Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Michael Moynihan


1. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach further to the reply to Parliamentary Question Nos. 5 to 14, inclusive, on 5 February 2019, if he will report on any contacts he has had with a person (details supplied). [21768/19]

Michael Moynihan


2. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if agricultural issues or the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, were discussed when he met President Macron on 15 May 2019. [21766/19]

Micheál Martin


3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Paris on 15 May 2019 and the Christchurch call to action which commits governments and online service providers to undertake a series of actions to counteract and remove extreme violent activity online. [21774/19]

Micheál Martin


4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he met with other world leaders in Paris on 15 May 2019; and if so, the issues discussed with them. [21775/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett


5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings in Paris on 15 May 2019. [22684/19]

Brendan Howlin


6. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his plans for visits abroad over the next six months. [22696/19]

Joan Burton


7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings with world leaders in Paris on 15 May 2019 and the issues he discussed with them. [23598/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.

On 15 May I travelled to Paris for a series of events co-hosted by the French President, Mr. Emmanuel Macron, and the New Zealand Prime Minister, Ms Jacinda Ardern. These events were part of an initiative spearheaded by Prime Minister Ardern in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attack on the Muslim community in Christchurch on 15 March.

I joined several other leaders, including Prime Minister Ardern, President Macron, Prime Minister May, Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada, President Sail of Senegal, Prime Minister Solberg of Norway, King Abdullah of Jordan and the European Commission President, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker. Representatives of leading technology companies, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, also attended.

Ireland has endorsed the Christchurch call to action, which commits governments and online service providers to undertake a series of actions to counter and remove terrorist and violent extremist content online. I attended a dinner hosted by President Macron with more than 150 business leaders, at which I outlined Ireland's solidarity with the Christchurch call. While technology company leaders were present, I did not have specific bilateral meetings with them.

I was asked a question on contacts with Facebook representatives. I have not had any contact with the chief operating officer, Ms Sheryl Sandberg, since an exchange of letters following our brief meeting in Davos in January.

I spoke with Prime Minister Ardern about the Christchurch call and what practical steps we can take to try to prevent the spread of terrorist content online. I spoke to Prime Minister May about the latest developments on Brexit. Prime Minister Trudeau and I spoke about Brexit and ratification of CETA. President Macron and I discussed the European elections and Brexit developments. We did not discuss agricultural issues or CAP on this occasion. King Abdullah and I spoke about the opening of Ireland's new embassy in Amman and the strengthening of bilateral relations between our two countries.

Ireland is committed to eliminating terrorist content online and countering radicalisation through educational and social inclusion initiatives. No civilised society can tolerate a situation where extremist ideology of the type that motivated the Christchurch attack finds oxygen and spreads its poison online. For this reason Ireland was pleased to endorse the Christchurch call and we continue to engage at national, EU and international levels to ensure its implementation.

I was asked about my plans for visits abroad over the next six months. I expect to travel to Brussels for the meeting of the European Council that is taking place on 21-22 June. After the Council, I will travel to Luxembourg to visit the European Investment Bank and the European Court of Justice and to have a bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr. Bettel. I will then attend a meeting of the British-Irish Council in the United Kingdom during the summer in Manchester. I plan to attend further scheduled European Council meetings on 17-18 October and 12-13 December. Other visits are being given consideration but at present none is confirmed.

I refer to the discussions on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. It is very important that every opportunity is used to discuss CAP at European level over the next while because there are many challenges coming in relation to funding cuts. The agricultural industry feels a lot of pressure with regard to Brexit, how it will pan out, and what the future is going to be, particularly on the beef side of it. We have seen many challenges over the past 12 months with beef and the future of the beef industry, and there are comments coming from the European Union about decoupling payments or reducing cattle numbers. It is vitally important that the Taoiseach discusses CAP at every opportunity he has at European level. We have had a great relationship with the French over many years in discussions on CAP, going right back to our joining the European Union, and we should use every opportunity to build that friendship further and to ensure that the advance of Irish agriculture is kept at the forefront of any discussions on CAP.

This group of questions includes a number of distinct elements, including CAP reform, cybersecurity, Brexit, and the future of the European Union. I do not know whether we can get a bit more time on it, but there we are.

On the discussions about CAP with France, we have formed a very positive working relationship with the French Government historically on this issue over many years. The important thing is to avoid a return to the zero-sum approach to the European Union's budget, which always leads to unreasonable demands for cuts to agriculture and rural development. This is especially acute in the context of Brexit. Will the Taoiseach explain if he has backed off his support for the letter issued earlier this year by some governments which rejected the idea of additional revenues for the Union?

Regarding the informal session the Taoiseach had, it is disappointing that he continues to support the Spitzenkandidat system for party political reasons. We need a European Commission President who will be a clear and focused leader and who will address the problems with communications in Europe generally that are evident at the moment. It is surprising that Ireland is so enthusiastically backing someone who has no record to indicate that he has these skills.

Anyone looking at the record of the past seven years will know that the President of the European Central Bank, ECB, is a most critical appointment and has made far more of an impact in delivering recovery than our self-regarding Government is willing to admit. We should be clear that it would be against the interests of Ireland, and indeed Europe as a whole, if there was any attempt to return to the failed orthodoxies of the pre-Draghi era. This is a decision which is, in my view, more important than the multi-annual budget, and countries such as Ireland, which were damaged by the policies Mario Draghi eventually abandoned, need to speak up and oppose the attempt to bring back policies which could undermine both the euro and the European Union. Is it the Taoiseach's intention to say anything on the topic of the appointment to the ECB? The Taoiseach should also be aware that there will be a major backlash if there is any attempt to put a person associated with the far right in either of the other two jobs being discussed. The politics of Orbán, Salvini, and others cannot be allowed to destroy the independent institutions of the European Union, and we need a far more robust approach to the politics these individuals are pursuing across the Union.

As Deputy Micheál Martin has said, this is an eclectic grouping. My question is about the Taoiseach's intended meetings for the next six months. I regard the next six months as being potentially crucial ones for Ireland's foreign policy. There will be a new British Prime Minister, who could be and most likely will be a harder Brexiteer than the current one. As a result, there is a very strong view that a hard Brexit is more likely and we, particularly our businesses, have to up our preparations for that. The European Union is also gearing up for a series of major cyclical changes, including the election of a new Commission President and a new Council President, and the next few months will be critical in this. We are also preparing ourselves for the next round of the multi-annual financial framework, MFF, which will be pivotal in areas like CAP, our demand for a change in structural funding in areas like housing, and for co-ordinated pan-European action on climate. Despite the visit of President Trump, we still have real fears about the trading impact of this nation and Europe generally with the European Union. In that context, I am interested in where the Taoiseach intends to visit and who he intends to talk to internationally in the next six months, especially during the holiday period when he might have more time to have impactful one-to-one meetings. He gave a list of meetings, including meetings in Brussels and Luxembourg and British-Irish Council and European Council meetings, all of which are important but all of which are routine. Has he given strategic consideration to the meeting he needs to have in the next six months, bearing in mind the crucial issues for our country that I have just instanced?

I suggest that the Taoiseach prioritise a visit to Edinburgh and that he very speedily ramp up the conversation with the Scottish Government and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in particular. The stance adopted by the Scottish Government on fishing and fishing rights around Rockall is, frankly, bewildering. Scotland wishes to remain within the European Union, and that position has been well articulated and mandated democratically. Scotland is part of the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP, and therefore I cannot understand, in either diplomatic or economic terms, the stance taken by the Scottish Government. This matter requires immediate and high-level attention because, as others have said, the matter of Brexit now looms and the prospect of a hard Brexit looms ever greater with the prospect of a hard Brexiteer Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street. This scenario threatens the livelihoods of fishing families directly in the here and now, raises the hackles, and raises real concerns as to what Brexit might look like and how it might play out. Scotland is considered an ally on the matter of Brexit, and both fishing communities and people beyond them are saying that if this is the stance adopted by an ally, heaven help us if we are to consider a stance that might be adopted by those who are not an ally of Ireland. Will the Taoiseach, in the course of his response, set out his contact to date with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and if he intends to go directly to Edinburgh to raise, and I hope resolve, this issue with her directly?

The issue of CAP funding and reform, which was raised by Deputy Michael Moynihan, is going to be our top priority when it comes to negotiating the new MFF, which is the next five-year budget for the European Union. There are different views across the European Union. Some countries believe that we should reduce that budget, invest in other areas and tackle other problems, while some believe it is a well-functioning EU programme and one that we need to protect. We are very much in the latter camp and are building alliances with like-minded countries - not just France, but also many Mediterranean and central eastern European countries which benefit a lot from CAP. The best way to ensure the CAP budget is protected is by having a very strong environmental and climate action component to it. Often the best way to succeed in a budgetary negotiation is to have two objectives rather than one, and marrying the need to protect the incomes of farmers and rural development with environmental action and climate action is our best chance to protect the budget for CAP. That means greening CAP. It means more investment in green schemes like the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, for example. Some 60,000 farmers are participating in that already, but there could be a lot more. It means funding for diversification and incentivising farmers financially to move into areas of agriculture that are better in terms of climate change and which help promote biodiversity. That is the negotiating approach we will be taking and it is the right one.

Regarding additional revenues for the Union's budget, the Government has stated that we are willing to increase our direct contribution to the EU budget, but only if important programmes like CAP, Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 and others are protected.

On the Spitzenkandidaten system, I support it not for partisan reasons, but for democratic reasons. The European elections matter. When it comes to selecting who holds the most important positions in the EU institutions, we should have regard to what the people said in the European elections. On this occasion, the EPP won those elections both here and across Europe, but it could have been different.

It is the largest party at any rate.

Had it been different, I would not have changed my position on it and would have been willing to support a candidate from a different group. The way it is going to work is that, because nobody has a clear majority or anything remotely approaching it, there will have to be a coalition involving three or four groups - the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and possibly the Greens-European Free Alliance - and the four top jobs will have to be shared out. In that regard, everyone knows where I stand. I would welcome knowing from the Opposition parties where they stand and which candidates they would support for those top jobs - the Commission Presidency, the Council Presidency, the High Representative and the Presidency of the Parliament. The Deputies know where I stand. I would love to see Mairead McGuinness as President of the Parliament. I would love to see Manfred Weber as President of the Commission. I think he would be a good one. However, I know that there will have to be a negotiation. I know it is going to be a package. If other parties have particular candidates they believe the Irish Government should support when it comes to voting in June, I would welcome their opinions. Whether the candidate is Commissioner Vestager or Vice-President Timmermans, I would like to know. It is easy to criticise but not always as easy to put forward-----

The Taoiseach has already nailed his colours to the mast.

-----alternative solutions. I am happy to hear them.

That sounds as flexible as Boris Johnson.

What about the European Central Bank?

What we did agree at our last European Council meeting was that the position of the head of the ECB should not be considered as part of the package. It is different to the other four posts; it is not as political a post. We agreed that that would not be part of any deal, as it were. I have to say that I think Mario Draghi has done a really excellent job as head of the European Central Bank and has pursued broadly the right policies in saving the euro, keeping interest rates low and reflating the European economy. I would like to see his replacement following a similar approach to the euro and not the one that perhaps was followed by his predecessor.

European Council Meetings

Micheál Martin


8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the informal European Council meeting held on 28 May 2019; the issues that were discussed; and if he held bilaterals at same. [22676/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett


9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with EU leaders at the informal European Council meeting. [22683/19]

Mary Lou McDonald


10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with President Macron of France. [23294/19]

Mary Lou McDonald


11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if will report on the recent informal meeting of the European Council. [23296/19]

Seán Haughey


12. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the outcome of the informal European Council meeting held on 28 May 2019; if the appointment of the new President of the European Commission was considered at the meeting; and the approach taken by Ireland on the issue. [23321/19]

Joan Burton


13. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with EU leaders. [23402/19]

Brendan Howlin


14. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the informal meeting of EU Heads of State and Government on 28 May 2019. [23550/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 14, inclusive, together.

I attended an informal meeting of the EU Heads of State and Government in Brussels on the evening of 28 May. We discussed the outcome of the European Parliament elections and procedures for the important appointments to the European institutions that fall to be made in the period ahead. We mandated President Tusk to start consultations with EU member states and the European Parliament and agreed to continue discussions at our next meeting of the European Council on 20 and 21 June.

Before the dinner, I co-signed a letter with President Macron requesting President Juncker's backing for our joint grant application for the Celtic interconnector. The interconnector, which will run between Ireland and France, will improve security and diversification of electricity supply, decrease the cost of electricity and help us to achieve our climate ambitions.

I also spoke informally with several of my EU counterparts in the margins of the meeting about Brexit and other important EU issues. I used the opportunity, as I always do, to promote our interests.

I have not had any discussion with other EU leaders since the meeting on 28 May, but I will meet again with my European counterparts at the next European Council meeting in Brussels on 20 and 21 June.

I have asked the Taoiseach about the issue of the budget and whether he supports the idea of additional revenues for the Union. The broader question facing us will be the budget to be spent by the Union and the financial framework for the next five to six years. The Brexit situation looms large and we do not know who is going to win the Conservative Party's leadership battle and become the next Prime Minister, but it could have a particular bearing on the financial outlook, given that Britain leaving the EU has financial implications for the overall EU budget and, particularly from an Irish perspective, on the CAP. Unsurprisingly, Commissioner Hogan has already indicated that there will be a reduction in the CAP budget. It is important that the Taoiseach indicate that the Government is consistent in supporting an increase in the overall EU budget as being in Ireland's best interests in terms of our sectoral needs, agriculture and rural Ireland in particular.

The Taoiseach is correct in saying that it is a more fragmented European Parliament. It is obvious that, at European rather than Irish level, various groups will negotiate a package and a compromise on the key positions. That said, will it still be the EPP's position, for example, to rely on leaders like Orbán to support its candidates and give it with the strength that it enjoys in the European Parliament?

On a broader level, the European Union has been under threat for some time. Luckily, the European elections turned out reasonably well in some countries. In others like France, there are still some alarm bells ringing in terms of the far right making progress. There must be much less tolerance of the far right's approach to many issues. Democrats need to stand up for the fundamental values that have informed the European Union from the outset, in particular free speech, independent judiciaries and independent and free media, in order that people can speak out without fear or favour. Where regimes within the EU are suppressing free speech in the media and undermining the independence of the judiciary, the EU must take a much stronger stance in response to those countries. Such behaviour is incompatible with continued membership of the Union.

Concerns around the budgetary position post Brexit will have been raised even more loudly by those who saw the statement in the weekend's edition of The Sunday Times by Boris Johnson, potentially the British Prime Minister, that he would withhold the £39 billion in outstanding British contributions to the EU budget for 2019 and 2020 unless the EU agreed what he called more favourable terms in Brexit. There are deep concerns, particularly regarding CAP, about the sustainability of the budgetary forecasts. Some might accuse Boris Johnson of simple bombast. That might prove to be the case but given that he is certainly one of the runners for the Prime Minister's position, this is a matter that we must take most seriously.

President Macron responded to this assertion - rather, a source close to him responded to Reuters - by saying that withholding Britain's contribution to the EU budget would amount to a sovereign debt default. President Macron has a habit of upping the ante in the debate with Britain. While Britain must be held to account and, as we all agree, this country cannot be the collateral damage in the Brexit debacle, there is a danger that we will get caught between anglophone and francophone bombast on some of these matters.

Given the new European Parliament term and the dynamic introduced by Brexit, now is the time to have a debate on the future of Europe and on protecting the democratic foundations and values of the Union. As democrats, however, we must open up to scrutiny the direction being taken by the European project. That would be a necessary and healthy thing to do.

How does the Taoiseach propose to promote that debate? I am not talking about a shouting match or a scenario in which those with critical views are denigrated as anti-European or negative. We need to have a grown-up, mature and democratic debate about the future direction of the European project.

The results of the recent European Parliament elections are to be welcomed. As others have done, I congratulate the four Deputies who have been elected to the European Parliament and I wish them well. It is to be welcomed that the expected swing to the far right did not materialise. It seems that we now have a fragmented and diverse sector. This will be challenging. I have no doubt that the political system will rise to the occasion in the interests of the citizens of Europe.

I would like to speak about the United Kingdom and Brexit. We are in despair as we watch developments in UK politics at this time. The Conservative Party leadership race is particularly depressing. Now that we know the positions of a number of the contenders, it is especially depressing that many of the candidates seem to have no interest in, or feel for, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. I suspect that Anglo-Irish relations will be particularly difficult in the months ahead. I think the Taoiseach will need all his diplomatic skills to deal with that. The Rockall fisheries dispute is now on the agenda as well. It is a sign of things to come. I would say that the leadership race in the Conservative Party is especially depressing.

When the Taoiseach spoke in his previous contribution about last month's European Council meeting, he outlined his position on several important and central posts that needed to be filled. Does he think it would be worthwhile to pursue Jean-Claude Juncker's suggestion that there should be gender balance in the filling of these positions? I think we need to give serious consideration to the suggestion. Although the wheeling and dealing is fascinating, I would say it is a little unseemly. I suppose that is democracy in action. Will the ultimate decision be taken by the European Parliament or by the European Council? It looks like the ALDE group, to which Fianna Fáil is affiliated, will have a central role in the make-up of the European Parliament. It will be very interesting to watch. I hope the best people fill the positions in due course. If we get a new President of the European Commission, we will have to appoint Commissioners and Ireland will have to appoint a European Commissioner. Has the Taoiseach given any thought to that yet? What qualities does he think our newly appointed Commissioner should have? I would be interested to know what he thinks about what might transpire in respect of the Irish appointment over the next couple of months.

I know the normal process here involves Opposition Deputies asking questions of the Taoiseach, who then answers those questions. On this occasion, I do not mind answering the question the Taoiseach has asked. I could give a fuller answer in respect of all the positions. The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats candidate for the position of President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, is an exemplary candidate. He understands Ireland very well. He has had a long involvement with this country. I have been involved with him over many years in various Ministries. He understands Ireland and is very supportive of Ireland. He would be an excellent choice for us.

I would like to mention another important position that is coming up. The Taoiseach has said that the position of President of the ECB is not part of the general brokering. I have a great deal of experience in this area. I know the Taoiseach was not a great fan of the Economic Management Council during the period for which it existed. When we started to tackle the worst economic crisis this State had met in many generations, it was very important to have a tight-knit group of people grappling with these issues. The transition from Jean-Claude Trichet to Mario Draghi was critical and essential not only for our economic survival but also for the survival of the eurozone. It is important that whoever replaces Mr. Draghi is of the same mindset as him. When he said the ECB would do "whatever it takes" to preserve the euro, he meant that every ounce of strength in the bank and in the economies of Europe would be deployed to that end. It was a pivotal moment in the preservation of the eurozone. I do not want to have an auction of candidates, but I must mention that Mr. Jens Weidmann, who is being touted as a candidate, opposed all of that. He did not believe it was the role of the President of the ECB, or the ECB itself, to preserve the eurozone. He continues to argue this extraordinary point of view on the basis that the role of the ECB is simply to maintain a low inflation rate within the eurozone countries. I say these things because this is very important. Many good candidates could fill the other positions, but the mindset of the President of the ECB will be critical. Will the Taoiseach comment on this issue? I am sure he is well briefed on it. I would be very happy to discuss it with him. I am sure Deputy Noonan will have briefed the Taoiseach separately about the pivotal position of the ECB at critical junctures in our economic travails.

We will take three or four minutes from the third batch of questions to hear the Taoiseach's response to the questions that have just been asked.

As Deputy Howlin probably picked up from my remarks on the previous group of questions, my assessment of the characteristics of the new President of the ECB is very similar to the Deputy's assessment. I agree that Mario Draghi has done a very good job in saving the euro and keeping interest rates low. He pursued a policy of quantitative easing when it was necessary. It is still necessary at this point in time. I would like the next President of the ECB to be somebody of a similar mindset who would continue to adopt similar policies to those of Mr. Draghi. It is useful that the position of chief economist of the ECB is now held by an Irish person in the shape of Philip Lane.

Deputy Micheál Martin asked about revenue raising on two occasions. I am not sure if I misunderstood the question. We are not advocating any new EU-wide tax. That is not something we propose.

No, I did not ask that. The Taoiseach knows I did not ask that.

Perhaps the Deputy asked his question twice because he did not hear what I said earlier. I said that Ireland had indicated that it would be willing to increase its direct contribution from its own resources. It will increase anyway because our GDP is increasing. We are willing to increase the percentage as long as the programmes we support continue to be well funded. We are willing to pay more into the budget as long as important programmes like the Common Agricultural Policy, Erasmus+, Horizon 2020 and INTERREG are protected. We do not want to end up paying more into a budget only to see the programmes we find most valuable being cut back.

I was asked about the package for the four top jobs. It is anticipated that three or four of the major parties will come together to create a majority in the European Parliament. It has to be an absolute majority. We will have an absolute majority that does not require the support of parties like Fidesz that have been suspended. I am very conscious that the V4 nations - Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic - tend to stick together at European Council level. Even though their Governments are in different groups - liberal, centre right and socialist - they tend to stick together. Often, the dynamic is not just one of political groups as there can be regional groups too. They will stick together on these issues. It will be necessary for the European Council to vote by qualified majority on some positions.

Like everyone in this House, I am a little concerned about political developments in London at present. Theresa May was not a bad negotiator. She had a good team. I believe they got the best deal they could have got, given the limited leverage that a country leaving the EU has. It took two years to negotiate the withdrawal agreement. It is not perfect. It is a finely balanced compromise. Everyone had to give and take. Sadly, the House of Commons failed to ratify that agreement. I am a little concerned that some people in London seem to think the failure of the House of Commons to ratify the agreement automatically means they will get a better agreement. That is a terrible political miscalculation. I hope it is not the one that is being made across the water. They made some miscalculations along the way. After the UK decided to leave the EU, they initially thought that Ireland would somehow fall into line and leave too. We did not leave and we are not leaving. Some of them thought that when push came to shove, Ireland would be abandoned and EU unity would break.

They were wrong about that. I hope they are not making a further political miscalculation, which is to think that the House of Commons, having failed to ratify the deal, will somehow get a better deal. That is to really misunderstand how the European Union works.

In terms of the wider future of Europe debate, we have had a detailed public consultation, led by the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy McEntee, with meetings held all over the country and a lot of people engaging. A few months ago we issued a Government statement on the future of Europe that sets out our vision for how the EU should grow and develop in the coming years. If we have not had one yet, a Dáil debate-----

We had statements-----

-----on that would be very wise.

Deputy Haughey asked about balance. It is essential that we have gender balance, political balance among the groups, geographical balance and balance between big and small as well as between new and old member states. It is very hard to have that level of balance when there are only four jobs but we need to achieve it. President Macron and I are very keen to see at least one of the major top jobs going to a woman. The high representative position is currently held by a woman but it seems to me that one of the presidencies should be held by a woman in the next term and there are some very good candidates who could potentially fill those roles.

There are many good Irish candidates for one of those jobs.

Seanad Reform

Brendan Howlin


15. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the status of his plans for Seanad reform. [22697/19]

Mary Lou McDonald


16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Seanad reform implementation group. [24204/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 and 16 together.

The report of the Seanad reform implementation group was noted and discussed by the Government at its meeting on 30 April 2019. The Government also noted that the report includes four statements from various groups outlining why their position was not in line with the recommendations of the report, including Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and some Independent Members. The Government will reflect on the views of the Houses of the Oireachtas in considering the next steps to be taken following statements in both Houses. The Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Phelan, will liaise with the Chief Whip and the Business Committee concerning the scheduling of time for a debate on the aforementioned report in this House.

In his final published article, the late and very much respected Feargal Quinn, who served as a Member of Seanad Éireann for 23 years, directly called on the Taoiseach to respect the commitment in the programme for Government on Seanad reform. He asked the Taoiseach to acknowledge that "significant reform is now long overdue" and urged the Government to pursue the "implementation of the Manning report" as a priority. The all-party committee report on Seanad reform published last December has not been acted on. We are now talking about facilitating another debate but I have a very simple and direct question. Does the Taoiseach intend to simply talk these things out or will he have the recommendations, or something like them, implemented in the lifetime of the current Dáil and Seanad?

While the Taoiseach has "noted" the report and said that it will be reflected on and discussed, he seems to have no appetite to act. I know from speaking to people that although the Seanad for all of its importance may not be the stuff of excited conversation on a daily basis in the real world-----

It is, sometimes.

-----nonetheless there is a general sense that Seanad reform is a bit like rural broadband, namely, something that is spoken of at length but which never happens. I question the political will of this Government to deliver reform. The Taoiseach has expressed strong views on proposals for reform and that is all very well and good but given reform of the Upper House has been a matter of debate, contemplation and reflection for decades now, we must ask if it is going to happen. If the answer to that question is "Yes", then I ask the Taoiseach to tell us when but if the answer is "No", the political system should simply own up to that. The Government should state that clearly and we should stop having conversations about something that the Government has no intention to deliver.

The Taoiseach should take the honest position and admit that he has no interest in pursuing Seanad reform within the context and parameters of the Manning report and the work of Senator McDowell, who feels that he has been hung out to dry by the Government's, and Fine Gael's, approach to this issue. The honest thing to do would be to say that the Government is not committed and has no interest in pursuing this. The people of Ireland voted to retain the Seanad; Fine Gael wanted to abolish it. The alternative to abolishing the Upper House was clearly to reform it and a template was provided for same. Seanad reform is in the programme for Government but it is there in name only. There is no deeply held commitment. The Taoiseach is against reform and if he was honest, he would say so. He should abandon the commitment and take it out of the programme for Government so that we are all clear on the matter. He should stop wasting people's time.

The core lesson of the plebiscite on the Seanad, when Fine Gael sought to abolish it, and recent plebiscites on mayoralties is that people want significantly more information about how major political changes will operate in practice before making a decision. Just as Opposition parties predicted, there was a public backlash against the reasonable idea, which I supported, of directly elected mayors. Nowhere near enough information was provided on the practical details of what was being proposed. I pointed this out to the Taoiseach two or three months before the plebiscite. It sums up the hyper-partisan nature of this Government that the Minister responsible has stated repeatedly that his failure is the fault of the Opposition. His objective seems to have been to squeeze out a win rather than obtain wide legitimacy. We could look to London as an example. When London held a similar vote to create a unified mayoralty, detailed implementing legislation and budgets were prepared and 72% of the people voted in favour. The obvious lesson of this reform proposal, as with the Seanad proposal, is that we need a return to the past practice of preparing detailed White Papers, legislation and budgets before seeking public support for changes. What has been going on here in recent times is bread and circuses - produce a nice-sounding idea for a bit of reform to keep them going until the autumn, with no detailed work put into it.

Earlier the Cabinet apparently discussed the extension of the presidential franchise. I ask the Taoiseach to give us a commitment that he will publish not just a general proposal but a full implementation schedule, legislation and a budget before seeking approval for that proposal. That is what people need and deserve. A referendum on that proposal should be held separately from local, general or European elections because it is serious enough to merit that. The Government is going to the people for a decision and should treat that with the respect it deserves.

Our intention is to hold the referendum on extending the presidential franchise to Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland and around the world later this year, most likely concurrent with the four by-elections, the writ for which must be moved within six months of the vacancies arising. If four constituencies are going to the polls anyway, it makes sense to have the referendum at that time. Legislation will be introduced in this House before the recess. We have a detailed paper on how it is going to work, running to approximately 100 pages. The short answer to the Deputy's question is that we will put out as much information as we possibly can.

A policy paper was published on the plebiscites for directly elected mayors. There was an information campaign-----

It was very late-----

-----led by a judge. There were also campaigns on the ground and it was passed in one city. Limerick city and county voted in favour of having a directly elected mayor and will now have one. That will act as a demonstration project and other parts of the country will see how successful it is and in time, they will want the same. I would like Dublin and Galway to vote on the matter in 2021 but there will be a Dublin citizen's assembly before that, which needs to examine the wider issues of local government in Dublin, how it should work and where the mayor would fit in. The decision of the people of Limerick to vote in favour gives them a real chance to get ahead of other cities and regions and I am determined to see that new office work. I deeply regret that Cork narrowly voted against having a directly elected mayor.

When a vote is defeated narrowly, one sees many different things that could have been done differently or better that might have changed the result. One such thing would have been Deputy Micheál Martin actively campaigning for a yes vote.

It is all my fault.

When a narrow margin-----

The Taoiseach has no concept of the Opposition.

When defeat is narrow, one sees many things that could have gone differently.

I supported it. The Taoiseach did not do his homework.

Did Deputy Micheál Martin support it?

The Deputy was asked to take part in events with the Minister, Deputy Coveney-----

-----to write op-eds, and to take part is the campaign but decided not to-----

No. I got a phone call two days before polling day when the die had already been cast.

-----unlike Deputy Niall Collins-----

The Taoiseach did not approach us at all.

Share the blame.

The Taoiseach did not approach us on this at all.

-----in Limerick who showed real leadership, actually took part in the campaign, and helped to secure the passage of the plebiscite, as did the Green Party, the Social Democrats, and Labour in some parts of the country. I am sorry to say that it is my sense that the Deputy secretly wanted the plebiscite to be defeated in Cork because he hoped it would make the Government look bad.

He was willing to let down his own city in that regard.

That is a strange charge to make.

He showed no leadership on this matter-----

That is an outrageous charge to make.

-----and as a result of that, Limerick city and county will now get a head start over Cork.

The Taoiseach should withdraw that remark.

The Deputy really let down his city in this regard. He showed a lack of leadership, unlike Deputy Niall Collins, who showed much more leadership on this matter by supporting the plebiscite in Limerick and helping it to get across the line.

The Taoiseach is talking about some parallel Fine Gael universe. He will not take any responsibility for this himself.

With regard to the question------

His appointment of Senator Buttimer as director of elections was his most inspired in many years.

The Deputies should behave. They should not invite interruptions.

That is a personal attack; it is very unbecoming.

It was most inspired.

It can hardly be considered a personal attack after the abuse we have just heard.

Perhaps we should move on to housing.

The truth hurts.

I voted for it; the Taoiseach made a bags of it.

The Deputy did not campaign for it.

We have not seen Deputy Eoghan Murphy in eight weeks.

The plebiscite could have passed if Deputy Micheál Martin had shown a little bit of leadership, as Deputy Niall Collins did. I am sorry he did not do so.

I will pass the Taoiseach's good wishes on to Deputy Collins.

With regard to the Seanad, as I have said before, I supported its abolition. Many countries, including New Zealand, Finland, and Portugal, have unicameral systems which work well, but I accept the referendum result. The people have decided that the Seanad will remain. That matter is now settled. Whether that was a vote for reform or not is a matter of debate, as is whether the people were fixed on any particular type of reform. If we are going to proceed with reform, it needs to be the right reform. I have expressed reservations about the Manning report in the past. I do not believe the reforms in it go far enough, largely because they retain the institutional panel structure, which does not befit a modern democracy.

With regard to the all-party report, we should not forget that dissenting reports attached including dissenting reports from Fine Gael Members, Sinn Féin Members, university Senators, and many Independent Members. Unlike many other all-party reports, this did not have all-party support.

The Taoiseach has been against it since day one. He should state that.

The next step is to have a debate in the Dáil to allow people to give their views and to say what they think is right and wrong.

We have given our views. We have had an Oireachtas committee.

The legislation has been published and it is open to anyone to bring it forward in Private Members' time if he or she so wishes.