Special Meeting of Joint Committees with Mr. Guy Verhofstadt MEP: Motion

I move:

That, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders:

(a) two or more Joint Committees, in accordance with their orders of reference, may hold a joint meeting or meetings in this Dáil for an exchange of views with Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, European Parliament coordinator in relation to the United Kingdom’s decision to withdraw from the European Union, as notified under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union on 29th March, 2017: Provided that the Ceann Comhairle may act as Chairperson for the purposes of the meeting, and may make an opening statement; Provided further that the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad may make a closing statement at the end of the meeting; and

(b) to facilitate the exchange of views with Mr. Verhofstadt, the Dáil shall sit at 2 p.m. on Thursday 21st September, 2017, when Leaders’ Questions shall be taken; and the weekly division time under Standing Order 70(2) shall be taken on the conclusion of questions on promised legislation under Standing Order 28(3).

Is Deputy Gerry Adams moving his amendment?

I move amendment No. 1:

To insert the following after “that the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad may make a closing statement at the end of the meeting; and”:

“(b) notwithstanding Standing Order 87(c), Members of the Westminster Parliament elected from constituencies in Northern Ireland and Members of the European Parliament elected from constituencies in Ireland, including Northern Ireland, shall be allowed to exercise the speaking rights which apply in the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs for the purposes of a joint meeting or meetings in this Dáil for an exchange of views with Mr. Guy Verhofstadt; and”

What is the amendment?

What are we doing now?

The amendment has been circulated.

I do not have it.

I do not have a copy.

Will Deputy Adams inform the Members?

I assumed that the Ceann Comhairle had ruled the amendment out of order.

It is not out of order.

What is the amendment?

I thought a vote was called.

Does the Ceann Comhairle want me to read it out?

Ba mhaith liom é a dhéanamh. First of all, the amendment simply allows for the-----

On a point of order-----

Does anyone have it?

-----MPs and MEPs to speak. Will I read it, Ceann Comhairle?

Deputy Adams wants the MPs to attend and be able to participate here in the debate.

I thought we dealt with that.

We discussed it and we dealt with it, but it is still on the order paper before me.

On a point of order, I thought earlier, when the Business Committee proposal was made by Deputy Mattie McGrath, that he made a proposition regarding Thursday's sitting. It was then put to the House that we agree to the arrangements for Thursday's sitting or not. I think Sinn Féin said that it did not agree - fair enough - and what normally happens then is na Teachtaí atá ina thaobh agus na Teachtaí atá i gcoinne indicate and then someone calls a vótáil, and nobody called a vótáil. I thought then at that stage and I think most people in the House thought that it was dealt with. Can someone bring clarity to what we are doing now, because the Order of Business is over?

We are still debating it now.

On a point of order-----

It is a genuine point of order.

We got an outline of Order of Business proposals. Arising out of any Order of Business, specific motions fall to be taken to be agreed or not agreed. This is this motion coming before us, arising out of the Order of Business. I presume we will vote in accordance with the manner in which we indicated we would vote earlier on, if Deputy Adams chooses to press it, and he says that he wants to.

On a point of order, which is a genuine question to the Ceann Comhairle, if we vote for this motion, what standing does it have?

That is my point.

It cannot be implemented because the Seanad will not be in a position to undo-----

How can it be in order to put it then?

We are independently entitled to transact our own business.

But then are we not-----

An bhfuil cead agam caint, a Cheann Comhairle? Tá daoine eile ag caint.

It is academic. It is all academic.

I have a letter from the Ceann Comhairle's office, from the private secretary to the Ceann Comhairle, to our bainisteoir here, and this was an interpretation. I do not argue with the Ceann Comhairle's interpretation. It is that unless the House otherwise decides, neither MEPs nor members of the Westminster Parliament elected from constituencies in Northern Ireland can attend and participate in the meeting - in other words, unless the House otherwise decides. I ask the House to otherwise decide and to give these elected representatives their right to speak. It is a right which they enjoy on committees of which they are members.

Subsequent to that correspondence issuing, it emerged that the other House, which we are not responsible for and do not operate any control over, made another decision, which has implications.

The first I heard of it was today when the Ceann Comhairle said that.

I beg the Ceann Comhairle's indulgence in this. I only learned last week, and I do not know whether it was from communication between his office and all the whips or what, that the mechanism to hear the rapporteur from the European Parliament was via three committees, which I thought was an unusual construct. Would it have been possible for the Dáil to go into committee, for example, to hear Mr. Verhofstadt?

Yes, of course it would.

I thought that might be better. I was actually anticipating that we might be speaking as leaders. I only heard last week that we would not be and that it would be the joint committees coming together, which would seem potentially to prevent that and I know it is not the intention because apparently we can all go and attend the joint committees. I understood originally that we would speak as party leaders in response when making contributions, just like we did with Michel Barnier. I understand that Michel Barnier is not a head of state, but he spoke to the Dáil. Maybe we can get clarity on that. That might have been a better option than three committees.

We can give the Deputy absolute clarity on that. The question of Mr. Verhofstadt addressing the Houses or the committee of the Houses was discussed at the Business Committee prior to the summer where, to the best of my recollection, all of the parties were represented. The nature of the sitting was discussed, which included the three joint committees meeting in session. That approach to Mr. Verhofstadt reflects the priority and the traditional protocols that would apply to people coming to speak before the Houses and nobody, prior to the summer recess, had any problem with that procedure. It was my understanding that everybody who participated in the agreement to go down that way understood what they were agreeing to.

To be very clear for the record, we only learned that these folks would be denied their speaking rights just before 15 September. We immediately raised that with both the whip's office and with the office of the Ceann Comhairle, in some detail, as he is aware. When the Fianna Fáil leader became aware, he did not make any representations on this. We did this properly and by the book. We understand that the Ceann Comhairle is caught in a bind. I think it is like a Greek tragedy in that we are going to have a situation in which we are discussing Brexit with the European Parliament's co-ordinator and have brought together the three committees and there are going to be folks from those committees who normally speak who, for whatever reason, are going to be denied their right to speak. It makes it clear in the letter from the Office of the Ceann Comhairle that this House can decide otherwise.

Yes, in a minute. Deputy Howlin, then Deputy Ó Caoláin.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the position put forward by Deputy Adams, and there is a great deal of merit in it, my question relates to the status of the amendment now. We are on thin enough ice in this House in terms of public confidence in the way we do our business, but the notion that a motion could be put and passed that cannot be implemented brings us into disrepute. What is the point of allowing a motion to be put and voted upon which, if it is passed, cannot be implemented?

With respect, many motions have been put before this House on very many matters which if passed or not passed cannot be given effect.

No. They were not given effect rather than could not be given effect.

No. There were occasions on which they could not be given effect.

I also reference what Deputy Adams pointed to, namely, the Ceann Comhairle's correspondence of 19 September stating, "unless the House otherwise decides". It was the point I put to the Ceann Comhairle in the brief interjection I made earlier, that surely we have the authority to decide on the business of the House.

I second the amendment and I appeal to all Members of the Dáil to support the right of attendance of Northern MPs of all opinion at tomorrow's special meeting on Brexit with the European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, and their right to be heard - rights they already have as attendees at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement which was established by a previous Dáil under the leadership and instigation of the former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern. I was here during all that time and well remember the decision - one we supported.

The amendment seeks to extend the same rights to all MEPs elected from across the island of Ireland, not only north of the Border - rights they too already enjoy as attendees at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs. The issue for address, namely, Brexit, is, of course, of shared concern to almost all these elected voices of the Irish people across this island. The MPs and MEPs have a just entitlement to be present and, as appropriate, to be heard. I would not expect they would all take up speaking time - that would not be the case.

It is not about the where. That this joint meeting of three Oireachtas committees is being held in the Dáil Chamber should not be used as a means of silencing our MP and MEP parliamentary colleagues of all political opinion, north and south of the Border. In the spirit of mutual respect and in the interest of as near to unanimity on this issue as we can possibly achieve, I appeal to all Members of the House to record their support for this facilitation.

We have just had a debate on something that we were not to have a debate on. Notwithstanding that, I will attempt to be clear. The correspondence that issued from my office issued before it was aware of the decision the other House had made. Just as the other House made its decision without any regard to any decision we might make, we can make a decision without initially having regard to what it has done. However, the decision we make cannot be given effect because it is a joint committee and it requires a similar decision of both Houses. Therefore, we are in a procedural logjam out of which we cannot get within the timescales available to us.

Deputy Adams is entitled to move his amendment to the motion. He proposed it and Deputy Ó Caoláin seconded it. I will put it to the House now.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Motion agreed to.