Questions Nos. 1 and 2 are in the name of Deputy Joe Higgins. Deputy Higgins sends his apologies for being unable to attend the Chamber this afternoon.
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)
Cabinet Committee Meetings
1. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health last met. [26765/14]
2. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach when the last meeting of the Cabinet committee on health was last held and for when is the next one scheduled. [35181/14]
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet committee on health met recently. [35594/14]
4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of times the Cabinet committee on health has met since 2011. [35601/14]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on health last met on 29 September and the next meeting is scheduled for early November. The committee has met on 27 occasions since this Government came into office in 2011.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. The frequency with which the Cabinet committee on health meets is instructive in itself. For three and a half years, every time the Taoiseach was asked a question in this Chamber about the health service, he replied that everything was going fine and getting better. Waiting lists were disappearing, treatment was getting better and reforms were on the way that would cure all our problems. The work of the Cabinet committee on health, we were told, was all about the health reform programme. In the midst of all this, we had the Taoiseach's consistent denial of there being any attempt to take medical cards away from families. Eventually, after months and months of our pursuing that issue, he had to change tack, admit he had made a fundamental error and reinstate discretionary medical cards to many needy families across the country. We now have new evidence that waiting lists have been falsified. Not only was the budget last year falsified, but we discover the waiting lists were rigged to give a better picture. This all happened since the then Minister, Deputy James Reilly, abolished the independent HSE board without putting anything in its place, which was a big mistake.
The Taoiseach indicated that the next meeting of the Cabinet committee on health, chaired by him, will be in early November. The Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and his officials are saying that the health reform proposals initiated under the previous Minister are not workable or implementable and will be pushed out to 2023 or some other date in the next decade. That shows some amount of arrogance. Do we need more frequent meetings of the Cabinet health committee to get a grip on the situation? One has to wonder what that committee has been doing for the past three and a half years. The Taoiseach chaired the meetings at which the publication of the White Paper and the reform documents were approved.
Now all that spin has been exposed as empty rhetoric as opposed to having any substance because the Minister and others have said this cannot be implemented and the reforms are not workable. Does the Taoiseach need more meetings of the Cabinet sub-committee to get a grip on health?
No, actually. As I said to the Deputy before, I devote one Monday in the month to Cabinet sub-committee meetings and, occasionally, if people are not available or whatever, we have them on a different day. I find it is better that way. One has timelines and issues that need to be dealt with.
No one doubts the scale of the challenge facing any Minister for Health. I recall the Deputy declaring the abolition of waiting lists entirely many years ago, but this never happened. Who knows what demands lie ahead from winter vomiting bugs to viruses to other things that come this way. The new Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, has a number of new personnel in his Department and in the HSE looking at the scale of what he faces. For instance, we recognise that in the longer term, the move towards universal health insurance will be a way to end a discriminatory and unfair system and bring about a situation where people have treatment based on their needs, which will reduce costs overall. The Minister is working hard on the development of that policy and on the determination of the range of costs.
He said he was not.
I am afraid we are straying a bit from the original question.
The issue of waiting lists, to which the Deputy referred, has been in the news in recent days. I have heard authoritative sources from the HSE address this question. The manipulation of waiting lists has been denied both by the Minister and the HSE and they are very clear on that. The Deputy knows there is a €500 million overrun in the HSE and the Department of Health this year, so we have to start from 2015 and the budget next week and see the most practical and feasible arrangements that can be put in place to contain costs while maintaining front-line service delivery.
In regard to the row we had about the medical cards, obviously, there was some very-----
I apologise for interrupting the Taoiseach but we are straying way beyond this question. You were asked a simple question on when the Cabinet sub-committee last met.
I answered that. To clarify, people who lost their medical cards under the discretionary system and had them restored need not worry. They will continue for as long as necessary.
The Taoiseach said this particular sub-committee has met 27 times. The issue of health is one that affects every single family and probably one of the most important issues for people is to have the comfort of a health service which is fit for purpose. I accept what the Taoiseach said that it is a major challenge to try to straighten out the existing mess but the number of meetings falls far short of what is required because in the period of this Government, we have had a change of Ministers and the new Minister has set aside many of the timeframes, schedules and some of the commitments of the Government's programme of reform for the health service.
The number of people waiting on trolleys has gone up and down in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in my constituency as well as in other places. I also know many people have not had their medical cards restored. My constituency office is inundated with people who do not understand the outworking of the review, and I am sure it is the same elsewhere.
I have often pondered on the Taoiseach's role in trying to chair all these sub-committees and getting the business and mechanisms of Government joined up - not one of his strong points - cohesively and in a co-ordinated way. The number of meetings falls far short of what is required by this important sub-committee, given the challenges facing the health portfolio.
We are restricted because we cannot ask what is discussed at the meetings, which is a bit silly. It is not the Ceann Comhairle's fault. Is the Taoiseach confident that the amount of time this Cabinet sub-committee devotes to the issues placed on its clár, whatever they may be, reflects the importance of the issues and the great priority and concern many people have about our health services, the welfare of ill members of their family, the elderly and the people with disabilities?
The Cabinet sub-committee deals with a range of issues about health, whether general expenditure, the HSE implementation plan, the development of concepts such as money follows the patient, strong primary care and community systems, the hospital groups and their development to a point where they will make recommendations in due course about services and how best they can be provided, the complicated procedure that followed the announcement of the development of the national children's hospital, the Central Mental Hospital and the National Maternity Hospital going to St. Vincent's University Hospital, the development of primary care centres, of which there is one per month, the constant challenge of reducing agency costs for nursing, and the challenge arising from the Haddington Road agreement and general pay agreements. These are all issues plus other relevant features of the health system, including Healthy Ireland, the change in the nature of treatment of many issues, the development of new drugs, and dealing with drugs companies and costs. These are all part of the work of what is truly a massive organisation, between the Department of Health and the HSE and all those who work for it. They are the areas at which the Cabinet sub-committee on health looks.
For instance, the concept of the development of universal health insurance from beginning right through to fruition is something that may take well into the second term of government before it is realisable. One must have the money following the patient, a strong primary care and community system and the hospital groupings all in place before that can happen. There are issues of insurance, costs and private health insurance and the necessity to have more people understand that they can enter this system much earlier than heretofore, thereby helping everyone.
Of all the Departments of Government, Health is one that affects every single person in one way or another and every single household. The Minister's challenge is to stabilise the health system in order that it can deliver the results we expect at the front line while at the same time manage it to a point where the evolution of universal health insurance, the development of the hospital groups and the provision of services throughout the country are in the best interests of the patient. The patient must be central to this.
It is not an easy issue to deal with in terms of contracts, renewal of contracts, the GP services for those under six and for those over 70. These are all elements of work which the Minister is overseeing. As a Minister who is new to that Department, he must have time to get a grasp of the priority issues with which he has to deal while at the same time seeing how costs can be contained in a massive Department where the situation is demand led and where it is impossible to determine what the scale of demand might be as it depends on the issue that might arise in any part of the country.
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
5. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he discussed the Haass proposals with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom when they last met. [30899/14]
6. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35190/14]
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met the Scottish First Minister, Mr. Alex Salmond MSP recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35200/14]
8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the number of conversations he has had, by phone or in person, with British Prime Minister David Cameron since the commencement of the summer recess. [35207/14]
9. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his conversations with Prime Minister Cameron and, in particular, their joint efforts to commence a new round of talks in the peace process in the autumn. [35208/14]
10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he raised with Prime Minister Cameron the Government’s concern at efforts by Unionist parties to undermine the North’s Parades Commission. [35209/14]
11. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the position regarding the lack of progress in the implementation or acceptance of the Haass report; if his concerns are shared by Prime Minister Cameron; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35632/14]
12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met the First Minister or Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland to discuss the Haass report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35634/14]
13. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to or met Prime Minister Cameron in relation to the North recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35659/14]
14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the position regarding his September meeting with the First Minister; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36512/14]
15. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the position regarding the resignation of Mr. Alex Salmond; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36513/14]
16. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has discussed the new round of talks on Northern Ireland with Prime Minister Cameron; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37622/14]
17. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when he last visited Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37623/14]
18. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has discussed the requests for a referendum on a united Ireland with the First Minister or Deputy First Minister; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37651/14]
19. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has discussed the requests for a referendum on a united Ireland with Prime Minister Cameron; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37652/14]
Richard Boyd BarrettQuestion:
20. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he discussed Ireland's corporate tax regime in any recent meetings he had with British Prime Minister David Cameron; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37746/14]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 20, inclusive, together.
As Deputies will be aware, the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, William Hay, has announced his intention to resign as an MLA due to ill health. I know that I speak on behalf of all in this House in wishing the Speaker well and thanking him for the dedication and service he has given to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I know the Ceann Comhairle formed a very strong relationship with Speaker Hay and they were both responsible for the setting up of the North-South Parliamentary Forum, which I think will stand the test of time.
I object to Question No. 7, which asks the Taoiseach if he met the Scottish First Minister recently, being lumped with questions relating to Northern Ireland and relations within Northern Ireland between Britain and Ireland. The idea that questions about Scotland should be grouped with questions pertaining to Northern Ireland is absurd and whoever prepared that grouping should reflect on the matter. We could have an interesting session in its own right on the Scottish experience and whether the Taoiseach had meetings with Mr. Salmond.
I ask the Taoiseach to specifically answer Question No. 17, which asked him when he last visited Northern Ireland. As I did not hear the response to that question in his reply, he might tell me the date on which he last visited Northern Ireland.
The record of this House over the past three and a half years shows that the Government's approach to Northern Ireland has been defined by growing distance and detachment. I have pointed this out on repeated occasions. This is probably the first Government in decades which has been willing to accept the idea that disputes between parties in the North should be left to those parties. I put it to the Taoiseach that this was a complete negation of the entire approach which secured peace in the first place. He seems to be taking the view that the Government is an observer rather than a participant.
The commitment of Sinn Féin and the DUP to promoting their own interests first was always going to lead to vital communal issues not being addressed to the degree that they should have been. The ongoing positioning within the executive is not a good basis for effective government, and hence the need for the Haass talks to commence. I welcome that the two Governments have woken up to the seriousness of the situation and the need to get involved. They are now indicating that talks involving Haass need to resume in respect of a range of issues. However, I do not welcome the failure of the Taoiseach and his Government to state clearly and unambiguously that Dublin must be involved in every aspect of any discussion about changing the structures of power and power sharing arrangements within the edifice that has been created as a result of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. I am somewhat concerned about the statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade that he will simply be observing developments. That is not good enough. The 1998 settlement involved an international treaty. We changed our Constitution on that basis and our role in Northern affairs was acknowledged. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that no step back from that position is acceptable and to give us an assurance that he will demand full Dublin involvement from the outset of any discussions about future structures and powers in Northern Ireland. There has been too much detachment over the past several years. I regret to say that but I have been pointing it out as diplomatically as I was able and a very serious situation is now emerging in Northern Ireland in terms of the structures there, the capacity to bring many of these issues over the line and the relationship between the Dublin and British Governments in regard to Northern Ireland. I was struck that when the economic programme was launched in Downing Street by the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and the British Prime Minister, there was no Dublin presence. The event was more than 18 months ago. That said it all.
I ask the Taoiseach the basic question of whether Dublin will be fully involved from the outset of any discussions about future structures and powers in Northern Ireland.
The fact that both Governments are getting involved in setting up talks means that we are concerned about what has happened and what has not happened. The people voted for devolved responsibility and authority to be given to the Assembly in Northern Ireland, and that devolved responsibility was given. The problem was related to the working through of that authority and responsibility. Clearly, there is an issue within the Assembly about the implementation of the budgetary situation for Northern Ireland. It is not for us as a Government to get involved in the detailed discussions about financial allocations or the budget. As has often been pointed out, this Government and the Government that preceded it are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. The answer to the Deputy's question is "Yes", both Governments will be involved at the level of institutions and the agreements in doing everything we can to support their implementation, be it the Good Friday Agreement or the St. Andrews Agreement, or whatever. That is the responsibility and duty of the Government as a co-guarantor. When former US President Clinton visited Derry recently, he said that he was here 20 years and they should get on with the job. At last weekend's meeting, when I spoke to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, I made the point that the Government here had to make difficult choices in respect of the economy and the way the budgetary situation had deteriorated.
We still had to make those choices and impose really difficult positions on many people. The economy is beginning to improve and there are signs of confidence in many sectors. It is not for us to determine how the budget for Northern Ireland is to be delivered nor do I have any intention of getting involved in that. The answer to the Deputy’s question is yes, we will engage at full Government level, where that is appropriate.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, is meeting with the Secretary of State, Ms Villiers, MP, today. They have had many discussions in the past month. I hope they can put together a structure and agenda for the talks and determine when they can commence. At that stage I will be happy to engage with the Prime Minister in leading the talks and the appropriate Ministers will also be engaged. I encourage the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and everybody else to get involved in this, to see if we can bring about some improvement in several areas.
The Deputy is aware of Dr. Haass’s attempt at the end of last year to deal with parades, the past and flags. The US Administration is prepared to make some assistance and co-operation available here. The former Senator, Gary Hart, was in Northern Ireland some time ago.
We do not want these talks to be an interminable series of meetings where nothing happens. There are several priorities on a very broad agenda that should be focused on. I will wait to see the report from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Secretary of State to see where best these can lead. We are a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and we will see that we play our full part in attempting to work with all the parties to move this forward.
When was the Taoiseach last in the North?
I join the Taoiseach in thanking Speaker Willie Hay for the work he has done. I wish him and his wife well and hope that his health will improve. He worked with the Ceann Comhairle in setting up the North-South Parliamentary Forum. He was very fair in a difficult job in the Chamber. He was also very open to meeting one on the side to give advice on issues. He has been a friend of the process in the North.
That process, as I have said to the Taoiseach and have been saying quietly and diplomatically for the past year to anyone who wants to listen, is facing perhaps its biggest challenge since the Good Friday Agreement. There are three things converging to make that so, the failure of the Governments to honour aspects of the agreements from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement onwards, which are the responsibility of both Governments. That in itself is wrong. They are in breach, particularly the British Government and, because it is an equal relationship and an international treaty, the responsibility falls on our Government. It gives those negative elements within Unionism who do not want to see change room to manoeuvre because if they think they can stop, delay or dilute processes that is what they will do. The Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, has increasingly been “Trimble-ised” in so far as it does not fully embrace the power-sharing and all-Ireland institutional arrangements. On top of that, since the coalition Government came to power in London there have been cuts in the budget, and austerity - a subject dear to the Taoiseach’s heart - being imposed. There is also an ideologically driven effort to do away with the welfare state. This has caused huge difficulties in England, Scotland and Wales and was one of the key points underpinning the Scottish referendum debate. We can all play politics with these issues but we know the people in the political institutions in the North who do not want change and we know those who want the maximum change.
Deputy Martin cannot resist painting this as two problem parties who cannot agree and need the two Governments to come rushing in. If he was ignorant of these matters that would be an excuse but he is not ignorant of them, he knows the players, the personalities and the parties involved. As someone who comes from the North, who is there every week and who represented people there for a very long time, I can see a convergence of these elements to form an anti-agreement nexus within Unionism. It is anti-process. It is against what is happening. For all that Martin McGuinness stretches himself and tries to do his best, along with others in those institutions, these people are not for moving forward. I am sure there are people like that in states throughout the world, who want things back the way they used to be, who would not allow women have votes or gay people to have rights but they are not allowed to stop the process because politicians lead and progressive politics set the pace.
I welcome the fact that these talks are going to start. I spent the summer talking to everyone I knew who I thought was progressive within the British system, including people who I suspect are spies but they had the right side of this. I went to them. I talked to them on the telephone. I did the same in the United States on two occasions to alert them and did the same privately with the Taoiseach. I told them we have a problem here and no one is trying to sort it out. We saw, through all the media coverage around the twentieth anniversary of the IRA sos, and the very poignant events around the death of Albert Reynolds, how much progress has been made and how much we as a people and others value that progress.
This is a huge challenge for the Taoiseach. His Government does not do the North well. His instinct is not good on it. I do not know how strong the Michael Collins spirit is within Fine Gael but the biggest achievement in politics on this island in the past 30 years was the collective effort of everyone involved in bringing forward the Good Friday Agreement and establishing the arrangements that have been in place since.
I will do everything I can to help. I wrote to the Taoiseach last week in detail about these matters. The Taoiseach is my Taoiseach when he represents us before the British and I will support him in all he does. We need to seize this opportunity to get a pro-agreement axis in place. That means that the Taoiseach has to be a champion for the Good Friday Agreement and all the other agreements.
I thank Deputy Adams for his comments. He can take it from me that, while he might feel we have not done all that we should do in respect of Northern Ireland, we take a real interest in it. He may be able to help us because there seems to be an attitude in Northern Ireland that says that Deputy Adams, as the leader or president of his party, does not allow the Deputy First Minister to make decisions on the issues that arise in the North particularly in regard to budgetary matters. I do not know whether this is true but I have listened to political comment from the North to the effect that when the discussions take place the matter goes before the ard-comhairle of the Deputy’s party and that he might have a greater interest in issues in the Republic than in putting through the decisions he has to make. That may or may not be true. I do not know.
In so far as the Government is concerned, I received the Deputy’s extensive list, from the Good Friday Agreement on. It contains several issues which would run for a couple of years. There are priorities, however, and we have a duty and responsibility as co-guarantor for Northern Ireland to stand up for the Good Friday Agreement. Champion or not, I would like to think that we could make some progress whenever the agenda is determined.
I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, about this. Obviously, he is meeting Ms Villiers today. We need to look at what we can do. We should see whether everyone is willing to move this forward.
I mentioned to Deputy Adams last week that I am concerned about the new issues for the judicial process and the legal people. Even though there is a new generation in Northern Ireland, the deep residue of all the issues of the past - the atrocities, the disappeared and all these things - needs to be dealt with. We need to explore how that can be done in the follow-through of these talks. As the Deputy is well aware, if all that past is translated into the facilities of the present, it will poison the system for the future. We need to look imaginatively at how the reservoir of unconcluded emotion is released. While it will not bring back anyone from either side who is gone, it is an issue that needs to be addressed.
I assure Deputy Adams that I believe it is possible to do something about parades and flags. The Parades Commission has to be strongly supported. I have discussed this with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. There is something we can achieve. There can be a practicality in regard to flags. The question of the past is an issue we need to address.
I would like to comment on what might happen if this does not work out and there is a failure to implement the decisions that need to be made from a budgetary perspective in Northern Ireland. The cuts are beginning to take effect in the PSNI. Libraries and other places are closing. If that continues, it could reach the point at which the Assembly collapses, which no one wants to see. In such circumstances, there would be further elections. This would raise the possibility of direct rule, which no one wants to see either. It is a case of deciding to get on with the business, in so far as that can be done. The Governments need to work assiduously together with all the parties to support the implementation of the agreements as we are bound to do.
Deputy Adams has my word that we will give the time and the effort to achieve progress where that can be done. There has to be a willingness on all sides to move it forward. It might be helpful if the Deputy, as the president and leader of his party, could clarify that there are no restrictions on the Deputy First Minister when he is making decisions in that role on behalf of the Assembly and in the interests of moving on. I understand the challenge in the case of welfare reform, which is a big issue in Northern Ireland, as it is down here. I explained to the Deputy First Minister the other day the nature of the changes we had to make here. We can support the difficult challenges arising from some of these decisions. It is a matter for the Assembly to make those decisions and it is a matter for this Government, as one of the co-guarantors, to work with the British Government and all the parties to move this forward. The Deputy has my word on that. It is to be hoped the agenda will be determined quickly and we will get these talks under way. We will give it our best.
There has been very little movement on the North-South strand. Additional avenues could be pursued, new bodies could be established and the range of projects usefully addressed by the existing bodies could be broadened. Enterprise is one area that springs to mind. There could be significant gains through Enterprise Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland. I recall initiating the first initiative that ensured Northern Ireland companies could go on trade missions overseas with Enterprise Ireland and vice versa. That has been added to by the Minister, Deputy Bruton. While I welcome that, we could go further. There is no reason we could not have a single all-Ireland enterprise agency to deal with indigenous companies. Foreign direct investment is a different kettle of fish.
I am aware of the realities referred to by Deputy Adams. There has always been a strand within unionism that has been very negative towards what might be called "North-Southery", or anything that involves an Irish dimension. Equally, all of us who have been involved over time know that a lot of politics has been played in Northern Ireland. As Deputy Adams said, everyone can play politics. It is a fact that parties go to Governments. This Government's predecessor was put under pressure to get involved in X and do Y. The issue of parades is a classic example in this respect. I always recollect that both parties swore blind to the two Governments - to Gordon Brown, to Brian Cowen and to me - that they would use their point men to sort the parades. When they left Hillsborough, they told us not to worry about the issue. Both parties and the British Government were resiling from the independent Parades Commission for some reason at the time. The commission called a lot of it right from its inception, when it had strong personnel on board, a clear mandate and the backing of both Governments. Sometimes an independent body like that is the best and most effective way to resolve issues of this nature.
There is a great deal of suspicion about what is happening on the budgetary front. The huge subsidy that is coming from the British Government is a reality. It is asserted that certain key policy personnel within Sinn Féin in areas like employment actions were moved to one side. I read recently that the people in charge of the policy on the welfare front had come up with an agreement, only for it to be shelved. That is fuelling suspicion on the Unionist side. We cannot say we are totally innocent and the other side, if we want to use that perspective, is entirely to blame. I do not think that would be a fair analysis. Sinn Féin has taken decisions - for example, its education Minister has closed 125 rural schools - but it does not seem to want to take decisions on welfare within Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin might argue that such decisions would involve dismantling the welfare state, but I am not sure that would be entirely true. There are significant issues with how the budget from Westminster is allocated and structured. There has always been a heavy security dimension to that. Perhaps this could be revisited. One would suspect that there would be a political rationale for that as well. There are questions about how the budget is allocated and the various areas are given priority. At the end of the day, if an Executive is established and an Assembly is formed, it has to take decisions.
There are moves afoot to undermine the power-sharing arrangement. We need to examine them very carefully. There is a rather simplistic view that one could move straight to a majority-minority scenario. The Executive could be improved, for example, by providing for memorandums to flow far more freely between Ministers. There is too much concentration on the offices of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, to the detriment of other Ministers who feel alienated. I refer particularly to Ministers from other parties. I am not playing politics when I say this. If one speaks to Ministers from other parties, they will say they are out of the loop on key issues more often than not. They do not get called in until the two larger parties have made a decision. They are presented with a fait accompli at that stage. That is what is said. I always remember being told that no one would talk to David Ford when he was being touted as the forthcoming justice Minister. The DUP and Sinn Féin had decided during their negotiations on various issues that an Alliance person would be the Minister. When I met David Ford, he told me that no one had spoken to him about it. A little straight talking is needed here. It is not a one-way street. In a multi-party arrangement, there has to be parity of esteem for everyone involved. I accept that the electoral strengths of the parties involved must be reflected. No party should be left out of the loop on key issues or squeezed in some way simply because it is represented by just one Minister.
The issues I have mentioned can be resolved. Where there is a will, there is a way. The more fundamental question of the structure needs to be considered carefully. The First Minister has flown that particular kite by saying we need to look at this fundamentally. I would say to the Taoiseach that we need to be very cautious about engaging in that one. I accept that this is very difficult and challenging for all the parties involved.
However, middle Northern Ireland, if we can use that phrase to describe people working in Northern Ireland and involved in middle ground or moderate opinion, is disillusioned with the Assembly and the Executive judging from any assessment of poll analyses and so on. The people I have met are genuinely disillusioned. This is a question of how one regains the confidence of middle ground opinion so that it does not turn off politics completely. A longer term issue for the institutions under the Good Friday Agreement is the question of how they and politics might evolve within the North.
I welcome the Taoiseach's comment that the Irish Government will be fully involved in all aspects of these talks. I join with his remarks on Mr. Willie Hay, who I have met quite a number of times. He is a decent individual who engaged significantly with us and was a problem solver as opposed to anything else. A member of the DUP, he made a distinctive contribution to parliamentary relationships North and South.
I thank the Deputy. I should think that, when one meets the existing bodies that are in place here, there is a great deal of work that can be done. I do not think one needs to form new bodies for the sake of doing it. That is always the case, be it with Waterways Ireland, InterTradeIreland or the agencies that are in place. There were quite a number of new faces around the table the other day at the North-South. I encouraged Ministers on both sides to engage with one another on a regular basis outside these meetings and to follow this thing through. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, was away in Singapore with the Northern Ireland trade thing. I think that is an important signal, if one likes. I actually said to Prime Minister Cameron that we should do a joint trade mission to a location where it might be appropriate. It would send out another strong signal of the close relationship between Ireland and Britain. I think that is something that we want to work on.
We have spoken before about the corporate tax rate in Northern Ireland versus here. There is an intention - or at least there was anyway - that, after the Scottish referendum, the question of a lower corporate tax rate for Northern Ireland might be approved or might come into being. That in its own way would add to the budgetary problems, I suppose, in Northern Ireland. There will be a loss of revenue, a loss of tax, if the rate is reduced, thereby putting pressure on other budgetary areas. Minister Ford has been very adamant about the impact of cutbacks on his area, particularly in terms of security, the PSNI and all of that.
We did send a number of personnel from Northern Ireland to Brussels on a permanent basis with the Perm Rep during the course of the Presidency so that they were fully informed on the agrisector, trade and all the rest of it. And actually, when one considers their line of investment into the country, it is quite strong and people are choosing to go to Northern Ireland for specific reasons. I would never object to the island entity marketing itself as a location for investment. In fact, I think that, when I was in Japan and a number of other areas, we engaged actively with the First and deputy First Ministers, who both seemed to be in most of these places. It is very easy to make a case for the island of Ireland as distinct from having two separate presentations about a place that is so small, relatively speaking.
The charge being made about the president of Sinn Féin is that he is restricting his deputy First Minister from making decisions. Now, that is the charge. I cannot comment on it, except if it drifts any further, one will run into serious problems with penalties and an inability to have services provided if the budgetary decisions are not made. Obviously, some of these are very difficult. I take the Deputy's point about everybody being treated equally and that there should not be any undermining of the power-sharing arrangement. Minister Ford is an important entity and should be given his due respect for the office that he carries.
I do not have any objection here to having a debate on the issue as the agenda for the talks becomes apparent. People in the House here may well have some valuable contributions to make as to where we should position ourselves in terms of the Agreement and being a co-guarantor for that. Perhaps that might be an issue that we could address when the dates for the talks are finalised and the structure of the agenda is put in place. The Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, will report to Government as that evolves.
It is a bit difficult to know where to start.
Maybe start with a few questions.
Let me start on a positive. It is my very strong view that all of these issues can be worked out with political will. It is my strong view that, whatever about the delays, convolutions and distractions, all of these matters will be worked out. The Taoiseach raised the question of whether I was placing restrictions on the Deputy First Minister. Sinn Féin is an Irish republican party. That means we believe in citizens' rights. If one wants to judge any society, one should judge it by the way it treats its poor, its sick, its elderly and its disadvantaged. This is why we are against austerity. It is not a geographical or political piece of manoeuvring. We are against it, sin é, regardless of whether it comes from the Taoiseach's Government or the Government in London.
As a member of an Irish republican party, I am an active united Irelander. I do not see it as just an aspiration or a piece of rhetoric. I think it is an achievable mission. Of course, we must get the Unionists comfortable, as it has to be a united Ireland in which they can feel secure and have ownership. That is what we are working on.
I outlined certain business in my remarks and asked questions on it. The Taoiseach, as is his wont sometimes, ignored those questions about the convergence of different events. But let us recognise this - at the core of some of the opposition is downright bigotry. It is not just anti-North-Southery. It is anti-Catholic, anti-sectarian and anti-Presbyterian. It is in there and it is something we must face up to. This summer has seen a series of little nasty events in downtown Belfast and other places, racist attacks on the increase and nasty business. Thankfully, no one has been killed, but there are those out there who want to exploit any process of change for their own very narrow advantage.
Folks should know what they are talking about. I was at Hillsborough. We made an agreement with the DUP. Teachta Martin knows this. The DUP brought it to the Orange Order, but the Orange Order rejected it because the UUP was playing party politics. That is the truth of it.
That is exactly the truth of it.
Hold on. Bear with me.
I must remind Deputy Adams that this is Question Time.
I have been liberal because of the need for discussion on some of these wider topics.
Sinn Féin agreed with the Haass proposals, even though they stretch us and those we represent, because we know that, in the longer run, we need harmony, tolerance and respect and we must appreciate that orange is one of our national colours. Our national flag has orange in it. It is not just green. Any unity of the people of this island has to include the unity of orange with the rest of us.
My first request is for the Government to take out the list and ask whether it has actively promoted North-Southery, built on the cross-Border implementation bodies to the degree that they could be and held the British Government to account for issues A, B and C. I attended Sinn Féin's Slógadh in Derry on Saturday. Acht na Gaeilge is still banned. One cannot use the Irish language in court in the North. The thousands of young people whom I meet in my former constituency, including my family members and garpáistí, are being raised through Irish, yet they have no legal right to that in terms of Acht na Gaeilge. There is no bill of rights.
There is no civic forum, there is no all-Ireland civic forum and there is no charter of rights for the island. This list goes on and on. These are Government responsibilities and one cannot blame the DUP, the Unionists or Sinn Féin in this regard, as these are Government responsibilities and then the issue is to lead by example. Unionists are as pragmatic as the rest of us and have come a huge distance. The core I described as bigoted and sectarian does not reflect the finer attitudes and the spirit of the business, community or church sectors or of those who I meet every time I am in the North and who want this process to work.
The job of work is not to assure the Taoiseach of my relationship with the Deputy First Minister because in the North he is my leader, in the same way as the Taoiseach is my leader in this State and particularly in dealing with the British Government. The job is to make sure the Government is doing its job in respect of its co-equal responsibilities and obligations under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. This is the challenge because we can do talks that go nowhere or that fiddle around the edges or that assure the people of both States that we are true to the Good Friday Agreement and that the Taoiseach will act as the co-equal guarantor of people's rights.
Deputy Martin, who should be brief.
Question No. 7 on Mr. Alex Salmond is related to this issue. Will the Taoiseach seek a meeting with the British Prime Minister in light of the result of the Scottish referendum? There have been post-referendum suggestions that the constitutional relationship between Scotland and the Westminster Parliament may be reconsidered, as may the entire constitutional edifice between Westminster and the rest, so to speak, which obviously then relates to Northern Ireland as well. As there has been commentary from all the leading British politicians, from David Cameron to Gordon Brown to the leader of the Labour Party, Mr. Miliband, I would appreciate it were the Taoiseach to comment.
When one talks about barriers and so on, one should be straight. As Members are aware, unionism has a problem with a united Ireland. Moreover, Sinn Féin has not helped that and they would perceive Sinn Féin as a barrier to it. For example, the Border poll thing suits the rhetoric and political agenda of Sinn Féin. It is great to say, "We want a Border poll".
Deputy Martin should support it.
Come on, that is the point.
Sorry, through the Chair please.
That is the politics that is damaging. I will put the question to the Taoiseach, namely, is this not the kind of politics that damages faith and undermines trust? What does having a quasi-referendum in County Armagh - when one knows the result anyway - say to the Unionist community? It is a bit like Crimea and so on, in that we will just have a partitioned one again; we will just have a poll irrespective of the context and so on.
How would Deputy Martin vote?
That is playing the politics Deputy Adams accused me and others of doing earlier. I put it to the Taoiseach that if we wish to build trust between the parties in the North, we should work the agreement to which we all signed up and under which there is an obligation on every party. The Good Friday Agreement was passed by the people of Ireland and they voted for that. They did not vote for it to be torn apart within years but they want it to be worked. If one talks to the middle ground people in Northern Ireland - I put it to the Taoiseach that he should go up and meet them - they want it to work. They want the politicians in the North to work the institutions and not to keep looking back to their electoral base time and time again, to the detriment of the institutions and the fulfilment of the potential of those institutions. This is at the heart of the current impasse in Northern Ireland and remains at the heart of the inability of the actors up there to get going and move it in terms of Northern Ireland and of those involved in the institutions, on all sides, to work the thing fully. Unfortunately, the reflex is to go back to one's own electoral base. The whole issue about economic disadvantage has not been addressed in any comprehensive way by the Executive or by both Governments. As for the people of east and west Belfast, it is a crying shame that, in many cases, the children there still do not complete their second level education and that years on from the Agreement, their health indices still are worse than anywhere in Europe. This is the kind of responsibility the politicians of the North should take upon themselves but they do not do it.
That is the Tory party cuts, as the Deputy is aware.
It was long before the Tory party cuts.
The Deputy knows that.
And I know a lot about it.
The Deputy does not know enough about it.
Through the Chair please. I call the Taoiseach.
Deputy Adams has made an important distinction or clarification here that in Northern Ireland, the Deputy First Minister is his leader while down here, Deputy Adams is his leader. I must assume from this that the allegation made against Deputy Adams politically in Northern Ireland is that he is not restricting the Deputy First Minister from making decisions within the Executive that must be addressed by the Executive. That is what I take from the Deputy's clarification. Clearly, the MPs who are elected from Northern Ireland attend in London and argue for the case for the allocation of more resources for Northern Ireland. The Executive then is given responsibility and devolved authority to make decisions and that is a matter for the Executive. If that is a real problem that is becoming worse, then the inevitability at the end of the line means either the Executive collapses or one follows that with other elections or direct rule and nobody wants that.
At the North-South Ministerial Council held the other day, there was outright condemnation of the burning of the Orange hall in Newtowncunningham and of the burning of the Orange hall in Convoy, the latter of which clearly was arson. People were strongly of the opinion that this certainly is not the direction in which we wish to go. They were outraged by it and condemned it unreservedly. I have raised the question of Acht na Gaeilge and of the bill of rights and it is clear that others do not share that view.
There is no bill of rights here either.
As the Deputy is aware, I cannot force it upon them. Deputy Adams should believe that as things begin to improve in respect of the economy here, it might provide a small amount of additional flexibility to work on issues of importance in respect of the North-South bodies. The Government has been clear in this regard and, for instance, in respect of tourism and the Irish Open competition, it has been quite willing to have it allocated to Northern Ireland, as should be, on a regular basis. This will apply again for the future and the big advantage they have had, in terms of the wonderful support for the Giro d'Italia and the forthcoming British Open towards the end of this decade, will be important issues. As for encouraging Ministers on the North-South Ministerial Council to engage with one another, I refer to issues such as the Altnagelvin development and returning to a point at which, hopefully, the Government can assist with the A5. These are issues the Government must consider in terms of support that can be given from here to help Northern Ireland from an infrastructural point of view. However, the Government will engage in regard to the co-guarantorship of the agreement we have.
In response to Deputy Martin, I spoke to Prime Minister Cameron before the Scottish referendum and the last time I met him, we agreed we would have a meeting in Brussels at the next European Council dealing with climate change, emissions targets and so on. It may be necessary to have a meeting beyond that, by going to London. Senior civil servants were over there last week to make arrangements for the commencement of the talks and if it is necessary, I will be happy to do it and of course will advise the House of that.
I agree with Deputy Martin that there is no case at present for a Border poll. There is no point in wasting time in having a divisive issue, when it is clear that the conditions are not there for it. Northern Ireland's own constitutional status was agreed when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. As the Ceann Comhairle is aware, the Agreement recognises the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland. That is what the Good Friday Agreement actually sets out. It is important not to confuse the position here with Scotland, where the constitutional question was whether there should be an independent Scotland. Unlike Scotland, there never has been a significant political popular opinion seeking independence for Northern Ireland. It is a different matter and in that sense, there is no point in wasting time in having a divisive Border poll when the conditions are not relevant for it.
Clearly, the conditions set out in the Good Friday Agreement for any Border poll mean they do not exist at present. I would be happy to have an engagement with Members when it becomes clear as to the agenda for and structure of the talks and to engage with all the parties and those Members of the House who may have constructive suggestions to make.