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Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 20 February 2019

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Questions (4, 5, 6, 7)

Micheál Martin

Question:

4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has met church leaders recently. [5680/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin

Question:

5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meetings with church leaders. [6510/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he has held recent meetings with representatives of churches and faith communities as part of the church-State structured dialogue process. [6558/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent or planned meetings with church leaders. [8378/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.

On 25 August 2018 I met Pope Francis during his visit to Dublin Castle. The meeting provided an opportunity for us to discuss several issues.

On 22 January, I met representatives of the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian and Methodist churches in a formal meeting under the structured dialogue process between church and State. We discussed social and economic issues facing Irish society as well as international issues. This was the second in a series of meetings I will hold with dialogue partners.

On 31 August 2017 I held a formal meeting under the structured dialogue with representatives of the Catholic Church, led by Archbishop Eamon Martin.

Some of the issues we discussed at these meetings were challenging. They are issues on which people have deeply held views and which are considered to be matters of conscience. Our discussions were valuable not just because they dealt with important issues, but particularly because they were conducted in an atmosphere of respect for the views of others, where everyone sought to be constructive.

Like public representatives generally, I meet church leaders informally from time to time in the course of attending official functions and public events.

In particular, with the recent presidential inauguration and the visit of Pope Francis, I attended several events that gave me an opportunity to engage with representatives from various religious groups.

During the years of progress in securing the end of the illegitimate campaign of violence in the North and the building of a new peaceful model of co-operation on this island, the churches played an absolutely central role, to be fair. This went well beyond the number of now widely and rightly acclaimed clergymen. It really was a consistent approach through the entirety of the leadership of the churches in Ireland and at every stage they pushed a positive agenda of reconciliation and played a very important role as advocates of Border communities.

It is in this context that we must take very seriously their warning about the damage being caused by Brexit and the further damage it threatens. The political paralysis in the North is a huge concern for them. Equally, they are deeply concerned about what will happen on the Border in 37 days' time, or whenever Brexit happens, if there is no deal. Yesterday I asked the Taoiseach for what I believe is the fifth time in recent weeks to say what would happen on the Border, were there to be a no-deal situation in 37 days' time, and yet again he refused to answer. He repeated what is not being planned or contemplated - I get that - and he then added the remarkable comment that the situation "will cause a dilemma". Is this the best he can do? Communities and businesses across the country, in the Border area in particular, are crying out for some basic information on what they should be planning for if - and we hope it does not happen - a no-deal arrives in 37 days' time. It beggars belief that there are no arrangements in place as to what to do on the Border if a no-deal scenario comes to pass next month. The Taoiseach's entire argument for the proposed deal is that only it avoids a hard border. I know what the Government is not planning and not contemplating, but will the Taoiseach please tell us what he believes will happen?

Regarding the Taoiseach's meeting with church leaders, a swastika was recently painted outside the synagogue in Terenure. Has the Taoiseach met representatives of the Jewish community in recent times? I think we are all concerned about a very significant rise in anti-Semitism across Europe, very noticeably in France and other European countries. Should we be alert to this in this jurisdiction? The only law dealing with hate crimes here is the rarely used Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, which in its 30 years of existence I understand has resulted in only five convictions. I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's views as to whether our protections are robust enough in this regard.

On a separate matter, the Irish Daily Mail reports today that a test excavation has begun at a second mother and baby home in Sean Ross Abbey, near Roscrea, County Tipperary. This is following directions from the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters. Has the Taoiseach discussed this matter with church leaders? Does he expect more sites to be investigated? Is he satisfied that the commission has the capacity and the resources to carry out its very important task?

I wish to pick up on that theme. A geophysical survey of infant burial grounds will begin today at the site of the former Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home, near Roscrea, County Tipperary. Records of deaths at the home show that 269 children died there between 1934 and 1967 but, due to the failure of the order to keep records, the number of children who died there is not known definitively. In the past two interim reports the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and Certain Related Matters has highlighted its difficulty in finding out more about the burial arrangements for children and women who died in these homes. The commission has noted that there are significant gaps in the information available on the burial of babies who died in a number of the institutions under investigation and has warned that it will prove difficult to establish the facts. This statement tells its own story of the State's direct hand in the treatment of children who died, none of whom reached his or her first birthday in the case of Sean Ross Abbey.

As the Taoiseach will know, statutory inspections of maternity homes began in 1934, which means the majority of the children who died in Sean Ross Abbey died on the State's watch. The Tuam Home Survivors Network has asked the Government to begin collecting its members' DNA samples immediately due to their age and health profile. It wants to eliminate any delay in returning human remains to identifiable relatives for dignified burials and provide the samples voluntarily.

When does the Taoiseach expect to receive the report of Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, commissioned by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, to consider whether the network's request can be granted? Will the Taoiseach personally ensure that the network is informed of its findings before the report is made public?

Outside the count centre in Citywest on the day we waited for the results of the referendum to repeal the eighth amendment, the Taoiseach and I had a brief conversation about the likely result. I suggested to him that one consequence of the result was that we needed to move forward to the complete separation of church and State and he replied that we would leave that conversation for another day. That day has come and, indeed, well passed. In the Taoiseach's conversations with church leaders, particularly of the Catholic variety, what has he said to them? What is he doing to accelerate the divestment programme, which was much lauded by the former Deputy, Mr. Ruairí Quinn, in 2012 and which was intended to do something about the fact that 90% of schools in the country are controlled by the Catholic Church?

Since that much-trumpeted announcement of the divestment programme, a grand total of 11 schools have been handed over, while there was only one last year and ten in the few years before that. Divestment, therefore, is not happening. In this day and age, in the aftermath of marriage equality, the repeal of the eighth amendment and everything that signifies, which the Taoiseach and everyone else in the House knows, the time has well passed to transfer control of schools from the hands of the Catholic Church - or at least from the extent where 90% of them continue to be in its hands. What is the Taoiseach doing about that and what has he said to church leaders about it? It is just not happening.

I agree with Deputy Micheál Martin's comments about the vital role that the clergy, the Catholic Church and other churches played in helping to bring about the peace process in Northern Ireland. I believe they still have a role to play in that regard in the future.

If we end up with a no-deal scenario in a few weeks' time - that is, no-deal without an extension, which I assume is what the Deputy means, although there could be a no-deal with an extension - we will be in uncharted territory and it is not possible for anyone to predict with certainty how matters will play out. What I can say, as I have stated previously, is that we do not have any proposals or plans to install any infrastructure on the land Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We are putting in place infrastructure at Dublin Port, Rosslare Port and Dublin Airport to allow us to carry out any necessary veterinary, sanitary and phytosanitary or customs checks etc.

If we end up in a no-deal scenario without an extension, it will create a difficult dilemma for Ireland, the United Kingdom and the EU. The UK will be bound to implement World Trade Organisation rules and we will have a responsibility to protect the Single Market, which we want to do, given that it is our Single Market and given that our industrial and economic policy, employment and much more are based on our full membership of it. Above all, there will be our commitment to the Good Friday Agreement. We would be in a situation where we would have to come to an agreement on regulatory alignment and customs, but that is what we already have. That is why our efforts are focused on securing the ratification of the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish protocol and the backstop, which is the best and only way to give us an assurance that a hard border will not emerge on our island, whatever else happens as a consequence of Brexit. As one can see from the events in London today, the situation is unstable and it is hard to predict what will happen in the next couple of weeks. All we can do is prepare for the different and most likely scenarios.

I had the opportunity to meet members of the Jewish community in the past couple of weeks with Maurice Cohen, head of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, and the Chief Rabbi at a public event. I hope to find a way to engage with the Jewish community at Passover. I attended a seder last year, although I do not expect to be able to do that this year. While I share the Deputy's concerns about rising anti-Semitism around the world, I am not sure that it is really a feature in Ireland. Nevertheless, it is something we always need to watch out for and perhaps we need some further debate on the matter in the future.

On the divestment programme for schools, parents of preschool children are being surveyed in a number of schools to find out what they want. I agree that we need to accelerate the programme of divestment but choice is also important. People have different ideas as to what the separation of church and State means. I do not think it should go as far as totally banishing religion from the public sphere. Many people want to continue to have a school under the patronage of the local parish and many people from a Church of Ireland background are very attached to Church of Ireland primary and secondary schools. The same applies to the Jewish congregation, while many Muslim people also like to have their own school. I do not believe in a form of separation of church and State that seeks to put away any form of religion and to strike it out of public life. Religious bodies and bodies inspired by religion, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and CROSSCARE, do highly valuable work, provide many Government services and receive much Government funding. I would not like a form of secularism that tried to defund those organisations or banish them from public life because it is a little too extreme. I appreciate that other people may wish to have all schools divested and those bodies defunded but that is not my view.

On the mother and baby homes, the commission of investigation has informed the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs that it is conducting geophysical testing on the burial grounds located on the site of Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, County Tipperary. The work is being undertaken following the receipt of information from a member of the public. We were advised today that following initial geophysical testing, the commission began test excavations on Monday, 18 February and they are expected to take approximately three weeks. The House will be aware that the terms of reference for the commission of investigation task it with examining burial practices at the sites of mother and baby homes and that the commission is independent in the conduct of its investigations. It has all the necessary power and resources to carry out these investigations but neither the Minister nor the Government has any role in this stage of the process. The commission is due to deliver an interim report next month on burials at the sites of former mother and baby homes, which the Minister will bring to the Government as soon as she receives it and has the opportunity to review it.

On DNA, a new unit has been established in the Minister's Department to work on the legislation required to implement the Government's decision on the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam. Additional staff from other Departments are expected to be assigned to the unit in the coming weeks and scoping of the legislation has commenced. There is no precedent for this kind of project in Ireland and, therefore, it is vital that we get it right in the interests of the survivors and relatives and the dignity of those buried at the Tuam site. The approach taken will be further informed by the forthcoming report in March by the commission of investigation on burials at mother and baby homes. In parallel with the legislative project, work will be carried out on sourcing the appropriate expertise.

In response to Deputy McDonald's request to begin collecting DNA samples of survivors and relatives, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, has asked Dr. Geoffrey Shannon to examine whether it is possible to meet the request within the current legislative framework. This examination will be done in the context of what is scientifically possible.

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