1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met church leaders recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37620/14]
Vol. 864 No. 1
1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met church leaders recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37620/14]
2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on meetings he has held with religious leaders. [39838/14]
3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his structured dialogue with religious and faith organisations. [39839/14]
4. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he has had meetings recently with religious leaders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [41693/14]
5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met leaders of the Islamic faith in Dublin recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2176/15]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
Like public representatives generally, I often meet church and other religious and non-religious leaders, on an informal basis, in the course of attending official or public events. In addition, I meet representatives of religious and other philosophical bodies through a formal structured dialogue process which provides a channel for consultation and communication between the State and such bodies on matters of mutual concern. These meetings take place at both ministerial and official level and may be sought by either side on the basis of a proposed agenda, agreed in advance of the meeting. The arrangements for such meetings are made by my Department. This process does not displace arrangements for the conduct of policy and administration by Departments and agencies in their functional responsibilities.
Since taking office, I have attended a plenary meeting with all of the partners in the structured dialogue process. I also met representatives of the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland. I also met an ecumenical delegation of European churches to discuss the priorities of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. I previously outlined for the House the matters discussed at these meetings.
I will meet representatives of the Humanist Association of Ireland and Atheist Ireland in the coming weeks. I will also meet representatives of both the Islamic and Jewish faiths in the coming weeks. I intend to continue to hold meetings with the dialogue partners, including from other faiths and philosophical traditions.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Did he indicate that he had met representatives of the churches recently?
I intend to meet representatives of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, as well as humanist and atheist organisations.
Perhaps the Taoiseach might revert to me on his meetings with representatives of other faiths.
Has the Taoiseach met representatives of the Catholic Church recently?
I have met representatives of the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, as well as an ecumenical delegation from the European churches.
Did these meetings take place recently?
No; they were held before the Presidency.
I ask the Taoiseach to revert to me on when he last met representatives of the churches as part of a structured dialogue. Will he also indicate the philosophical bodies to which he referred?
It is clear from my discussions with many parents and school representatives that resources, rather than patronage, are their main concern. Early in the lifetime of the Government an announcement was made that 50% of schools would change from religious patronage to other models of patronage. Of the 1,500 schools affected by this issue, only one, a Church of Ireland school in the Taoiseach's constituency, has changed its model of patronage. A great deal of time has been wasted and much doubt created on this issue. We would have greater diversity if the previous Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, had not taken such a confrontational and non-consultative approach to patronage, which was never a boiling issue on the ground. The issues continue to be resources, the viability of schools and the provision of supports for schools in terms of teacher numbers, curriculum development and so forth. Will the Taoiseach engage with the patrons of a significant number of schools in his dialogue with the churches in terms of outlining his priorities vis-à-vis schools and education? Is the introduction of tax cuts for the highest earners a greater priority for the Government than the provision of resources for schools and the education of children from the earliest age?
On structured dialogue with representatives of the various faiths, the Paris attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine and demonstrations in Germany on similar issues have brought to a head a public debate about Islam in Europe and the idea of a clash of cultures and civilisations. As I stated last week, it is unacceptable to blame Muslims in general for the actions of an extreme minority group, as certain movements are trying to do. We must stand united against attempts to blame an entire religion or group for the actions of extremists. We must also be vigilant in condemning such extremists who must not be given any quarter by some who may be sneaking regarders or provide some rationale for the base and unacceptable murder of innocent citizens across Europe and the globe. The threat posed by ISIS and returned jihadis has created significant concern among the general population in many European countries. We need to increase our vigilance against extremist violence, while reasserting our belief in a diverse and inclusive society in which all religions are respected.
The Government has been sending mixed messages on the blasphemy laws. The Taoiseach has indicated that he will meet leaders of the Islamic faith. Many people were concerned by the suggestion made by an Imam that newspapers would be sued if certain articles were written or certain cartoons reprinted. The Constitution needs to be amended to remove the provision on blasphemy. However, the Government appears to have made a decision not to hold a referendum on blasphemy. This is the only conclusion one can reach, given the timelines of the Government. The Taoiseach stated in the House that a referendum on blasphemy would not be held in 2015. Speaking on Newstalk last week, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, stated that while the Government had taken a decision to hold a referendum on blasphemy, it had not yet decided on the timing. We must be honest about this. If a referendum is not held in 2015, none will be held during the lifetime of the Government as it will go to the country in early 2016. Clearly, there will not be the wherewithal or capacity to hold such a referendum in 2016. Will the Taoiseach confirm that is the position? This is a mistake and the matter should be reviewed and reconsidered. The question of whether a referendum on blasphemy will be held in the lifetime of the Government is a fair one which deserves a transparent answer.
While I realise this will be a difficult challenge, will the Taoiseach outline his proposals to ensure a fundamentalist minority is not allowed to develop here? We must guard against intolerance towards a religious minority.
I take the Deputy's point about the education system and schools. When I next meet the school patron, I will be happy to engage on this matter. I will also bring the Deputy's point to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills who may meet the patron before I do.
The atrocities in Paris were atrocious and shocked the world. I was privileged to represent the Irish people in Paris where the leaders of the countries of Europe and beyond walked in demonstration of the right to liberty and freedom of speech. It was a demonstration of the "Why?" of the European Union.
I agree with the Deputy. To equate what happened in Paris with the Islamic faith or the Muslim religion is the same as blaming Rome for the atrocities of the IRA or the Church of England for loyalist atrocities. The Islamic faith is one of compassion and peace. What more evidence can we obtain of terrorism than when a policeman - a Muslim - is shot in cold blood and murdered on the street?
It is true to say there is a great need for vigilance and very careful monitoring of absolute terrorism as distinct from anything to do with religious beliefs. Clearly, the authorities here - the Minister for Justice and Equality, the security committee and the Garda - are constantly monitoring the situation. The Deputy is aware that the Minister pointed out that 30 people from Ireland had travelled to Syria and other places in that region. I understand three of them were killed, although I cannot speak about what the other 27 were up to. This is an issue that concerns us in a non-aggressive, non-militarised country. Let me assure Deputy Micheál Martin that, in terms of the security of the people and the State, this is something that is monitored very closely. Obviously, if it is necessary to talk to the Deputy about it, we will do so.
On the question of blasphemy, the Constitutional Convention made quite a number of recommendations and the Government has accepted that there should be a referendum on removing blasphemy from the Constitution. In the month of May there will be two referendums, one on marriage equality and other on changes to the constitutional age limit for eligibility to stand for the Presidency. In respect of Carlow-Kilkenny where a by-election is pending, it will be held on the same day. To be honest with the Deputy, I do not expect another referendum in the lifetime of the Government. I said last week that there would not be and while there has not been a final decision by the Government, I do not expect that there will be. What we did say was that when the Constitutional Convention issued its reports, if the Government accepted the recommendations of the convention, it would indicate its intention to hold a referendum on whatever the issue might be. That stands; it was not the intention to have an indicative timeline for all of these issues. I think six referendums have been held in the course of the term of office of the Government to date, with some being approved by the people. The position is that the intention is to remove blasphemy from the-----
But not in the lifetime of the Government.
I do not see it, although, to be quite honest with the Deputy, the Government has not made a final decision to say: "That is it for the lifetime of this Government." I do not think there will be another referendum, but I will put it to my colleagues in due course in the Cabinet. We have a lot of work to do. However, that does not mean that we are not very clear on accepting the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention that a referendum will have to be held to remove blasphemy from the Constitution. Nonetheless, as I said, we did not indicate any indicative timeline as to when that would actually happen.
Perhaps I missed it, but the Taoiseach did not say when was the last time he had met the leaders of the Christian churches or the Jewish faith. He might want to make this clear.
I consider it very welcome that the Taoiseach will meet representatives of the Islamic faith in the time ahead; he has committed to so doing. I met Muslims from the new mosque at Galway a month or two ago. They are people who have come to Ireland; this is their home and they want to play a role as citizens. They actually add to who we are as a people. Some of them are native Irish people, as well as those who have come from other parts of the world. In particular after the horrific attacks in Paris, it is crucial that we try to deepen our understanding of each other, what motivates people and their different values. Even though all of the great religions in the world have generally the same core values, it is a question of how they can divide and create divisions as opposed to tolerance and respect for differences. It was interesting to hear Pope Francis warn about the risks and dangers of mocking anyone's religion. A good piece of work could be done in illustrating the fact that we can have a pluralist society; that no matter what the faith, whether it be Protestant, Catholic, Dissenter or others, everybody is welcome and that this is upheld by the State, namely, the right to religious belief but as a personal matter of conscience for everyone.
Tá sé tábhachtach fosta go bhfuil cairdeas maith ann idir an Rialtas agus na heaglaisí eagsúla. Tá gá le hidirphlé eatarthu chun fadhbanna a réiteach agus chun rudaí a chur i gceart.
In regard to the Christian churches, while the Government has brought forward the terms of reference for a commission of investigation, there is the scandal of the mother and baby homes. The Taoiseach will know that various reports have revealed that thousands of babies and many adults died in the most desperate of circumstances in institutions run in the main by Catholic religious orders but with the agreement and support of the Government. The Protestant churches also played a role, although much less significant, for example, in the Bethany Home. I say it was much less significant in so far as they were a minority as opposed to making any judgment on the awfulness inflicted on people, including children, who were in these homes.
Did the Taoiseach have discussions with any church leader about this issue? Does he intend to discuss the terms of reference with church leaders? In addition, when will we have the opportunity to debate this serious matter? While the terms of reference may be a good start, the fact is that they are inadequate because they fail to ensure, for example, that the commission's terms of reference will include the Westbank Orphanage and some of the other Protestant institutions, as well as the Magdalen laundries. There is clearly a view among the survivors, for example, the Magdalenes, that what the Government has put in place does not match the Taoiseach's very clear apology in this Chamber. There is then the issue of the transportation of children to and from institutions on both sides of the Border which is now a public fact. Even in today's edition of The Irish Times there is a letter from some of the survivors which alludes to this and asks for them to be included in the investigations because they feel they are outside their scope and that, therefore, their experiences will not be recognised, investigated, validated or acknowledged. Have these issues been discussed with church leaders?
On the issue of homelessness, I commend the initiative taken in this city by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin when he made premises available and took action in concert with the Government and the Lord Mayor to deal with this issue following the untimely death of Jonathan Corrie in the run-up to Christmas. There is sense that we are dealing with the crisis instead of dealing with the issue in a strategic way. Trying to focus on and engage with civic society, including the churches, could be a useful way of avoiding or at least reducing the levels of homelessness and poverty.
I am sure the Taoiseach and others will join me in commending the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which has spent 170 years working with the poor and disadvantaged. That society faces huge pressure at this time and reports that professionals, such as nurses, gardaí and teachers, are now using its services in greater numbers and seeking help to pay bills and feed their families. In both west Belfast and Louth, I have referred citizens, privately and confidentially, to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Society for help. It is reported that since 2008, the financial value of offers of help from the society to citizens has doubled and now amounts to more than €42 million. The biggest outlay is on food, but a further €10 million goes to help people pay their gas, electricity and oil bills. People who want to have heat in their homes have had to seek charity from the society.
These are the stark statistics and religious leaders have expressed grave concerns about the rising levels of poverty. The budget brought forward for 2015 is considered regressive by the ESRI, because it ingrains social divisions and poverty in this State. Yesterday, Oxfam put forward the consideration that 1% of the world's population now owns more wealth than the other 99% combined. Has the Taoiseach spoken to leaders of faith groups on this issue?
I did not catch what Deputy Adams said at the beginning. He made some comment about the Jewish faith.
I was making a general point, trying to be inclusive of all the faith communities on the island.
I did not hear the Deputy clearly and thought he might have said I was making a division between the Islamic and Jewish faiths.
Not at all.
I intend to meet both groups shortly.
In respect of the budget for 2015, in any country, the answer to poverty is to have an economy that can deliver jobs. Social protection is an important element in bolstering the economy of this country and the Tánaiste has made an extraordinary effort towards this through changing the nature of social protection and the way it is perceived. What used to be the dole or social welfare office, where people on the list went in and claimed their money from other taxpayers has now changed to the Intreo offices, where the experience, capability, talent and aspirations of everybody are taken into account and profiled. Hopefully, as time goes on, more and more people will be given the opportunity to give vent to their capabilities and potential. It is evident from this mix that the level of unemployment has dropped consistently over the past 13 months. While unemployment is now reduced from just over 15% to just over 10%, this is still too high. As the Deputy knows, in difficult circumstances, a good, well-paying job is a passport to better prospects and is the route out of poverty, disillusionment and despair.
I commend the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other charitable organisations on the work they have done over many years. Unfortunately, given the recession here a number of years ago and the scale of the collapse, where 250,000 people lost their jobs and every house in the country was in negative equity and people's ambitions, livelihoods and savings were decimated and destroyed, we are only pulling back from the brink of that disaster now to a point where after all the sacrifices made, there are now brighter days ahead. Hopefully, the economy will continue to be well managed and jobs will be created that will provide a passport out of that situation. When I have met with the church leaders of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, I will report to the House on those meetings but I look forward to engaging again with the other leaders of the Christian churches also.
The Deputy raised the issue of mother and baby homes. This is an issue of great concern for the Government and at its meeting of 8 January this year, it agreed the process to establish the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters. As the Deputy is aware, this issue is being handled by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly. This is a significant development in delivering on the Government's commitment to establish a statutory investigation with all of the necessary powers to provide a full proper and timely account of what happened to vulnerable women, babies and children in these homes.
The House is aware the commission will be established under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. It will be chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy and she will be assisted by the eminent historian, Professor Mary Daly, who has great insight into these issues, and by the international legal expert on child protection and adoption, Dr. William Duncan. The Minister published the terms of reference on 9 January, in the presence of former residents of some of these homes and the groups that represent them. The terms of reference provide for a comprehensive investigative framework that involves interlinked and concurrent lines of inquiry.
The primary focus of the investigation is on the experiences of women and children who lived in mother and baby homes from 1922 until 1998. The main areas to be investigated include the entry arrangements and exit pathways of single women; living conditions and care arrangements in those institutions; mortality among mothers and children - given the circumstances such as disease, etc,, mortality was very high in some institutions; the causes, circumstances and rates of mortality; post mortem practices and procedures; reporting of deaths; burial arrangements and the transfer of remains for anatomical examination; the compliance with the relevant or regulatory and ethical standards in regard to systemic vaccine trials identified by the commission as being conducted on children in these homes; entry arrangements and exit pathways for mothers and children leaving those institutions; patters of referral; relevant relationships with other entities; and the extent to which any group of residents may have systematically been treated differently on grounds including race, disability or religion.
It is accepted this is the right approach to take, although it may not be perfect. The commission is critically important in regard to coming to terms with our history as a people. During the 76 years from 1922 to 1998, significant social, economic, political and other changes took place. I believe some of what we will learn will be very painful and that what is termed the "good old days" will be seen not to have been such good old days at all. The commission will allow the experience of individuals to be understood, not just as their personal stories, but as part of a broader, social and cultural context of how we as a society, and those who went before us, responded to single women and their children who needed support and assistance rather than judgment. I understand the Minister will bring the resolution for debate to the House tomorrow, 21 January, and will seek time for it in the Seanad thereafter. Subject to Oireachtas approval of the resolution, the Minister will, on behalf of the Government, sign the order to establish the commission to conduct its inquiry.
Some 14 mother and baby homes were included on the list and that list has been published and is available. The terms of reference are important. The issue of Bethany homes and Westbank Orphanage has been raised and dealt with. The Magdalen laundries were not specified in the terms of reference in regard to mother and baby homes.
However, clear criteria were used to define them, including having the main function of providing sheltered and supervised ante and post-natal facilities for mothers and their children. The Magdalen laundries did not come within that definition.
With regard to the terms of reference, the Minister has been asked to ask the commission to examine the extent to which the laundries were part of the entry or exit pathways of single mothers into or leaving mother and baby homes. The issues to be examined in the social history module of the commission will also explicitly cite the laundries in this regard. The report of the interdepartmental committee to establish the facts of State involvement in the Magdalen laundries has been fully accepted by the Government. It was a comprehensive and objective report on the factual position prepared under the supervision of an independent chairperson.
I appreciate that while some women continue to be dissatisfied with the process to date, those concerned received an apology on behalf of the State, had the opportunity to relate their stories to Mr. McAleese and Mr. Justice Quirke and are entitled to receive a capital sum, as well as a lifelong pension top-up payment and access to medical services.
I have been asked a few times whether it is the intention to set up a redress scheme such as that set up in other cases. Given that the matters within the scope of the investigation have not been central to a previous inquiry, it would be premature to consider the issue of redress in these matters. The commission has to have the opportunity to conclude its investigation and establish the facts of what happened in and around these homes and, in the absence of these facts, it would be difficult at this stage to make appropriate determinations on issues such as redress or apologies. I expect the Minister to set up the commission. It has its terms of reference and financing in place. Let it do its job and us see what are the results.
The Taoiseach said the issue of the Westbank Orphanage had been dealt with. My certain conviction and knowledge is that it has not been and I ask him to clarify this. If it has not been included in the commission's terms of reference, as is my belief, it should be.
With regard to the Magdalen laundries, as the Taoiseach said, the women concerned were held in horrific conditions. They were slaves. They should be part of this important investigation in their own right and treated as a module and not because the laundries may have been an exit or entry point to another institution. It is an accepted fact that children were transported on both sides of the Border. I cited the letter in today's edition of The Irish Times because it happened to be on this day. Survivors are saying they are not part of the investigation. This should be rectified and I appeal to the Taoiseach to do so. I acknowledge that the Government has done some good work in looking at all of these matters, but we should not leave anybody out; we should be as inclusive as possible. I ask the Taoiseach to reflect on what I have said and, more important than what he and I have said, on what the survivors have said and rectify the matter by amending the terms of reference accordingly.
In all of these matters we have to be led by the people who went through the experience. The voices of the victims and those campaigning on their behalf have to be respected. As I understand it, the Westbank Orphanage and other Protestant institutions have not been included. They need to be included. Similarly, I support the calls regarding the Magdalen laundries. The Taoiseach should heed these calls. While I accept the point about the commission looking at the overall picture before moving on to the issue of redress and so on, there has be a clear commitment that there will be redress. There is no doubt whatsoever that the people who passed through these institutions were wronged and robbed of their identities in many cases and there has to be a clear commitment that there will be redress and that people will have the right to recover identities stolen from them.
I refer to the issues the Taoiseach plans to raise when he meets religious leaders from the Muslim community. While decent, moral, sentient human beings were outraged and condemned the appalling killings in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, we are witnessing a worrying reaction - I am glad to say for the most part not in this country - in much of Europe where there has been a rise in Islamophobia with the Muslim community as a whole being demonised for the actions of a tiny group of extremists who happen to be Muslims as if there is some connection between Islam in general and the unspeakable actions that took place in the Charlie Hebdo offices. We have to absolutely nail that Islamophobia because if it is allowed to gain currency, it will make more likely atrocities such as the ones we witnessed and fuel the growth of extremist groups.
I read the personal story of one of the people involved in France. She comes from an Algerian background and at one stage changed her name to make it sound more French but then switched in the other direction to become an ultra-Islamacist. There has been serious growth on the far right, in racism and Islamophobia in France and one action, as misguided and stupid as it was, means that people faced with such racism may embrace extreme forms of what they consider to be their religious identity which may lead to similar carnage to that seen in the Charlie Hebdo offices. It is vitally important that we in Ireland are a voice in Europe to say, however we react to and deal with the causes of the attacks on these offices, it must not be by demonising in a racist way or generalising about the Muslim community. It makes as much sense to blame Muslims in general for what happened in these offices as it does to blame all Christians for the shooting of John Lennon or some of the atrocities that have taken place in the United States at the hands of fringe, right-wing and ultra-Christian groups. We would not blame all Christians for them or even make a connection with Christianity as a whole, but Islamophobia and the demonisation of the Muslim community are gaining currency in an alarming way in Europe.
When the Taoiseach has met leaders of the Muslim community, I would like to receive a report. They have expressed concerns about this issue and it is important that we in Ireland take a clear and principled stand against the worrying rise of Islamophobia which is not the answer to the awful episode in Paris.
I would like to follow up on a number of the questions I asked. Will the Taoiseach name the other philosophical bodies he said he would meet? When did he last meet in structured dialogue format representatives of the Christian churches or any other church?
I will send the Deputy the details.
The Taoiseach indicated that he was due to meet the leaders of the Islamic and Jewish churches, but I am not clear on when he last met representatives of the main churches in the structured dialogue format established between them and the Department of the Taoiseach by the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
I think Bertie Ahern started the idea of a structured dialogue between the Department of the Taoiseach and the main churches. It is important because it has been said that depending on how the churches are constituted, very often it is the fringe elements who set up the church and become quasi-leaders of a unit of that church and in the case of the Islamic situation, there are huge distortions of the Koran, all with a view to recruit jihadis and getting young people to commit horrendous acts. Could the Taoiseach check that for me?
In respect of patronage, do I take it that this is now off the agenda in the manner in which the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, put it on the agenda, namely that the patronage of 50% of the 1,500 schools out there would change? I take it that this is now off the agenda. Can the Taoiseach confirm this?
The Taoiseach indicated that there would be no referendum on removing blasphemy from the Constitution during the lifetime of this Government. I think this is a pity because it would be one concrete response by the Government and the Oireachtas to what has happened and the concept of freedom of speech, particularly the plurality of media opinion on that. It something the Government should give serious consideration to and review its decision not to have a referendum in the lifetime of the Government.
Deputies Adams and Boyd Barrett raised the question of Westbank Orphanage and Bethany Home. I note that there is a letter in today's edition of The Irish Times regarding the terms of reference of the commission of investigation into the mother and baby homes that was signed by survivors of the Westbank Orphanage and Bethany Home. The Westbank Orphanage is not included in the investigation while Bethany Home is included. Very clear criteria were used to identify these homes. The survivor group in question is seeking to add additional institutions which were primarily children's homes and orphanages to the list of specified mother and baby homes. No children's home or orphanage has been listed. Rather, the commission is tasked with examining the arrangements and pathways between the specified homes and all such entities which had a relationship with these homes. These entities include children's homes, orphanages and adoption societies. The terms of reference of the commission will be to investigate the exit pathways of children when they left those homes and, in particular, the nature of the relationship between the mother and baby homes and those other entities. That will include identifying patterns of referral, practices and arrangements for placing children, including where an intermediary organisation was involved in arranging a subsequent placement. That also means that the terms of reference also require consideration of the extent to which mothers consented to such placements in the first place. Was their consent full, free and informed? It will examine the degree to which children's welfare and protection was considered in the first place in making such placements. However, children's homes, orphanages and similar institutions are clearly not mother and baby homes. They did not provide the specific range of services, in particular, supervised antenatal and postnatal facilities to single mothers and children, which are the central focus of the investigation here. When that investigation goes ahead, these lines will become clearer in respect of the referral practices, exit, aftercare and the consent of the mothers.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the question of the Islamic faith and the question of terrorism. I completely share his view. It is not often that we agree on issues but this is clearly a case of absolute terror epitomised by the murder in cold blood of a policeman who happened to be a Muslim by one of the terrorists involved. I think it was Voltaire who said that to hold a pen is to be at war. Clearly, the editors of Charlie Hebdo know that, as do journalists in many other locations around the world. It is a fact that great writers from this country like Joyce, Beckett and Yeats all went to Paris many years ago because it was the place of free expression where artists and writers went. It is important that we understand this. I share the Deputy's view about vigilance in understanding that the Islamic and Jewish faiths have no connection with what was witnessed on the streets and supermarkets in Paris.
There is an obvious response internationally to what is now a global phenomenon of terrorism in different countries. I note that President Obama has organised a conference dealing with international terrorism in Washington for the not too distant future. I understand that 25 or 30 Irish citizens travelled to various conflicts in north Africa and the Middle East since the start of the Arab Spring in 2010. Some travelled for humanitarian and family reasons, however, some are known to have participated in conflicts and at least three have died. A number of individuals have returned to Ireland from these conflict zones. The gardaí have engaged with those who have returned from conflict areas in line with best practice internationally.
There is also a small number of people in this country who support extremism and would try to facilitate it. These people have no part in the building up of our society or a society anywhere else with views like that. The activities of these people are closely monitored by an Garda Síochána and there is very close co-operation between the security forces here and in other jurisdictions. The gardaí are keeping the level of threat of terrorism from international terrorists under constant review as things develop. In this, they have the full support of the Government and the Opposition parties which are determined that all practical steps are taken to deal with any threat that might arise. It is essential that at times like this that entire communities do not get stigmatised because of the actions of a few. We must always bear in mind that the threat does not come from particular communities or religions. It comes from terrorists who must alone bear the full responsibility for these atrocious actions. The vast majority of people in our communities wish to go about their daily lives in peace. I take this opportunity to say that I greatly welcome the statement issued by the religious leaders in respect of their communities and faiths but this is an issue that concerns us all.
I must come back to Deputy Martin with the list of dates and groups. I will send him all of that. I understand that discussions in respect of the question of patronage are still ongoing although I think the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, made it perfectly clear that one would never get anywhere near 50% changeover when he announced the intent in the beginning.
Why did he announce it at all?
When the Archbishop of Dublin called to see me, he told me that the church had too many schools under its wing and that he wished to divest it of a number of those while clearly keeping in mind that the church would require schools with a Catholic ethos. I will give Deputy Martin the dates of the full engagement we had, the issues discussed and the philosophical bodies that are involved.
I think Deputy Adams raised a point about global wealth. This country has one of the progressive taxation systems in the developed world. The top 1% of earners pay 21% of all income tax and USC, the top 24% of earners pay 80% of all income tax and USC and the bottom 76% of earners pay 20% of all income tax and USC. In addition, the Government has ensured that 410,000 people do not have to pay USC and we intend to increase that number to 500,000 in 2015.
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if there is an agreed process in his Department for statutory board appointments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37625/14]
7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if there are protocols in his Department for appointments to State boards; the details of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [40963/14]
8. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach the process in place in his Department for appointments to the boards of State agencies and organisations. [43817/14]
9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the processes and protocols in his Department for appointments to State boards; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [47831/14]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, together.
The National Economic and Social Development Office, NESDO, is the body corporate for the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, and the only State agency under the aegis of my Department. The board of the NESDO comprises the chair and deputy chair of the NESC, both of whom are civil servants from my Department serving in an ex-officio capacity. Appointments to the National Economic and Social Council are made under section 14 of the National Economic and Social Development Office Act 2006, as amended by the National Economic and Social Council (Alteration of Composition) Order 2010. The NESC consists of 34 members, of whom 20 are appointed on the basis of nominations of other groups and organisations and six are civil servants - five Secretaries General and one assistant secretary - appointed in an ex-officio capacity on the basis of functional responsibility. As Taoiseach, I have discretion over eight appointments to the board.
In respect of the National Statistics Board, section 18 of the Statistics Act 1993 sets out the composition of the board and the procedures for appointing members to it. The board consists of eight members, comprising the following seven persons appointed by the Taoiseach: five persons of proven ability and experience in the relevant fields, two of whom are nominated by the Taoiseach and three by such organisation or organisations as the Taoiseach considers to be representative of the users of official statistics and providers of information under the Act; an assistant secretary or equivalent or higher grade in the Department of the Taoiseach; an assistant secretary or equivalent or higher grade in the Department of Finance; and the director general of the CSO in an ex-officio capacity.
Following a recent Government decision, all State board vacancies must be advertised openly on the State boards portal, www.stateboards.ie, which is operated by the Public Appointments Service. Appointees must meet specific and detailed criteria necessary for the effective performance of the relevant roles and will be processed by way of a transparent system designed and implement by the Public Appointments Service.
The last part of the Taoiseach's answer was the most relevant to the questions asked, which were about whether there was an agreed process in the Department of the Taoiseach for statutory board appointments. As we discovered during the Seanad by-election last year, the Taoiseach and his staff take a very active role in board appointments across the Government. That came out sharply during the aforementioned episode. I draw the Taoiseach's attention to a book written recently by Mr. John Walshe who was an adviser to the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. Mr. Walshe was very specific about appointments to State boards. In his book which was a memoir of his experiences in the past four years he explained that Fine Gael advisers in Government Buildings were almost obsessed with Fine Gael getting its full share of people on State boards. The main interest of the Taoiseach's office in discussions with the Department of Education and Skills was not education but rather the number of board appointments Fine Gael could secure. I ask the Taoiseach to comment on this. The main engagement between his officials and advisers in Fine Gael and the Department of Education and Skills was not on education; rather, it was concerned with the number of Fine Gael appointments that could be made to State boards under the Department's aegis.
Will the Taoiseach explain why he thinks he has now radically reformed State appointments? He has been telling the House for the past three years that he has radically changed how people are appointed, but we know from Mr. Walshe's memoir and the McNulty affair that that is not the case. Is it not the truth that the overwhelming majority of appointments have involved people who were chosen for political reasons and then told to submit their applications? The Taoiseach created a new system but got around it to meet his need to appoint affiliates to boards. Will the new system put an end to the so-called two-for-one arrangement between Fine Gael and the Labour Party? I understand that for every appointment the Labour Party makes, Fine Gael gets to make two. According to Mr. Walshe, that is how appointments have been made since the Government came to power.
All of us will at least support the broad principle that holding a position on these boards is an honour and an act of public service. The people on boards are there to serve citizens who depend on good governance. The controversy in which the Taoiseach was involved in the appointment of Mr. John McNulty to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art undermined this principle. Apart from the bad practice this cronyism represents, it also shows the Government's total disregard for the arts. The Taoiseach does not need me to tell him about the importance of promoting, defending and respecting the arts community. After dodging the issue of the appointment of Mr. McNulty, he eventually took full responsibility for the mess. The establishment of Uisce Éireann and its board and the millions of euro given to consultants further strengthened the belief cronyism and patronage were at the heart of the Government's appointments. Will the Taoiseach confirm that his Department is in compliance with the new guidelines? Have the rules been tightened and measures been introduced in order that a Minister can remove a board member who is failing to perform his or her duty or where a conflict of interest arises subsequent to his or her appointment? It is a question of citizens having confidence in how we discharge our responsibilities to them. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the objectives set out are being met by the new guidelines in their implementation by the Government and, in particular, his Department?
It is rich to hear Fianna Fáil raising issues about the stacking of State boards.
It is not.
If memory serves me correctly - perhaps the Taoiseach can help my recollection - just before the last general election Fianna Fáil made 110 appointments to State boards in its last act.
There were a few more.
It was an extraordinary two fingers to the country by Fianna Fáil as it left office. It will take a while before I can be convinced that the leopard has changed its spots in that regard.
It would be interesting to see what leverage the Deputy would bring with his totalitarian approach.
We are in favour of elections to State boards.
You are in your backside.
The only way to have real transparency and accountability in these matters is by having elections to State boards. The McNulty affair indicates that political appointments continue to be made. While that power rests with Ministers or senior civil servants, there is an irresistible temptation for any party or Government to pack boards with people with whom they have a connection. The abysmal record of the last Government compared to more recent cases suggests things have not changed much. In Dún Laoghaire recently we witnessed an appointment to the harbour board. It happened out of the blue. Announcements are made and nobody is quite sure who makes the decision. Who are the members of the Public Appointments Service? I ask the Taoiseach to provide the names of the people concerned and explain the relationship between them and politicians. If we are to move towards the transparency and accountability that most people want, should we not have elections to State boards?
The questions are irrelevant. We are in a very different space now and all appointments to any State board are first advertised on www.stateboards.ie. Any person anywhere in the country who wishes to apply for any of these positions must apply through that website, meet the criteria set out there, be vetted, and have his or her credentials verified as suitable for appointment to the relevant State board before anything further can happen. I refer Deputies to the guidelines on appointments to State boards which were published in November last year by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. They set out a very different position for the future for all of these appointments. They require that while www.stateboards.ie becomes a one-stop-shop for all of these appointments, candidates must specify relevant experience, educational and other qualifications, particular personal attributes and a range of skills they will bring to board membership. The portal also contains definitive current information on all statutory boards including legal basis, membership, terms of appointment, current vacancies, gender balance and other diversity indicators. For the information of Deputies, the guidance on appointments to State boards sets out all of these things.
Did the Taoiseach read John Walshe's book?
I did not see the whole programme either. I saw a bit of it and I saw enough as I was here at the time.
The Taoiseach would have a unique insight into it. He would not have to watch it at all.
I was around for all of what happened except the demolition of the bird and the delights that took place under the tablecloth over the man's head. I do not know if that happened in reality or not.
Far be it for me to comment on the memoirs of the eminent Mr. Walshe who wrote and wrote well on educational matters from the other side of the fence for a very long time. I would not deign to comment on his memoirs.
The Taoiseach should have a look at it. It lays matters bare.
They are his personal views and we are now in a very different space. Thanks be to God, it is all vetted now by the Public Appointments Service the way that it should be.
They were inundated with calls from the Taoiseach's office to put people on boards.