Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The sexual abuse of a young child is a most vile and horrific act. The life-changing trauma imposed forcibly on the child is lifelong. It takes an extraordinary degree of resilience, courage and dignity to survive and cope with the lifelong challenges imposed by such trauma. Unfortunately, this country has witnessed a terrible history of child sexual abuse within many institutions and families. That is why there is a fundamental moral obligation on the State to protect children and respond resolutely and transparently when allegations of child abuse emerge and incidents of child abuse occur, particularly within national organisations. I understand that during tonight's edition of "RTÉ Investigates", details of which have emerged, former scouts in the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland and the Scouting Association of Ireland who were abused will express their concern, annoyance and anger at the fact that Scouting Ireland is being allowed to carry out its own review of complaints of sexual abuse within the organisation. Last year Scouting Ireland stated in a briefing document that it gave to the Minister, Deputy Zappone, that the organisation's internal historical review had found that some perpetrators "moved from one local group to another" and "in one case moved between two different scouting organisations". The case of David O'Brien, a former scout leader and convicted sex offender, is an example of this practice. By his own admission, he had sexually abused up to 60 boys, most of whom were young cub scouts. He had evaded justice by moving around in the 1970s and 1980s. He pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting Paul O'Toole who has said:

That was the moment my childhood ended. It was where a normal childhood should have went on. But mine stopped.

Colm Bracken who was victimised by two scout leaders, including David O'Brien, has said the abuse was his first sexual experience. He continued:

They shattered my soul. They killed my soul.

It is clear from the Scouting Ireland briefing document that files went missing. It took many years for Scouting Ireland to commence the investigation. It has confirmed that there are indications in its internal review of "extensive, prolonged and organised child sexual abuse" and of how "adult members who preyed on children were protected". There were repeated failures to take effective action. There are approximately 400 alleged sexual abuse complaints, involving 247 alleged perpetrators. There is no question about the fact that Dr. Geoffrey Shannon agrees with the former scouts who were abused. In the light of the scale of the abuse that occurred, as revealed in "RTÉ Investigates", will the Taoiseach give a commitment that the Government will establish a transparent and independent statutory inquiry? Is the Government prepared to do this?

We all agree that crimes against children are among the most heinous. Crimes of a sexual nature against children are particularly unspeakable. As a society, we need to do all we can to protect children and bring perpetrators to justice. I understand tonight's edition of "RTÉ Investigates" will cover some cases of historical abuse in scouting organisations from the 1970s and 1980s. It is always very harrowing to hear survivors describe awful experiences of abuse when they should have been safe, protected from harm and able to have a normal childhood. The Government has been aware of these issues for some time. It has been engaging with Scouting Ireland to ensure its current child protection and safeguarding policies are fit for purpose and greatly enhanced by comparison with those that applied in forebear organisations, including those mentioned by the Deputy. To that end, Scouting Ireland is working closely with Tusla. I was encouraged to hear my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, recently report her satisfaction with the progress Scouting Ireland had made on safeguarding and governance. However, she recognises that further work remains to be completed in that regard.

Keeping children and young people safe always has the highest priority. It is vital that everything continues to be done to ensure the thousands of children who attend scouting organisations throughout the country are safe, protected and free to enjoy themselves and avail of the many benefits that accrue from participation in such organisations. A great deal of work is being done to ensure there are no ongoing concerns about Scouting Ireland, to assure parents whose children become scouts that their children are safe and protected and to make sure the child protection standards that were not in place in the 1970s and 1980s when they should have been are now in place. The Government will consider the establishment of a commission of investigation or a statutory inquiry of some nature. I will discuss the matter with the Minister. As is always the case when it comes to statutory investigations, we need to tread carefully and get it right. Under no circumstances would we want to carry out a statutory inquiry that would jeopardise any potential or ongoing prosecution. It is possible to undertake a statutory inquiry without putting prosecutions in jeopardy. It is a question of getting the terms of reference right. I will discuss the issue with the Minister on foot of ongoing events, including tonight's programme.

When similar allegations and cases emerged in the church, there was never any question of the church conducting its own internal investigations. When I initiated an inquiry in the diocese of Ferns on the basis of allegations that had been made, I did not seek anybody's permission. It was not contemplated that the diocese would investigate itself. The same happened in the cases of the diocese of Cloyne and the diocese of Dublin and in other organisations. The Government of the day initiated independent statutory inquiries into abuse in the sport of swimming and institutions such as industrial schools. I would have been involved in some of those decisions. Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, a well respected expert in child law and a former special rapporteur for children, has made it clear that no organisation against which allegations have been made involving former members of that organisation should investigate itself. That is a very basic principle. To put it mildly, a mistake has been made in this instance. I am saying this with the best of intentions. I will not engage in anything of a partisan political nature. I simply believe Scouting Ireland cannot be allowed to investigate itself. In saying that I am not casting any aspersion on the current leadership of the organisation. I respect the efforts people in the current leadership are making.

I also respect that thousands of people enjoy scouting and it is important that we protect them. It is imperative for the victims and survivors that an inquiry be statutory, independent, transparent and public and that it should not be conducted by the organisation itself.

The Deputy is correct that when it comes to matters such as this and crimes of a sexual nature against children, it is not adequate for an organisation to investigate itself. Of course, other investigations may get under way, such as a Garda investigation because these are crimes which can be prosecuted. We need to bear in mind that this abuse occurred in the 1970s and 1980s-----

I forgot to point out that it is not just about the 1970s and 1980s, as will be made clear by the programme to be broadcast tonight.

-----in organisations that no longer exist, having been replaced by Scouting Ireland. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, commissioned former Senator Jillian van Turnhout to undertake a review of governance and safeguarding in Scouting Ireland in May 2019 and Ms van Turnhout made several recommendations that have been implemented in full by Scouting Ireland. I will take the Deputy's comments on board and will discuss the matter with the Minister, Deputy Zappone. We will come to a decision in the near future on the best way to proceed, which may include a statutory investigation.

Last week, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of the growing crime problem, particularly drug crime, in Cork and the lack of Garda resources to deal with it. He stated that he was unable to comment directly on the issue as he did not have an up-to-date briefing. I hope he has since received such a briefing, particularly in light of the smash and grab organised online this week which led to 100 youths running up and down St. Patrick's Street with their faces covered. Only for the quick action of the Garda, untold damage could have been caused to businesses.

In case the Taoiseach has not received an up-to-date briefing, I will give him a flavour of the situation, as outlined in a recent statement given by the Garda Representative Association, GRA, to the Irish Examiner. He does not have to take my word on this issue. The GRA stated that, as a result of a shortage of 125 front-line gardaí, the people of Cork city are not getting the policing service they deserve. It stated that gardaí are bogged down doing secretarial work, a situation it described as farcical considering there was supposed to be a major push to bring in civilians to do the administrative work within the force. It further stated that single-officer patrols are now a regular occurrence in areas such as Douglas, Ballincollig and Blarney and that these are a health and safety issue for members of the force. The district detective unit, which is currently investigating several murders and is expected to also investigate other very serious crimes, had its numbers almost halved from 30 in 2013 to its current complement of 16. At one point last year, the protective services unit, which investigates sexual crime, had to stop taking on new cases, as I pointed out last week to the Taoiseach. Each garda in the unit is dealing with up to 39 complex cases. This situation is no longer acceptable or sustainable.

Padraig Harrington, a member of the GRA's central executive committee, has stated on record that calls for more gardaí in Cork are falling on deaf ears. He further stated that if the requests do not come from divisions in Dublin, senior management in Dublin do not want to know, and that several new patrol cars assigned to the southern region earlier this year were subsequently diverted to divisions in Dublin.

That is the reality in Cork city and its suburbs. That is what we are hearing on doorsteps while canvassing. People are concerned for their safety and that of their families. Communities are concerned. People are entitled to feel safe regardless of whether they are from Ballsbridge or Knocknaheeney, Foxrock or Mayfield. All we are asking for in Cork is a fair allocation of resources. Last week, the Taoiseach stated - and the Tánaiste reiterated last Friday on local radio - that he would discuss with the Garda Commissioner the issues I raised in this Chamber last Wednesday. Has he done so? If not, why not?

I wish to congratulate the Garda on its swift action to prevent rioting and criminal damage in Cork. I do not think there were 100 masked youths on the street. The matter is under investigation, but I do not think that is quite what happened. Certainly, the Garda acted swiftly to prevent any crimes being committed or criminal damage being caused. It is a very good example of policing working in Cork and in Ireland more broadly.

There are now more than 14,000 gardaí. The Government reversed the decision of the previous Government to stop the recruitment of gardaí. We have been recruiting and adding to the Garda force ever since. There must be more than 1,000 members of the Garda based in Cork city and county. Of course, how they are rostered and deployed is a matter for the Garda Commissioner rather than the Government, and that is as it should be.

I respect the fact that the GRA has called for additional Garda resources in Cork but it has also called for extra resources on the Border, in Donegal and in Dublin. That indicates to me that we need more and better-equipped gardaí in all parts of the country, not just in Cork. That is precisely what we are doing. The Garda budget for next year will be nearly €1.9 billion, the biggest Garda budget ever, and will enable us to continue to recruit more gardaí. The reforms being led by the Commissioner include the recruitment of more Garda staff, which will take gardaí out of offices and away from counters and onto streets, into patrol cars and onto bikes in the community, where people wish to see them. That is all under way. The guarantee I can give to people in Cork and all other parts of the country is that they will continue to see an increase in the number of gardaí in communities not just because we are recruiting additional members of the Garda but also because we are equipping them better and reforming the Garda service such that there are fewer chiefs, less management and administration and more gardaí on the beat or in cars, available for the public to see them, which is what the public wants.

The number of cases of robbery from the person in Cork between January and September this year is up by 90%. Assaults causing harm in the same period increased by 16%, while minor assaults in Cork city increased by 19%. That is the reality with which we are dealing. The Taoiseach can talk about additional resources all he wants, but those resources are not coming to Cork. I asked him a specific question. He gave a commitment last week to discuss the concerns I raised with him in this Chamber with the Garda Commissioner. Has he done so? If not, why not?

I have not yet had the opportunity to do so, but I will the next time I meet the Garda Commissioner.

That is not good enough.

We meet regularly in the context of the Cabinet sub-committee on security. As the Deputy will appreciate, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, meets the Commissioner more regularly than do I and has already raised the issue with him on behalf of the Government.

The Deputy referred to statistics. I am a believer in science - this is Science Week - and I like statistics, but we can sometimes be a little selective in our use of them. I will provide two figures to which the Deputy did not refer.

There are people behind each of these statistics.

That is so. I will provide other statistics which also have people behind them. In the past year, burglaries are down by 10% nationwide. We should welcome that. The decrease is to be encouraged, particularly in rural areas where we are seeing a significant reduction in burglaries because of action the Garda has taken. In the past year, murders and homicide offences are down by 40% as a result of the excellent work being done by the Garda.

Murders and other homicides have increased in Cork.

Ms Dara Quigley, a constituent of mine from Clonshaugh in Dublin Bay North, died tragically by drowning on 12 April 2017. Dara was a talented young journalist and community activist. Among her writings were a sharp and insightful blog entitled "Degree of uncertainty" and articles for the Dublin Inquirer newspaper. Her community activities included a strong role in the water charges protest movement. On the morning of 7 April 2017, Dara was emotionally distressed and found walking naked on Harcourt Street by members of An Garda Síochána who detained her under the Mental Health Act 2001.

This incident was recorded by Garda CCTV cameras and a recording of the footage showing Dara in great distress was allegedly shared in a WhatsApp group, posted onto Facebook and viewed over 125,000 times. Dara became aware of the disclosure while spending some time in rural County Tipperary and five days later she died there by drowning. The tragedy has had a devastating impact on Dara’s mother, Ms Aileen Malone, her siblings and family. They have striven tirelessly to secure accountability and justice for Dara and to support moves in this House and by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to end online image-based sexual abuse.

The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, undertook an investigation of the leak and dissemination of the CCTV footage. Last August, GSOC informed me that its disciplinary investigation had concluded and a report pursuant to section 97 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 containing recommendations was forwarded to the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, on 25 July. GSOC went on to state that the matter rests with the Garda Commissioner in terms of the application of the Garda discipline regulations but was unable to give a timeframe to the family or to me.

Dara’s family requested a copy of the GSOC report but this was refused. Surely, they are entitled to that. In August 2018, the Data Protection Commissioner confirmed to Aileen Malone that Dara was the victim of an unauthorised data breach, which is an offence under section 22 of the Data Protection Act, as amended. I was also informed by GSOC that Mr. Joe Kelly, the coroner for north Tipperary, was preparing to hold the inquest into Dara’s death last month but this has still not happened. Dara’s mother and her siblings also asked for a meeting with Commissioner Harris. I also contacted the Commissioner supporting that request but unfortunately, so far, that has been declined.

Would the Taoiseach agree that non-consensual distribution of private and intimate images can have appalling consequences? Would he also agree that it is particularly shocking that the publication of these images is based on CCTV footage allegedly linked to An Garda Síochána? Will the GSOC report now be made speedily available to the family and to their solicitor, Mr. Gareth Noble, so that a long-delayed inquest may be held?

Over recent weeks, through Joe Duffy and other journalists, there has been a major public debate about harassment and bullying and the stories of other tragic victims of online abuse have been brought to public attention. I am aware of the work on the matter by the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality led by Deputy Ó Caoláin and of Deputy Howlin’s Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017. Do we not need to act very fast in this area?

I agree with the Deputy. On whether the GSOC report can be provided to the family, as he knows, GSOC operates independently of Government and independently of the Garda. However, we will make inquiries as to whether it is possible to share that with the family. At the very least, if there is some reason it cannot be shared, the family should know why.

I take this opportunity to express my condolences and those of the Government to the family of Dara Quigley who sadly died by suicide. The loss of a loved one is always difficult and the grief and trauma experienced by her family due to the circumstances of her death must be particularly harrowing. I also commend her family on how they are raising awareness of important issues including the sharing of intimate images without consent, which can have a severe impact on people's mental health. I am confident that what they are doing will add to the legacy of Dara through her work and achievements as a journalist and an activist.

I am aware of four particular issues that are being raised: our laws on the creation and sharing of private sexual or intimate images without consent, which the Deputy mentioned; appropriate training for gardaí; the regulation of CCTV; and greater transparency from social media companies about how they deal with image-based sexual abuse. Regarding the creation and sharing of private sexual or intimate images without consent, the Government has agreed an action plan for online safety following the Law Reform Commission report on harmful communications and digital safety, which highlighted the ways in which modern technology can be used to cause harm.

While we already have legislation dealing with harassment and harmful communications, changes now need to be made to ensure that our laws reflect advances in technology and changes in how we communicate. The Minister for Justice and Equality is already working on legislation to strengthen the criminal law in the area of harmful communications, both online and offline. As well as modernising the laws on the sending of threatening or abusive messages, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill, sponsored by Deputy Howlin, will introduce a distinct offence of stalking and will provide two offences to deal with non-consensual recording and distribution of intimate images.

On training for gardaí, the Garda is continually improving its specialist services. To respond to the needs of special victims, the Commissioner is now setting up divisional protective service units, the equivalent of special victim units, SVUs, that people will be familiar with from New York and elsewhere in the United States. These will have specially trained officers who can engage and interview victims of sex-related crimes. That will enable a much more consistent and professional approach to the investigation of sexual crimes and domestic violence in particular.

More generally, a range of human rights-focused reforms are being introduced under a policing service for the future, including the establishment of a human rights unit in An Garda Síochána and human rights training for all Garda members, and the codification of legislation defining police powers of arrest, search and detention.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response and his positive intentions to take action in this area. We have the example of how this is addressed in other jurisdictions, such as Australia and New Zealand. Australia has an e-safety commissioner. We clearly need to move to get Deputy Howlin’s Bill passed as soon as possible.

Many people also feel that even the mightiest online platforms, many of which are based just down the road from us, should be held to account directly as publishers when abusive material victimises innocent citizens. That debate has gone on for 20 years since President Clinton's time. They are, in effect, responsible for material that appears.

The Taoiseach mentioned training for gardaí. One of the other issues that has emerged is the ubiquitous nature of CCTV. We now have facial recognition where operators need to be carefully trained and vetted.

Most of all today, of course, we remember Dara and her valuable contribution to Irish life. I thank the Taoiseach for his comments on that. We also remember the shocking circumstances of the widespread and awful publication of images of her in distress. Her mother, Aileen, and her siblings - her father sadly passed away a few months ago - rightly demand accountability and justice.

Further to the Taoiseach's comments, I hope the GSOC report will be made available to the solicitor and family and that we will be able to hear what action Commissioner Harris will take. Given that an offence was committed, perhaps there will be action by the DPP and I will welcome the response of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, on that.

The Deputy mentioned the issue of CCTV, which is not quite ubiquitous, but is very commonly present in buildings and on our streets. CCTV is a force for good. It deters crime and enables us to prosecute criminals where crime takes place. It is regulated by law. For example, the Garda Síochána Act 2005 regulates both Garda CCTV and community CCTV in public areas. I know Deputies are familiar with the protections offered by the data protection law over the use of these images. The Data Protection Commission has released guidance, which is available on its website, on CCTV and data protection. It is currently conducting an audit of the practice, operation and governance of CCTV as part of a wider inquiry into surveillance through the use of technologies for law enforcement purposes.

I agree that social media companies can do more in this space. If explicit images are being shared on their platforms, they can do more to prevent them being uploaded in the first place and if they are uploaded, prevent them from being distributed afterwards. Facebook often comes in for criticism. However, Facebook seems to be more effective than other platforms in ensuring that sexual images do not appear on Facebook or at least rarely appear on Facebook. Other platforms could do more in this space.

I do not know if the Taoiseach saw the appearance of Blindboy from the Rubberbandits on "The Late Late Show" about two weeks ago. He put it brilliantly when it comes to climate change. He answered the question that was put, "Why should we do anything in Ireland because we are only a small country?" He said that whatever about our carbon footprint, our cultural footprint is enormous. As a country, we are ready and willing to step up to the plate on the issue. On Monday night, RTÉ broadcast a really good programme "Will Ireland survive 2050?" There was a particularly brilliant programme last night, "Hot Air", which shows that stepping up and addressing this challenge is doable and will be good for this country, if only we did not have Fine Gael.

Fine Gael has a blind spot on this climate issue that stares at us every day. The latest example is that Fine Gael is now thinking about widening a 22 km section of the M11 to get traffic more quickly and better into Dublin, that is, more cars. How is that going to help or benefit our country in any way? Hundreds of millions of euro will be spent on this new road-widening exercise but where will the traffic go when it gets to the junction with the M50? We know for scientific fact that the M50 is goosed. It cannot take any more cars and cannot be widened any further. The section between Cherrywood and Sandyford will be the worst affected as traffic continues to grow. It is not possible to put any more cars on the M50. Maybe it is thought that the traffic will drive into town down the Blackrock road or the Donnybrook road. Anyone who knows this city knows that they cannot take any more traffic.

The Government, however, is starting to do something right. At long last the National Transport Authority, NTA, is starting to listen and will change the Bus Connects project so that it is building communities not corridors. When it hits Nutley Lane or the Blackrock road, it will not take out all the trees or put four-lane highways everywhere. It will start to provide for cycling and walking and buses which is what that programme last night, "Hot Air", told us we need to do.

New housing is going to the outer counties around Dublin, under the watch of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. It will force all those people, with no public transport options, to drive for two or three hours in and out of Dublin every day. That is injurious to their health. When will they see their families? How can we tackle climate change if the Government is all about sprawl? That is what the Government's transport policy is all about. I could pick a dozen other examples around the country but this may be the most egregious one because we fought the argument on it before, in the Glen of the Downs, when we said 20 years ago that investment in public transport would serve our people better. We did not do that and now we are making the same mistake again, thinking that road building can solve our traffic problems. It cannot and will not. This is madness and should stop today.

There is a lot of talk about climate action and a little bit of hot air too. I believe we need action, actual policy decisions, changes being made and led by Government but also by communities and business individuals as well. I will give one or two examples of major policy decisions and actions taken by the Government in the past six to eight weeks when it comes to climate action.

Tell me about the M11. Tell me why that is being widened.

If the Deputy would give me 30 seconds at least I will come to answer his question. In the past couple of weeks, a decision was taken to take peat off our electricity grid, many years earlier than originally intended. It is not an easy decision for the midlands and is a big test of the just transition. It was a difficult and right decision taken by Government and State agencies. A total of €500 million has been secured for the Celtic interconnector in order that we can connect our electricity network to that of continental Europe and really expand wind energy in Ireland.

There was a difficult decision but the right one, supported by the Deputy but not by others, to increase the carbon tax in the budget and to ring-fence those proceeds from it for further climate action. There was also a decision taken to restrict exploration for oil in our waters. As for investment in transport, we have a difference of opinion on that. The Government policy is that we should prioritise investment in public transport over roads in a roughly 2:1 ratio and that is precisely what we have in Project Ireland 2040. If we take out maintenance, and I think we all agree that we have to maintain our existing infrastructure, Project Ireland 2040 favours public transport investment 2:1 over roads investment. That means projects such as the Luas capacity expansion, benefiting the Deputy's constituency which is now under way, as well as BusConnects, which I am glad to hear the Deputy now supports.

I always have.

The additional carriages that we have ordered for the commuter lines to Kildare, Drogheda and Maynooth, which will increase the capacity on those lines by 34% in 2021 to the benefit of my constituency and others, and MetroLink, which is making a lot of advances.

As the Deputy mentioned one road project I think it is only fair that I mention some of the many public transport projects that are happening under this Government. We do need some investment in roads. We need to better connect ports such as Rosslare and Foynes to our road and motorway network. There are towns around the country that need bypasses, such as Adare, Virginia or Ardee, because bypasses will calm those towns. As we move into the future and have more electric cars, hybrid buses and more trucks powered by hydrogen, they will need roads. That is why it makes sense in some circumstances to have bypasses in order that those electric vehicles and hybrid buses and hydrogen-powered trucks are not going down the main streets but are going around the bypass instead.

In his next response, will the Taoiseach answer the question? What is the transport logic of widening the road, not bypassing but running through the Glen of the Downs? Where is that traffic going to go? How is that going to serve the long-distance commuters, who are only going to get stuck in more traffic as they come into Dublin?

The Taoiseach is a former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. What is the transport logic of widening the M11 for 22 km at massive expense when that money could be used to provide public transport solutions that might actually work for our people? We will never tackle climate change if the Government continues this road building, leading to sprawl with housing going further and further out and people stuck in traffic forever and a day. Whether they are in electric cars, using diesel or petrol does not matter, they are all stuck in traffic. This road is primarily for long-distance commuting. There is only 2% HGV traffic on it compared with the other motorways, all of which are widening into Dublin at the same time. How does widening the M11 for 22 km make climate sense, transport sense or economic sense? The Government should spend the money on public transport instead. The Taoiseach should please answer the question, what is the argument for the M11 being widened?

I will be very frank with the Deputy. I am a former transport Minister and I have a great interest in transport and continue to keep up to date with it as much as I can. I met the Secretary General of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport only last week to talk about some of these projects. This must be one that is only being examined because it was not even on the agenda. It must be one that really is only being looked at and considered. It is good to look at these things and not just to dismiss them out of hand for ideological reasons. It is being examined, I understand, by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, which will take into account all the benefits, all the potential downsides and come to an analysis of whether it makes sense to proceed, which will then go to Government. If I were to think about potential benefits from M11 widening, which may or may not happen, I can see two. The first is much better access for trucks to the south east, to the port in Rosslare. Perhaps it would make sense, rather than having everything coming into Dublin Port and going out on the M50 to all the hubs and distribution centres around the M50, to have more going into Rosslare and coming up from the south east. These could be hydrogen-powered trucks, green trucks. Second, an area of potential benefit for the many commuters from places such as Gorey and Wexford would be to use the widening to provide a dedicated bus lane, which would allow those buses to get to Dublin, where people work, much more quickly but that is just off the top of my head.