Ceisteanna — Questions

Appointments to State Boards

Micheál Martin


1 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will consider allowing Oireachtas joint committees play a greater role in the selection of candidates to State boards other than chair persons. [10466/11]

Micheál Martin


2 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will allow appointees to State boards other than chairpersons to appear before Oireachtas committees to assess their suitability. [10467/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

The Government has no plans to provide for appointees to State boards, other than chairpersons, to appear before Oireachtas committees to assess their suitability. The appearance of chairpersons designate before committees to discuss their views on the role of the State body concerned and their approach to the issues arising will provide an appropriate framework for Oireachtas oversight in the appointments process, given the responsibility of the relevant Minister, or the Government as appropriate, for the appointment of members of boards. Enhanced accountability to the Oireachtas by State bodies in respect of their performance will be put in place both through enhanced provision for parliamentary questions and through a renewed system of committee oversight in line with the programme for Government.

Does the Taoiseach agree that this is a significant reversal from previous positions he adopted on this issue? It is now very clear that the Government will appoint chairpersons and that a person will only resign if he or she makes a fool of himself or herself before the designated committee. If the Taoiseach believes the system of appointing persons to State boards is wrong, why is he not changing it? What we are getting is the appearance of change rather than substance. Before entering Government, the Taoiseach was committed to the establishment of a public appointments service which would handle the appointments process and give Ministers a short list informing them who was qualified and who was not. That has now been dropped by the Taoiseach. Will the Taoiseach consider the example set by the former Minister, Mr. Eamon Ryan, who under the Broadcasting Act 2009 gave the power to nominate individuals to the boards of RTE, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and TG4? Would that not really represent substantial change if that was the mainstream approach across appointments to State agencies as opposed to the position the Government is now taking where it is only the chairperson who has to appear before a committee and barring an appalling performance by the chairperson, nothing will happen and the appointment decision of the Minister will be rubber-stamped by the committee on which the Government parties already have a substantial majority?

I regard what the Government is doing here as a major advancement. I can point to a number of performances that certainly were less than adequate on the basis of what happened previously where people were appointed on the basis of friendship as distinct from ability or talent. On many occasions I have made the point that what we are about here is changing the system and I am not sure where the former Minister, Mr. Eamon Ryan, is at the moment, but certainly the position adopted by the Government now is very much removed from that which applied for very many years here. As the Deputy is aware what we have put in place is that people will respond to public notices about the requirements and the range of competencies involved in the appointment to the chairmanship of any State board or agency. Where casual vacancies arise, the spectrum and pool of talent will be very much broadened now because people will respond to public notices on the availability of places on boards or agencies and will be considered in that context.

The Deputy sat on the front bench on the Government side when I asked the former Taoiseach whether it was on the basis of ability or friendship that many of the appointments were made and he said it was on the basis of friendship. What we are about here is talent and ability. The changes in the system of openness through parliamentary questions and the committee system will lead to oversight here. It is a very major advancement from where we were. We want to see the best men and women, who are willing to take on these positions of importance, take them up and play their part in the development of the country. We want to see that talent given its best opportunity to express itself.

I am not responsible for the pre-election promises the Taoiseach made. He should allow himself to be judged by the commitments he made. He can comment all he likes on previous governments and previous Ministers. He was also a Minister and he appointed in accordance with tradition, friendship, Fine Gael trustees and so on like that. Does the Taoiseach not agree that the system the Government is putting before us does not represent any major advance at all? We are just talking about chairpersons and no other member of a State agency is required to appear before a committee or will need to present in any shape or form. Ministers are already suggesting to people to apply. The word on the street is that people think they are in line for preferment on to a State board. There is a bit of a mirage going on here. Does the Taoiseach not agree that this is about the appearance of change rather than the substance of change? Why will he not consider broadening the system that the former Minister, Mr. Eamon Ryan, introduced? I say that irrespective of what political affiliation Mr. Eamon Ryan had. He initiated a significant breakthrough in appointments to State agencies——

A question, please.

——when he gave authority to the committee to nominate people. Does the Taoiseach not agree that the Government has rowed back from its pre-election commitment to allow a public appointments service to screen, if one likes, potential appointees to boards and to make those lists available to Ministers? That has all been dropped now. Why has the Taoiseach reversed that commitment he made in advance of the general election?

The Deputy speaks of mirages and illusions. I remember asking questions from the seat he now occupies only a few weeks ago as to whether representatives of the IMF were in town. No, we did not hear anything about that.

The Taoiseach should have asked the Minister, Deputy Varadkar.

The Deputy would be happy to get Mr. Brian Cowen to do it.

There were mirages and illusions: these people were not in town at all; it was so completely untrue.

I believe the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, might be meeting them now.

The Central Bank at the time——


Give Leo a ring.

The Taoiseach should answer the question.

The Deputy never asked in his 14 years as a Minister.

The fact of the matter is that we have a programme for Government that commits itself to allowing for the chairpersons designate of State boards and agencies to be brought before committees to give their views on their potential and on how they envisage those bodies or agencies developing. Where casual vacancies occur in any of the State boards, information is to be made available, by public notice, for those with an interest in being considered for appointment. One can take it that, in so far as the Government is concerned, people of competence and ability will be considered for nomination. However, in so far as the chairpersons designate are concerned, there is a commitment in the programme for Government and we are honouring it. It is alreadyin situ.

The measure does not go as far as former Minister Eamon Ryan wanted. He is not present any more but that is not the reason. This is a major advancement on the position that applied for very many years. When my party was last in Government, in the 1990s, the system was different. It is very different now and will be so. Those men and women who are appointed as chairpersons of State agencies and boards will have to have the experience, competence and capacity to measure up to the difficult tasks they will face.

Chun an fhírinne a rá, níl aon chumhacht ag na coistí maidir leis an obair seo. Tá ceist amháin agam. An seasfaidh an Taoiseach leis an ngeallúint a thug sé i rith an toghcháin? The question is quite simple. The Taoiseach promised transparency and to change the way this place would be run. Committees have no power such that they can have any real say in the appointments of people to State bodies. Given the poverty in society, the revelations about carers, about which those of us who work in constituencies will know, and the plight of the unemployed, we should bear in mind that appointees earn huge sums of money. There is no independent or even semi-independent way of scrutinising their appointments. The proposal is not a major advancement. Will the Taoiseach not admit that in the House?

Ní raibh sé i gceist ar chor ar bith go mbeadh cumhacht iomlán ag na coistí maidir leis na daoine a cheapfar mar bhaill de na boird seo. De réir an Teachta, faigheann cuid de príomh-oifigigh na rannóg Stáit tuarastail an-ard. Tá na tuarastail ó thaobh na gcathaoirleach de foilsithe agus tá siad fíor-soiléir. Tá na cathaoirligh freagrach don Rialtas. Tá cead ag baill an choiste ceisteanna a chur orthu siúd atá toilteanach, nó a bhfuil fonn orthu bheith mar chathaoirligh ar rannóg nó bord Stáit ar bith. Is mór an athrú é sin atá curtha i gcrích ag an Rialtas seo. Tá sé fíor-soiléir. Tá cead ag gach Teachta freastal ar chostí Oireachtais agus ceisteanna a chur ar dhuine ar bith gur mhian leis nó léi bheith ina gcathaoirligh ar bord nó rannóg. Is mór an athrú é sin, ó thaobh soiléireachta agus freagrachta de, i gcomparáid leis an méid a bhí in áit le blianta anuas.

Is féidir a lán ceisteanna a chur, ach gan cumhacht ní féidir aon rud eile a dhéanamh.

Consultancy Contracts

Micheál Martin


3 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the public affairs, public relations and advertising contracts that have been established by him since he has taken office. [10715/11]

My Department has advertised no public affairs, public relations or advertising contracts since I have taken office.

I welcome the continuation of your predecessor's policy of not having such contracts.

What about Bertie and the make-up?

That is a fact. Has the Taoiseach determined whether any State bodies under his Department have taken a similar approach?

I do not have that information to hand. The Deputy can take it that I have followed my predecessor's position in regard to this matter, but I have no intention of following his pathway on many other matters. That is why we have a Government to make very different decisions about the welfare and future of our country.

I will check with my Department in so far as its connection with any State agencies is concerned with public affairs or public relations contracts that are currently in position or that are up for renewal.

Policy Development and Implementation

Gerry Adams


4 Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the work he has undertaken to co-ordinate Government policy on economic renewal and jobs. [11382/11]

Micheál Martin


5 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will provide details of any arrangements put in place under the control of his Department other than Cabinet committees to co-ordinate policy through Government. [11802/11]

Micheál Martin


6 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will detail the economic tasks administered on his behalf by him which do not fall within the realm of Cabinet confidentiality following his revised approach to Cabinet committees. [12097/11]

Micheál Martin


7 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will give details of his contribution to the jobs initiative. [12832/11]

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

As head of Government, the primary means by which I co-ordinate policy development and implementation is through chairing Government meetings, the Government Economic Management Council and Cabinet committees. The deliberations of these bodies are all bound by the principle of Cabinet confidentiality. I also represent Ireland's interests, including economic interests, through my attendance at European and other international meetings. I meet business representatives and other individuals and groups around the country on a regular basis.

My Department co-ordinates policy in several other ways including through monitoring implementation of the programme for Government and supporting interdepartmental and other groups in specific areas when required. However, responsibility for specific aspects of the economic policy, including the jobs initiative, rests with a number of my Government colleagues including the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. These are available to answer specific questions on any individual area of economic policy.

I am trying to get a measure of the commitments given by Fine Gael and Labour, the parties who make up this Government, before the election. The Taoiseach said that job creation would be his number one priority and promised to create 100,000 jobs over five years through the NewERA programme. He told voters he would invest €7 billion in the development of the State's water services, telecommunications infrastructure and energy industry. The Tánaiste proposed a €500 million jobs fund and a strategic investment bank with a capacity of €2 billion from the National Pensions Reserve Fund.

In terms of trying to co-ordinate the work of the Government, and the Government seems to be quite unco-ordinated and speaking with many different voices at this time, have those promises been abandoned? Have they been made subservient to the IMF and EU sovereignty over this part of the island or is a serious effort being made to bring in jobs as the only sure cure for this recession?

Yes. A serious effort is being made to bring in jobs. That is why the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has already met all of the European ambassadors here and all of the non-European ambassadors. The Minister for Finance, other Ministers and I meet political and business interests outside Ireland in respect of continuing to put emphasis on the attractiveness of this country in terms of its location for investment because of the flexibility of our workforce, our proven record and our entrance to a single market of 500 million customers.

The Deputy will realise that the programme for Government is for the period of Government. This Government is nowin situ just more than 80 days and already it has made serious decisions in respect of the banking problem where we had six dysfunctional banks. We have introduced a jobs initiative which is not to the extent we would wish but it is constrained by virtue of the economic circumstances in which we find ourselves, and the Government is now carrying out a serious analysis of the ways public money is spent. That comprehensive spending review will be finished by September. The Minister for Finance will commence his bilateral discussions with individual Ministers in respect of the preparation for the 2012 budget.

It would be very easy to stand here and say it is easy to govern if one has billions of euro to lash out. In the case of making decisions about priorities, these are matters that Government will consider in terms of the programmes that should be abolished, the programmes that should be extended, and the programmes that should be kept in the interests of fairness in society and of fairness to the people. In other words, in facing into this economic challenge the country faces, it has to be demonstrated that there are decisions being made that impact on everybody and that everybody has a part to play in that.

The Taoiseach said it would be easy to govern if one had billions of euro to lash out. However the Government is lashing out billions to banks and to those who are retiring from that elite group, and it is cutting money from carers, classroom assistants and from the most vulnerable sections of our society. I do not see any excuse for that. There is a huge gap, a bearna mhór, between the commitments made and what is being done now. The Taoiseach only has to go into any one of those sectors in his own constituency and see how much they are hurting at the moment.

Can we have a supplementary question?

I have occasion to get around the county that I represent as a Deputy. The Deputy has spoken about commitments entered into in respect of banks, which is true. I had the opportunity to open a small, two teacher school in the past fortnight, money for which was provided by the last Government.

The Taoiseach had better not tell Deputy Quinn.

It cost €1 million and is a beautiful building with all the facilities provided. I am sure it is a privilege for the staff to teach there. When one considers that we could build 3,000 of those every year for ten years in respect of the promissory notes of €30 billion signed for banks over the next decade, then one can understand the scale of the background to where we now find ourselves.

That is a choice.

That is gone and we now have to deal with the consequences of those decisions. That is why the Government has made decisions focusing on the banks and sorting out our budget deficit over the next few years, and focusing on the creation of jobs, giving some stimulus to the indigenous economy and presenting this country as being open for business and as a location for foreign direct investment that is unparalleled. That is evidenced by the continuing strong interest in investment here, which is something I am sure the Deputy supports, as it impacts on his constituency as well.

I call Deputy Martin.

Would the Taoiseach consider equality proofing these decisions?

I am sorry, but I have called Deputy Martin.

Questions Nos. 5 and 6 deal with the Taoiseach's role in co-ordinating economic policy and Question No. 7 is about the jobs initiative. I will deal with the three of them and I will ask permission for supplementary questions, especially for Question No. 7.

The Taoiseach has restructured the Department in such a way as to remove nearly all of his work from parliamentary scrutiny and put it behind Cabinet confidentiality. The Taoiseach gave the new economic Cabinet committee a good name, but in essence its effect is to end the ability of Members on this side of the House to ask the Taoiseach about nearly all of his work in the economic field. That is the exact opposite to the increased transparency that we were promised by him on coming into Government. The Taoiseach normally oversees a range of co-ordination measures for Government priorities, but if all of these come under Cabinet committees, then clearly that work is effectively shielded from all scrutiny. How can the Taoiseach talk about increased accountability when he is directly reducing it in his own work?

The Department of the Taoiseach is setting a very aggressive approach in transferring questions elsewhere and disallowing questions that have always been answered by taoisigh in the past. The situation is getting worse, as far as we can see. Are there any economic matters handled by the Department for which the Taoiseach is willing to be accountable during Question Time? What would they be?

My question on the jobs initiative is again about transparency——

We will deal with that issue separately to these questions.

My Department has an economic and social policy division that is available to provide me, as Taoiseach, with advice and briefing on appropriate relevant issues. I set up a number of Cabinet committees, including committees on economic recovery and jobs, social policy, climate change and the green economy, European affairs, economic infrastructure, Irish in the Gaeltacht and public service reform. The economic Cabinet committee met on Thursday, 26 May for the first time. I chair that committee. The Government economic management council has met on 14 occasions. I chair all of those meetings. We discuss the economic issues of the day, the issues that are likely to arise and how we should deal with them. From that point of view, in my capacity as Taoiseach, I have access to the economic and social policy division of my own Department. I interact on a regular basis with the Minister for Finance and the Minister for public expenditure and reform, as well as all other Ministers. Matters arise at Cabinet, as the Deputy is aware, and are discussed on a weekly basis. The Deputy may feel free to ask any question he wishes. He has that opportunity during Leaders' Questions in any event. The Government has created two new Departments, one dealing with finance overall and the other dealing — for the first time by a senior Minister — with how that money is spent and how services should be provided in order to obtain the best results for the taxpayer. That is a serious advance. As part of that, the office of the Taoiseach is kept constantly informed and is entitled to interact and guide economic policy through its chairmanship of the economic management council and the other Cabinet committees I have mentioned.

The Taoiseach did not actually respond to the questions I put about accountability to the House with regard to his own work in co-ordinating economic policy across Government. What the Government is putting in place is a structure that shields the Taoiseach from any real accountability to the House on economic matters. That is reflected in his utilisation of Cabinet confidentiality in respect of the committees he has established and also by the disallowing or transfer of a range of questions that were put to him and other Ministers. This flies in the face of what the Government committed to in terms of increased transparency.

With regard to Question No. 7, the issue of increased transparency again arises. The Taoiseach has so far refused to release any information or any of the background material provided in the lead-up to the announcement of the jobs initiative. Did he at any stage ask for a briefing on the possible impact of the pension levy? Will he make this briefing material available to us? In addition, will he indicate to the House whether he personally made any attempt to implement the promise of a major jobs budget which he made last February? The Taoiseach said publicly that there would be a major jobs budget, but it was subsequently scaled down. Can he provide any insight into the interaction between him and the other Ministers when they talked him down from the precipice of the jobs budget, which became a mere budget-neutral jobs initiative?

It is nonsense to suggest that the Department of the Taoiseach is not responsible for economic policy here.

I said "accountable".

I have chaired 14 meetings of the economic management council dealing with fundamental elements of our economy and how we can get out of the mess we have been left with. The same applies in respect of the other Cabinet committees, which, as the Deputy knows, are subject to the principle of confidentiality.

Committee Stage of the Finance Bill will be taken next week. Politics, as the Deputy is well aware, is about making decisions to move the country forward for the benefit of the people. Being political people ourselves, we obviously have views about what might be of benefit to the economy and, as a consequence, to the people, such as the reduction in employers' PRSI and the targeted reduction in VAT to realise the potential of the tourism sector and create employment. These are political decisions which were made based on clear views about what the Government should do within the constraints of the IMF-EU deal. I make no secret of the fact that we would have loved to be in a position to have a much more expansive budget to assist with job creation. We have just been through a quarterly analysis of the IMF-EU deal — and passed with commendation on all conditions — and, given the fact that we are somewhat constrained by virtue of economic circumstances, the Government made a deliberate decision to implement targeted and focused actions which will encourage employers to take on new employees and stimulate our indigenous economy. This will help people to get back a sense of confidence, which, as the Deputy quite rightly agrees, is important in allowing us to move forward.

On Committee Stage next week Deputies will have an opportunity to tease out the details. By and large it refers to our political conclusion that this is all possible in the jobs initiative as outlined by the Minister for Finance and is in the interest of job creation and stimulation of the indigenous economy.

I am trying to understand how all of this works. I can understand the Taoiseach coming forward with very genuine propositions to do this, that and the other but the IMF and EU will not let him do so because essentially they are running the show. The Taoiseach would be better to tell people this.

If I recall properly, today is the day the Titanic was launched in Belfast.

This is Question Time. Does the Deputy have questions?

Yes, I do. In the case of the Titanic the captain did not see the iceberg until it was too late. The Taoiseach can see the iceberg — it is the debt. If the Taoiseach cannot spell out to us what jobs are being brought forward and explain how he has changed his tack and u-turned on many of these issues we are heading for a disaster. The Taoiseach should come forward and tell us in clear terms that while he would like to do all of these things he cannot. I ask the Taoiseach to make a statement on this.

Deputy Adams must have been doing too many clinics in his constituency as he seems to have missed the fact that we have changed the original deal here because the Ministers for Finance and Public Reform and Expenditure renegotiated elements of the deal with the IMF and the EU. They got their consent to reverse the decision made to cut the minimum wage; to reduce employers PRSI by 50%; and to have targeted stimulus directed at the tourism area by reducing VAT from 13.5% to 9%.

And to give millions to the banks.

Which question is Deputy Adams asking?

We are speaking about the job creation measures arising from Question No. 7 tabled by Deputy Martin and Deputy Adams seems to have missed that or he has just let it slip by.

No, I have not. I just have not seen the jobs.

We have also pointed out the internship programme that is here, the stimulus that will come from the regeneration of disintegrating road structures throughout the country and the schools programme which will give targeted employment potential for smaller employers in the construction sector and tradespeople who have been out of work for some time.

I am quite open about this. This is not as expensive as we would wish it to be because we do not have the endless largesse and funds that seemed to be available to Governments in the past for which we now have to pay. Within these confines, these are targeted and focused and they will yield results. From this point of view, the bigger argument about the banks and sustainability and interest rates issues are, as the Deputy is aware, under consideration by the Ministers for Finance of the European Union.

On the issue of accountability following on from Deputy Martin's earlier question. I am increasingly frustrated at the determination of the Taoiseach's Department to transfer or disallow questions on matters that relate to economic affairs in particular, which I understand the Department is supposed to deal with and the Taoiseach has just answered such a question. However, these questions are disallowed. For example——

Will the Deputy ask a question please?

Will the Taoiseach explain why a question I submitted——

You are not going to ask why a question was disallowed. This is not the place to ask it. Come up to my office and you will get an answer. Now, will you ask a question?

Why then consistently have numerous questions that have been submitted to the Taoiseach——

No, Deputy that is not——

——about economic affairs——

This is parliamentary questions to the Taoiseach.

——either been disallowed or transferred?

That is not a matter for the Taoiseach.

He needs a FÁS course.

Deputy Martin asked the same question and you did not interrupt him.

You were on to my office earlier and you were told what to do. Now please do what you were told to do and I will be only too pleased to deal with you.

I was not told anything by your department.

This is questions to the Taoiseach; it is not about disallowing questions.

That is precisely what you are——

Please resume your seat. I have been kind enough to let you in. You will not be let in a second time.

The Taoiseach did not answer the question I asked in regard to the jobs initiative. I refer to the analysis in regard to the impact of the pension levy on an already fragile pensions industry and sector. There is much concern about pensions provision in the public and private sectors.

That has more to do with a separate question.

I asked the Taoiseach a basic question. Did he receive advice and briefing materials on the impact of the pension levy? If he did, will he please make them available to Members of the House and publish them?

Did the Deputy get advice on the bank guarantee?

Deputy Martin can feel free to ask any question he likes on Committee Stage of the Finance (No. 2) Bill 2011 next week. I have already made the point that, and as was pointed out by the Minister for Finance, elements of the pensions industry clearly indicated that their preference would be for a 0.5% levy as distinct from any further reduction in tax relief in the pensions area. This is targeted — it is limited to four years at 0.6% — at the creation of jobs, which is very important.

Did the Department of Finance give the Taoiseach any briefing material?

That is a separate question.

The Deputy will get all the answers to all those questions on the——

I am asking the Taoiseach. He should be upfront for once.


The reason——


The reason Ministers are appointed to this Cabinet is to accept responsibility for their Departments, not like somebody opposite who said he had no responsibility——

Did the Taoiseach get briefing material?

——for up to €1 billion in respect of elderly people.

The Taoiseach should answer the question he was asked.

In regard to the answer to the Deputy's question and any other question he might have, he can spend as much time as he likes on Committee Stage of the Finance (No. 2) Bill 2011 next week and the Minister for Finance will reply.

It is not for me to attend Committee Stage; it is for the spokesperson.

I have made the point about how the pensions levy arose.

Did the Taoiseach get briefing material from the Department of Finance?


I am not worried about the past.

The Deputy should be.


Would Deputies please be in order?

This is not an illusion or a mirage, which the Deputy talked about earlier. This arises from political decisions made by the Cabinet and based on its conclusions on a range of information provided. That range of information can be the subject of any number of questions the Deputy wishes to ask next week on Committee Stage of the Bill which is where they are supposed to be asked.

Why will the Taoiseach not answer? Did he get advice?

The question is to ask the Taoiseach if he will give details of his contribution to the jobs initiative.

It appears to be nil.

Deputy Martin is now straying into a totally different area. He should table an appropriate question and we will get an answer. I am moving on to Parliamentary Question No. 8 in the name of Deputy Adams. We cannot go all over the shop.

Northern Ireland Issues

Gerry Adams


8 Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the level of contacts he has had with political leaders in the North. [11384/11]

Gerry Adams


9 Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he has scheduled an early meeting with the newly elected First Minister and deputy First Minister in the Six Counties; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11453/11]

Micheál Martin


10 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when he intends to personally meet with the newly appointed Ministers in the North. [12835/11]

Micheál Martin


11 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has implemented any changes to the Northern Ireland section of his Department; and his views on its role. [12096/11]

Micheál Martin


12 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has had any contact with the newly elected First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland; the level of contact he has had to date; and when he will next meet them. [13621/11]

Micheál Martin


13 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his priorities for discussion at the next North-South Ministerial Council on the 10 June 2011. [13622/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 13, inclusive, together.

I met the First Minister, Peter Robinson, MLA, and his deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, MLA, in my first full week in office when I visited Washington for the St. Patrick's Day celebrations. I also met them at the funeral of Police Constable Ronan Kerr in April. I met them again at the event in College Green to welcome US President Barack Obama last week. I have also met other political leaders from Northern Ireland and I anticipate further such meetings as required.

I also spoke on the telephone with the First and deputy First Ministers to congratulate them on their electoral success in the recent elections in the North. During that conversation I told them that I looked forward to meeting them, along with the newly appointed Executive, at the next plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council which will take place on 10 June here in the South. At that meeting I expect that we will discuss the economic situation and review progress across the full range of areas of North-South co-operation.

I have not made any changes to the Northern Ireland division in my Department which continues to play an important role in co-ordinating matters relating to North-South co-operation across a range of Departments.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an chruinniú atá socraithe idir an Taoiseach agus Airí an Tuaiscirt. Sílim gur cruinniú maith a bheidh ann. It is very important when dealing with social and economic issues that we do not confine ourselves to this State — an island as small as this, with a land mass as tiny as this and with a population of fewer than 6 million people. There are many steps that could be taken to ease economic distress. The very good decision by the Executive's Minister of Health to press ahead with the cancer unit at Altnagelvin hospital is a case in point.

Will the Taoiseach ensure that Ministers proactively examine ways of strengthening the connections between the Government and the Executive and of strengthening the Good Friday Agreement, which is a hugely important and significant agreement? The Taoiseach said he has not changed the set-up for dealing with the North. I made a suggestion to him about appointing a Minister of State without pay to deal with the North. Will he reconsider that?

Does the Taoiseach agree there has been a surprising lack of engagement by Ministers with their counterparts in the North in the three months since the appointment of the Government? One cannot present informal and brief meetings as substantive engagements. It is accepted that to ensure we cement the advances of recent years it is important there be regular, formal substantive meetings, as well as informal meetings, between Ministers.

There has been a failure to consult in regard to the decision to close down the Smithwick tribunal. I understand the Minister for Justice and Equality is bringing forward measures in this regard. The Unionist parties have already expressed their disquiet at the failure to consult them on the closing down of the tribunal. Will the Taoiseach suspend any measures until the North-South Ministerial Council has had an opportunity to discuss them at its upcoming meeting? It is a very sensitive issue in terms of perceptions and it is important that it is handled sensitively and appropriately given the seriousness of the issues that are covered by the tribunal. It is important that regular contact occurs to avoid any misconceptions arising.

In respect of Deputy Adams's questions, the best way of being proactive in regard to Northern Ireland issues and in so far as North-South issues are concerned is through the North-South Ministerial Council and by regular contact between Ministers. I agree this should happen on a regular basis. The reason we have not had a great number of contacts is that we had the run-in to the Assembly elections. We did not want to give a wrong perception of our Ministers meeting with representatives of one party more often than those of another. I have already made that clear both to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

The meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council will take place on 10 June. We expect a full agenda for that and Ministers will clear their diaries for it. We will follow that with a regular series of meetings. As the Deputy is well aware because he was involved in it himself, the fact that relationships have normalised to a great extent means there is not the same requirement for regular high-level emergency meetings as was the case in the past and as supported by my party in opposition.

In regard to the Smithwick inquiry, this is a sensitive matter which is being handled from this jurisdiction. I accept it is a matter of sensitivity and concern. I wish to make it clear to the House that there is no intention of any interference in any way in the inquiry in respect of the work it has to do. I remind the House that the original motion which set up the inquiry included a specific recommendation that within ten days of the commencement of public hearings that an interim report would be provided. What the Minister for Justice and Equality has requested is to give effect to the terms of the motions setting up the inquiry. If for some reason the inquiry is unable to conclude its business in the time requested by Government, we will consider that. As a general principle, we would like to see tribunals conclude their business. The motion setting up the Smithwick inquiry referred to producing an interim report within ten days of public hearings commencing. Public hearings commence next month.