1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the last meeting of the National Security Committee was held; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4296/15]
Vol. 885 No. 1
1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the last meeting of the National Security Committee was held; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4296/15]
2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the number of meetings of the National Security Committee that have taken place in the past 12 months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4297/15]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
Having regard to the confidential nature of the work of the National Security Committee, it would not be appropriate to disclose information on the dates of individual meetings or its proceedings. The committee is chaired by the Secretary General to the Government and comprises representatives at the highest level of the Departments of Justice and Equality, Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade, An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces. It is concerned with ensuring the Government and I are advised of high level security issues and the responses to them but not with operational security matters. It meets as required and will continue to do so. In addition to its meetings, its members liaise on an ongoing basis to monitor developments that might have national security implications, in particular, in the international arena.
I thank the Taoiseach for that answer and do appreciate the need for discretion. However, in our experience of the British security and intelligence systems, the ways in which secrecy can be abused, decisions and actions taken are at odds with democratic norms and values and adversely impact on the lives of citizens are now a part of our history. I am not suggesting that could happen here, although when there is no accountability, there is the potential for such abuses to occur. The British state infamously collaborated in the killing of hundreds of citizens, including in this state. Its intelligence agencies collected and I have no doubt still collect millions of pieces of information on ordinary citizens across the island. The British are not alone in this. The United States was caught spying on most European states, which are its allies. It was interesting to see that at the beginning of this month the US Senate passed a Bill to end bulk collection of millions of Americans' telephone records. That was the consequence of the courageous actions of Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency whistleblower. His information confirmed that the US Government, without obtaining court warrants, had routinely collected telephone logs of tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of Americans who had no link whatsoever with subversion or violent groups.
I raise these matters as an illustration of the danger that secret intelligence gathering practices can lead to illegality and human rights abuses. This must be balanced with the need of the State to protect citizens.
According to The Irish Times, a draft Government White Paper, which was to be presented to the Cabinet this morning, details concerns expected to arise over the next ten years, including cyber attacks, organised crime and potential threats from events in Libya, Iraq and Syria. Are there any mechanisms for oversight and what are they? Does the national security committee have any oversight role in the gathering of information and surveillance by the various intelligence-led sections of An Garda Síochána and the director of military intelligence? Does it have any responsibility for decisions over what citizens could or should be targets of surveillance? I do not know if this is true but it was reported ten years ago that An Garda Síochána requested clearance to examine 10,000 telephone records of citizens. Does the national security committee have a role in this? Does it have to clear it and does it have any oversight over such actions? What is the relationship of the national security committee with other intelligence agencies? For example, does it share or authorise the sharing of intelligence information with the British or other European Governments or the USA?
For obvious reasons, I do not propose to describe the discussions that were held by the committee. It does, however, cover the range of relevant security issues, including dissident activity in Northern Ireland and the international terrorist threat here. Dissident activity in Northern Ireland is clearly of great interest to the Executive in Northern Ireland and to the Government and ordinary people here. I assume the party of Deputy Adams supports the issue of dealing with dissident republican activity within Stormont.
We support it here as well, Taoiseach.
I appreciate that and I thank Deputy Adams for his confirmation. Ireland cannot consider itself immune from international terrorist threats and the level of threat from this source is kept under constant review by An Garda Síochána, particularly in light of changes that take place in the current international climate. There is no specific information on any threat to this country from international terrorism but we will focus on any other measures that can be taken to prevent an attack such as that in Tunisia.
The Garda authorities and the Garda Commissioner will work very closely with their international security and intelligence counterparts in counteracting any threat and they take appropriate operational measures where needed. I do not have access to the detail of what those operational measures might be. The activities of a small number of people based in Ireland and whose behaviour may be of concern in this regard will continue to be monitored closely and regularly. This country also contributes actively to the actions that have been brought forward at EU level by the justice and home affairs Ministers to support the work of member states in counteracting the threat from terrorism, and these include actions to address the foreign fighter phenomenon and to combat violent radicalisation. We also engage with international partners, including the United States, the Council of Europe and the United Nations, in efforts to combat ongoing terrorism and radicalisation.
The Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) (Amendment) Act 2015 was enacted on 8 June and further strengthens Ireland's laws to address the international terrorist phenomenon. It contains three offences, namely, public provocation to commit terrorist offences, recruitment for terrorism and training for terrorism. These offences carry penalties of ten years imprisonment on conviction and on indictment and are especially pertinent to the nature of the current challenges presented by international terrorism given that there is clear evidence across Europe of people who are engaged in the radicalisation of others. I listened to the father of the person who was the main perpetrator of the murders on the beaches in Tunisia and there seemed to have been a total change in the young man's nature and personality. The legislation here complements the State's existing body of counterterrorism law, including the Offences Against the State Act and the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005.
The Government has given priority to this issue. During Ireland's recent Presidency of the Council of the European Union, we were successful in gaining the agreement of member states to review the EU strategy for counter-radicalisation and recruitment to terrorism. Work is continuing on this matter at various levels within the European Union and Ireland participates in that. One of the issues that needs to be addressed in that review is how best to manage the phenomenon known as foreign fighters. Ireland is also a member of a group of like-minded states established during the Irish Presidency to develop a response to this issue. The Minister for Justice and Equality has met her EU colleagues with a view to building momentum behind a range of efforts to resolve this particular issue. In 2014, we co-sponsored the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2198, which set out a series of measures to address the growing problem of international terrorism, including the foreign fighter phenomenon and international radicalisation. Earlier this year, we also participated actively in the negotiation of an additional protocol to the Council of Europe's Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism in 2005 which is aimed at countering foreign fighters.
This country is very much in tune with the threat, and the committee, chaired by the Secretary General to the Government, engages regularly with its members. Gardaí regularly monitor the threat and take whatever operational measures they deem appropriate to deal with any indication that something is about to happen.
In light of the horrific and brutal murders in Tunisia, there clearly is a need for the national security committee to meet quite regularly because surveillance works. There is another side to the equation and while I understand the balance between surveillance and privacy rights for citizens, the most fundamental obligation of Government is to protect its citizens and that means proper surveillance and proper intelligence. I question whether we have the capacity we require in light of the threats that are emerging through ISIS and radical Islamic fundamentalists. This is an attack on our civilisation such as we have not quite had before in its widespread and random nature. It can happen in any city in the world, from Sydney to Paris to a beach in Tunisia. Unfortunately, one of the prices citizens have to pay to enhance our protection is to have robust surveillance and intelligence. If people have alternatives to this I would like to hear them.
We rely a lot on international intelligence and we need to take stock of our own internal capacity to determine how safe Ireland is from an ISIS attack. That is a significant point which I do not make in any accusative or political way. It is an obvious question to ask, given the absolutely random way in which these people go about their horrid deeds. There is no great sophistication in a young man walking along a beach with a Kalashnikov rifle and just mowing down innocent people who are on holiday.
That creates a whole new security surveillance-intelligence paradigm the likes of which we have never really had to deal with. That is the point I am making to the Taoiseach.
I remember the national security meetings and their regularity, particularly in the context of this particular threat which can happen at any time, anywhere and with the most random of measures. As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, I saw how surveillance and intelligence worked. I know the number of times I was briefed by security forces. I know that the Minister for Foreign Affairs would be briefed on dissident threats, for example, and that criminals operating in the North with bombs that were twice the size of the one in Omagh have been intercepted at the 11th hour. God knows what would have happened if those bombs and bombing missions were not thwarted at the 11th hour by the security forces and the Garda working with the PSNI.
There is a balance to be struck. I do not believe in mass targeting of citizens' information or anything like that. One needs intelligent intelligence, if one likes, and targeted approaches. However, surveillance and intelligence protects lives. In Northern Ireland, down through the years, there were some appalling acts of counter-intelligence, collusion and all of that. On the other hand, there was intelligence that saved lives. Right up to the present day, Northern Ireland intelligence and surveillance saves lives.
The ISIS threat is the most serious we have encountered in recent times. I do not have all the answers to it but the sheer random nature of it necessitates more frequent meetings of the National Security Committee and, perhaps, an assessment of our capacity to deal with it.
I do not think anyone would disagree with the comments of Deputy Martin. Intelligence and information is critical to saving lives and preventing incidents of terrorism or extremism which is why, when speaking to the British Prime Minister this morning, I said to him that we will co-operate with the British Government in respect of interception of communications where that applies, but that it would be within the confines of the law. Deputy Martin is well aware of the close co-operation between the Garda and the PSNI and the evidence that it has prevented incidents on both sides of the Border. The level of co-operation remains very high and there is clearly a level of sharing of intelligence, which I know Deputy Martin supports. The Garda have met their counterparts at a European level and are very conscious of this issue.
Do we hear remarks about this country being used as a hub for transit to other locations of these so-called foreign fighters? There is no evidence that Ireland is a transit hub for extremists. As a small number of people who belong to a particular group are here, if there are any indications in their activities of involvement or an inclination in that regard, they are closely monitored by the Garda. It is important to say that the vast majority of those religious groups who are here want to go about their lives in the ordinary way and practise their genuine religious beliefs.
We do not have any evidence, given to the committee, of this country being used as a hub for terrorist activities. The current approach by the EU, in which we participate, is focused on four areas: enhanced information sharing between police and intelligence services, which is the point Deputy Martin raised; dealing with online radicalisation; engagement with third states used by foreign fighters to access Syria and Iraq, notably in this case Turkey; and improved controls to counteract illicit firearms. The European internal security strategy concentrates on a number of priority areas in tackling terrorism. They include the establishment of a European counter-terrorism centre within EUROPOL; disrupting organised crime, which included supporting legislation to make it more difficult for criminals to abuse financial systems; and fighting cybercrime, focusing on identifying high risk areas here and working with the private sector to identify vulnerabilities and close loopholes and the provision of specialised training. In this context the Government recently approved the national cyber-security strategy, which will be led by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The priority areas also include dealing with online radicalisation, including launching an EU level forum with the IT companies to bring them into contact with civil law, civil society and law enforcement agencies with a view to countering online extremist propaganda. The authorities here have met social media companies and organisations with a view to looking at that issue. Officials from the Department of Justice and Equality and members of the Garda travelled and met the major social media companies to identify ways the public and the private sector can work to address this particular matter. It is an issue of concern to everyone. From the Garda point of view and the committee's point of view, this is a high level priority and continues to be monitored very closely.
3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the position regarding the letter he mentioned during the Order of Business on 28 January 2015 that he received from a legal firm in respect of the terms of reference for the commission of inquiry to be established following the Guerin report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5475/15]
4. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the correspondence he received on 8 December 2014, referred to during the Order of Business on 28 January 2015, from a legal firm (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15224/15]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 4 together.
The Government had scheduled a two hour Dáil debate for 28 January this year on the draft order to establish the commission of investigation in respect of the Cavan-Monaghan Garda division. The debate was to be taken by the Minister for Justice and Equality. However, in a letter of 27 January 2015, the day before the proposed debate, the Ceann Comhairle informed the Minister for Justice and Equality of his ruling not to allow a debate on the draft order. He was perfectly entitled to make his ruling. The important point is that the Government had already decided there should be a commission of investigation. Given the Ceann Comhairle's ruling, the Government order, which included the terms of reference, was adopted by the Dáil without debate. The commission of investigation was subsequently established by the Government on 3 February 2015 with Mr. Justice O'Higgins as its sole member.
On 3 February 2015, I instructed my officials to publish on www.merrionstreet.ie all of the correspondence received from Gallagher Shatter Solicitors, including the letter dated 8 December 2014 to which the Deputies refer, and the replies to that correspondence. It is clear from the correspondence published that the replies from my Department were at all times clear and consistent. The observations by the legal firm on the terms of reference for the investigation were not taken into account and the terms of reference accurately reflect those suggested by Mr. Guerin.
Any questions in relation to the O'Higgins commission of investigation should be tabled to the Minister for Justice and Equality who is the specified Minister under the Commissions of Investigation Act.
I wanted to raise this issue some months ago but with the passage of time our getting to deal with it has been somewhat delayed, but I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I put it to the Taoiseach that Deputy Alan Shatter and his legal firm wrote to the Taoiseach and, I think, the Ceann Comhairle and essentially wanted to delay the terms of reference-----
He did not write to me.
No, not on this issue.
Not on this particular one.
This decision was taken solely by me in the interests of what I saw as the speedy work to be carried out-----
Deputy Shatter had written to the Ceann Comhairle before.
Not on anything to do with the Guerin report.
I do not want anyone to be under any impression that I came under any pressure from anyone.
The Taoiseach said in his reply that the Government had intended to have a two hour debate on the commission of inquiry. That debate was stopped. The Ceann Comhairle made a ruling that there would be no debate. I find it extraordinary that a Member of the House would seek to suppress a debate on the establishment of an inquiry because of his particular perspective on that inquiry and its terms of reference, particularly given the said Deputy was a member of the Government which set up the Guerin review in the first instance and which subsequently led to the establishment of the commission of inquiry. Does the Taoiseach believe it was correct of Deputy Shatter, given his role as a Member of the House, to attempt to muzzle the House and to ask for the debate to be stopped and blocked?
I believe there is an obligation on every Member first and foremost to establish the rights of Deputies to speak on fundamental issues that pertain to the House, in other words, to speak on whether we should set up an inquiry, what the inquiry should consist of, what the terms of reference should include and what they should exclude. I have never before come across a situation where a commission of inquiry was established without a debate. The Members who are being asked to have an input should be asked to have an input. I realise that under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004, the Government takes the initiation role in terms of establishing the inquiry and so on. However, it was never envisaged that there would be no debate in the House on the terms of reference, good, bad or indifferent, of a particular inquiry.
We saw again recently attempts being made outside the House to suppress debate in the House in respect of Deputy Catherine Murphy's contributions on another issue and the reporting of those. As a Parliament we should be clear in upholding the absolute principle whereby Deputies have the right to have a voice on issues they are asked to decide upon. If a Deputy is asked to vote on something he or she should have an opportunity to speak on that or have an opinion on it, particularly on a matter that has already exercised the House for a considerable time previously, for example, all the issues relating to the establishment of the commission of inquiry and the Guerin report. Many Members had made contributions on all the issues to do with the Department of Justice and Equality, the then Minister for Justice and Equality and so on. It was absurd that Deputy Shatter would seek not to facilitate a wide-ranging and open debate by all Members on the establishment of the commission. Does the Taoiseach believe he was right to so do?
I think it is necessary for me to put on the record that I was not influenced by anyone in respect of this matter. The only concern I had was that the debate would be on the terms of reference only and not on the subject matter. The terms of reference were the subject of a debate that could be allowed. Apparently, the terms of reference had been accepted by all parties and, therefore, I, in my wisdom or otherwise, decided on this stipulation rather than having the possibility of a challenge being made if we strayed outside that debate which could result in the setting up of the commission being delayed. That was my only concern. It was not as a result of any representation or pressure from anyone, either from the Government, the Deputy or anyone else.
I accept exactly which you say, a Cheann Comhairle. The Government had decided on 28 January of this year that there should be a commission of investigation into the matter of the Cavan Monaghan Garda division and the debate was to be taken by the Minister for Justice and Equality. You, as Ceann Comhairle, made your ruling and you were perfectly entitled to do that.
I published all of the correspondence from Gallagher Shatter Solicitors through 9 September to 17 December. All of it was published for public availability. The Government's decision to approve the draft order with the terms of reference was also published. The Government had a clear view about this and it was happy to make its decision with that clarity. Despite any correspondence received, the Government had a clear focus on what it wanted to do and on making the decision in that way.
It might be worthwhile to try to contextualise this a little. The former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, was embroiled in a series of controversies brought to the attention of the Taoiseach and others by Garda whistleblowers John Wilson and Maurice McCabe. Many of the claims made by these two courageous public servants have since been vindicated. The response of the Government and the Garda Commissioner was to prevaricate. Then, the Garda confidential recipient resigned. That resignation was followed by that of the Garda Commissioner and then the Minister for Justice and Equality, an Teachta Dála Alan Shatter.
The Guerin report recommended that the Government establish a wide-ranging commission of investigation into allegations of misconduct in the Cavan-Monaghan Garda division, including allegations of malpractice and corruption made by sergeant Maurice McCabe. The manner in which the commission was established by the Government without a full and proper debate led to a walkout by Opposition Deputies. The Ceann Comhairle took the view, as he is perfectly entitled to, that no debate which strayed outside the terms of reference was possible as it would be in conflict with Standing Order 57. The Opposition parties took a different view.
My understanding of sub judice was and is that it applies to cases involving juries. There was none in this case. I also understood - I said all of this at the time - that sub judice does not apply in cases heard before judges, especially High Court or Supreme Court judges. I accept that the Ceann Comhairle acted in keeping with his duties and without undue influence from others. However, it is also my view - I stated it then and it remains my opinion - that the sub judice rule was not being equally or appropriately applied. For example, no similar concerns were raised about sub judice when the Fianna Fáil leader named Padraic Wilson, a private citizen and a respondent at that time in legal proceedings. He was named in this Chamber.
This brings us to the nub of the question. On 28 January, in the midst of the row over the Ceann Comhairle's ruling to block a debate on the commission's terms of reference, the Taoiseach referenced receipt of a letter from the law firm Gallagher Shatter Solicitors, which was acting for the former Minister. In his letter, an Teachta Dála Shatter attempts to influence the terms of reference of the commission of investigation by specifically excluding his name from it. He also claimed that the tabling of the motion and the subsequent debate would encroach upon the courts. This position is at odds with his attitude in May 2014 when he resigned. At the time he wrote that it was appropriate that these matters be the subject of a statutory inquiry. He also said he was resigning because he did not want to distract from the role of the Government or create any difficulties for Fine Gael and the Labour Party.
In the course of lengthy debates in the Dáil, we eventually persuaded a reluctant Taoiseach in February to produce the details of the correspondence that surrounded this case, including the fact that an Teachta Dála Shatter had written to him as far back as last September. As a consequence, many in the Dáil, including myself, and others outside of the Dáil were left with the clear belief that the Taoiseach engaged in a series of diversions to avoid giving a full, accurate and timely account to the Dáil on ongoing and extensive correspondence between him and an Teachta Dála Shatter.
It also emerged that included in a letter to an Teachta Dála Shatter sent on behalf of the Taoiseach on 21 November was a copy of the draft order with the terms of reference for the commission of investigation. This was done a month before the draft order was presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas. Was it appropriate that a Fine Gael backbencher who played a central role in the issues under investigation should be given the draft terms of reference which, as it transpired, the Dáil was subsequently unable to debate? Another letter to Deputy Alan Shatter dated 17 December stated that Mr. Justice Kevin O'Higgins would be the sole member of the commission of investigation. Once again, this information was provided for an Teachta Dála Alan Shatter before it was presented to the Dáil or made public. Is this normal practice? Is it not evidence of the frequently dismissive approach that the Taoiseach and the Government take to the Dáil?
No, I do not agree. All of the material was published from 9 September through to 17 December. That was there for everyone to examine and comment on.
Deputy Adams referred to the sending to the former Minister, Deputy Shatter, of a copy of the terms of reference.
I thought it appropriate as a matter of courtesy that he, as a former member of a Government with an interest in this, should be sent a copy of the terms of reference. The letter included the terms of reference only after they had been approved by the Government. While letters were received from the legal firm involved, they did not impact in any way upon the very clear view and decision of the Government to set up the commission of investigation with its terms of reference. After approval by the Government, out of courtesy I saw to it that the Deputy was sent a copy of the terms of reference.
Does the Taoiseach believe his approach was the correct one?
I do not wish to comment on the freedom of anyone to comment or write letters. The Government had a decision made. The Ceann Comhairle made an independent, objective decision here and the Government's decision is being carried through.
5. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Humanist Association of Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6609/15]
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Atheist Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6610/15]
7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with representatives of the Jewish faith and the Islamic community; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6611/15]
8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Atheist Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9978/15]
9. Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Atheist Ireland. [12748/15]
10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Atheist Ireland and their discussions on a blasphemy referendum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15221/15]
11. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings with leaders of faith communities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15222/15]
12. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met religious leaders since the referendum campaign on marriage equality began; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19224/15]
13. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he has met any of the faith communities since the "Yes" vote in the marriage equality referendum; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22945/15]
14. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the last meeting he had with Atheist Ireland. [25818/15]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 14, inclusive, together.
As with public representatives generally, I often meet church and other religious or non-religious leaders on an informal basis in the course of attending official or public events. Most recently, I met Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Archbishop Michael Jackson when I officially opened a new campus development at St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra. 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 levels, and meetings 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, of course, displace arrangements for the conduct of policy and administration by Departments and agencies in their functional responsibilities.
Since I last reported to the House, I met representatives of the Humanist Association of Ireland on 29 January 2015, and representatives from Atheist Ireland on 10 February 2015. At both meetings discussions covered a wide range of topics of mutual interest. The discussion with Atheist Ireland focused on the philosophy and aims of the organisation, a secular constitution, laws and practices, matters concerning the education system, and the constitutional and human rights of atheists in Ireland. At the meeting with the Humanist Association of Ireland the matters discussed were education issues, hospital chaplaincy, religious declarations under the Constitution and the census.
With regard to the holding of a referendum on blasphemy, I pointed out that the Government had decided to put two referendums before the people in May 2015 and that a referendum on blasphemy would not be held in the lifetime of the current Government.
I met representatives from the Islamic community on 4 June 2015 and representatives from the Jewish community on 16 June 2015. Discussions with the Islamic community focused on blasphemy, an Islamic Sharia council, forced marriages, the wearing of the hijab and community and cultural aspects. Discussion with the Jewish community focused on Jewish life in Ireland, access to education, religious practices and rites, and anti-Semitism.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. He outlined a series of meetings he had with the Humanist Association of Ireland, Atheist Ireland and the Catholic Church and Church of Ireland. Let me move quickly to the issue concerning our schools, and school patronage in particular. The Taoiseach will recall that in the early days of Deputy Ruairí Quinn's time as Minister for Education and Skills, he said he wanted 50% of schools to change patronage or to change to other models during the lifetime of the Government. I remember questioning the Taoiseach at the time and he deferred to the Minister. There are approximately 3,000 primary schools. If 50% were to change status, it would have involved approximately 1,500 schools. Out of the more than 1,500 primary schools that were supposed to have been involved, exactly five changed status and another four are to change status in September. If ever there was a case of spin trumping substance, this is one. The Taoiseach must accept that.
The former Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, said many things in this day but we all remember the famous comment about signing on the steps of Trinity College the dotted line of an agreement that there would be no increase in third level fees. Within months, he was increasing them. That happened so I do not know why the Minister for Foreign Affairs is shaking his head. He cannot make these things go away. There are photographs and so on. It is a bit like the statement that the VAT never increased. It appears we all only imagined that it actually increased. It actually never did according to the Taoiseach. I thank the Taoiseach for convincing me of the fact that we never had an increase in VAT. Likewise, on this issue, much time was wasted and many fears were stoked up. Very little actually happened in this area. I would like the Taoiseach to comment on that.
With regard to the Taoiseach's meeting with the Islamic religious leaders, one of the issues that arises is that many Muslims are very concerned about what is happening. After the Paris attacks, the German demonstrations, and so forth, a debate on Islam has been taking place in Europe. It is completely unacceptable to try to blame Muslims in general for the actions of a tiny extremist minority, yet certain movements are trying to do that. Did the Taoiseach discuss this with the leaders of the Muslim church in Ireland? Does he agree that we need to ensure we stand united against attempts to blame an entire religion or group for the action of extremists?
As we said earlier, given the murders in Tunisia and elsewhere, we need to increase vigilance against extremist violence. In the Taoiseach's discussions with the leaders, did he touch on those subjects and how we can prevent a fundamentalist minority entrenching itself and developing here? How can we guard against intolerance and the emergence of generally extreme manifestations of religions, particularly Islam?
Can the Taoiseach outline why he decided not to proceed with the blasphemy referendum? I never heard a proper explanation as to why he decided not to proceed with it. Most people were nonplussed or could not understand why we were having a referendum on the age at which one could become President. No one saw that as a pressing, urgent matter of public interest. The blasphemy referendum proposal had substance to it. Why did the Taoiseach not proceed with it, especially because he was going forward with two referenda, one on marriage equality and the other on the age of the President? One could argue that a blasphemy referendum or, alternatively, a referendum on the nomination process concerning how one becomes President were more pressing. On blasphemy, commitments had been given. I would like an explanation as to why the Taoiseach did not proceed with that referendum.
A former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Dermot Ahern, blocked it in the early stages.
The Government made a commitment and the Constitutional Convention was in favour of one. We were told there would be one but the Government did not proceed with it. I just want to find out why.
Opportunism on the Deputy's part.
We are four years into the term of the current Government and I am entitled to ask the Taoiseach why the Government did not proceed with the blasphemy referendum. Was it dissuaded from doing so by others?
Did the Atheist Association, on which I have a question, raise the issue of the Angelus? It made very strong representations to RTE. I believe it is overdoing it in this regard. One cannot just excise out of existence Christian beliefs and the need for reflection. I would have believed that what now stands for the Angelus, the moment of reflection before the "Six One News", is not exactly injurious or offensive to anyone. One runs the risk of becoming offensive and intolerant of the various manifestations of spirituality and religion in the country. There is a need for balance in the public debate. I would accept the bona fides expressed in the debate on the more substantive issues but when the debate focuses on such micro elements, it offends many people.
On the fundamental issue of school patronage, resources comprise the key issue in primary schools today.
Sometimes this does not get said enough. I visit many primary schools - Educate Together, Catholic and Church of Ireland schools. It needs to be said that there are people of many faiths and none on the campuses of denominational schools which cater for them in a very harmonious and effective way. There are many nationalities and people of different religions and none in many of our primary schools who get along fine. We need to acknowledge that in terms of the development of primary and secondary school settings. Critical mass is important. We are now constructing three or four schools in very close proximity to each other and that also needs to be thought through as well in terms of the proper use of resources, a bit of common sense and an understanding of where various people are coming from. Resources at primary level are a major issue in terms of the capitation grant, pupil-teacher ratio and a range of other supports that have been taken from primary schools in recent times. Many teachers and principals are fed up with the phoney debate on patronage entered into by the previous Minister for Education and Skills. It is a load of bluster and spin with no substance behind it yet it distracts from core issues facing teachers.
The Taoiseach met the Jewish congregation. My understanding is that it also feels targeted and vulnerable in respect of what is happening globally. We need to pay particular attention to its faith and schools attended by significant numbers of the Jewish congregation and acknowledge and address the community's vulnerability.
Deputy Martin raised a number of important issues. In respect of the decision to hold the referenda on presidential age and marriage equality, I originally thought that it might be possible to hold five or six referenda on the same day. I learned from the first occasion where two referenda were held on the same day that it is not that simple. People inevitably say "I don't know enough about this. I'm confused by all the explanations that are out there. Therefore, I might vote or I might not vote." In hindsight, it was overly enthusiastic to consider holding half a dozen referenda on the same day called Constitution Day. For that reason, we made a choice. The Convention on the Constitution said that we should have referendums in certain areas. We dealt with six referenda during the lifetime of this Government on Oireachtas committees; judges' remuneration; the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union; children's rights; the abolition of the Seanad, the setting up of the Court of Appeal; and the two most recent referenda. I think more referenda have been held in the lifetime of this Government than in the lifetime of any other Government.
Why not the one on blasphemy?
The one on blasphemy was considered along with a number of others. It was a choice. It could have been the one on blasphemy. As the Deputy said, there is a deal of substance in this. It might have added greatly to confusion and all the interest that was found in the referendum on marriage equality. It might be right or it might be wrong. We held two referenda, one of which was accepted and the other not accepted. Obviously, blasphemy is one for the next Government to consider.
I met with the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, a couple of years back. He was the first person to mention the question of patronage and the fact that the Catholic Church had so many schools that it wished to divest itself of a number of them. He said that it would be more than appropriate for the Catholic Church to have schools that reflected its ethos. The former Minister for Education and Skills recognises that a 50% transfer to other patrons will never be achieved within the period in question.
Rural schools are of great interest to an enormous number of people. There has been a growth in the population in city areas and a corresponding reduction with smaller families, planning permission problems and a drop in the population in any event. The Government made two changes recently. Small schools form a critical part of the social infrastructure of rural Ireland, particularly isolated communities. In recognition of that and in order to support the sustainability of small school communities, the Government decided that there should be a development of a voluntary protocol for amalgamation of the smallest schools that are close to each other with other schools of similar patronage and language of instruction. It was to be completely voluntary. The other policy consists of an improvement of the staffing schedule for the smallest schools. It was becoming an issue in quite a number of locations around the country.
The Government cut it the previous year.
Many of the minority schools at primary level are small and isolated schools. The Minister announced some improvements to the staffing schedule for small schools for the 2015-16 school year in February. They are improved retention thresholds for second, third and fourth-class teachers and the improved appointment and retention thresholds for isolated one-teacher schools, which are a source of considerable pressure from a number of communities. Those improvements recognise the challenges faced by very small schools that are more than 8 km from the nearest school of the same type. That package of measures will provide rural communities, including those representing minority religions, with security about the future of their small schools, for which they are very grateful, recognising the essential social function small schools can play, particularly in isolated communities.
Deputy Martin mentioned a number of groups I met. I met the Islamic community. We discussed the question of the law on blasphemy. It referred to the great value placed on religion in Ireland and indicated the Islamic community's support for the protection afforded in Article 46.1 of the Constitution which provides for the offence of blasphemy. I noted that the recommendation by the convention on the Constitution that the offence of blasphemy be removed from the Constitution had been accepted by the Government. It had already been decided that this referendum would not be held during the lifetime of this Government but if the people return the current Government to power after the next election, the referendum will go ahead or whatever Government is returned can make its own mind up on that. If the question goes to a referendum, it will then be a matter for the people.
We also discussed the question of establishing a sharia council. By that, the Islamic community meant a council that would deal with issues of family law and domestic challenges. It said it would benefit the community as it would save time and money for those who submit to its rulings instead of taking grievances to court. An official council could provide clarity as to which imam to attend for guidance. There are imams in different locations around the country. I pointed out that the Islamic community did not need the State's blessing to establish a sharia council. Freedom of religion provided for in the Constitution would permit its establishment. This does not negate the fact that the laws of the State apply to all its citizens. I drew a parallel with divorce and the Catholic Church whereby divorce is recognised by the laws of the State but not by the laws of the Church and this was a rule Catholics could choose to adhere to. We discussed forced marriages, the wearing of the hijab and community and cultural aspects relating to the Islamic community.
Deputy Martin also mentioned Atheist Ireland. It discussed a secular Constitution, laws and practices, a secular education system, the constitutional and human rights of atheists and the philosophy and aims of Atheist Ireland. I met the Jewish community which discussed the religious rights and practices of the community. We also discussed anti-Semitism which was of great interest to the members present.
The Taoiseach has made it clear that he will not act on the recommendation of the sixth report of the Convention on the Constitution, although the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, told the Dáil that this recommendation was accepted and that a referendum would be held to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution. The law defines blasphemy as publishing or saying something that is grossly abusive or insulting in respect of matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.
There is an exception where literary, artistic or academic merit can be proved. This, arguably, might not be such a huge issue, given that no one has been convicted of blasphemy in Ireland since 1855. However, the acts of violence by ISIS, the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the attack in North Carolina, the huge atrocities committed in north Africa and which are ongoing in parts of the Middle East and the recent attack in Tunisia in which three Irish citizens and 38 other folks were slaughtered all underline the role fundamentalism, political sectarianism and race hatred continue to play in the world. The State has a ban on incitement to hatred, including on religious grounds, but the removal of the blasphemy clause from the Constitution would send a very powerful message across the world that the Irish people were opposed to sectarianism, which is still prevalent in Irish society today, in particular, in the North, as well as to intolerance, injustice and racial hatred.
It is good that the Taoiseach has met religious leaders. When we last discussed this issue in January, he said he was going to meet representatives of the Islamic faith. It is also good that he met Atheist Ireland and Jewish religious leaders, although, of course, these meetings were separate and unrelated. Having a structure and a strategy for the Taoiseach's meetings with religious leaders and others would be very helpful at this time because our focus has to be on strengthening pluralist values, building on the republican and democratic values of citizenship, equality and inclusivity. Lest we be too pious about all of this, there are lots of reminders of religious fundamentalism, including Catholic fundamentalism, in the scandals of the mother and baby homes, the Magdalen laundries and the mistreatment of women. The Government established a commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters. The commission is to provide a full and proper account of what happened to vulnerable women, babies and children in these homes. Does the Taoiseach have any information on the progress of the commission and when its report is to be published? I previously asked but do not recall the Taoiseach answering if he had met any of the faith communities since the "Yes" vote in the marriage equality referendum and if he would make a statement on the matter. If he has answered that question, I stand corrected.
I also wish to ask about I believe the Taoiseach's one and only meeting with Atheist Ireland. Will he recognise that we now live in a very diverse society, a society in which there are many religions and faiths but also people of no faith? When will this fact be reflected by the Government and the State? We recently had a fantastic referendum result which provided for affirmation of LGBTQ rights, but it was much more than that. It was a statement of intent by the majority of people in the country that they wanted a tolerant and diverse society and that they also believed there should be a separation of Church and State. I firmly believe this. Ordinary people are way ahead of the political establishment in these matters. In health, education and other aspects of life we need to start deconstructing the symbiotic relationship between Church and State. Do we really need to have an archbishop sitting on the board of the National Maternity Hospital? What gynaecological expertise does he have? In the education sector is it acceptable - the United Nations does not think it is - that atheists like me who, according to the census, actually make up about 8% of the population, as well as people of minority faiths, have nowhere to send their children to school in most areas? The Catholic Church controls 90% of primary schools, while I think the Church of Ireland controls about 6%, which means that there are really very few alternatives for those living in most locations. We heard a lot of platitudes about divesting schools and starting to reflect the demand for more diversity, but it did not happen.
I understand Atheist Ireland raised three issues with the Taoiseach. The first was to recognise that a large number of issues remained to be addressed. The group was concerned, in particular, about the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill, which is going through the Oireachtas, and section 37, an issue which the House has debated. The Labour Party's Bill on that issue in the Seanad still allows for discrimination against atheist teachers, for example. A Catholic primary school would be allowed to not employ somebody who did not believe and it seems that this would be okay. That is not acceptable. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has told Ireland to stop breaching the human rights of minorities and atheists. It does not matter if the majority are Catholics; the rights of others have to be respected also. The third issue was the case of Louise O'Keeffe in the European Court of Justice where it had to be proved that the State was responsible for protecting her rights. The State has not as yet owned up to this.
The leader of Fianna Fáil referred to the Angelus. We need to start separating civil society from a person's private religious faith. For instance, in this House each morning when it begins its business, we have a prayer, but it is a Catholic prayer. As a lot of people are not Catholics, why do we do this? We need to separate the civic space from the religious space. I am fully in favour of protecting people's religious rights to worship but not of inflicting it on the rest of society.
Deputy Gerry Adams raised the question of blasphemy. The Government made a decision that there should be a referendum on the issue. I am glad to note the support of the Opposition parties, which is different from what applied in the past. The issue can be carried forward by way of agreement. Whatever Government the people select in the future can decide to follow through on that decision and hold a referendum on the issue. There is a structure to the dialogue and, as I said in my opening remarks, the agenda can be determined by either side. Issues that might be of importance to any of the religious groups or institutions may be raised, if they wish to do so. I found the discussions with the different groups exceptionally interesting in the issues they raised. For instance, the Humanist Association stressed the importance of removing the requirement for incoming Presidents, judges and members of the Council of State to make a religious declaration on taking office. It explained that a humanist could not hold any one of the positions mentioned. It referred to the number of instances in the education system where parents said they had their children baptised solely for the purpose of obtaining a baptismal certificate to increase their chances of securing school places. The former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, pointed to all of these matters in the move towards having a more disparate patronage of schools. At the meeting the Minister for Education and Skills explained that the Equal Status Acts, 2000 and 2004, allowed for schools to be selective in their admissions policies when they were oversubscribed. The requirement to produce a baptismal certificate was one of the criteria that schools could adapt.
When I met Atheist Ireland, it referred to Article 42 of the Constitution, which states:
The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.
Atheist Ireland stated that, in accordance with the wording of Article 42, atheists sought the moral as opposed to the religious education of their children. In its view, the moral aspect of the obligation contained in the provision was not being fulfilled by the State. It pointed out that religious and moral education was referred to and that the perceived failure to vindicate the moral aspect constituted discrimination. It made that point forcefully.
Deputy Ruth Coppinger made a point about minority faiths.
This was part of the process that the former Minister, Deputy Quinn, had put in place to deal with these issues which became very real to me when they pointed out what they have to do every day in respect of their children. Obviously, there is an issue for further discussion here. I take the Deputy's point about the minority faiths.
I refer briefly to the issue of mother and baby homes that was raised. The commission was established on 19 February under section 32 of the Commissions of Investigation Act and it is working away. The terms of reference include clarifying that the intended focus is on single women and children being accommodated for the purpose of receiving extended and supervised maternity and infant care services in mother and baby homes; defining the specific issues of public concern as discrete matters to be investigated; and specifying a list of mother and baby homes; and defining the relevant period as being from 1922 to 1998, while allowing the commission to reduce the relevant period in respect of any component part or institution if it considers it appropriate to do so.
The two modules under way are scheduled to be completed by August 2016 and the commission will complete its final report not later than February 2018. Deputies will appreciate that the range of years from 1922 to 1998 is enormous and the timescale to do that is appropriate.