Leaders' Questions

I will be speaking in Irish and I would like to pause for a minute to give an opportunity to anybody who does not feel comfortable with the Irish language to put on their earphones.

Maidin inniu, fágadh an t-oileán is mó daonra ar fhad an chósta gan aon sheirbhís farantóireachta. Tharla sé seo de bharr pholasaí faillíoch an Rialtais deiridh a d'fhág an t-oileán seo gan aon chonradh buan ó thaobh sheirbhísí báid. Ar ndóigh, bhí an bhagairt ann anuraidh, agus tá se tarlaithe inniu nach bhfuil seirbhís ag na hoileánaigh. Níl fágtha acu ach an tseirbhís aeir agus bhí caint ag an Rialtas deiridh deireadh a chur leis sin freisin.

Tá laincisí ag baint leis an tseirbhís aeir. Ní thógann an t-eitleán ach ocht bpaisinéir ag an am. Mar gheall ar an am den bhliain atá i gceist, ní féidir leis eitilt ach ar 8.30 a.m. agus ar 4 p.m. Mar shampla, nuair a bhíonn an bád farantóireachta ann, seolann an seoladh deiridh ar 7 p.m. le ligean do mhic léinn agus do dhaoine atá ag obair dul abhaile agus dul ar ais go dtí an t-oileán. Tá ollchostas i gceist leis an eitleán a úsáid. Do bheirt tuismitheoir agus ceathrar gasúr, cosnaíonn sé €161 d'oileánaigh dul isteach go dtí an mórthír agus amach arís. An fhadhb dheireanach, agus tuigfeadh chuile duine é inniu, ná nach féidir leis an eitleán seoladh le ceo ann agus mar atá inniu i go leor áiteanna sa tír.

Céard atá i gceist ag an Rialtas a dhéanamh, mar éigeandáil, le déanamh cinnte go mbeidh seirbhís farantóireachta ag na hoileánaigh? Cén réiteach atá déanta ag an Rialtas le seirbhísí eile a chur ar fáil? Mar shampla, an bhfuil aon shocrú déanta nó an raibh teagmháil leis an gcomhlacht le déanamh cinnte go bhféadfadh sé siúd dul chun fóirithinte ar na hoileánaigh in am an ghátair? An bhfuil i gceist socrú a dhéanamh le hAer Arann, fad is atá an fhadhb seo ann, go mbeidh na táillí €10 fillte do dhaoine fásta agus €5 do dhaoine óga - móide taisteal in aisce - ar fáil ag na hoileánaigh ar sheirbhísí Aer Arann go dtí go bhfaighfear bád malartach? Tá súil agam go mbeadh sé sin ar fáil amárach, b'fhéidir, nó an lá dar gcionn.

I thank the Deputy. Island Ferries took the decision to cease services to Inis Mór last night, as the Deputy has outlined. I have to agree with him that this is extremely disappointing. I understand there will be a full meeting of Galway County County at 12 noon today, where this will be the subject of discussion.

This is primarily a dispute between the company and Galway County Council, which centres on council by-laws. The Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht and the islands, Deputy Kyne, has been in contact with councillors and with Kevin Kelly, the chief executive officer, CEO, of the council, Joe Hamill, Secretary General of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, senior Department officials in Galway, with representatives of the Aran Island Co-Op and with Island Ferries to discuss the very points the Deputy has made.

The tenders for the air service are being evaluated by the Office of Government Procurement and the Attorney General's office and that decision is due in a few weeks. The Minister of State has appealed to Island Ferries, the owner and the solicitor dealing with the issue to continue the service. He has also discussed with them the critical issue of the continuity of service. They have said it is not a matter for the Department but primarily a matter for the county council but he will pursue it. The Minister of State is deeply concerned about the impact of the stoppage of the ferry service.

The operators informed him today that the continuation of the service will depend on today’s county council budgetary meeting where the CEO will update members on the discussions with the operators of Island Ferries. The Minister of State is making himself available at all times and is involved in a detailed way to ensure the best possible outcome and is taking every action he can to find a resolution. I agree with the Deputy that it is urgent. He will assist the county council in whatever way his Department can in order to deal with this impasse.

In respect of the Naval Service, the Minister of State has had discussions with the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Kehoe, and the Secretary General of his Department has had discussions with his counterpart in the Department of Defence. He is hopeful that a resolution can be found today at the council meeting that will allow the operator resume the essential service.

Hoping is not doing. The genesis of the problem is that the county council and the Department took a view that the islanders should pay 80 cent to land on the pier on their own island. That is equivalent to asking someone entitled to free travel to pay 80 cent to use the platform in Pearse Station. Does the Tánaiste think that is fair? That was Government policy.

Island Ferries is a private operator that has decided to pull out. When was the Naval Service first contacted about providing an alternative service? It has been known for well over a month that there was a threat to the service. Two extensions of time were given. In fact, it has been known since last year. Are there no alternative possible providers of a service to the Aran Islands? Are there no other boat owners who can be contacted? How many other operators have been contacted in the past two, three or four weeks, and when, about dealing with a contingency that has now arisen and ensuring there will be continuity of service? The Tánaiste did not answer any specific questions. Will she finally answer the question: is the Government willing to arrange, while it talks about this, that the islanders can travel in and out on the air service at €10 return for adults, €5 for young people and zero for those entitled to free travel, a right enjoyed by every other citizen in this State?

I did respond to the Deputy's points. It is not a question of hoping but of doing. I have made very clear that the Minister of State has been heavily involved in whatever way he can be to ensure that a resolution is found. The most important people are not the operators, the council or the Department but the islanders who need a service.

Our focus today should be on ensuring that we get a resolution. The particular points the Deputy makes about the various services will all come to the fore depending on the outcome today. I would urge that this issue should be uppermost in the mind of the councillors at today's meeting, and I am sure it will be. They must give due consideration to the proposals put forward or the results of the discussions that have been put forward by Mr. Kevin Kelly, the county CEO. It is urgent that they enter into further discussions today with Island Ferries, with the Minister of State and with Department officials, who will do everything to try to ensure continuity of service. Continuity of service will be to the fore in the context of the work that the Minister of State is doing. One never knows when an emergency could occur-----

They knew about this one.

-----and, of course, there should be continuity of services.

The Taoiseach is in the United States this week.

Doing a bit of fund-raising.

I have no doubt that he will meet representatives of Irish America as part of his visit. That is most welcome. Reaching out to and engaging in dialogue with our diaspora is essential, particularly given the massive increase in emigration again in recent years and the whole new generation of young people scattered across the globe. I know, too, that the Fianna Fáil leader, Deputy Martin, visited Queen's University Belfast last week, and preached to citizens of the North on the rights and benefits of EU citizenship. Again, I welcome that. However, we need more than rhetoric. We need better from all Members than saying one thing and doing another.

Yesterday in the Seanad, we saw one of the worst examples of hypocrisy and double-crossing we have seen from either the Tánaiste's party or its partner, Fianna Fáil, in the current term, when a Bill moved by Seanadóir Niall Ó Donnghaile to extend voting rights in presidential elections to people in the North, to people forced to emigrate and to the diaspora was voted down. When the opportunity to extend those rights arose and when push came to shove, despite all of the rhetoric, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil walked off the pitch. Perhaps that is not all that surprising. I have with me a letter from the Tánaiste's former colleague and former Minister, Mr. Jimmy Deenihan, practically begging the Taoiseach to extend voting rights. He says in his letter that if the Government fails to respond positively, he will be forced to work with one hand tied behind his back. He is talking in terms of voting rights.

Fianna Fáil, for its part, had given an assurance that it would support the Bill, until Senator Mark Daly, who I believe is sincere on this issue, received a call from his party leader, Deputy Martin, to vote against it. This is gutter stuff on an issue that should not be divisive and that is about connecting the people of the North and the diaspora and giving them a place in our society. It is about giving those whom the Government forced out of this country during the economic crash a say in the future of Ireland.

Eighteen years ago, the Good Friday Agreement enshrined in law the rights and entitlements of Irish citizens across all of Ireland's 32 counties, including those in the North. It did not give partial citizenship or second-class citizenship; it gave full Irish citizenship as of right. Why the stalling? Today is 1 December and Christmas is on people's minds. Loved ones, friends and family are planning journeys home from Canada, Australia and the United States. Many more thousands will not make it home. I wish to ask the Tánaiste if she will do the decent thing. Will she commit now to extending the presidential vote to Irish citizens in the North and in the diaspora?

There was obviously a very full discussion in the Seanad yesterday on this topic. The first point I want to make is that we are committed to progressing this issue and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, is committed to it, as he made very clear in his Seanad speech yesterday, in which he outlined in detail the range of issues that need to be considered before the Government moves forward on this. It is not about stalling, it is about having a detailed examination of the range of issues that arise in the context of extending this franchise.

That is what was presented very clearly to Senators during the course of the debate yesterday. There are 3.5 million people outside of Ireland with an Irish passport but there are 70 million people in the Irish diaspora who have an interest in this issue. There are considerable practical implications to extending the franchise. That said, the Constitutional Convention recommended this and the Government is committed to furthering the proposal.

Yesterday the Minister of State explained that an options paper would be prepared, outlining the best approach to this in the context of all of the practical considerations that need to be examined. Even an initial glance at this shows that extending the franchise has huge implications in terms of the practicalities, how it would work, the relationship to people in different countries and so forth. An options paper is being prepared and will be presented to the Cabinet in January. That will ensure there is significant impetus to the work that the Minister of State has been engaged in on this issue. Important work is being done in terms of analysing the various issues arising from extending the franchise to a broader group around the world.

The Government is running away from this issue. The letter I quoted from earlier is dated 30 September 2014. It is very clear that all the rhetoric, lip service and tea and sympathy delivered in Liverpool, Manchester, London, New York, Boston, Sydney or Brisbane amounts to a con on the part of the Government. It is an utter disgrace.

The Constitutional Convention recommended that the right to vote in the presidential election be extended to citizens of the North who are full Irish citizens and to the diaspora, to people forced out of this country. Mr. Jimmy Deenihan, to his credit, in the letter to An Taoiseach on that occasion said, "For those who feel that the State failed them and forced them to emigrate, this offers an opportunity to rebuild trust and to look to the future." How is trust to be established when it is so clear that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will do a lot of talking on this issue and make a lot of promises but fail to act and, even worse, block the action required to give this basic right to those citizens? Could it be that the biggest impediment is the fear that those forced out of this country because of Fine Gael's incompetence and that of its colleagues in Fianna Fáil might, from a distance, deliver an electoral verdict that the Government is not keen on?

That is incorrect.

We are taking the issue seriously but unlike Deputy McDonald, we must have a detailed reply to the range of questions that arise from extending the franchise.

Mr. Jimmy Deenihan raised this in September 2014. He is a party colleague, is he not?

Detailed information is required and a detailed analysis must be carried out. The Deputy is calling for this at a principled level, but the Government must examine it in detail and look at the implications. One recommendation of the Constitutional Convention, for example, was that only those who had lived in Ireland should qualify for the franchise. Obviously that must be examined because it has implications in terms of who precisely qualifies. Detailed work needs to be done on this and it is being done by the Minister of State. I have already told the Deputy that the Minister of State is examining it and taking it seriously. He is developing an options paper which will deal with the practical implementation of this.

It is a con job.

That needs to be done. Does Sinn Féin have the answers? Has it presented a paper with all of these answers? I do not think it has-----

We presented a Bill but the Government voted against it.

-----but at a principled level, it calls for the extension of the franchise. We are doing the work that any Government would need to do and are being supported by Fianna Fáil in that.

We all have family members who are affected. Sinn Féin does not have a monopoly in that regard. We all have family members living abroad and Members right across this House care about this issue.

Then do something about it.

That is why the Constitutional Convention was asked to examine it and why an options paper is being developed. That paper will be presented to the Cabinet.

It will be ready and presented in January.

We read in The Irish Times this morning that the Minister for Finance briefed the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party on the upcoming Exchequer figures. That is a great privilege for all those in Fine Gael. The rest of us will find out afterwards. It appears that the Minister, Deputy Noonan, has briefed his colleagues to the effect that the tax receipts for November will be some €280 million above profile. That would bring us to an end of year position of approximately €900 million over profile, the amount needed to meet all the commitments the Government has already given. The trend means that it is reasonable to assume that the December tax receipts will also be substantially above target. That means also that the Tánaiste and her colleagues will have room to help the living standards of working people. I hope she does help working people, but I very much doubt she will do that.

There are many ways the Tánaiste could do that, and I ask her to outline those to the House. For instance, some acceleration of public sector pay restoration could easily be done for the amount we are talking about, thereby avoiding the industrial unrest coming down the line. Given the flawed, highly political and legally unsound water commission report published during the week-----

A Deputy

That rings a bell.

-----she could provide a one-off refund of water charges to those who have already paid their bills at a cost of €140 million. That would appease all of the backbenchers sitting behind her but I doubt she will do that. I presume she will continue to make fools of the public and the backbenchers behind her. A decent investment in public transport is also a possibility that would see fares reduced for commuters. That would cost much less than €140 million.

(Interruptions).

That is another option for the Tánaiste, especially as workers today are facing fare increases across a range of different services. She might inform the Minister, Deputy Ross, about that because he probably is not aware of it.

He is well aware of it.

The list goes on. She could guarantee the funding needed for mental health services, reduce the student contribution or increase funding for schools or the reliance on voluntary contributions from parents. Any of these measures would improve the standard of living of working people.

Will the Tánaiste give a commitment, given the Exchequer figures, that the proceeds of these better tax receipts will be used to help working people? Will she outline to the House her thinking as to how that will happen?

I thank the Deputy for his acknowledgement of the improvements in the economy, which are being sustained at this point. The Deputy's point is that if the economy continues to improve we will have more choice regarding the very difficult decisions that still have to be taken. We made clear in the budget that we wanted to sustain the economy to invest in public services. It is very important that we continue to invest in public services, make sure that taxpayers, who keep the services going, also benefit from the improved economy and, equally, ensure those in public sector will be in a position to benefit. I want to pay tribute to both Ministers, Deputies Donohoe and Noonan, for their management of the budgetary decisions and the improvements in the economy. Primarily, it takes the people of this country to ensure we have those improvements.

The Deputy spoke about the range of choices available. I would make the point that in the overall scheme of things there are constraints to which we have to adhere if we are to ensure we continue to meet the various demands both at European and national level.

I want to put on the record the news we received from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, last week. The numbers at work are now at their highest level since 2008, at 2 million. There has been a 2.9% increase in the number of people employed in Ireland in the past year.

The figures also show that the industry sector is the fastest growing sector in the economy while the accommodation and food service sector and construction sectors remain strong, with employment growing in 12 out of the 14 economic sectors. Of course, Government will consider the range of options.

On the Deputy's point about water, of course it is absolutely critical that those who have paid their water charges, those who have been compliant, should not in any way be disadvantaged going forward. We now have the committee which will consider the various options in this regard.

Unfortunately, the Tánaiste did not answer my question. It is a clear and simple question.

Deputy Kelly had about 20 questions.

What was the question?

I will repeat it for the Tánaiste, who is obviously losing her hearing. There are better tax receipts. The Government is facing into options on how it spends those tax receipts. There are people who are in work today who are looking at the cost of living in this country and they need to be given a break. The Government has a series of options on how it does that across a range of different services, for those in the public sector, for workers across a range of different jobs, and for those who depend on health and education services. Clearly, the Government has options and it must be discussing those. Will the Tánaiste indicate how the Government will help those people, using the increased tax receipts that have been announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and those receipts that undoubtedly will come in December? Surely the Tánaiste has the capacity to give an example of how the Government will help these people. I will be shocked if the Tánaiste is incapable of doing so. Is that question clear enough?

It is a fairly general question, and the Deputy knows well how these decisions work in the Cabinet. The decision we took earlier this year when there was extra revenue was clear. A substantial sum of money was put into the health services and a number of other areas, including justice and education. The Deputy is well aware of how these processes work.

It is important to recognise, and to repeat, that it is thanks to the decisions that were taken by the previous Government and by this Government that we are seeing the economy continuing to grow. If the economy did not grow, we would not have the money to make that kind of investment in health and other services. The key issue is to continue to ensure there is prudent management and careful policies are followed, such as those that we have followed since 2011, which will ensure we continue to reduce and eliminate the current budget deficit, balance the budget in 2018 and have budgetary surpluses after that. That gives us and the country a range of choices. I have made clear that it is a combined approach that ensures we can reduce taxes for those who fund all of this, that we invest in public services and that we continue to manage the economy in order that we can continue with the changes in public sector pay and with the process in which we are engaged with the unions which the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, outlined this week. That is the approach.

The Cabinet will continue to discuss the areas that need extra budget, as we have done during the past year.

I thank the Tánaiste.

The overall point is to welcome the continued growth in the economy which gives those choices. If we did not have that growth, we would not have the choices. There were no choices for many years in this country-----

The time is up.

-----when we began to deal with this crisis in 2011, as the Deputy well knows.

The Independents are in government now. We turned it around.

The publication and subsequent media coverage of retired Ms Justice Harding Clark's report into the surgical symphysiotomy ex gratia payment scheme raises fundamental questions about how citizens who pursue justice in cases of historical abuse are treated by the organs of the State. The terms of reference called for the assessor to report to the Minister on the activities and expenditure of the scheme when she had completed the administration of the scheme. In my view, the retired judge took licence with those terms. Whatever about telling us about how she was affected by women sending her poems, it was highly inappropriate of her to comment on ongoing litigation, as there are currently 28 cases before the courts and she has said enough in this report to taint those cases.

The Survivors of Symphysiotomy are calling on the former judge, Ms Justice Maureen Harding Clark, to withdraw false allegations in her report. The report has many flaws, one of which is an allegation that leading symphysiotomy campaigners who said they had symphysiotomies did not, in fact, have them. This is utterly false and untrue.

It is not in order to question the decision of a judge.

This is a report.

There is a separation of powers and the Deputy is breaching that.

It is not a judicial circumstance.

This is a factual report and I am only quoting from it.

Please do not make allegations in respect of the judge.

The report on the scheme, which was overseen by the judge, can only be read as a defence of the uniquely Irish practice of non-emergency symphysiotomy. It serves to diminish survivors' claims that the substitution of non-emergency symphysiotomy for caesarean section without consent, as practised in Ireland, violated many women's human rights. The report deliberately over-emphasised the fact that a number of applicants could not satisfy the judge that symphysiotomy caused lifelong disability. This is not - and never was - the point. Leaving aside the fact that 35% of applicants could prove lifelong disability, the violation carried out on these women during labour is beyond a doubt an infringement of their human rights. Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that symphysiotomy, as practised in Ireland, constituted torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment in circumstances where patient consent was never sought.

There is a continuing suggestion in this report that survivors were lying, mistaken or deluded about what happened to them. This disgrace is without evidence. There is clearly an attempt to create an impression that the suffering is less than what the survivors claim. Let us not forget that the scheme denied the women a chance to give their oral testimony. Instead of addressing these matters in a mature way, the report serves to diminish the suffering caused. The report undermines and demeans the experience of these women. I believe it is an attempt to undermine the women by concentrating on unsuccessful applicants and brushing over the fact that 70% of applicants applied successfully to the scheme. The scheme's burden of proof made it difficult, if not impossible, for some women to prove their case. It demanded absolute certainty. For unsuccessful women, who have no right of appeal, this report has added insult to injury.

I call for the report to be withdrawn and I request that the Minister also call for it its withdrawal. If not, at least allow a debate in the Dáil on the report to be discussed by the Business Committee. If we can discuss it we can then make a decision on whether the report should be accepted.

I must clarify that it is open to any Member to criticise a report. However, during her contribution, the Deputy raised questions about the judge. She stated that the judge deliberately took licence with the terms of reference. It is not in order to make such an allegation against a judge charged with a particular responsibility.

We have all been touched by the individual stories of women who had horrendous experiences with symphysiotomy. That is the reason the previous Government made a decision in July 2014 that we should not just listen to these stories but do something about them. A very distinguished judge, Ms Justice Maureen Harding Clark, was asked to carry out this report. It was agreed by the Government to establish an ex gratia payment for women who underwent the procedure. We now have a comprehensive overview of the historical and medical context of symphysiotomy. The judge had a unique opportunity to compile this report. Indeed, her findings support the earlier findings of Professor Oonagh Walsh, whose report was published in 2014.

The scheme was approved by the Government in November 2014 and its total cost was just under €34 million. Payments of €50,000, €100,000 or €150,000 were made to almost 400 women. At the time the Government made the decision to commission this report and to set up the scheme many of the women were facing uphill battles in courts. In addition, most of the women were of an older age group, so they faced a very uncertain outcome in this regard.

What we have done has ensured that women who have had a symphysiotomy applied to the scheme. I understand the judge took a very broad approach in terms of whether women could produce evidence so that as many as possible of the women could be included in the scheme. I am sure the Minister for Health would be happy to meet the Deputy to discuss the detail of the report. It is a very comprehensive one, and we consider that it deals with the issues because it provided an alternative and a non-adversarial option for the women, many of whom were elderly and did not want to pursue their cases through the courts. I am sure there would be no difficulty in having a debate on the report in the House. There has been a very thorough examination of the issues in the report and I believe its approach is very fair and comprehensive. As the Deputy said, there are perhaps one or two groups who take issue with the approach in the report but we have accepted its findings and we will stand by that.

Human Rights in Ireland has also challenged the report. I do not know whether the Tánaiste has read its document. I note she is nodding her head indicating that she has. There are serious questions around the report and sweeping strokes were made in part of the report in regard to the women. There is also the fact that none of these women had oral hearings and they have no right to appeal the decision made in this regard.

One woman e-mailed us and she states:

I am a woman who has a symphysiotomy over 40 years ago. I have suffered walking problems and incontinence and a lot of pain for all those years. My husband was and still is the best in the world because he suffered a lot too. Our intimate lives changed from that day. Out of a sense of duty to my husband we did have sex a very odd time and I always felt guilty and a failure. On one of those occasions I became pregnant and lived nine months of fear.

That women is very angry about this report. She is also very angry about comments in the media questioning women's voices and what they went through. There should be a debate on the report in the Dáil at a minimum. If there was vote on it, I would certainly vote to have this withdrawn and the Minister should do so as well.

We all know women suffered some horrendous consequences as a result of having a symphysiotomy. That is why the Government wanted to take as humane and dignified an approach as we possibly could to help these women. As I said, every effort was made in the report by Ms Justice Harding Clarke to do just that.

I believe 185 women applied to the scheme who could not establish that they had a surgical symphysiotomy. It is clear that any report that is written or any inquiry that is set up, and it is a report in this instance, has to have criteria, and the judge was given criteria in the terms of reference. I cannot comment on the individual case but I am sure the records in that case were examined and the appropriate decision taken. In any report, broader issues will arise in terms of context, and the Deputy is raising some of those now. I have no doubt a Dáil debate will provide an opportunity to deal with some of those, but the judge has done a thorough job. I believe it is an excellent job and many of the women have found a resolution that was not there previously.

We move on now to questions on promised legislation.