Commencement Matters

Northern Ireland

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Tánaiste. I thank the Tánaiste for taking the time to come to the Chamber. I know he is very busy, so I appreciate his presence to debate the issue I am raising.

I submitted this Commencement matter after last week's meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement which heard from Mr. Peter Bunting and Mr. Conal McFeely of the independent assessment team. They repeated their general frustration that the case of Tony Taylor is not getting the public attention it deserves. Given that over two years have passed since the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Mr. Taylor, our view is that his continued detention is wrong and a violation of his human rights. We have consistently stated that if there is evidence against Mr. Taylor, it should be presented to him and his legal team in open court. I contend that the most basic right of those who find themselves in prison, particularly for such a prolonged period of time, is to have an opportunity to address and challenge any evidence or any case against them, if such evidence or such a case exists.

As the Tánaiste will be aware, the problem is that we are being asked to place our trust and our faith in faceless secret British intelligence agencies and services. The same people have refused to release their files on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and told us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I suggest that these obscure outlets are not exactly the most trustworthy. Therefore, it is appropriate that any evidence that exists is not kept hidden and is instead put before Mr. Taylor in court.

Over the past two years, the British Government has failed to produce any evidence that could justify Mr. Taylor's continued detention in any way. We have to appreciate the strain this continued detention is placing on Mr. Taylor's wife and on members of his family, including his parents. I believe their public description of their stress has shifted this case from the political domain, where it warrants much concern, to the humanitarian and human rights sphere.

I appreciate the Tánaiste's attendance today. I was moved to submit this Commencement matter by the frustration of reputable and eminent figures like Mr. Bunting and Mr. McFeely, who are very frustrated about the lack of publicity, focus and attention being given to the case of this Irish citizen. I hope that through the Tánaiste, we can lift their frustrations and bring the case of Tony Taylor into a warranted public space where we can challenge the very real political and legal concerns that exist regarding his case and his ongoing detention.

I am grateful to Senator Ó Donnghaile for raising this important matter. Last week, I had an opportunity to brief the Dáil on my engagement regarding Mr. Taylor's case. I assure the House that my officials have been engaging with this matter on an ongoing basis.

The background to the Tony Taylor case is that he is from Derry and in recent years was a member of a dissident republican group. In 1994, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison after he was seriously injured in a premature explosion in Derry. He was released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. He served a further three-year sentence from 2011 to 2014 for possession of a rifle.

In March 2016, he was returned to prison after his early release licence was suspended by the then Secretary of State, Ms Theresa Villiers.

Mr. Taylor’s case has been discussed regularly with the Northern Ireland Office through my officials at the Belfast secretariat. My officials have also made visits to Mr. Taylor in Maghaberry Prison on two occasions, most recently in the past few weeks. I have written to the Secretary of State, Ms Karen Bradley, on the case and I spoke to her on the matter when we met in London last Thursday.

The Parole Commissioners for Northern Ireland held a parole hearing on Mr. Taylor’s revocation of licence in May 2017. The decision of the parole commissioners at that time was to continue the revocation of licence. A further review by the parole commissioners is under way and there had been an expectation that the review would conclude in the coming weeks. However, we understand from discussions with the Northern Ireland Office and Mr. Taylor’s legal representatives that there may be some delay in that process. This is clearly not ideal and we have urged that every effort be made to avoid unnecessary delays.

I am aware that Mr. Taylor has publicly renounced any future engagement in dissident republican activity. That is to be welcomed as there is no future on this island for political ends to be pursued through violence or the threat of violence. I have also received a letter from Mr. Taylor's wife, Lorraine, and I am aware of the couple's difficult family circumstances. I am also aware, as Senator Ó Donnghaile indicated, that there is considerable concern in Northern Ireland across the broad nationalist and republican community about the basis and nature of Mr. Taylor's ongoing detention. These have all been reflected in our ongoing engagement with the Northern Ireland Office on this matter.

The recent indications that Mr. Taylor’s new parole hearing may take longer than expected is of particular concern, as he has been back in detention for more than two years without being charged or convicted of any offences. I assure Senators that I and my officials will continue to actively monitor developments in the case and will continue to raise it with the Northern Ireland Office, including, as necessary, the Secretary of State.

I appreciate the update from the Tánaiste and acknowledge the work he and his officials are doing regarding the case of Mr. Tony Taylor. The concerns around this case, while predominately emanating from the nationalist and republican constituency, extend throughout a broad spectrum of humanitarian and legal organisations as well as the legal profession in general. This is effectively a case of internment via remand, which warrants a great deal of concern.

I appreciate the Tánaiste's comment that his officials are keeping a watching brief on the issue. His statement will be welcomed by all those inside and outside the Oireachtas who have an interest in the case. I also share his concern regarding recent indications of a delay in the case, whether intentional or otherwise. Is this position satisfactory? What measures can the Tánaiste take above and beyond monitoring the issue? I am not asking him to step outside the constraints within which he must operate.

I was reminded on my journey from Belfast to Dublin this morning that the average period of internment for those interned between 1971 and 1975 was two years. Tony Taylor now finds himself in prison without evidence being put to him or his legal team for more than two years. I thank the Tánaiste again for taking the time to come to the House.

It is important to put this case in context. It is also appropriate in this debate that we call on all dissident republican groups that have not yet done so to renounce violence and commit to exclusively democratic means of pursuing their political aims. I pay tribute to An Garda Síochána for its ongoing work in dealing with the threat posed by dissident republican groups.

On the case in question, the dissident republican group to which Mr. Tony Taylor was connected has made clear statements renouncing violence, which I welcome. I do not know whether information is held on Mr. Taylor that can justify him being in prison.

We have raised our concerns about the case. Holding somebody without publicly producing evidence against them raises real concerns, as I have witnessed in Derry in speaking to people. I have raised the matter directly with the Secretary of State and will be talking to her again this week. There is a process under consideration with the parole commissioners. That is the appropriate process to use in making any decision in this case. I hope we can ensure decisions will be made without further delay.

Standards in Public Office Commission

Senator Warfield, we are waiting on you. There is a presumption that everything goes to plan. Those who sit in their offices think we will wait for the next person. We have already been delayed by a few minutes. It is not your fault, but it is safer for those who have tabled Commencement matters to be here. In my time, I was here for the start.

I was taking my lead from the title on the television when I was in the anteroom. I welcome the Minister to the House. As he will be aware, we are in the full swing of a referendum campaign. This referendum in particular has taken a turn that is unprecedented.

The use of social media has been a growing campaigning platform for the past ten years or so. Unlike other platforms, it has a distinct ability to be financed and co-ordinated online from foreign sources. This was highlighted by potential Russian influence in the US presidential elections and subversive alt-right campaigns during the Brexit referendum.

We are only two weeks into the referendum, yet extensive investigative journalism has shown that the use of websites and paid advertising from the "No" campaign has been used at a cost of six figures per day. Some of the videos are presenting themselves as being RTÉ news bulletins and other websites appearing to be fact-based and objective have been targeted at people's online profiles.

Undecided8.org purported to be unbiased and targeted Facebook users with what seemed to be an unending war chest. It is linked to the Protect the 8th campaign and it has been sourced, run and funded by a US PR firm linked to Cambridge Analytica. Undecided8.org used Facebook and Google trackers with the intention of helping with future retargeting, including of people who had clicked on the advertisements before. The users' data is then vulnerable for future guerilla targeting, as are users of a similar demographic. Undecided8.org has been shut down thanks to stellar investigation work by technology journalist Gavin Sheridan.

However, this is only the start. Numerous Facebook pages with few followers have suddenly poured resources into paid advertising targeting voters. These advertisements are dishonest and subversive, and are intended to scaremonger voters who seek to establish their own views. Referendums have always been subject to differences of opinion and interpretations of proposals. However, these advertisements are blatantly ignorant of the facts and seek to undermine our democracy. While I believe the State should never seek to censor campaigns that aim to present their views to the voting public, it also has a responsibility when the voting public has been targeted by a foreign source seeking to deceive undecided voters with resources that eclipse those of the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, and the Referendum Commission and completely undermine their work.

In an unprecedented move, Facebook has written to the Government and SIPO on the topic, the first time Facebook has reached out to any state government in regard to fake news during a public vote. As of the past hour, Facebook has announced that it is suspending all referendum based adverts from sources outside the State. This is a most welcome move and it should act as a call to action for Google and, more important, the State.

We are now in a space where a private entity has done more to uphold democracy in the State than the State itself. We are also failing to deal with the issue of hundreds of thousands of euro per day from foreign sources being spent by a campaign. We are failing to uphold any notion of fear and even playing fields. We are failing to deliver any resources which allow SIPO to effectively investigate whether campaigns receive donations from international sources and are failing to update our electoral legislation to deal with online campaigning as a platform.

I welcome that the Government has agreed to progress the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill. Sinn Féin would amend the Bill and its objectives are timely. It will make the sources of fake news transparent, but we still do not have regulation from a State level of what comes after. SIPO needs effective resources and powers here and now. We are 17 days away from a public vote, and all of the Government responses seem to be after the fact.

Like the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, I fear we will look back on the referendum in late May and say it was influenced by false reports online, and we will be left to deal with the consequences of that.

I thank Senator Warfield. I must apologise for the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, who is unable to attend but he has asked me to respond on his behalf.

Senator Warfield is familiar with the 1997 Electoral Act, which provides the framework for dealing with political donations and sets out a wide range of related matters on the funding of political parties; the reimbursement of election expenses; the establishment of election expenditure limits; the disclosure of election expenditure; the setting of limits on permissible donations; the prohibition of certain donations; the disclosure of donations; and the registration of third parties who accept donations given for political purposes which exceed €100.

The Act also provides for the independent supervision of the donations regime by the Standards in Public Office Commission. In broad terms, where a political donation in excess of €100 is received by an election candidate, an account in a financial institution must be opened in the State. In addition, there are a number of reporting requirements that need to be met in regard to the holding of such an account, for example, financial statements itemising all transactions in the account are required to be produced annually. While SIPO does not disclose the contents of political donations accounts unless ordered to do so by a court, donation statements made by election candidates, Members of the Oireachtas, Members of the European Parliament or political parties are, on the other hand, made publicly available. A donation statement is required when a political donation exceeding an aggregate of €600 is received from a donor.

Furthermore, under the Act an election candidate, a Member of the Oireachtas, a Member of the European Parliament, a political party or a third party who accepts donations for political purposes may not accept a range of donations, including a donation, of whatever value, from an individual other than an Irish citizen who resides outside the island of Ireland or a donation from a body corporate or unincorporated body of persons which does not keep an office in the island of Ireland from which one or more of its principal activities is directed. Clearly, foreign donations of any amount are prohibited under the Act and where such donations have been made, it is incumbent upon the recipient to either return the donation to the donor or to remit it to SIPO. In addition, the recipients of prohibited donations must comply with a direction given by SIPO in the matter. Failure to do so is an offence under the Act. The Standards in Public Office Commission may make such inquiries as it considers appropriate and may require any person, political party or third party to furnish any such information as it considers appropriate for the purpose of exercising its duties under the Act.

For the avoidance of doubt, the principal purpose of the Act is to provide for openness and transparency with regard to political funding at elections and at referenda. The Act's provisions relate to persons, political parties and third parties who accept donations for political purposes.

The Senator is concerned that under the current law persons or organisations who do not accept political donations do not fall within scope of the Act and are not prohibited from using their resources in support of promoting a particular outcome at an election or a referendum. Legislating to change that would require considerable consideration by the Oireachtas before it would be changed. However, the Senator is raising an issue of systematic operations that may be targeting elections that have nothing to do with any of those contestants in the election. That is an issue we need to consider as an Oireachtas in terms of how it is appropriate that that sort of activity should be regulated but as I said, the Standards in Public Office Commission is empowered to pursue anyone who accepts donations from overseas as they would be breaking the law.

I thank the Minister. I understand about political donations. Many of us here have been through two election campaigns. Does the Minister welcome today's announcement by Facebook? Would the Government encourage Google and, by extension, YouTube to do the same? The Minister mentioned the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. Could SIPO not be empowered with finance to take on its role under legislation in this campaign? Are conversations being had at Cabinet level about the regulation of this entire area?

Deputy Bruton has explained he is not the line Minister.

While I am not the line Minister, everyone recognises that in recent times we have seen a level of activity from forces outside of countries which are seeking to influence the results of elections. It provides a challenge to us as to how a political system should manage that. We, of course, value freedom of expression and the right of people to make their views known. However, there are clearly levels of activity that would be a cause of concern. It would appear that Facebook also feels that the level of activity is a cause of concern to it.

Legislation, however, cannot be made on the hoof. This is an area in which the Minister cannot assume powers which the Oireachtas has not given him. We would need to think carefully about the implications of seeking to regulate this area because it goes to the heart of people's right to express themselves. We need to think long, hard and carefully as to how we would address this issue. There is no doubt that as one scans the world stage, one sees activities, whether they be bots or other operations, which are a cause of concern to anyone who wants to see citizens make a discerning decision based on objective and fair information being presented to them, as well as people having the chance to campaign for or against a proposition in a fair way.

While I cannot speak for the Minister, I recognise there is an issue to which the Oireachtas will need to return if it is not regulated at European level, as this is not just an Irish issue.

Schools Refurbishment

I thank the Minister for attending the Chamber and the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise the matter of St. Gabriel's special needs school, Bishopstown, Cork.

The Minister is familiar with the school. It was originally designed for Scoil Cholumbáin and Scoil Therese primary schools. When they closed, St Gabriel's was allowed to use the building. It is fair to say that this building was never designed to be a special needs school. The building's conditions are unacceptable for the 43 pupils and staff. These are children, between the age of four and 18, who are most vulnerable with severe to profound intellectual disabilities. I have met with the parents and visited the school. The school campus does not match the mission statement of the school or the philosophy espoused by the Minister and the Department of Education and Skills. Neither does it match the capital building programme outlined by the Department or the investment in education facilities, particularly in special needs, across the city of Cork.

Urgent funding needs to be put into this school's buildings. The school’s parents’ association has commenced a GoFundMe page. This is a matter of priority. This is a statement of how we treat the most vulnerable children who need the help of the State. The education they are receiving is absolutely exemplary. The school building, however, is unbelievably bad. Many of the pupils are non-verbal. The school enrols children with dual diagnosis with severe to profound intellectual disabilities and autism. The school building, however, is not fit for purpose. If we believe in early intervention to allow students to achieve their full potential, then this school’s building requires a complete overhaul and a commitment from the Government to change it as a matter of urgency. I hope the Government will prioritise the upgrading and refurbishment of this special needs school. It would send a message to the children, parents and staff that we will provide for them.

Being involved with the COPE Foundation, I recognise the importance of every individual in society. I hope the Minister will look favourably on this plea for help from St. Gabriel’s school and its community.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise the matter and the Minister for being present.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. My Department clearly accepts that the accommodation in St. Gabriel's special school is not fit for purpose. It has spatial limitations, particularly for children with challenging behaviour. The school caters for 43 pupils and it has a strong complement of teachers and SNAs. The pupil-teacher ratio is 1:1.9 and, therefore, the State provides significant support but there is a recognition that the facilities need to be addressed. I understand the school applied last year for improved accommodation and my officials have visited the school and assessed that need. They have also taken the opportunity to discuss with the NCSE the general need in the area and the school will have the potential to expand the scope of its services to meet the local need.

The adjacent accommodation is owned by the Diocese of Cork and Ross. St. Gabriel's special school currently occupies two classrooms in this adjacent building by agreement with the diocese. My Department will send an official to visit the school authority tomorrow, 9 May, to progress the assessment of the proposed works, finalise the scope of works and work out how they can be moved forward and in what delivery mode they can be done. My Department recognises the seriousness of the case and will work with the school to seek a solution to its needs.

I thank the Minister for his positive reply. It is a unique school and it shares a site with the Brothers of Charity and the Diocese of Cork and Ross. The staff need has been met by the Department but changes are needed to the built environment and the learning environment. I hope that tomorrow's visit will be the beginning of a positive progression of the proposed development.

Sitting suspended at 3.15 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.