Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Seán Haughey

Ceist:

1. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach the details of his meetings with the EU Heads of Government during the 2018 summer recess; the issues discussed at the meetings; and the views of each on the future of Europe. [36139/18]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

2. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meetings with all EU leaders since July 2018 in Italy, Croatia and other EU states; and the areas of Brexit that were discussed. [37317/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

3. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the Chancellor of Austria, Mr. Sebastian Kurz, since July 2018. [37517/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

In recent months I have continued with an intensive programme of engagements with EU leaders.

On 8 July, I welcomed the Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, to Dublin. This visit took place as Austria began its six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union and followed my visit to Vienna in February. I am pleased that Chancellor Kurz chose Ireland as the first member state to visit under the Austrian Presidency. Topics discussed during our meeting included Brexit, migration, trade, the digital agenda and the post-2020 EU budget. These issues all feature on the EU's agenda during the current Austrian Presidency. I also met Chancellor Kurz at the informal meeting of EU leaders which took place on 19 and 20 September in Salzburg.

In July I travelled to Croatia, Romania and Italy, meeting the Croatian President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovi, the Croatian Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovi, and the Speaker of the Croatian Parliament, Gordan Jandrokovi, in Zagreb on 23 July. I met the Romanian President, Klaus Iohannis, the Romanian Prime Minister, Viorica Dncil, and the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Liviu Dragnea, in Bucharest on 24 July. I met the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, in Rome on 26 July.

Topics discussed at meetings with my European Council colleagues included Brexit, migration and the post-2020 EU budget. Bilateral relations, which are excellent with all three countries, were also discussed during the meetings. My visit to Romania was especially timely as the country will take over the EU Presidency in the first half of 2019, the period during which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union.

On 6 August, I met the Prime Minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, in Athens. I took the opportunity to express my condolences following the tragic loss of life due to the fires in the Attica region two weeks previously. The Prime Minister, Mr. Tsipras, in turn expressed his sorrow at the death of an Irish citizen. I subsequently wrote to the rescue staff in Greece who helped to rescue one of our citizens there. Our exchanges also covered Brexit, migration and economic issues, where in particular I congratulated the Prime Minister on Greece’s exit from its economic adjustment programme.

I also briefly met several of my European Council colleagues in the margins of my recent visit to the United Nations last Monday, including the Prime Minister of Estonia, Jüri Ratas, the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, and the President of Cyprus.

Ongoing engagement and further upcoming bilateral meetings are envisaged for the period ahead and these will be confirmed when the details have been finalised. I will continue to take advantage of every opportunity to advance Ireland's interests with my fellow members of the European Council.

The Taoiseach met many EU leaders over the course of the summer. I have no doubt they expressed support for Ireland regarding Brexit and the backstop for the Border. The October summit will be important but the general view is that a major decision will not be made until November. I now hear talk, however, of another European Council summit in December and that decisions on Brexit may be left over until December. I believe that would be a retrograde step. The European Parliament must ratify the withdrawal treaty, as must the other EU states. I ask the Taoiseach to comment on the timetable in that regard.

I notice that migration was a major issue for discussion with these EU leaders. It is a big challenge facing the European Union. I note what the EU has agreed in that regard at European Council meetings regarding disembarkation platforms, control centres and reform of the common European asylum system, especially the Dublin regulation. I note also that Ireland has opted into relocation and resettlement measures. Ireland can learn from the mistakes of other EU countries. We need to manage diversity and implement successful integration policies. There is no room for Ireland to have complacency in that regard. I ask the Taoiseach to assure me that we are pursuing successful integration policies here and that we are managing diversity, because it is a huge issue in Europe.

There are European Parliament elections coming up next year and migration will be a big issue in those elections. I want the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, to assure us we are doing everything possible in this country to ensure the successful management of migration.

I note the Taoiseach did not refer to his meeting with the British Prime Minister in Salzburg, which I presume happened.

I saw a picture of it.

The British Prime Minister is still an EU leader and has not left yet. It is becoming increasingly clear that the absence of a working Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive is causing major problems in regard to the Brexit negotiations. Instead of having a cross-community democratic body speaking up for the people of Northern Ireland, the majority of whom are anti-Brexit, we have party agendas dominating. The appalling comments today concerning the Good Friday Agreement confirm the damage. In this case, it would have been expected that the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive were an absolute priority for the Taoiseach yet the evidence is that, for the first time, the whole area seems to have been effectively subcontracted to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Taoiseach does not see relations between Government Buildings and Downing Street as central to the process.

This is the only conclusion we can draw from the irregular contact which the Taoiseach and Prime Minister May maintain. Earlier this year they went seven weeks without speaking. Before Salzburg they went ten weeks without speaking. They do not appear to have had a bilateral session focused primarily on Northern Ireland since the shambolic visit to Stormont in February, when the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister flew in to take the glory for a deal which never materialised. While Michel Barnier is our chief negotiator on Brexit, the Taoiseach is supposed to be our chief negotiator on Northern Ireland. What initiatives does he intend to take to engage the British Government on this? Is it his position that irregular and short conversations display a decent working relationship or a real priority for Northern Ireland?

It should at this juncture be clear even to Deputy Micheál Martin that at the heart of the crisis and the hiatus in the institutions in the North is the fact that the DUP has not embraced the Good Friday Agreement. We can only have a functioning system of power-sharing where we have parties that are open to power-sharing. We cannot indefinitely suspend the expectations of an entire society and tell people to wait and then wait some more while one party, the DUP, refuses to play ball. Those are the facts. Nobody regrets more than I the fact that the agreement in February was not taken over the line but responsibility for that rests at the feet of the DUP. Responsibility for the toxic relationship between the Tories and the DUP rests with Theresa May and Arlene Foster, respectively.

I agree with Deputy Martin when he says the North needs to be a priority for the Taoiseach, that the commitment needs to be strong and that the channels of communication need to be open, which is fair enough. However, frankly, I do not think it is fair and it is not dealing with the very challenging realities to play a game of make-believe and to say everybody is wrong in this scenario. The difficulty and the fault squarely lie with one party, and that party is the DUP. We need to try to resolve that but we can only do it if we are prepared to say that out loud and to challenge Arlene Foster in particular in that regard.

Can the Taoiseach tell us what he said to Chancellor Kurz on the issue of migration? Did he challenge him? Did he challenge his partners in government? As to our management of migration here, I think it has been fairly disastrous. One only needs to look to the system of direct provision to have proof positive that, far from managing migration, we are failing spectacularly in that regard.

I begin by congratulating the Taoiseach on organising a series of bilateral meetings through the summer and beyond. It is an important ongoing process and the right thing to do.

I spent the weekend before last at the British Labour Party conference. I met a variety of different groupings, including small firms' representatives and the representatives of very large businesses. Without exception, all of them outlined the negative impacts that Brexit will have on the economy and on employment in the United Kingdom. However, none of them knew how to articulate this without fear of being overwhelmed with criticism. That is the background music in the UK right now.

Much of the focus politically, and I think it will be the same at the Tory conference under way right now, is on what will happen next year in the final chapter leading up to the UK exit, for example, what will happen in parliament and will there be a majority for this or for that? I continue to try to focus on the Irish backstop. If there is no agreed legal formulation for an Irish backstop, we will not get to a vote in the British Parliament in terms of a withdrawal agreement because there will not be one.

What is the Taoiseach's understanding of the date when the British Government will finally publish its legal understanding of what it politically agreed to in December of last year? We know it has dismissed the Barnier interpretation of that, and Barnier is going to have another go at it. We understand from repeated commitments that the British Government is going to set out its legal understanding. When will that happen? In the event of it not happening in advance of the October EU summit, that is, in the event of the British not setting out their legal understanding of the backstop, what will be the Taoiseach's response?

I have two questions. Has the Taoiseach had any discussions with his European counterparts about the passing of the nation-state law in Israel by Benjamin Netanyahu? On top of the long list of apartheid and racist measures directed against the Arab and Palestinian population, the nation-state law is an explicitly racist and apartheid law which flies in the face of international law and the right of Arab and Palestinian people to national self-determination. I wonder if Europe intends to do anything at all, or to make any statement, about how repugnant and in breach of international law and rights this nation-state law is.

Was anything said about the shooting of migrants by Moroccan forces? To add to the atrocities being committed against desperate people fleeing the Mediterranean, this latest incident was pretty shocking.

In terms of the forthcoming EU summits, there is a regular summit in October and a regular summit in December, and there is the possibility of a special summit in November, if it is necessary. That has yet to be confirmed but we agreed there would be one if it is needed either to confirm an agreement or to study the fact that we do not yet have an agreement. Obviously, I would much prefer it if we could conclude the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish protocol and the political declaration on the new relationship, which are the three elements that go together and have to be agreed, at the October summit rather than having to have a special summit in November. I certainly would not want to wait until December but that is not something that is entirely under our control. The timeline obviously works back from the end of March, when the UK will leave the EU, and sufficient time has to be available for the UK Parliament and the European Parliament to ratify any agreement. I imagine that if they had to, both Parliaments could do that quite quickly, but it would be far from ideal to have a situation where this was left to run on into November or December, or even into the new year. That would be most regrettable and I sincerely hope we are all able to avoid that. I think we would start to see a significant impact on confidence in our economies if it was allowed to run on that long, so I will do everything I can to make sure we have an agreement sooner rather than later.

In terms of integration and diversity, I disagree with Deputy McDonald's assessment.

I appreciate that there are plenty of issues and shortcomings, of which direct provision may be one, but one in six people in Ireland was not born here, which is very high relative to that in other countries. It is higher than the figure in Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands. We have done much better on integration than those countries, largely because immigration has been diverse, rather than migrants coming mainly from one country. They have come here from other parts of Europe and all over the world. In addition, they are very well integrated into the labour market and, in fact, more likely to be working than the average Irish person and paying tax. In many areas, in particular the health service, they are holding up public services, as well as helping to bring investment from large companies to Ireland, whether by Facebook, Google or others. The other day I was at a very good project which was led by Deputy David Stanton but which also very much involved the private sector to encourage migrants who were not part of the labour market to become involved in it and overcome the barriers they were facing. A lot of good work is being done in these areas, albeit it is never going to be perfect. No country can state it has achieved perfection in dealing with migration and integration, but we have done pretty well relative to other states, given, in particular, that one in six people in Ireland was not born here. This suddenly became a net inward migration country, when for decades there was outward migration. I am pleased and proud that during the deep recession when there was very high unemployment and living standards were falling, people did not turn to anti-immigration or racist politics in the way they have in other countries when times have been tough.

Shall I continue?

I am sorry, but we have to proceed to Question No. 4. I appeal to Members. If it takes too long to ask questions, we will not have time to get the answers, but I have very little control over it. I am in the hands of Members.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Michael Moynihan

Ceist:

4. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A (economy) last met. [37437/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A (economy) will next meet. [37539/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

6. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A (economy) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [38474/18]

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A (economy) last met. [38525/18]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee A (economy) last met. [38628/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 8, inclusive, together.

Cabinet committee A covers issues relating to the economy, jobs, the labour market, competitiveness, productivity, trade, the action plan for rural development, the digital economy and pensions. Recent developments in these areas include the publication of the pensions road map by the Minister for Employment and Social Protection and the Government's decision to prepare a "future jobs" programme focused on creating high productivity jobs, increasing levels of participation in the labour market and tackling the opportunities and risks we face in areas such as digital transformation and the low carbon economy. The most recent meeting of Cabinet committee A took place on 9 July and the next meeting is scheduled to take place later this month. Of course, the full Cabinet also considers these issues on an regular basis.

As the Taoiseach scratches around for additional money for things like housing which we need desperately, health and education services and water infrastructure, has he taken note of the significance of the Comptroller and Auditor General's recent report which confirms something those of us on the left have been saying for years? Now it comes from a source that the Taoiseach cannot dismiss quite so easily. The report outlines how 90 of the richest individuals in the country are declaring taxable incomes which are less than the average industrial wage. In 2016 these high net worth individuals claimed €96 million in various tax credits and reliefs. By the way, they are people whose individual wealth is estimated to exceed €50 million. It is absolutely shocking when one thinks of some of the social problems people in this country face that some of the richest people are availing of tax reliefs and credits to bring their taxable income down to negligible levels. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report also points to something else we have said repeatedly about the extent of corporate tax loopholes. As someone who has spoken a lot about this issue, the Comptroller and Auditor General's figures stagger even me. In 2016, €296 billion was available in allowances and forward losses to be offset against profits. It is estimated that in future years it could rob Revenue of approximately €29 billion.

We have to move on.

It is a scandal. Is the Taoiseach going to look at it and examine the loopholes to ensure the rich and corporations will pay their fair share of tax?

We will not be able to get the answer if the Deputy does not allow the Taoiseach to come in. I call Deputy Mary Lou McDonald who will be followed by Deputies Micheál Martin and Brendan Howlin.

I share the concerns raised by Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett and add the issue of the corporate tax honeymoon period extended to the banks. I also add issues related to the taxation of intangible assets held by multinationals, a loophole which was partially closed by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, but which requires a full and final resolution. I noticed in the Taoiseach's Twitter account that he had had sight of some of Sinn Féin's budgetary proposals. I suggest he read the document in full and absorb it properly before tweeting again. We have made a range of proposals on investment in public services, tackling the cost of living and building prosperity and set out in detail the choices we would make within the fiscal parameters. I realise the Taoiseach's choices are likely to be different, but I appeal to him to study our proposals. As he has often said, no one in this Chamber has a monopoly of empathy. Certainly, the Government benches do not have a monopoly of wisdom when it comes to prudent and sound economic management.

I am sure the Taoiseach is aware that there are many signs of worrying pressures in the economy and the huge social dimension to the impact of the housing crisis. That crisis which is now over five years' old is having a significant impact on inward investment and disposable incomes which are being reduced by exorbitant rents. It is causing missed opportunities and a lack of mobility. There are growing signs that Brexit is beginning to have an impact on consumer confidence, as well as potentially causing disruption in the United Kingdom market. An important aspect is a sense of deflation which has followed the complacency arising from the overselling of last December's deal. Where once businesses were told that they had an iron clad assurance of the status quo continuing and that the United Kingdom as a whole was leaning towards a soft or low impact Brexit, today the public feels a general degree of anxiety and a higher level of fear. The Copenhagen study which remains the Government's only attempt to quantify the impact of Brexit states we face a loss of over 7% of national income in the event of a chaotic, no-deal Brexit and 4% in the event that there is some form of comprehensive free trade agreement. For example, a Canada plus agreement would lead to a decline of 4%. Will the Taoiseach confirm that these projections remain the basis for Ireland's Brexit planning and does he believe the measures taken so far and their impact are of sufficient scale to respond to a loss of between 4% and 7% of national income? One must take into account the divergence in the economy between the domestic, indigenous economy which relies heavily on exports to the United Kingdom and the multinational base which will probably prove to be more resilient. The indigenous sector, in particular, agrifood companies and companies in the west, the north west and the midlands which export mainly to Britain, could be in significant difficulty, even in the event that there is a free trade agreement along the lines of Canada plus.

The ESRI has doubled its projection for the year to 8.9% of GDP. Has the Government considered exactly what the impact will be on the deficit projected for the year? Presumably, it will close it. Has the Government considered the impact on the fiscal space? Overspending in the HSE to the end of June was projected to be at a figure of €300 million. It is now projected that it will be somewhere between €750 million and €1.1 billion by the end of the year.

This is a current-year budgetary item. How is this money to be found?

I had a chance to look at the C&AG's findings on tax and will take a closer look at them over the weekend. I believe everyone should pay his or her fair share of tax in Ireland. As a Government, we have prioritised taking the lowest-paid out of the income tax net altogether. Approximately 30% of people in Ireland, the lowest-paid, no longer have to pay income tax, which is a very good thing. Our focus now is very much on reducing income tax for those on middle incomes, who in many ways often pay the highest tax burden because the very rich can find ways not to pay, whether through legitimate tax incentives or aggressive tax planning and in some cases tax avoidance. It is very often the middle that bears the largest burden of income taxation. This is why it has been our priority to raise the standard rate cut-off point in order that fewer people have to pay that highest rate of income tax and to ensure that people pay less in income tax and universal social charge, USC. While in any one budget this might only be €300 or €400 for a single person and €600 or €800 for a couple, this really starts to add up over three budgets, to €1,800 for a couple. The three-year effect - we have been doing this for three years now - and five-year effect of these taxation changes really make a difference to the take-home pay of those on middle incomes.

It is important, though, to make a distinction between wealth and income. Wealth and income are not the same thing. In our constituencies we all meet people, often elderly people, who own a house that is worth over €1 million or perhaps have life savings but whose income can actually be very small. It may only be €15,000 or €20,000. They might be on a modest pension so they have a low income and do not pay much income tax but they may have quite a lot in assets.

There are also people who own businesses, and a business may well be worth €50 million, but against that there may be significant debts. Many people claim to be rich but might not be that rich at all when the levels of debts and borrowings they have are taken into account. Of course, one may own a business that is valued quite highly but not have any income from that business. Businesses are loss-making. One often sees this with farmers as well, that on paper the farm may be worth many millions but that the income the farmer derives from that farm can be very small. It is therefore important to understand the difference-----

I referred to net worth - "high-net-worth individuals".

-----between wealth and income.

As for corporate profits tax, much has been done in recent years to close some of those loopholes, whether it be the double Irish, some of the loopholes and incentives in respect of intellectual property, statelessness or accounting changes. This is why we are recognised by the OECD and others as being compliant and transparent when it comes to our corporation profits tax, notwithstanding what others may say about us. This is why we have seen a very big increase in the take from corporation profits tax this year. We will see another very big one this month when the Exchequer returns come out and we will see this escalate. We are now taking in a lot of money from corporations in corporation profits tax. This is a risk because we cannot assume that this money will be there next year or the year after. Because loopholes have been changed or closed and because of accounting changes, we will probably have a windfall of corporation profits tax this year which may not be there next year or the year after. While some will be busily finding ways to spend this money, as a responsible Government we need to consider the possibility that this narrative about us not collecting a lot in corporation profits tax is not correct. We are collecting a lot, and there is a risk that as corporation profits tax returns continue to escalate, as we continue to take in more and more of it, it could become our new stamp duty. We could be vulnerable in this area. We must be careful not to think that a bumper year of corporation profits tax is something on the back of which we can make five- or ten-year long-term spending commitments. We will not make that mistake, having learned from the mistakes of the past. On Friday we will have the White Paper, which will give the up-to-date calculations on the deficit. While the changes, the projections that Deputy Howlin mentioned will reduce the deficit, this will be counteracted by overspending in other areas, most particularly in health but also in justice and some other areas. We therefore expect to come in bang on the nose in or around a deficit of 0.2% this year, as projected, with the good things being outweighed by overruns in other areas.

I had a chance over lunch to look at the Sinn Féin budget. I promise to study it in more detail.

A couple of things struck me which I am concerned about. What is proposed is reckless and irresponsible. Sinn Féin proposes increased borrowing. Now is not the time for us to increase our borrowing. When the economy is going well and growing fast and one has full employment-----

And when there are kids in bed and breakfast accommodation and hostels.

-----that is when one should be balancing the books and trying to run a surplus. One does not increase borrowing. Whatever social problems we have now, they will be much worse in a few years' time if we make reckless financial decisions.

It is a matter of investing in people.

Now is not the time to increase borrowing; now is the time to balance the books. There is also a proposal to cancel the rainy day fund. With Brexit coming up in only a few months' time, cancelling the rainy day fund is a very reckless-----

-----proposal from Sinn Féin. There is also a proposal for 20 tax hikes, raising €3 billion. When one's economic policy is based on 20 tax hikes raising €3 billion, it is not long before one must start hitting average people with those tax hikes. One might get away with this in one go, but if one raises that amount of money out of taxation over five years, it is not long before one starts hitting people on middle incomes. I think Sinn Féin would go into that space very quickly.

Government-Church Dialogue

Eamon Ryan

Ceist:

9. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he has met religious leaders in Ireland recently; and his plans for managing the transition to a new relationship between religion, religious institutions and the State. [37882/18]

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with Pope Francis. [38475/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

11. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Pope Francis. [38620/18]

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

12. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Pope Francis. [38629/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 12, inclusive, together.

I met Pope Francis during his visit to Dublin Castle on Saturday, 25 August. The meeting provided an opportunity for both of us to discuss a number of issues, though regrettably not at any great length because of the short duration of our meeting. I welcomed Pope Francis, who thanked me for the warm welcome he had received on arrival. We spoke of the legacy of pain and suffering caused by the failures of the church and the State in Ireland. We discussed how Ireland is still a country with strong faith but that there is much to be done to bring about justice, truth and healing for the victims and survivors. I thanked Pope Francis for his statements on climate change, encouraging countries to accept refugees, and international development. We also spoke of Irish missionaries and how they continue their work today and about the Pope's home country of Argentina and the role of the Irish there. I used the opportunity during my speech later that day to expand on these issues and to express my strong wish that words be followed by actions.

I strongly believe in a greater separation of church and State and in freedom of and respect for religion. I hope the visit of Pope Francis will be the opening of a new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church, one in which the church is no longer at the centre of our society but still has an important role to play.

It is very beneficial that Government should engage with churches and faith communities in a structured way. On 22 January 2018 several Cabinet Ministers and 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. This was the second in a series of meetings I will hold with dialogue partners. We discussed important social and economic issues facing Irish society, including Brexit, education issues, the eight amendment and international development. On 31 August, some of my colleagues and I held formal meetings under the structured dialogue process with representatives of the Catholic Church, led by Archbishop Eamon Martin. A wide-ranging discussion took place on a range of important national and international issues, including education, Northern Ireland, overseas development and social justice. Some of the issues we discussed at these meetings were very challenging. They are issues on which people have deeply held views and which some consider 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 more constructive.

Like public representatives generally, I meet church leaders informally from time to time in the course of attending official or public events. In particular, with the recent visit of Pope Francis, I attended several events that were also attended by representatives of various religious groups. I have also had the opportunity to engage with the Muslim community around Eid and our Jewish community around Passover.

I was particularly interested in the speech the Taoiseach gave alongside Pope Francis in Dublin Castle. In it he set out the ambition of "a new covenant", if I am quoting him correctly. Later in the speech I think he made a point about our hospital services, saying he was looking for a hospital service based on a civic and scientific ethos. I agree. The real question, however, is what exactly does this civic component include.

I hope it does and can include communities and people of religious faith because they bring a lot to our society. They should not be central or have control over the State in any way, but they have a contribution to make. I am interested to know where the Taoiseach thinks that covenant would be constructed. I hear of his Cabinet meetings but is there any wider mechanism he sees us partaking in to develop that type of civic society? I was very taken by a book published by a number of people, including Fr Gerry O'Hanlon SJ, entitled A Dialogue of Hope. He set out how the churches could be useful in the dialogue the State needs to have across all our work. I think, however, that it has changed slightly. The conversation around such a covenant might be a useful mechanism for the church to engage, in a synodal way, with other churches and with people of no faith in answering the question of what the roles of churches and those of all faiths and none in our society are. Would the Taoiseach consider such a synodal approach in bringing people in to consider that covenant question?

Last week or the week before, I raised with the Taoiseach the issue of the Tuam mother and baby home. He reflected on the fact that he had visited the site in a personal capacity. I understand he has made a commitment to meet Catherine Corless and the survivors. He might inform us if there has been any progress made on such a meeting.

When the Pope visited, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, met him, spoke to him and gave him a letter relating to the abuses carried out in mother and baby homes. While the church has a responsibility and a case to answer in that regard, so too does the State. I put it to the Taoiseach that the burial site at the Tuam mother and baby home must be secured, the remains exhumed and every effort made to reunite the remains of the babies and children buried there with their families. That is the Government's decision to make. It is the right thing to do. I urge the Taoiseach to meet, with some urgency, Catherine Corless and the survivors. They want to meet with him before the Minister, Deputy Zappone, concludes her work.

The Minister stated in her letter that she was of the view that the church should contribute significantly to whatever decision is made. She stated that it "should be done willingly, unconditionally and quickly". Has there been a response from the Pope to the Minister's letter? If so, what was that response? Was it justified and reasonable? What is the financial ask of the church?

In the Taoiseach's speech to Pope Francis he talked about a new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and the Catholic Church. The repeal referendum and, perhaps, the visit itself, given that the numbers going to see the Pope were far lower than expected, clearly indicate, as the Taoiseach mentioned, that the relationship the majority of people in this country want is a separation of the institutions of the State from church and religious doctrine. The question is whether the Taoiseach's vision of that is going to be different from the old relationship when it comes to who runs critical services and what services they provide, particularly in areas such as health and education.

I especially want to ask the Taoiseach about the national maternity hospital. I and others have asked about it and we are deeply concerned about it. Dr. Peter Boylan wrote an alarming letter to The Irish Times in August in which he pointed out that the Religious Sisters of Charity says that the St. Vincent's group will have to uphold the values and vision of Mother Mary Aikenhead, foundress of the Religious Sisters of Charity, and that the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference published in its Code of Ethical Standards for Healthcare that Catholic health facilities will not provide assisted fertility treatment, artificial contraception, morning-after pills, surrogacy, abortion, a referral elsewhere for abortion, sterilisation, or gender reassignment surgery. If that were to be the situation in the national maternity hospital run by the new St. Vincent's group, it would be absolutely unacceptable. I want reassurance, as do the women of Ireland, that the national maternity hospital will not be abiding by that sort of code of ethics.

I am anxious to give the Taoiseach some time to respond but I want to ask two questions. I am very strongly in support of the point made in respect of the Tuam mother and baby home. I understand that an initial document was handed to the Pope by the Minister, Deputy Zappone, on his visit and that a second letter, a more comprehensive statement of fact, was submitted to the Vatican. I would certainly be interested in hearing what response, if any, has been received to those letters. I presume the response was directed to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, but has the Taoiseach had sight of it? Should we have openness in respect of the contents of this correspondence?

On the general principles set out in the Taoiseach's speech in Dublin Castle, there is now a suggestion of a citizens' assembly. That is a very good model. It has worked very well on a number of seemingly intractable, difficult and challenging questions. The Taoiseach might now consider using that model for the examination of the future ownership and control of education in this country.

As a society we need to remember that we should not replace one intolerance with another. In an era in which organised religions have moved to a different role and significance in society, tolerance and respect for different faiths should not just apply to smaller religions. The recent visit of the Pope was very welcome, as was his open and sincere approach to the issues which were raised with him.

It is now eight years since the Government announced the transfer of 50% of church schools to alternative patronage. The result delivered has been the dramatic slowing down of divestment. The process adopted has crawled along and the opportunity seems to have been missed to take up Archbishop Martin's offer immediately to divest a large number of schools in Dublin. Will the Taoiseach explain whether he has taken any initiative to move the divestment process out of its slumber? Has he followed up the Pope's visit with any specific engagement on the issues raised by him and others during the visit, issues which have been referenced?

On hospitals and healthcare institutions, the Minister for Health has asked Ms Catherine Day, former head of the civil service in the European Union, to lead some work on the future relationship and governance of our hospitals for us. I have not had sight of that work yet. I am not quite sure how advanced it is but I look forward to seeing the outcome once it is ready.

Volunteerism in health and education does have value. Faith-based bodies and churches have often, though not always, brought a good ethos, a tradition and a loyalty to schools and hospitals. While things need to change, I would not like to see all those good things lost. We know of the valuable work that religious and faith-inspired charities do in areas such as housing and homelessness and the alleviation of poverty. I would not like to see a separation of church and State that is so rigid and cold that all that would be lost and that the State would refuse to engage with all of that good work and the positive spirit of volunteerism that exists in health and education.

The new national maternity hospital will be publicly owned and any medical procedure that is legal in Ireland, including assisted human reproduction and the termination of pregnancy, will be available in that hospital. It will be publicly built and publicly owned. That is how we intend it to develop. I should point out that the National Maternity Hospital at Holles Street is a voluntary hospital. While he does not attend the meetings any more, the chairman of the board is the Archbishop of Dublin. It is important to recognise the starting point as well as what we intend to be the end point.

Deputy Eamon Ryan made some good suggestions. I will certainly give consideration to the proposals he has made.

On the former mother and baby home in Tuam, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, is developing proposals for how we should deal with the site and, most particularly, the remains of the children buried there. When she has this work done, or substantially complete, it is my intention, alongside her, to organise the meetings. I do not know if there has yet been a reply to her letters from Pope Francis or the Vatican, but to the best of my knowledge there has not been. However, I might not be up to date on the matter, but I will certainly raise it with her if I see her tomorrow.

We have a few citizens' assemblies in train. There is one planned on gender equality to consider how we can further advance that agenda. There is also one planned on the reform of local government in Dublin, a Dublin Citizens' Assembly. We have taken on board Deputy Eamon Ryan's suggestion that it include not just citizens but also councillors and perhaps even Deputies and people with experience of local government. It will probably be a little more like the Constitutional Convention model, with a ratio of one third to two thirds. These are the ones we want to have in 2019. We only have the bandwidth to have so many at any given time, but we may able to have more after that.

That assembly will deal with local government in Dublin only.

I acknowledge the criticism from Deputy Micheál Martin on the divestment of schools. Surveys of preschool children are being conducted in different school areas. When they are completed, they will inform us what parents want. That will allow us to speed up the process again.