Ceisteanna - Questions

Brexit Issues

Micheál Martin


1. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if Prime Minister May mentioned her intention to reduce the UK corporation tax rate when they were speaking last. [37350/16]

Gerry Adams


2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meeting of the British-Irish Council which he attended on 25 November 2016. [38639/16]

Gerry Adams


3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when he last spoke to the British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May; and if he raised with her potential issues relating to the Good Friday Agreement arising from Brexit. [38777/16]

Brendan Howlin


4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he has held discussions on Brexit with the governments of Gibraltar and the Isle of Man; and, if not, his plans to do so. [38621/16]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

I attended the British-Irish Council which was hosted by the Welsh Government in Cardiff on 25 November. The Council continued our discussions on the emerging impacts of Brexit for member administrations. The themes raised included the implications for the economy and trade, the common travel area and relations with the European Union. I gave an overview of the Government’s preparations for Brexit, the all-island civic dialogue and the outcomes of the North-South Ministerial Council.

The summit also provided an opportunity for Ministers with particular responsibility for early years policy to consider a collaborative paper prepared by the Council’s early years' work sector on the importance of creating strong foundations for children and families to thrive. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, attended the Council on this occasion and gave the Government’s perspective in this regard.

I also had a scheduled bilateral meeting in Cardiff with the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon.

The Isle of Man was represented at the British-Irish Council by its newly appointed Chief Minister, Mr. Howard Quayle. Brexit and its implications for all member administrations were discussed at both the most recent summit and the previous extraordinary summit which also took place in Wales. On these occasions the Chief Minister, Mr. Quayle, and his predecessor, Mr. Allan Bell, set out quite clearly the impacts on the Isle of Man of the UK withdrawal from the European Union. I have no immediate plans to meet the Government of Gibraltar. The relationship of the Crown dependencies and overseas territories such as Gibraltar with the United Kingdom and the European Union is a matter to be handled by these administrations, in consultation with the UK Government or Brussels, as appropriate.

I last saw the Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, at the October meeting of the European Council. While I did not have formal bilateral meetings with her on that occasion, I did talk informally to my counterparts, including the Prime Minister, during the course of discussions and on the margins of the meeting. When I met the Prime Minister in London in July, we agreed to work together to build on the continuing strength and closeness of the UK-Ireland relationship. A key priority is to ensure the peace process, including the Good Friday Agreement and the various successor Agreements, is protected in any future arrangement that might emerge from negotiations. The Government will continue to work closely with the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, as required, to protect the peace process.

The Prime Minister has not mentioned any proposal regarding the UK corporation tax rate to me, although I am aware of such proposals being considered. Our discussions focused largely on common priorities in the context of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

There are three Deputies who wish to contribute. If they take three minutes each, we will have an opportunity to go back to the Taoiseach.

In his reply to my question the Taoiseach says the Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, did not mention the corporation tax issue to him. Did he discuss the matter with her in any shape or form? With other elements, Ireland's corporation tax rate has been an important and significant element of our industrial policy for more than 30 years in attracting inward investment. It is something Ireland has sought to protect in international agreements. It was, for example, attached to the protocol to the Lisbon treaty when the issue was raised during the referendum. In the first referendum many people who were against the Lisbon treaty and the European Union actually insisted that the corporation tax rate was in jeopardy and that our tax sovereignty could be eroded.

The second time around we negotiated and attached a protocol to the Lisbon treaty, ensuring the corporation tax rate was a matter for Ireland.

We now face significant competition in this regard. Northern Ireland is anxious to reduce its corporation tax rate, and had been prior to the Brexit vote. The United Kingdom is now indicating it could head to 16% or 15%. The United States, under the new President, is also indicating this. Does the Government have any plans with regard to these decisions being made by others, which they are entitled to make, and our industrial model for the next ten to 20 years? Has the Government commissioned any work or research on developing a new enterprise strategy or a new approach, given the fairly fundamental changes that are occurring, not least the Brexit decision itself which represents a fundamental structural change with regard to our economic model? It will change dramatically the model we have experienced for almost 50 years, since we joined the European Union. There is a need for fresh thinking in this regard. I would appreciate if the Taoiseach indicated whether the Government has seriously considered developing a new radical approach to enterprise and a strategic approach in this regard?

The meeting of the British Irish Council was the first which the British Prime Minister had the opportunity to attend since she was elevated to the office, and the first since the Brexit referendum, but she did not show up and neither did the senior British Minister put in charge of Brexit, David Davis. My colleague, the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, rightly in my view criticised Prime Minister May for this, as did the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Does the Taoiseach think it is acceptable for the British Prime Minister to miss a meeting of one of the most important forums that exists between all the Governments on the islands? This was an opportunity, and the Taoiseach is a very regular attender at all these forums, to engage with all the other administrations.

If possible, I would like the Dáil to be given an update on the bilateral meeting the Taoiseach had with First Minister Sturgeon. The Taoiseach knows the British Government is holding a vote in its Parliament today on triggering Article 50. Last night, it agreed to publish its plan for leaving the EU before the end of March. Have the Taoiseach or his officials had any discussions with the British Government in recent days? I understand the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, is in London today to meet British politicians, but I am more concerned to find out the state of play between the senior officials on both sides. As far as the visit of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is concerned, will the Taoiseach assure us he will press the case for the Government in London to recognise the rights of citizens in the North who voted to remain? A very particular conundrum will arise. If the British pull the North out of the European Union, those of us with Irish passports will still have European citizenship. How do we get the guarantees and the other safeguards that go with this if we are outside the European Union?

I was in Stormont on Monday, and in my constituency and in Belfast there is still quite a lot of concern as the debate goes on. Even though it is not in the news every day it does not mean people are not concerned about it. This is the case in Louth, all the Border counties and Belfast. Many people are justifiably concerned about job losses and the other difficulties which will arise. Deputy Martin Kenny has told me the only surviving shop in Blacklion, County Cavan, which is the post office, is in danger of closing. The owners say this is due to the impact of Brexit and the loss of custom. Here we see a way of life as well as a livelihood being broken down. Will the Taoiseach give us an update on these matters, and his opinion on the state of play since last we discussed this issue?

I asked the Taoiseach whether he had met the Government of Gibraltar, which might seem like a left-field question. The Taoiseach's response was that as a Crown dependency he did not meet it and is not contemplating it. The Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, is seeking a special status for Gibraltar, where 96% of the people voted to remain. He says there is an existential threat to its survival. It is in favour of the four freedoms, including the free movement of people, because to operate it is dependent on 12,000 people moving in every day. I understand its official position is to seek a special status to be included in the scope of the European Union treaties without formally being a member. It is citing the deal and arrangement for Andorra, Lichtenstein and San Marino in this regard. It would be useful for the Irish Government at least to explore what options in the British negotiating positions are been discussed for Gibraltar and whether they have any relevance with regard to the situation on the island of Ireland, as referenced by Deputy Adams.

In the course of the meeting with Prime Minister May we did not discuss the British corporation tax rate. I have made it clear on many occasions we are supportive of the devolution of authority to the Northern Ireland Executive Assembly to be able to determine itself the question of a reduction in its corporation tax rate, which would approach ours here. It would make it easier in many ways to be able to speak about the island economy of Ireland. The First Minister and deputy First Minister are either in China or returning from China. On these occasions we have always made our diplomatic services available to the First Minister and deputy First Minister for Northern Ireland, in respect of attracting industry and job opportunities. I may have referred to this in my conversation, but we did not discuss the British Government's intentions or discussions about reducing its tax rates.

As Deputy Martin is well aware, tax policy at European level is a matter of unanimity but each country has it enshrined in the treaties that it has individual competence in respect of the rate of tax, where ours is at 20%. The Deputy made a valid point on where we are looking to five, ten or 15 years out. This is what the essential focus of the European Union should be. If it becomes obsessed with the question of what might happen to the United Kingdom or what facilities will eventually be negotiated, then Europe itself needs to look to its own laurels and how it should become more competitive than it is at present. We have always tried at European level to be as competitive as the United States, but we have never been able to measure up to it.

We cannot have a situation where some countries have a youth unemployment rate of between 30% and 50%. It is a recipe for disaster and leads to frustration, cynicism, anger and extremism. This is a question of politics and European leaders, countries and Governments must decide politically where they want to be. When Britain leaves the Union we will still have a union of 450 million people, a Single Market and a well-developed region that needs to focus on giving these young people opportunities and inspiration. This can only happen by investment, through political decisions in these areas. It is a valid point and European leaders need to focus not just on the now but on the time to come so these decisions can be made.

The Deputy will have noted the comments from Mr. Barnier and from the German chamber of commerce. I have explained our country's position to Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, President Tusk, President Juncker and all the other leaders. This is reflected in many of their comments, in that they understand there is a peace process here, that it is supported by Europe and is something we must continue to support, and that Ireland as a country stands to be the most impacted by the Brexit decision, particularly if it is a hard Brexit which might mean withdrawal from the Single Market and-or from the customs union.

These are issues for discussion and negotiation, which will have to take place. I do not have any control over the Prime Minister's schedule. I have attended all of the British-Irish Council meetings of the past few years and the deputy First Minister is now the longest-serving member, having been there for many years. I made the point that it would add status and importance to the British-Irish Council were the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, to attend. He attended one or more of the first meetings but did not go subsequently. It is an important entity in its own right, along with the Crown dependencies. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, is in London today and I confirm to Deputy Adams that our officials, under the direction of a section in the Department of the Taoiseach, are in constant negotiation with Northern Ireland officials and with officials in London, as well as in Brussels.

The common travel area was brought up. When I met with Prime Minister May we agreed that nobody should lose any benefits from the common travel area and that citizens, and everybody here who has passports when Brexit happens, will be entitled to Irish citizenship and to travel up and down and over and back, not just for social occasions but also for work. The common travel area has existed since the 1920s and we do not expect or intend to lose it. When the negotiations are concluded I want to see co-guarantorship, on a continuing basis, of the Good Friday Agreement and its successor agreements.

Deputy Howlin asked about Gibraltar but I do not want to put the two things together. It is an overseas dependency and there is a special circumstance in Ireland, with a land border and a peace process involving direct funds such as peace funds. We have made the case very strongly at European level and we have to build on that for the future. We keep in contact with Brussels and are well aware of what is happening with Gibraltar. We have two people on the task force, set up by Mr. Barnier who is conducting the discussions and will be leading the negotiations when Article 50 is triggered. We will have an accurate and consistent flow of information which we will bring to the attention of the House at all times.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Brendan Howlin


5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of Cabinet committees and the number of meetings held since September 2016. [37412/16]

Gerry Adams


6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the number of Cabinet committee meetings scheduled between now and the end of December 2016. [38776/16]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.

The Government has established ten Cabinet committees, on the following topics: housing; health; social policy and public service reform; justice reform; European affairs; regional and rural affairs; economy, trade and jobs; infrastructure, environment and climate action; arts, Irish and the Gaeltacht and the Islands; and Brexit.

A total of 20 Cabinet committee meetings have been held since the beginning of September. The Cabinet committees on housing and Brexit have met four times each; the committee on economy, trade and jobs three times; the committees on health, social policy and public service reform and regional and rural affairs twice each; and the Committees on European affairs, infrastructure, environment and climate action and arts, Irish and the Gaeltacht and the Islands once each.

Currently eight Cabinet committee meetings are scheduled between now and the end of the year.

The Taoiseach informed the House that the committee on infrastructure, which I take it deals with transport, had met once. What date did the committee meet? Did the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, attend the meeting? Did he give any heads-up to the committee on the information he gave to Cabinet yesterday to the effect that Bus Éireann, one of our most important commercial semi-State companies, could be insolvent within two years and that up to eight routes could be axed with projected losses of €6 million this year? Surely this cannot have come out of the blue yesterday as there was a claim before the Labour Court, of which the Minister was aware and on which he must have given some sort of heads-up to the Cabinet sub-committee and the Government.

Some months ago the Minister told the national airwaves that managing the transport sector had been a doddle since taking office. Since that statement we have had various disputes, including at the Luas and at Dublin Bus, upsetting tens of thousands of passengers and commuters, and now there are projections that one of the most important transport companies in public ownership is facing insolvency. Did the Minister give a heads-up on these matters and when was he made aware of the perilous situation on which he briefed Cabinet yesterday?

There is an issue here. Questions submitted to the Taoiseach concerning Cabinet meetings are restricted to obtaining information on the number of meetings that have taken place, the dates of those meetings and the proposed dates of future meetings. The basis of this procedure emanates from Article 28.4.3° of the Constitution, which states: "The confidentiality of discussions at meetings of the Government shall be respected in all circumstances save only where the High Court determines that disclosure should be made in respect of a particular matter." Consequently, questions related to the activities of individual Cabinet committees are not in order.

I fully accept the Ceann Comhairle's ruling on this but if that article of the Constitution applies to Cabinet sub-committees, surely it applies to the Cabinet itself, yet the same Minister can go onto national television and tell us what he briefed the Cabinet on yesterday. If the Minister is able, in that manner, to brief us in defiance of the constitutional embargo on what he told Cabinet it is hardly unreasonable to want to know if he told the Cabinet sub-committee in advance.

Maybe the Taoiseach can enlighten us.

Will there be meetings of the health committee or the committee on judicial reform before the end of the year? I ask because of the ongoing crisis in the health services which need constant attention and new policies, although the latter are probably an argument for another day. I was particularly taken by an interview on "Morning Ireland" by a doctor from south Tipperary who described the appalling conditions in south Tipperary hospital as a catastrophe, warning also that all other hospitals in Munster were facing the same difficulties. Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda and Louth County Hospital in Dundalk have the same problems. The doctor identified the problem as arising from too many beds being taken out of the system and too many hospitals being closed down. The Government slashed over 1,500 hospital beds and closed hospitals. How can one take such capacity out of a system without it having a knock-on effect, particularly with an ageing population? Today there are 485 citizens on trolleys and 34 patients aged over 70 were left on hospital trolleys for over 24 hours on every day of every week in the past seven months. We know the story of a 93 year old woman from north Dublin and a 103 year old woman who spent almost 15 hours on a trolley in Tullamore. Can the Taoiseach give an indication that this committee will meet to deal with this ongoing emergency?

I raise the same issue as regards the justice reform committee. Yesterday the Government agreed the heads of a Bill on judicial appointments. The Government's confidence and supply party, the absentionist party known as Fianna Fáil, states it will not support the Government's Bill if the new body is not chaired by the Chief Justice.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, who takes up everybody's portfolio but his own, has demanded and, we are told, received agreement that the new body will be chaired by a layperson and that there will be five other laypersons, making up a majority of the 11 appointments. This is significantly different from what Fianna Fáil is proposing. One Fianna Fáil member has described it as a dark day for the partnership Government. Following this morning's Cabinet meeting, can the Taoiseach provide a firm date for the publication of the judicial appointments Bill and the judicial council Bill? Is the Taoiseach concerned that the Bill will fall, given the stated position of his partners, or will they do what they have done so many times in the past, namely, flip-flop on the issue?

I thank the Deputies for their questions. Deputy Brendan Howlin raised an interesting point. Long before he and I came to the House as Deputies, it was always an issue.

It seems to be very open nowadays.

Issues, for whatever reason, emerged from the Cabinet, sometimes before they had even been dealt with by the Cabinet. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, who now approaches from on high, is entitled to comment on decisions that have been made by the Cabinet. Yesterday, I asked the Minister to brief the Cabinet members on the situation regarding Bus Éireann, given that I was aware that Bus Éireann was going before the Labour Court. The Minister gave a full and accurate account of the situation. He pointed out that a firm was examining the question of strategies for Bus Éireann and was going to report in January.

I can supply everybody with the numbers of committee meetings that have taken place. I think I have five or six of them next Monday, including the committee on health and the committee on justice, as far as I remember.

The situation in South Tipperary General Hospital is a source of concern. At 8 a.m. 30 people were on trolleys awaiting admission. The full escalation plan has been activated and the special delivery unit is liaising with the hospital. On 9 September, the HSE published the winter initiative plan for 2016 to 2017. It provided an extra €40 million for winter preparedness and to help alleviate the pressures in a number of our hospitals. As part of the initiative, the HSE has identified the emergency department as needing additional support, and the hospital and the special delivery unit have agreed a series of process improvements to be implemented over the coming weeks in order to streamline the admission of people and their movement through the hospital.

As part of the winter initiative, South Tipperary General Hospital will be able to avail of increased expansion of access to community intervention teams services and an additional three home care packages per week will be provided in the south Tipperary area. A tender process to establish a national framework agreement for temporary accommodation is being evaluated and, based on the outcome of it, the HSE will consider options to help the situation at the hospital. The Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, and his Department are meeting with senior officials from the HSE on a weekly basis in order to monitor the emergency department performance and the winter initiative.

Yesterday, the Cabinet approved the schedule in respect of the judicial appointments commission. What is involved is a different way of nominating persons of capacity, experience and competence for appointment as members of the Judiciary. Currently, the system operates under the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan brought forward a Private Members' Bill which went to the committee without pre-legislative scrutiny. Both Bills will now go to the justice committee and can have pre-legislative scrutiny in parallel.

When will the Government Bill be published?

The Cabinet approved the Schedule yesterday. The Bill will be published shortly and will go to the committee for pre-legislative scrutiny in parallel with Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's Bill. The intention is that the programme for Government requirements will be implemented. We have brought into being the independent Policing Authority, with which Deputy Brendan Howlin is very familiar. It is chaired by a layperson and it makes appointments to the most sensitive positions in the country, namely the Garda Commissioner, assistant commissioners, chief superintendents and superintendents. It is entirely removed from the political process and from the Garda Commissioner of the day. This means the committee, chaired by a layperson with lay competence is authorised and responsible, by direction of the Government, for making those appointments independently.

The Government has set out in the programme for Government that there should be a lay chairperson and a lay majority on the commission process for nominating persons of competence to be considered by the Cabinet for appointment as members of the Judiciary. The new approach is to assist the Government of the day in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities in appointing members of the Judiciary. Both Bills can be given detailed scrutiny at the committee and I hope it is a good experience for everybody.

Regarding the Government's decision yesterday to have a lay majority in the selection of judges, will this policy decision impact on all public appointments? Will we have a lay majority in the appointment of doctors, consultants, architects and other professionals? Can we expect this new policy to be implemented across the board?

The new policy is in respect of a judicial appointments commission. As the Deputy is aware, it is done by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which has a majority of legal personnel with some members from lay society. The programme for Government sets out a process by which it would be changed and made more transparent and very accountable, with a lay chairperson and a lay majority. The outcome of the deliberations of the commission will be to send a smaller number of names of people who are deemed to be competent and experienced to the Government for consideration to be appointed as members of the Bench. It is a different and more transparent method of assisting the Government in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities regarding the appointment of members of the Judiciary.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Micheál Martin


7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the details of his visit to Rome on 28 November 2016. [37703/16]

Gerry Adams


8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Pope Francis on 28 November 2016. [37721/16]

Micheál Martin


9. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the issues that were discussed when he met Pope Francis on 28 November 2016. [38478/16]

Ruth Coppinger


10. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the Vatican City State and his meeting with Pope Francis. [38586/16]

Mick Barry


11. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. [38587/16]

Brendan Howlin


12. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Pope and the issues discussed. [38662/16]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 12, inclusive, together.

On Monday, 28 November I had a number of engagements in Vatican City, including a private audience with His Holiness, Pope Francis. I had a separate meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin and his officials, and I also attended a reception for the Irish community hosted by the Irish ambassador, H.E. Emma Madigan. In my meeting with Pope Francis, we discussed a range of issues of mutual interest, including developments within the European Union, global current affairs issues, and bilateral relations between Ireland and the Holy See. We discussed current affairs in Europe, in particular migration and the refugee crisis, youth unemployment, and political and institutional challenges, including those arising from the recent referendum in the UK on its membership of the European Union.

I warmly welcomed the decision by Pope Francis to hold the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Dublin. I expressed to the Pope the Irish Government's full support for the invitation by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference for him to visit Ireland in the course of the event, and assured him that the Government would provide every assistance in the event of his deciding to visit. I was very pleased that Pope Francis confirmed to me he will visit Ireland during the event in 2018.

In my subsequent meeting with Cardinal Secretary of State Parolin and his officials, I reiterated my welcome for the Pope's decision to visit Ireland in 2018.

The Secretary of State and I discussed various political and policy matters, including progress in Northern Ireland, the migration and refugee crisis, the task facing the European Union in tackling social exclusion and youth unemployment and issues arising from the recent referendum in the United Kingdom. We also discussed church-state relations and I took the opportunity to update the Secretary of State on developments on the issue of school patronage and the work of the Citizens' Assembly.

I attended a reception for the Irish community hosted by the Irish ambassador to the Holy See. It was a very welcome opportunity for me to meet some of the many Irish people working in Rome and Vatican City. They expressed their delight at the fact that the Irish Embassy in Vatican City had been reopened.

My colleague Deputy Anne Rabbitte who was to take the question for my party leader has said she thinks the Pope should visit Galway. The Taoiseach might bear this in mind.

Given the considerable controversy caused when the last Government shut the embassy in Vatican City, it is good that relations with the church and, in particular, the Holy See now seem to be on a better footing. We welcome the fact that the Pope is to visit Ireland. There is no doubt that 2018 will be a interesting year. Under previous Pontificates, the writings of certain priests in Ireland were censored by church authorities. These decisions were made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One of those involved was the world renowned theologian Fr. Sean Fagan who died last July. Another was Fr. Tony Flannery who was removed from the ministry because he refused to recant the statements he had made in writing with which the church disagreed. The others include Fr. Brian D'Arcy, Fr. Owen O'Sullivan, Fr. Gerard Moloney and a man I know well, Fr. Iggy O'Donovan. It was reported that the Taoiseach had discussed these matters and the six Catholic priests with the Pope. Will the Taoiseach outline the response to him on these citizens?

Were there discussions on the issue of clerical sex abuse and the response of the church in that regard? Were there discussions on the Citizens' Assembly and the issue of Article 40.3.3o on which the church has strong views? Does the Taoiseach have plans to meet leaders of the other faiths represented in this country?

I welcome the Taoiseach's rapprochement with the Catholic Church, or at least the hierarchy, and his meeting with Pope Francis. While he does not have any control over the Pope's schedule, will the Taoiseach comment on whether the Pope will visit the North as part of his schedule in 2018? One of the slogans from sectarian elements in the North with which I was reared was "No Pope here". That is still something that comes up around 12 July. It would be very good to consign that slogan and all sectarianism to the dustbin of history. In the new dispensation a visit by Pope Francis would be a very positive development.

It is welcome that the report on his conversation with the Vatican Secretary of State set out that the Taoiseach had defended the vote result in the marriage equality referendum. Its importance and the message it sent around the world cannot be underestimated. There are aspects of church law and teaching which do not reflect the world today or the views of many citizens on the island, but it is important that we seek to have the best possible relationships with all churches and faith communities. We must also emphasise the importance of the separation of church and state.

There has been some speculation that the Pope's visit will coincide with the referendum on the repeal of the eighth amendment. Was this issue discussed? Sinn Féin has been very critical of the Government's approach to the setting of a date for the referendum. It strikes me that the Citizens' Assembly is all about stringing out the process. Will the Taoiseach assure the Dáil that a referendum will be held before the Pope's visit? Will he tell us if he is satisfied that the issues which gave rise to his justifiable criticism of the church in 2011 have been resolved? Did he raise the decision by the Catholic Church here to block plans for the first State curriculum in world religions and ethics for primary schools?

I have no problem with any religious leader visiting a country, but I have a number of issues with the Taoiseach's visit and the impending visit by the Pope in 2018. The Taoiseach has reportedly said church-state relations are in better shape now than they were ever before. However, we still have religious discrimination in schools and the church is still not teaching aspects of sex education. We still have the church vetoing the teaching of religion, beliefs and ethics in schools. There is church teaching on abortion. The Taoiseach has said he met the Vatican Prime Minister and the Vatican Foreign Minister. If Muslims had an all-male state, there would be an outcry in this country. The idea that they have titles such as "Prime Minister" and "Foreign Minister" and their own state is something a lot more serious and merits more serious discussion.

I am amazed that the Taoiseach is reporting to the Dáil that he discussed the Citizens' Assembly with the Pope. Why? What does the Citizens' Assembly have to do with the Pope? Is he going to discuss with any other male leader of any other religion how he is going to legislate in relation to women's bodies? The timing of this visit is the subject of a lot of discussion on social media. A lot of people are saying it is very coincidentlal that the Pope's visit is being planned for 2018, the year in which a referendum on repeal of the eighth amendment is expected to be held, albeit no one is holding his or her breath waiting on the Taoiseach's Government. Already the Foreign Minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, has told the Taoiseach and the world that the result of the referendum on marriage equality was a defeat for humanity. Are the Pope and the church going to intervene in the referendum in 2018 because if they are, that is serious? That they would arrange a visit to intervene in a referendum expected to take place in the same year is something about which a lot of people have questions. If it is a private visit to attend the World Meeting of Families, why was it announced after the Taoiseach's visit? Why would the church not just announce it without the Taoiseach having to go over and without having a ceremonial event? It was only then that it was announced. I am very interested in hearing what the Pope had to say about the Citizens' Assembly. Did he welcome the Taoiseach's delaying tactic in dealing with the issue?

I welcome the meeting between the Taoiseach and Pope Francis and the proposed visit of Pope Francis to Ireland. I disagree with Deputy Gerry Adams that the Taoiseach's discussions constituted rapprochement. It is very healthy for there to be some tension not only between individual states but also between religions and the independent Republic of Ireland. I was sitting close to the Taoiseach when he made his contribution following the publication of the report on clerical sexual abuse. It was extraordinarily moving and important for the House to hear. We do not need in any way to seek to have rapprochement in that regard. It was a really important message to send.

The point was made that the Cardinal Secretary of State and the Pope had discussed the Citizens' Assembly. What specifically did they have to say about the Constitution, if anything?

On the ongoing wounding issue of the clerical sexual abuse of children, did the Taoiseach discuss during his visit to Rome how that issue could be addressed when Pope Francis came to Ireland?

Deputy Thomas Byrne raised a number of questions. I am glad that the Government was in a position to reopen an embassy in Vatican City. The decision to close the embassy had been based on a retirement and the perilous economic state of the country at the time. I commend the ambassador Ms Emma Madigan for her diligence in the work she is doing in the Irish Embassy to the Holy See. The members who work in and around the Vatican were pleased that the embassy had been reopened.

I met them in the ambassador's residence. Most of them are from Ireland and were going about their work. There is a hard-working ambassador. In many ways, the Vatican is a listening post for information from around the world.

I referred to a number of matters that would improve the environment for the visit of the Pope when he decides to come here. It is important for Deputy Coppinger to know that the invitation to the Pope to visit Ireland did not come from me. Rather, it came from the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference. It was not for me to tell or attempt to dictate to the Pope as to whether he should visit Ireland.

After speaking to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin quite some time ago, I indicated that if the Pope wished to come to Ireland the Government would make arrangements to treat him as Head of the Vatican State and the Catholic Church.

It is not really a state.

I was glad that he confirmed to me that he would come to Ireland during August 2018. The plans as to where he will visit are a matter to be worked out in discussions with the bishops. The Pope confirmed that would be the case.

I said to the Pope that on his visit to Ireland his predecessor was unable to visit Northern Ireland because of the troubles there and that if a visit to the North was part of his discussions, he might wish to visit there. There are those who say he might go to the cathedral in Armagh. Others say he might visit a peace line in Belfast or whatever. Of course, others want him to visit the place that was the goal of the visit of Pope John Paul II, that is, the consecration of the basilica in Knock, the scene of the apparition of Our Lady. These are matters not to be decided by me or the Government, but rather for the bishops to work out themselves.

I did not discuss the question of the Citizens' Assembly with the Pope although I updated him on the situation, because Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher asked me about the work of the Citizens' Assembly. I pointed out to both what the work was about, the nature of the make-up of the Citizens' Assembly, its function and how it would report to the Houses of the Oireachtas in order to enable it to make its decision arising from whatever recommendations or proposals it makes.

It was not Archbishop Gallagher who made the comment about a defeat for humanity, rather it was Cardinal Parolin.

He referred to the matter in our discussions. I expressed to him the situation that applied in Ireland, whereby there was unbridled joy from all the people in respect of Ireland being the first country where a citizens' convention made a recommendation that a referendum should be held on the question of marriage equality and that the people responded very strongly in giving their assent and confirmation of that.