Everybody in this House is deeply concerned, upset and aggrieved by what we have witnessed.

I do not question for a second the right or responsibility of Government to give sound advice to Irish citizens. I am, however, questioning the Tánaiste's sense of priority or perspective on this issue. This is the second week in a row that I have raised this matter. On both occasions the Tánaiste's priority message was to Irish citizens. As noble as that may be, I suggest to her that there is a more burning issue here. She talks about civilian deaths, but which civilians? In her reply, can the Tánaiste spell out for the Chamber who precisely has died in this bombardment? Can she spell out for the Dáil where the balance of suffering and bloodshed lies?

Can the Tánaiste state clearly that there is no equivalence between the civilian Palestinian population and the Israeli military apparatus? Can she at least do that? Does she also understand that Ireland's interests in pursuing the move to broker a permanent ceasefire and a just conclusion to this conflict are not well served by dodging the core issues or letting the Israelis off the hook? If she is not prepared to say it, I am prepared to do say on my own behalf and on behalf of every other Irish person who believes in peace-----

The Deputy is a late convert.

-----and justice in the Middle East that the behaviour of Israel in targeting, bombarding and killing Palestinian civilians is repulsive and reprehensible. There is no excuse for it and there is no alibi for it.

We are over time.

I wish the Tánaiste would take her cue from the Irish people who in recent days have been out in their hundreds and thousands in solidarity with the people of Gaza. They have made their decision. I only wish the Irish Government would share that clarity of thought.

It is a pity you did not believe that 15 years ago.

All I can say is that winning and sustaining peace is a serious process.

Yes, really. It is a serious process. The Deputy, and other Members from her party, frequently come in here or travel around the world to explain to other people the importance of building a sustainable peace. Almost all the members of her parliamentary party have spoken movingly on that subject on different occasions.

They went to Colombia as well.

Let us cut to the important point, which is that yesterday there was a short, and not long enough, cessation of hostilities brokered by the Egyptians. Today another cessation is under way for a limited number of hours. I put it to the Deputy that in making peace, the first and most important step is to extend that ceasefire and to make it permanent. That is the first role for people who want to make peace, preserve life and protect the civilians who are caught up in the conflict. That is the role of Irish foreign policy in relation to this, as it has been down the decades. We are a country which is very proud of our work and our deserved reputation in regard to peace-making.

I call Deputy Catherine Murphy.

An independent foreign policy.

Show respect for your leader.

I extend a warm welcome to the members of the deaf community who are in the Gallery and welcome the Ceann Comhairle's initiative in facilitating the signing of our deliberations. I expect that it is difficult to sign our proceedings given all the heckling but I am sure the signer is doing very well.

This week's damning review of our human rights practices by the United Nations Human Rights Committee makes for grim reading but it is hardly surprising. Our failure in regard to the Magdalen laundries survivors, the symphysiotomy survivors, those who spent time in mother and baby homes and those who were victims of clerical child abuse is shameful. However, we stand to repeat the mistakes of the past if we do not act to address the grossly discriminatory laws that govern abortion. The UN committee confirmed that we are in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by denying women the option to avail of abortion in certain circumstances, namely, rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities and where a woman's health is in danger. I would argue that we are not only in breach of the covenant but also in breach of basic humanity in denying an abortion to a woman who has been raped, is a victim of incest or has to endure carrying to full term a pregnancy when there is no prospect of delivering a live baby. I found it profoundly chilling to listen to the remarks of the principal officer of the Department of Health who told the committee that denying these women the right to abortion was the will of the people. I question what people are meant. The eighth amendment to the Constitution was inserted more than 30 years ago and attitudes have changed significantly since then, as recent polls have shown.

The Labour Party is a socially progressive party. The Tánaiste is the leader of that party as well as the deputy leader of this country, and she is also one of the few women in a decision-making role in this Government. Is she going to use her powerful position to bring about change in this area and, if so, how is she going to do that?

In regard to Deputy Catherine Murphy's comments on the Minister for Justice and Equality's visit to the Human Rights Committee in Geneva, I am sure it did not escape the Deputy's notice that yesterday was a significant day in terms of the appointment of Judge Murphy to the commission of inquiry into mother and baby homes. The Deputy may also have noted the publication of an extensive report based on the work of the interdepartmental committee on the history of mother and baby homes. In the period since his appointment, the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan, did considerable work to advance that, and I want to use this opportunity to thank him and his predecessor, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, for the significant progress that has been made on the issue in a relatively short period. Work is now ongoing on the terms of reference for that inquiry.

In regard to the Deputy's comments on the meetings in Geneva, it is recognised internationally this country has inherited a series of extraordinarily difficult legacy issues which have affected at least 50% of families in this country at some stage down the decade, and have affected women in particular. They have also affected children born as a consequence of relationships which in earlier decades were non-marital relationships and who, therefore, were given up for institutional care and, in many cases, for adoption or fostering out. When international organisations examine Ireland's legacy, it is important that they also recognise the progress that has been made by all parties in this House and by civil society in addressing a series of issues which are a legacy of an earlier period. I am proud to be a member of a Government that is currently implementing a redress scheme for the women who were in the Magdalen laundries. From the point of view of my Department, which is significantly involved in providing payments and income supports to the women who were in that situation, it is very satisfactory that work in this regard is proceeding apace.

In regard to the issues arising around fatal foetal abnormalities, the Deputy will be aware that some time ago the Government legislated successfully in regard to the X case. That is reflected in our legislation and is an issue that both parties in Government have addressed. In regard to fatal foetal abnormalities, I am on record as stating that I would like to see a situation where it is possible to address them.

As of yet we do not have agreement on that in the programme for Government. It is a personal position and I have been on public record in this regard over a long period.

I know we have legacy issues and it is very uncomfortable to consider past failures in hindsight. We are asking how we allowed such things to happen and who was in power at the time, but will the pattern be repeated by people in power now, and will we have the same conversations in 30 years?

The same committee might then be reviewing how the country dealt with issues like fatal foetal abnormalities, for example, or people who have been raped or subject to incest and who have been denied their human rights. The Tánaiste indicated her personal views are on the record but I ask her as Tánaiste - deputy leader of the country - and the leader of the Labour Party for her position on the issue.

I went to Liverpool Women's Hospital with people who were part of a study group on fatal foetal abnormalities. People were put through a tortuous process where, for example, they would have had to retrieve the remains of a baby they wanted by way of something like DHL delivery, which is absolutely appalling. It is inhumane and we cannot rely on a 31 year old referendum decision, presuming that people have not moved on when so many events have taken place in this country. We need a referendum, as the Tánaiste knows, if we are to change that position. Does the Tánaiste accept we need a referendum and will she commit to working towards such a referendum?

There has been an extensive process with the Constitutional Convention, which considered various issues and reported findings. As I pointed out, the Government and the Dáil has dealt with issues arising from the X case. Those had been unresolved over a very long period of years. We want a position in Ireland where every baby is a wanted baby. The Deputy spoke about cases and the people she accompanied in Liverpool, and those are tragic circumstances as the babies are wanted but their life outcomes were in doubt because of medical issues.

It was referenced in Geneva that on a previous occasion, the Irish people gave a view - as was their entitlement - on what they wanted reflected in the Constitution. I did not share the view at the time and my party and others like me recommended voting against the amendment to the Constitution. As a democrat, the Deputy must recognise that the people voted for the eighth amendment to the Constitution. The Government has legislated for and dealt with issues surrounding the X case, which has been a difficult issue in this country over a very long period. That is what was agreed in the programme for Government.

So the Tánaiste will not agree to a new referendum.