Standing Order 27: Motion

I move:

That, in accordance with the recommendation of the Committee on Procedure under Standing Order 107(1)(a), and with effect from 9 May 2017, the Standing Orders of Dáil Éireann relative to Public Business be amended by the adoption of the following in substitution for Standing Order 27:


27. (1) Upon taking the Chair each day, and before any business is entered upon, the Ceann Comhairle shall read the following prayer in the Irish and English languages:—

Direct, we beseech Thee, O Lord, our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance; that every word and work of ours may always begin from Thee, and by Thee be happily ended; through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

(2) All Members present shall stand while the prayer is being read, and when it is concluded, Members shall remain standing for 30 seconds of silent reflection.’.”

I welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter and the proposed motion to amend Standing Order 27 and to hear the opinions of Members from across the Chamber on the issue of the prayer. The current Standing Order 27 provides that on the commencement of business each day, the Ceann Comhairle shall read a short prayer. The process of starting proceedings with a prayer has been a topic of discussion for some time.

The profile of the population of our country has continued to change over the years and nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the religious beliefs of the people. Our religious beliefs have become more diverse and there has been a rapid growth in the number of people who do not hold any religious belief. As this Chamber reflects the population as a whole, it is not surprising that the prayer in Standing Orders has become the topic of discussion.

The Committee on Procedure, chaired by the Ceann Comhairle and reflective of the membership of this House, discussed this matter at its meeting in March and has recommended amending Standing Order 27 to provide for a prayer and a 30-second period of silent reflection at the start of business each day. This motion has also been discussed by the members of the Business Committee.

I appreciate that Members across this House have different perspectives on this matter. In this State, religious belief does not dictate political party loyalty and I assume that opinions may well differ within parties and groups. The Ceann Comhairle and the other members of the Committee on Procedure have clearly attempted to broaden the current procedure and reflect the beliefs or none of Members of this Chamber with this new wording for the Standing Order to provide for a prayer and time for silent reflection.

I also welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter and the proposed motion to amend Standing Order 27. We as a party have faith in what the committee decides as the committee is representative of all the parties and none. We all have someone on the committee to voice opinions on our behalf. I compliment the committee on the work it has done to date.

Traditionally we have always had prayers. I might only be here 12 months myself, but there have always been prayers in this House. Retention of the prayer with the added reflection respects the tradition of the prayer while accommodating all views in the quiet reflection time. As the Minister of State said, we are now an inclusive society. By retaining the prayer with the reflection time, it encompasses a modern Ireland while still respecting the traditions of the past. We are fully supportive of the committee in this regard.

Like Deputy Butler, I too lend my support to the Committee on Procedure regarding the discussion around the prayer. Since I was elected to the House 12 months ago, no more than the discussion around mental health, the discussion on the prayer is one that keeps reoccurring. This is a modern society and the return of the Thirty-second Dáil was very reflective of that in the way the parties were returned. Needless to say, that is also how it was discussed within the Committee on Procedure.

I am glad to see that the prayer has been retained. That said, I am also glad to see we are also reflective of other people and are allowing the opportunity of a period of time for reflection. I hope that when this is finally discussed, we will have the opportunity to move on and accept the proposal the Committee on Procedure has put before the House to retain the prayer along with an opportunity for time for reflection. It is a part of our tradition down through the years. Like all good things, we do not need to abolish all parts of the tradition. We need to be respectful of the people who went before us, what they stood for and what they believed in as part of that tradition. I am quite happy with the Committee on Procedure's proposal for Standing Order 27.

I move amendment No. 2:

To delete all words after “That” where it firstly occurs and substitute the following:

“with effect from 9 May 2017, the Standing Orders of Dáil Éireann relative to Public Business be amended by the adoption of the following in substitution for Standing Order 27:

‘27. Upon taking the Chair each day, and before any business is entered upon, the Ceann Comhairle shall ask all Members present to stand for 60 seconds of silent reflection.’.”

This is a very important issue but it is not the most important issue. I would much rather be debating something of major substance rather than having to deal with a fudge that the Committee on Procedure came up with. Others have tried to say that the Committee on Procedure unanimously agreed to this change. We did not. I argued, as I have done since I was elected to this House, that the prayer should be replaced with a moment's reflection.

Deputies have spoken about it being a tradition. It may be a tradition in this House and it has been a tradition in British parliaments since Queen Elizabeth I. All this State did was carry on that tradition. In doing so, it insulted every other religion and every other religion that has been reflected in this House since. Members are specifically asked to stand, honour and seek the help of a lord that many people do not believe in within this House and outside it and of a prophet in whom many people in this House over the years have not believed.

I am not insulting those of a Christian faith or those who believe in God or a god. What I am saying is that this is supposed to be a republic. A republic is supposed to honour or respect equally all of those people. It is also supposed to separate church and state, but that is not what is happening in this proposal. This proposal is more insulting than it was before because Members are now expected to stand to attention to listen to a prayer and then reflect for a moment. If there was a moment's silence as I had indicated, everybody individually could reflect on whatever religion or none that they stood for. That is why I have put forward the amendment in order for us to do what most modern parliaments and those that have been set up in recent times have done, that is, to have a moment's reflection or prayer in silence. If we are in a republic, we should not force a religion upon those of a different religion. That is not what we have in this proposal. If people believe in the republic of the Proclamation, of Wolfe Tone or of the founding fathers of this State, then they may understand that we have to show that respect. We do not expect others to jump through the same religious hoops that they stand for. My belief is that we should have a moment's reflection because we need to think about what we are doing in this House. We need that moment's pause.

I was only told tonight that in some factories in Japan there is a 20-minute silence in which to reflect. I am not expecting people to stand for 20 minutes. However, I do believe we need to take time out, whatever one's religion, to think about what is coming ahead and what we did the previous day. If one is religious, call it a prayer. Call it a moment's reflection if one is not. That would be more reflective of the separation of church and State, or State and church in particular in this instance. This is the Legislature and it is supposed to reflect all or as many of the views of all the people of this State as possible. I do not think it is doing so in this proposal.

None of the legislative assemblies set up by the British in Stormont, Scotland or Wales has prayers. They have a moment's reflection. If people are interested, there was quite a good summary done of the various parliaments around the world. It was interesting that most of the parliaments that have stuck to a prayer beseeching our Lord are those that are former colonies of the British. Many of the other modern parliaments and legislatures set up since the Second World War in particular have moved away from a specific religious prayer to a moment's reflection or a moment's silence.

That is the move we should pursue rather than the current one which involves quite a sectarian prayer being put before us each day when we start our work.

There does not seem to be many groups attending the debate. If there was a need for it could we have a little bit of extra time? We have only two and a half minutes each.

The Order of Business has been decided.

I thought the Leas-Cheann Comhairle could use his discretion. Labour Party Deputies and others are not here.

Unfortunately, no.

The proposal is baffling. A debate took place in the Dáil reform committee about a Dáil prayer in the national Parliament and many people objected to it. Now there will be a requirement - a compulsion and obligation - for all Deputies present to stand. It takes away the voluntary nature of it. There will be potential disciplinary action if a Deputy does not comply. At a time when the rest of society is demanding an absolute separation of church and State, the Dáil decides to embed an archaic practice by proposing this motion.

Religion is a private matter. If Deputies wish to pray or reflect, I am in favour of a room being set up where people can go, if that is what they want to do. I have no problem with that. It is a private matter and this is a civic, secular space. Society is now much more diverse. The last census showed an increase of 78% in five years, to almost 500,000, in the number of those professing no religion and 75% said they are Catholic. In my constituency, there is a huge number of people of minority religions who would find it offensive if they were elected as Deputies and had to partake in a prayer of another religion. I spoke at a Muslim conference about this on Saturday. What message does saying the church and the Dáil are linked together send to those who are advocating a united Ireland right now? This motion compels the Ceann Comhairle, who is elected, to say a prayer. Can we ever have a Ceann Comhairle who is not a Christian or who is atheist? It is of dubious legality in terms of freedom of conscience. I debated with a Deputy earlier who said he did not see any problem with it and it is a Catholic country. Does the House remember those words were used to Savita in the hospital? It is not a Catholic country. Nobody here saw any problem with the national maternity hospital being handed over to a religious order but the public sees a huge problem with it. The Dáil is behind public opinion. What will the Ceann Comhairle do if Deputies do not comply? Will they be thrown out of the Dáil or are we to forever wait outside the door like second class Deputies until the prayer is finished? It is time to separate church and State.

If this motion passes I am afraid the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and I will probably have loads of rows because I will not stand, no matter what I am told to do. My religion or belief is my business. It is not public property and is not up for public scrutiny. I hope many Deputies in the House will perform the same act of civil disobedience or Oireachtas disobedience. I got loads of tweets tonight from people saying "Fair play to you", "Why are they being so silly?" and "Why are we wasting time on this?" All of these amendments and the connotations of what we might do would be silly were it not for the Tuam babies, the national maternity hospital and the Sisters of Charity, repeal the eighth and the Citizens' Assembly, the legacy of the Magdalen laundries, the Christian Brothers and the persecution that people suffered in this country, Savita Halappanavar, Ms X and Ms Y. The list goes on and on.

The outcome of the Citizens' Assembly has surprised the country and there is an outcry over the national maternity hospital because people have moved on and they want to see the separation of church and State. I will talk a bit about what that means and where it came from. It was first mooted by Thomas Jefferson in the United States in the year - believe it or not - of 1802. It was 215 years ago that Jefferson argued with the Baptist Church that every person is entitled to his or her own religion and beliefs and that it should enshrine the right to be able to pray and have a place of worship whether it is a church, mosque or temple. It should not include the state identifying with any one particular religion and the state, therefore, should not allow religious orders to control health, education or the structures of the state. That is exactly what we have. It is unbelievable that 215 years later we are sitting here debating a more draconian form of insisting we stand and pray. Hello, this is the year 2017. This country has moved on. Could this House please move with the people, move with the times and recognise that we need to separate church and State and that we are sending out completely the wrong message if we start with this sort of nonsense? I will support the amendment tabled by Solidarity.

I find it incredible that we are debating this issue. This is the 21st century. We need to move on. We need to recognise that religious belief, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other, is a personal matter to be respected but it is not the business of the State or Parliament to endorse in any way any particular religious belief. Standing Order 27 does precisely that. It calls on a spiritual divinity to direct the words and actions of democratically-elected representatives. I have not been sent here by the votes of the people in Dublin South-Central to have my words and actions directed by Jesus Christ. That is quite simply a fact. Since being elected to the Dáil in early 2011, I have not been able to participate in the opening ritual of the Parliament. I normally stay outside the Chamber when the prayer is being said or if I am caught short in the Chamber, I sit at the back until the prayer is over. I will not participate in it because I am not religious. I am atheist. It is wholly inappropriate for an elected Member to be in that position.

It is not the most important issue in the proper separation of church and State. The removal of the Christian prayer would be a good start. That is why I tabled an amendment to have a 30-second reflection or silence instead. The practice of Deputies praying is associated with the Westminster parliamentary tradition, as has been mentioned. The UK and Ireland are the only European parliaments that start their day with a prayer. It also happens in Australia, South Africa, Canada and the United States. In Europe there are no parliamentary prayers in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain or Sweden. That is a fact. In any other parliamentary democracy, they do not start proceedings with a prayer of one particular religion.

Staff in here also have to stand. Staff are instructed to tell people in the Gallery to stand while the prayer is being said. Everybody is pulled into this idea of the prayer in the Dáil. I worked in An Post and my day did not start with a prayer. It is a bad situation that workers who may not be of any Christian religion are being forced or are expected to do this in the Dáil. It is inappropriate in a modern, pluralistic republic and it infringes on the human right to freedom of conscience by forcing people to reveal, directly by standing or indirectly by sitting, information about their religious or non-religious philosophical beliefs. That has to be taken on board in this debate.

Far more important in real terms is the need to separate church and State in our education and health care systems. The fact that parents are being pressurised into baptising their children to get them into a State-funded school would be outrageous in any day and age, never mind today. The fact that a Minister of Health could even consider handing a maternity hospital, which is to be built with State funds to the tune of €300 million, to the ownership of a religious group involved in the scandal of child abuse and which has reneged on its financial commitment to the redress fund for victims of that abuse is simply mind boggling. These issues need to be confronted. We need to move on. The people have moved on and so-called Catholic Ireland belongs in the past. The recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly on the issue of the eighth amendment bears this out. I welcome its recommendation and will do all I can to ensure the House acts on it and sets a date for the referendum as quickly as possible.

At some stage we have to stop amending a Constitution which reflects the Ireland of the 1930s and is obviously not fit for purpose. We need to convene a democratically convened assembly with the task to write a completely new Constitution emphasising the rights of citizens as opposed to the rights of property, the State and the Catholic Church, a Constitution fit for a modern, democratic and secular republic in the 21st century.

We need to convene a democratic assembly and task it with writing a completely new Constitution, emphasising the rights of citizens rather than the rights of property, the State and the Catholic Church. We need a Constitution fit for a modern, democratic and secular republic in the 21st century. I urge everyone in this Chamber to think seriously about that. A 30 second reflection or silence would actually cover everybody, religious and non-religious alike, and allow them to express their views in this Dáil Chamber. Alternatively, I would be happy to support the amendment put forward by other Deputies.

I am delighted to speak on this motion. The Committee on Procedure, chaired by the Ceann Comhairle and reflecting the membership of the Houses of the Oireachtas, of which I am a member, discussed this matter at its meeting in March. The committee recommended amending Standing Order 27 to provide for a prayer and a 30 second period of silent reflection at the start of business each day. This motion has also been discussed by the members of the Business Committee on a number of occasions. Indeed, the Business Committee had agreed to put it through, without debate, before Easter but that was challenged on the floor of the House. We then agreed to have this debate tonight, but there was a furore about that this morning in terms of the time. It is still only an eight hour working day from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. One might think that the timing was deliberate, but it was not. It was just a question of the running of the order of the day.

The Dáil prayer is not as unusual as its opponents claim. In fact, a significant number of legislative bodies in Europe and further afield, including the UK, South Africa, Canada, the United States of America and Australia have either a period of prayer or silent reflection before the business of the day begins. Although the question of the Dáil prayer is occasionally brought up by some Members of the Oireachtas, admittedly more often in recent times, I have yet to encounter any kind of widespread resistance to the practice among the majority of Members. It seems to be a niche preoccupation of those on the hard left. It has certainly found no traction among the majority of Deputies or the public. Respect for cultural or religious views should not debar us from acknowledging the specific heritage of our country and from finding a way to give expression to that in a way that the majority of people do not find offensive. In point of fact, the US Supreme Court quite recently, during the term of former President Obama, extended the rights of individual state legislatures to include a prayer in their proceedings and judged that this does not violate the anti-establishment clause of the US Constitution. That decision was made during President Obama's term in office. Our democratic structures should not be hostile to the practice but should accommodate it in as reasonable a manner as possible. I believe that wholeheartedly.

Members have brought the issues of the Citizens' Assembly, repealing the eighth amendment into this debate and the current maternity hospital saga as a deflection. I spoke to a colleague earlier who is a member of an Oireachtas committee of which I am not a member. A Muslim delegation appeared before that committee - all delegations of all faiths and none are welcome here - and they had to stand for ten minutes while the delegation prayed. That was fine. That was the wish of the delegation which was respected by the committee. That is what happened. This is a surreal debate. People are trying to bring many other issues into it.

The Committee on Procedure, following discussion, decided to add the 30 second reflection to allow people of whatever belief to stand and wait. I feel very sorry that some Deputies feel like second-class citizens outside the door. I was late this morning and I waited outside. The ushers asked me to wait. I sympathise with people who do not want that or who feel like that but I see people every morning barging in here when the prayer is being said. That is not showing much respect or tolerance for the majority decision.

I have heard Deputies saying that they will not stand for the prayer. Nobody is going to make them stand or make a show of them. That is their right if they want to do that. That said, there is a code of practice in this House. There is also a dress code, which people want to disobey. Either we want to be elected to Parliament and represent the people or we do not. I believe that people have the right to pray. We have had a reasonable debate tonight. Some people do not want to speak on the matter and did not come in for the debate and that is fine.

I hope this will be the end of the matter because it has been discussed by the Committee on Procedure and the Business Committee. We agreed a way forward but that was upturned here on the following Tuesday. We then agreed at our last meeting before we broke for Easter to find time for this debate in today's schedule. That was scheduled and nobody objected to it at the time at the Business Committee or to the allocation of five minutes per group. Today, however, for the media and for antics and semantics, people objected and said they would walk into the Chamber in the middle of the prayer. They keep slating people but this is a majority Parliament. When the majority decides that it does not want the prayer, I will accept that.

I am a member of the Committee on Procedure and the Business Committee. I am getting tired of meetings, special meetings and agreeing procedure, passing that on to a rapporteur to read out and then the rug is pulled out from underneath it. It is farcical. We are supposed to have new politics-----

It was not agreed.

It was agreed. Excuse me, it was agreed. How else did it come to the floor of the House if it was not agreed to? Of course it was agreed.

The Deputy should not be inviting comments.

I am not inviting comments. It was agreed to by the committee. There was an abstention and a recording made of one group that was not happy with it. That is natural and fine. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and officials for facilitating the debate.

The primary function of the Oireachtas is to enact legislation. All the laws we debate and pass will be underpinned by a belief or value system. For some, that is a religious value system while for others, values such as equality, solidarity, democracy, honesty and accountability form a civil morality that is not necessarily drawn from a religious belief system. I believe we need to develop a civic responsibility and a civic morality, but to do that, we need to separate church from State.

I was reading a well-argued article written in 2011 by Dr. Garret FitzGerald in The Irish Times, the headline for which was "Ireland's lack of civic morality grounded in our history". In it he compares our history with that of other European countries. It is recommended reading and I wish to quote selectively from it. Following independence, FitzGerald argues:

[T]he Irish Catholic Church sought ... to bend the new State to its purpose, relying upon the strong personal faith of members of successive governments to secure its objectives. And it succeeded - up to a point. It secured censorship of books and films, and was successful in having contraception banned.

However, when in 1929 the Catholic hierarchy challenged the non-denominational provisions of our constitution by attempting to persuade the government to confine the appointment of dispensary doctors to Roman Catholics, it was outwitted by WT Cosgrave. He told the hierarchy that as guardian of a non-denominational constitution he could not implement their proposal and would have to resign from office if their proposal were to be pressed. The request was dropped.

[...] This underlying stand-off between church and State seems to have inhibited the Irish Catholic Church from advocating civic responsibility.

Instead much of its energy was concentrated on aspects of sexual morality – an area where it eventually lost credibility.

[...] The consequences of all this have been that a society with an educational system almost exclusively in the hands of the Catholic Church has been left with virtually no tradition of, or training in, civic morality or civic responsibility.

The baptism barrier and the ownership and control of the National Maternity Hospital, it could be argued, flow from a religious belief system and form part of the reason we need to separate church from State and take collective responsibility, underpinned by a well-developed civic morality. In many ways we not only outsourced service provision, which we are still doing, but we also outsourced our morality as a State.

The highest form of law in Ireland is our Constitution. No law can be enacted that is repugnant to our Constitution. It is inconsistent for us to commence each day with a prayer and I question whether it reflects the non-denominational nature of our Constitution. Religious faith is a personal thing and is hugely important to perhaps the majority of people in this country. Some people, like myself, are not believers but that does not mean there is an absence of morality or values. For those reasons, I cannot support the retention of the prayer.

I agree with what Deputy Coppinger said earlier. We should have given this debate more time and scheduled it for a different time because how we do things is important. The process of how we speak and how we listen to each other is important. I raised this issue with others previously and Deputy Paul Murphy raised it at the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform. There is enough time in here when we are fighting with each other. I like the moments of prayer or reflection because I like that different space that allows us to think in a different way, even if only briefly, each day. My putting forward the suggestion was based on what the Scottish do, as I understand it, in that they vary it. They have a range of different ways in which they use that moment at the start of every week.

I quite like the idea of experimenting and trying different approaches by involving people of all faiths and none. We need to think about how we might try to do it differently.

I listened to Deputy Ó Snodaigh with respect. My party has a tradition of tending to start meetings with a minute's silence. I find it personally correct. It is something I am used to, and I think it works. I sometimes think we could use it here. Rather than the Ceann Comhairle saying he is going to throw someone out, throwing in a minute's silence every now and then might be a useful way of breaking down some of the confrontational moments we have here. I would welcome the Committee on Procedure being given the chance to look at different ways in which we might start the day.

There is a compromise solution. There is a throwback to the foundation of the State in the wording of the morning prayer. While I can stand up and listen to it - as I have said, I find it fine - I would fully respect it if someone were to sit down. I do not think that would be in any way inappropriate. It may be difficult for the person who has to sit down, but I do not think we should disrespect someone who does not believe in it. We should be very flexible in how we do this now. As I recall it, that was what was coming out of the Committee on Procedure, even if there was not universal agreement on it. We tried to take a kind of compromise or consensus approach when we proposed that we would have a period of reflection as well as the original prayer. We were trying to satisfy various different needs.

One of the things that has worked well in the Dáil reform committee, and in the Committee on Procedure to a certain extent, has been the recognition of the need to be flexible. If this does not work, we can come back to it and change it again. We should not set it in stone. This debate is important and how we use our time and have moments of reflection is also important. That is why I am glad this matter was brought before both committees.

Is amendment No. 2 being pressed?

Amendment put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 4 May 2017.

What about amendment No. 1 in my name and amendment No. 3 in the name of Deputy Joan Collins?

The Deputy knows the custom. They cannot be dealt with until after we have disposed of amendment No. 2.

I thought they had to be mentioned now.

No. The Deputies might have an opportunity to move their amendments on Thursday. If amendment No. 2 is carried, the other amendments will fall. If amendment No. 2 is not carried, amendments Nos. 1 and 3 may be moved.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Wednesday, 3 May 2017.