Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 27 Nov 2019

Vol. 990 No. 2

Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)

Electoral Reform

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will provide a progress report on the work of the interdepartmental group on the security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation. [46524/19]

Brendan Howlin


2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will provide a progress report on the work of the interdepartmental group on the security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation. [47364/19]

Micheál Martin


3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the role his officials had in the interdepartmental group that finalised proposals on regulating transparency in online political advertising. [47451/19]

Joan Burton


4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the role his officials had in the interdepartmental group into regulating transparency in online political advertising. [48842/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett


5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if a progress report will be provided on the work of the interdepartmental group on the security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation. [48847/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

The Government recently approved the progress report of the interdepartmental group, IDG, on the security of Ireland's electoral process and disinformation. The report was published on 5 November and laid before the Houses on 12 November. The safeguarding of the electoral process from disinformation and other security risks requires a cohesive and co-ordinated approach across Government.

The membership of the IDG comprises officials from the Departments of Business, Enterprise and Innovation; Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Defence; Education and Skills; Foreign Affairs and Trade; Housing, Planning and Local Government; Justice and Equality; Public Expenditure and Reform, and also representatives of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces.

Members of the group have expertise in communications technology, cyber security, electoral legislation and EU developments in this area. The group is facilitated and chaired by my Department. This second report by the group outlines progress on the seven recommendations contained in its first report published in July 2018, which are to expedite the establishment of an electoral commission; advance the modernisation of voter registration; regulate the transparency of online political advertising; reform of legislative provisions concerning funding of election and referendum campaigns; assist the EU Commission's work in tackling online disinformation; continue to advance national level media literacy initiatives; and also enhance cyber security measures around the electoral process, including providing advice to political parties.

The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government will lead on drafting the heads of a Bill to make provision for the regulation of transparency of online paid political advertising within election periods.

The overarching policy objectives are to protect the integrity of elections, ensure they are free and fair, and not captured by a narrow range of interests; to respect the fundamental right to freedom of expression and the value of political advertising and its importance to protect democratic and electoral processes, while ensuring that regulation of expression meets the requirements of lawfulness, necessity and proportionality; and to respect the role of the Internet in the public sphere of political discourse and ensure that the public have access to legitimate information required in order to make autonomous voting decisions.

The proposal was formulated following a public consultation and open policy forum with participation from media and Members of the Houses, online companies, the advertising industry, academia, civil society and the European Commission.

The Government approved the establishment of a statutory electoral commission on 17 July 2019. The Commission will bring together several electoral functions in an independent, dedicated public body. The drafting of the general scheme of an electoral commission Bill is currently under way and its completion is anticipated by the end of 2019. It is anticipated that the Bill will be published in mid-2020, with the enactment of legislation and establishment of the electoral commission thereafter.

Earlier this month, the Taoiseach told us that the electoral commission legislation was being worked on at present. Today, he tells us that it will be finished by the end of the year, and we are talking about the middle of next year before any substantial progress is made. That is not a surprise to anyone in the House because, as the Taoiseach is aware, the interdepartmental group's first report found that the absence of an electoral commission is a matter of concern and recommended that it should be established. The Taoiseach told the Dáil that the heads of the commission Bill are expected next year yet the status of the Bill in the Government's autumn legislative programme provides no date as to when the initial stage of the legislative process will be completed.

It is worth remembering that the establishment of an electoral commission was first raised in the Oireachtas in 2004 and has been agreed in consecutive programmes for Government since 2007. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil has demonstrated any real commitment to this key piece of reform. Establishing a commission is not only a long overdue modernisation reform; it opens up important opportunities to increase voter participation in elections.

Four by-elections will take place at the end of this week. The current Administration is on its last legs, and we face a general election in the coming months. The Taoiseach has been a member of two Cabinets and over the course of the past eight years has failed to deliver on his commitment to introduce this much-needed and long talked about reform. Is it the case that the electoral commission legislation will not be in place before the next general election? That seems to be what he said in the past few minutes. It is probably a hallmark of this Government, and we had it here yesterday evening also regarding the issue of health, that everything is on the promise but very little is delivered. This issue has been talked about since 2004. It is beyond impossible to consider that we cannot get this commission delivered quicker than this timetable.

During Taoiseach's questions yesterday, I said to the Taoiseach that democracies across the world are struggling to deal with the problem of fake news spread by social media, often by anonymous third parties. Last weekend, the actor and comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen, accused the Silicon six, the big six social media companies, of spreading "hate, conspiracies and lies" by facilitating this material online. Specifically, he said that the Silicon six determine much of the information that the world sees and collectively amount to "the greatest propaganda machine in history". When we reflect upon that, it is a reflection of truth. He said that this is resulting in a type of "ideological imperialism" where "unelected" companies "were imposing their vision on the rest of the world", unaccountable to any government, and outside of the reach of most law.

I said to the Taoiseach yesterday that we have to defend our democracy. Our democracy is not for sale. We must have strong regulation of not only what goes on the Internet but also of political campaigning and advertising. We need to urgently update our laws to ensure that money spent on clear and obvious lies and disinformation can be counteracted and not allowed to contaminate our elections, as they manifestly have influenced elections in other jurisdictions in recent times. When I asked the Taoiseach about this yesterday, he seemed to be unconcerned whether the necessary law would pass before next year's general election. I believe it is of vital importance that we collectively regulate in this area because once an election is in process, it is too late to try to regulate or control an external influence on our democratic system. Has the Taoiseach had time since yesterday to reflect on this matter? Will he work with us, collectively, to have laws in place before the next general election?

It will soon be three years since Deputy James Lawless published Fianna Fáil's Bill to introduce transparency and protections for the public in respect of political advertising. The handling of this issue has become a classic case of how the Government is failing to address important public issues. The initial response from the Taoiseach and his party was to reject the idea that something should be done. When the Dáil passed the legislation anyway, the Government worked to block it and set up its own internal group to consider it in December 2017.

In spite of many media briefings claiming action is under way, the latest progress report shows that not a single recommendation made by the internal Government committee has been fully implemented. In fact, it is much worse than that. The Cabinet blocked the Fianna Fáil Bill because it said the definitions in it were unusable while the interdepartmental group on protecting our electoral process has now said Fianna Fáil's definition should be used in Government legislation. The problem, of course, is that the legislation has been delayed so much that it cannot be in place before the next general election.

There are two things at stake. The first is the right of the people to know who is spending money to influence their vote. No one is proposing to limit legitimate speech but transparency is essential. Second, there is an urgent need to protect the limits on donations and spending that are a core part of legitimate democratic competition.

Given that the Government has accepted it will not produce legislation on time, should we not now agree at least to proceed with Deputy Lawless's legislation? The Government has produced a policy outline and accepted key definitions. The legislation is ready for amendment on Committee Stage. It could become law early next year with Government support and, indeed, amendments. Where there is a will, there is a way. Deputy Lawless's Bill is the basis of ensuring that, in the next session, after Christmas, legislation could be passed and commenced in advance of the next general election.

The drafting of the general scheme of an electoral commission Bill is under way in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Its completion is anticipated by the end of 2019. It is also anticipated that the electoral commission Bill will be published in mid-2020, with the enactment of the legislation and the establishment of the commission following thereafter.

That will not be in the term of this Dáil.

To my knowledge, no Opposition party has taken the initiative and put forward its own electoral commission Bill despite ample opportunity to do so. We are happy, however, to work with the Opposition-----

That is not fair.

It is also true.

What is the Taoiseach's point?

We are happy to work with the Opposition on this if it can present legislation that is up to standard and sound. The electoral commission's establishment is guided by several recent reports and public consultations. These include the 2016 report of the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and Gaeltacht on the consultation on the proposed electoral commission and the regulatory impact assessment and public consultation concerning the establishment of an electoral commission that were completed by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government earlier this year. Submissions received as part of this consultation expressed broad support for the establishment of an electoral commission on a statutory basis and initial assignment of a limited number of functions with a view to assigning functions over time.

While the statutory functions for the initial transfer to the electoral commission have not yet been finalised, proposed functions for the initial transfer include responsibility for the register of political parties, responsibility for the reviews of the national and European electoral boundaries, currently conducted by the Constituency Commission, and responsibility for the consideration of local area boundaries, which are currently reviewed by the local area boundary committees. It is also intended that the electoral commission will include a new research and advisory function to inform the Government and Oireachtas in their consideration of electoral law reform.

The Government is very conscious of the discrepancy that now exists between print broadcast media and online platforms when it comes to political advertising. There is an obvious gap in safeguarding the electoral process from online disinformation as the area is entirely devoid of regulation. The current proposal to regulate for transparency in online political advertising would make provision in legislation to mitigate this gap. The regulation of political advertising in broadcasting media is part of a wider regulatory framework for advertising. Advertising in the print media is subject to a self-regulation code of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland but political advertising is not within the scope of this code. It is our view that overhauling the regulatory provisions across all platforms is therefore a more significant task, requiring a comprehensive review by the electoral commission when established, in consultation with the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

In the meantime, as a priority, it is intended to press ahead with legislation to cover online advertising owing to the absence of regulation in this area. A general scheme will be prepared for quarter 2 of 2020 in line with the Government decision of 5 November 2019. The general scheme will be prepared in consultation with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and other members of the interdepartmental group, as appropriate.

Why does the Government not want to do it before the general election? There seems to be a studied approach to avoid having the legislation in place for the general election.

I certainly do want it, if it is possible in the timeframe.

The Taoiseach just said he has no intention of having it.

That is not what I said.

That is what the response states in reality. Maybe Fine Gael has its own plans for spending on the platform in question. I do not know.

Conspiracy theories again.

No. There is no reason the Government could not deal with transparency before the next general election.

Supports to Former Taoisigh

Richard Boyd Barrett


6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the decisions his office recently made with regard to allowances or services available to former taoisigh. [47380/19]

Brendan Howlin


7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the supports provided by his Department to former taoisigh. [48730/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 together.

The provision of assistance to former taoisigh ceased in March 2012 following a decision by the then Government. I have since approved the provision of some services by my Department to former taoisigh to assist them in carrying out work associated with their former role that continues after their period in office has ceased. The services currently available on request to former taoisigh from 2019 include access to briefing material on the Government's policy position on matters of public debate; assistance, when required, from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the use of private facilities at Dublin Airport when travelling abroad to carry out work associated with their former role; and the invoiced cost of secretarial assistance to assist them to carry out work associated with their former role, excluding any associated office costs. The provision of secretarial assistance is linked to willingness to assist the Government if requested in the future, and secretarial assistants may not engage in constituency work or party political work. Former taoisigh have been asked to assist with the UN Security Council campaign, Brexit and EU affairs, and Northern Ireland issues. Services also include the provision of transport to a limited number of events associated with the former role of former taoisigh, including official State functions.

It is entirely a matter for each former Taoiseach as to whether he wishes to avail of any of the services available to him, now or in the future.

The staggeringly high and generous pension entitlements of former taoisigh and Ministers stick in the craw of people in a major way. I refer in particular to those elected to Dáil Éireann under the regime before 2012, because there were changes made in 2011 and 2012 owing to austerity measures. It is quite extraordinary that the Taoiseach would add to this by granting very significant amounts of money to former taoisigh, in addition to the pensions, for secretarial support. What possible justification is there for reinstating the supports? Does the Taoiseach not believe the former officeholders are already in receipt of extremely generous pension packages? Hundreds of thousands of euro have been given to the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in secretarial support. I just do not see how the current Taoiseach could possibly justify that. It really sticks in the craw of people who are struggling to pay bills, mortgages and rent that excessively generous pensions are topped up with hundreds of thousands of euro in secretarial assistance and VIP treatment at airports. It is just not acceptable.

In general terms, I do not have an objection to the supports being given to former senior officeholders. If I have a complaint in that regard, it is that we do not utilise former taoisigh, tánaistí and other such officeholders in a way that other countries do to promote themselves. The Taoiseach said former taoisigh have been involved in campaigning for our seat on the UN Security Council. That is a good idea. There are other roles former officeholders can play, not as active politicians but as experienced former politicians, particularly in their family groupings within the European Union. I have no difficulty with any of that. All the supports given to anybody from the public purse should be transparent. That was always the way it was.

Up to 2016 a detailed breakdown of what everybody earned, including former taoisigh, in terms of pension, allowances or any supports was routinely published by the Department of Finance. The Government decided to end the practice in 2017, citing the right to privacy outweighing the right of public interest. The entire thrust of public policy for the past two decades and more has been for openness and accountability for every cent of expenditure that falls to the taxpayer. I do not understand why that would not be completely transparent. Public scrutiny, transparency and maintenance of standards are something we expect when it comes to the public domain. If there is a continuance of payments to anybody, that should be a matter of public knowledge. Will the Taoiseach restore the automatic full disclosure of all issues concerning anybody who is getting emoluments or funding of any description from the public purse? It may be completely and entirely justifiable in every instance, but we need to know. Otherwise, there is a feeling that undermines public confidence in the transparent expenditure of public funds.

It is the near universal practice in democratic states that former Heads of State and Heads of Government receive continued support and protection after leaving office. That reflects the fact that they continue to be a potential focus for people who might want to cause harm. They also have ongoing calls from the public both here and internationally. They do not suddenly disappear from public life when they leave office.

I thought the decision of the previous Government to withdraw nearly all support without notice in 2011 was both unfair and damaging, in particular to the late former Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, and to the late former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, who at an advanced stage had to make alternative arrangements almost overnight. Given that both held the office of Taoiseach at times when paramilitaries were actively seeking to undermine the State, there had always been an acceptance that basic, ongoing security was reasonable. People might forget, but they were quite dangerous times when one needed a bulwark for democracy to stand up to those who were clearly intent on undermining the authority of the State and very tough and hard decisions had to be made by officeholders.

Instead of making up policy on the run, does the Taoiseach not think it would be better to undertake a process of looking at international practice and then setting up our policy accordingly? In particular, some form of review of the ongoing public contacts and engagements of former Presidents and taoisigh should be undertaken. For example, I am struck by the work of former President Mary Robinson in terms of climate change, which I think reflects very well on this country. Given that we are an outward looking country, we are global and internationalist, the fact that we have former officeholders who can participate on fora all over Europe and globally on international issues concerning security, climate change, energy and a range of other political issues is advantageous to the country and it is something we should support not undermine.

I have one caveat to make. I note that in his reply the Taoiseach said the secretarial allowance is dependent on a willingness to assist the Government. That is a danger in that former officeholders cannot become appendages of the Government. I do not say all of them would anyway, but they must be allowed independence of thought and mind and if they disagree with the Government line on Northern Ireland, for example, or on other issues, that should not be a basis for not giving a secretarial allowance to assist with their work. By and large, I favour the utilisation of former Presidents and taoisigh on international fora in particular, which can help influence matters to a certain extent to the benefit of the country. We should not always seek to undermine politicians. There is a great tendency to do that in public debate. It is the easiest thing in the world just to have a go, but politicians do some good work too. Democracy is in retreat, big time. One only has to look at the geopolitical state of the world to see that. It is evident even in Europe when one looks at what is going on in Hungary and in Poland, not to mention other places.

I agree to a certain extent with all speakers. We are all aware that democracy has a cost attached to it. It is not for free and it must be paid for and looked after. People deserve to get a remuneration reflective of what is required for them to live their lives normally. Dr. Garret FitzGerald was mentioned. I remember being with him in Glencree when the peace negotiations and discussions were ongoing. He was a vital participant. He had a particular perspective with which I did not always agree but he was part of the process. Many others who had previous political involvement played a role at that time and since then, which is vital and it must be appreciated, recognised and acknowledged. However, we also have the other side of that. For example, the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, receives a pension of more than €135,000 a year. Most people out there who are struggling in their lives feel that is hugely excessive and we must acknowledge that also.

Tens of thousands of families remember the austerity years and the Government which presided over the mismanagement of the economy and it jars with them that they had to endure such problems and their children had to emigrate and yet they see senior people from that time getting very handsome remuneration in the form of a pension etc. It also jars with them that post-2012 many senior civil servants were given golden handshakes and large lump sums to retire and then they were re-employed, sometimes even within the Civil Service. There are many things with which we all have huge problems. My colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, recently discovered in a freedom of information request that the former Minister, Ray Burke, received €48,850 in a pension this year while the same man went to prison for tax evasion and corruption. The public have a problem with large sums of money going to politicians they perceive as people who did not do everything in the best interests of the public. That is something that needs to be acknowledged and on which we need to work. Is there any action the Taoiseach could take to restrict some of that and to rein it in to some extent? If he were to do so, it would be extremely popular with the vast majority of ordinary people who are struggling to manage on a day-to-day basis.

I thank Deputies for their questions and contributions. Former taoisigh and presidents have an ongoing role. It was mentioned that such an ongoing role can be beneficial to the country. The former President, Mary Robinson, was mentioned, for example, for her role in climate action and climate change. That is not just good for the world, it also reflects well on the country and we should be cognisant of that. It makes sense that if we have former officeholders - former taoisigh and presidents - we should ask them to assist the country. They are people who are generally held in good standing internationally, who have good contacts, who know things and have great experience. We should see them as an asset to the country, not to the Government, if they are willing to continue to do things for the country. I should point out that they are also members of the Council of State for life so they do have a formal role under the Constitution. Being a retired Taoiseach is not a formal role but being a member of the Council of State is. Former officeholders continue to receive a significant amount of correspondence, media queries relating to their work, queries from historians and even queries from inquiries. They receive a huge amount of correspondence and queries, even unwanted correspondence and queries. They have been asked to assist in our UN work, in particular in the campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council and on European issues such as Brexit, to explain our case and issues in fora around the world and also, on occasion, in Northern Ireland.

The former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has a role in monitoring the referendum in Papua New Guinea. It is a really important role and we should be supportive of him in that. I had a very brief phone call with the new Prime Minister of Australia and one of the first things he mentioned to me is that our former Taoiseach is involved in the referendum in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.

It was not something I brought up. It was something the Australian Prime Minister was aware of and volunteered. That just gives an example of the benefit of that sort of soft power of having our citizens around the world doing this kind of work. The former Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, has a role with the EU around human rights which has been very effective. While it is an EU role, the fact it is being done by an Irish person reflects well on us. Everyone will be familiar with the ongoing engagement of the former Taoiseach, John Bruton, in European affairs and US relations, given his role as EU ambassador to the US in the past.

I know there was mention of large amounts of money and hundreds of thousands of euro. I would say once again that the secretarial assistance is vouched and the total cost of this scheme so far this year has been €21,190 for all officeholders combined. The previous scheme, which was abolished in 2012, cost about €168,000 to €183,000 a year. It really is very modest compared to what was there before. All four former taoisigh were contacted to make them aware of the assistance available, the rules and specifically that any work had to be associated with their former role. The decision to avail of supports is entirely at the discretion of each individual and they are under no obligation to make use of it. So far, only one former Taoiseach has elected to recruit a secretarial assistant and the same individual has made one request for detailed briefing material on Brexit.

I take Deputy Howlin's point on transparency and I am absolutely willing to be as transparent as we possibly can but the general data protection regulation, GDPR, did actually change things. Our privacy laws in Ireland are different from what they were a few years ago. While it was possible in the past to disclose, for example, how much every individual officeholder got in terms of his or her pension and so on, under the GDPR there are new privacy rights that apply to every citizen. It is no longer possible for a Government to disclose what any individual public servant gets paid in terms of their pension or salary. We could remove that for everyone or no one but that previous system where it was transparent for some and not others no longer applies. The GDPR has changed that.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Joan Burton


8. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagement with the DUP. [47391/19]

Brendan Howlin


9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent engagement with the DUP. [48731/19]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 9 together.

I last met DUP leader Arlene Foster at the annual Remembrance Day ceremonies in Enniskillen on Sunday, 10 November, when we both participated in the laying of wreaths at the cenotaph and attended a remembrance service in St. Macartin's Cathedral. We also exchanged messages yesterday. In terms of Enniskillen, it was my second year to attend and the eighth year in a row that the Irish Government has been represented at Remembrance Day ceremonies to remember the men and women from the island of Ireland who died in past conflicts and to remember those who lost their lives in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987.

My most recent engagement prior to that was a meeting with the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, in Government Buildings on 18 September where we discussed issues relating to Brexit and ongoing efforts between the two Governments to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

I want to raise two matters with the Taoiseach. In respect of his ongoing contact with the DUP, I have discerned and maybe others in the House will have noticed a significant shift in the view of the DUP on the whole Brexit issue. It was a campaigning party in favour of Brexit and in fact was a conduit of a lot of money into England in support of Brexit. I think the reality of Brexit is a different proposition for its members. Certainly the presentation of their position, although I do not want to misrepresent them, that I discern in the general election campaign now under way is that in certain circumstances, they might favour a second referendum because the various forms of Brexit negotiated and the difficulties for the island of Ireland in any form of Brexit have dawned on people. Has that been explored in any way with the DUP by the Taoiseach and his officials?

Second, I want to return very briefly to the debate we had yesterday on advance preparation for future constitutional arrangements on this island. It was a useful start for a discussion. The Taoiseach made a very valid point when he said that he did not want to have a forum in which 1 million unionists would not involve themselves and which in effect then would be simply a pan-nationalist forum. I think most of us would agree with that but it is not the point. We need to start to begin to think of what the future might bring in terms of a future constitutional arrangement and begin to see what sort of forum would allow people in some shape or form to be included in that discussion, including the unionist community. That is what we need to do. The notion that it is too difficult or we will not get people now or that it is not the right time will mean we will postpone the beginnings of shaping a dialogue until we are faced with an issue like the Brexit vote itself. We will not have thought out the consequences of a democratic decision and I would like to have years of conditioning and preparation for this, for all of us to see what it means for us. In the context of the suggestions I made yesterday, I hope the Taoiseach would think this through, perhaps over the Christmas period, and have scoping exercises with the democratic parties in this Dáil as a beginning basis for a broader discussion on the future.

The breakdown of key relationships has been central to the ongoing crisis in North-South relations in recent years. I am sure the Taoiseach would agree that his statement last year that his relationship with the DUP was fine because he had Arlene Foster's mobile number was not really a reflection of reality. When the DUP went off with the European Research Group, ERG, Tories in their Brexit fantasies, it was never going to end well for them. However, the entire point of the peace settlement is that the betrayal of the DUP by the Tory fundamentalists is not something in which we can rejoice. What we are left with is the need to pick up the pieces of a badly damaged relationship. The peace settlement cannot work without cross-community and cross-government co-operation. The failure to show urgency on this in the past three years has done real damage. Should the withdrawal treaty be ratified, and all indications are that it will be, we need to move quickly to demonstrate our goodwill and the fact that we are sincere in saying that the special economic arrangements for Northern Ireland are not a threat to the constitutional rights embedded in the agreement.

In the last two weeks, all parties and governments have said they will engage in trying to re-establish the assembly and the Executive. We need something concrete in terms of a new process and new dynamics in the discussions or we will end up back with the two largest parties jockeying for who can declare victory over the other. What actions are proposed to build cross-community confidence in the new economic status of Northern Ireland? What specific efforts are proposed to get the democratic institutions restored before the need for yet another assembly election arises?

I would reiterate what I said yesterday in terms of what Deputy Howlin and others have said. I find it extraordinary that there is a framework there but it is deliberately not being used. The framework was deliberately collapsed. Everybody wants to go off again and have another discussion for the next ten years. A lot of people want people to work the institutions. If people are elected, they are expected to take their seats in the assembly or Executive and work for the benefit of the people. It is an extraordinary failure and an indictment of Sinn Féin initially, as it collapsed the assembly and the Executive, and of the DUP, which should have worked with Sinn Féin to restore it. Sinn Féin took a premeditated decision on the renewable heat incentive, RHI, scandal. We now learn from the inquiry that Sinn Féin was slow to close it down because unelected officials said the Minister for Finance in the North had to bow to them, to unelected officials within Sinn Féin. The emails are there. He sends emails to them. An Executive and an assembly is collapsed. If there is a scandal in the Republic we do not collapse the Dáil. We do not collapse the Government. We have an inquiry and try to get to the bottom of it. That is what should have happened. At a time when there was a huge threat economically to Northern Ireland I find it just incomprehensible that people could still try to justify not having an assembly and an Executive. Before we go anywhere else, will people in the North for God's sake demonstrate that they can work the institutions that are constitutionally there to be worked? That is a basic prerequisite for anything.

I want to give the Taoiseach time to respond but I will allow Deputy Martin Kenny.

The difference between the DUP leadership in place now and the one that was in place when the assembly was working well is that everyone saw, and we have seen around the world people looking on in awe at, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness working so well together and being able to find an accommodation despite being people who had held totally opposite positions. They were able to come together and find a way forward because there was a genuine commitment to make that happen. That is the difficulty we have at the moment. When I go to the North to canvass and I speak to people on doorsteps, they all recognise that the DUP's problem is that if the assembly was up and running, the conversation practically every day would be about Brexit and the party is on the wrong side of that. The party's representatives are quite content, in one way, to ensure that they have that discussion in Westminster rather than having an actual assembly in place that is talking about it.

There is a commitment, and Sinn Féin is determined, to ensure that the assembly is put back up and running, but on a basis of equality, social justice, working together and that it is power sharing rather than power dividing. That is what it had become, and that is the difficulty that we have.

Both parties told me that they were working fine together a month before it collapsed.

There is no time for these interruptions, Deputy.

Deputy Martin's interest in the North, unfortunately, does not extend to running candidates there. We will have to come back to the reality, which is that the people in the Six Counties decide who they will elect, and then we have to work out a solution. Sinn Féin is very clear on this. I know that Michelle O'Neill met the Tánaiste and Taoiseach yesterday and expressed the urgency that is required to conclude the talks and to restore the assembly in the coming weeks, if that is at all possible.

The point made by Deputy Howlin is also very valid, and the discussion yesterday was useful, which is that we need to be looking to where the future is on this island. Everyone I talk to and meet says that Brexit has brought home to them the absurdity of a border in Ireland. They ask what we are going to do about that and how we can be inclusive in bringing this forward.

The Taoiseach is quite correct. We do not want to have a conversation that excludes people who have a unionist or British identity. We want to have a conversation that includes them and assures them that their future is also with all of us on this island. To do that, we have to work the institutions but we also have a responsibility here. The Ireland's Future initiative is probably the start of something whereby, if we all work together on it and try to bring as many people as possible with us, we can come to a situation in the coming year, and certainly in the coming decade, such that it can be a decade about making change happen in an agreed and inclusive way. To do that, there is a responsibility, and the Citizens' Assembly idea or some similar idea is something that needs to be worked. We should all collectively in this House try to do that rather than trying to score political points off each other as to who did or said what and where. We need to work together.

Bearing in mind that we have only four minutes left, I will be very sharp on time to enable the Taoiseach to answer. I call Deputy Boyd Barrett to speak now.

The Brexit crisis has shown the problem and irrationality of a border. It has exposed a fissure that has always existed within unionism between an ideological commitment to being part of Britain and economic self-interest, which has now been exposed in a way, frankly, that is favourable to the project of uniting this island and getting rid of the Border. We need to explore it, but this is where I strongly disagree with Deputy Micheál Martin. We have elected representatives in the North, and as much as everyone welcomes the peace in the North as an alternative to sectarian warfare, the fact is that the political structures within the Northern Ireland Assembly institutionalise sectarianism. It means that very important issues like corruption on a scale of hundreds of millions in the renewable heat incentive, RHI, scandal will only be debated through the prism of sectarian politics, where on a sectarian basis one camp can stop and essentially veto effective action to deal with something like corruption.

If we want to look at a country that we can learn something from, we should look at Lebanon. The political structures set up in the 1920s were almost exactly the same as the political structures that were set up in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was institutionalised sectarianism based upon sectarian quotas, which did not work out very well for Lebanon.

The fact is they are now-----

It is a very good comparison and look what has begun to break through it in a very surprising way. Look at all the big protests in Lebanon now where young people have come out together over taxes being imposed on WhatsApp messages, breaking down all of the sectarian divisions. That is not an exact analogy, but LGBT rights, women's rights, the right to choose, and common economic and social issues are the ways in which we can begin to challenge the sectarian divide, the Border, and the green and orange politics in a way that can actually begin to further the struggle for a united Ireland.

I thank the Deputies for their questions and remarks. Deputy Howlin mentioned that he detected a significant shift in DUP policy on Brexit. I am not entirely sure if that it is the case. I watched "Newsnight" last night, which was broadcast from Belfast. I think many people did, and maybe they detected subtleties that I missed. Listening to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, he very much made the case that the DUP is for Brexit, is opposed to the withdrawal agreement, and would not support a Corbyn-led government, although it would consider its options if Corbyn was removed as leader of the Labour Party. We are very much in an election phase. The election is happening on 12 December in United Kingdom and also in Northern Ireland. I look forward to resuming talks with all of the parties in Northern Ireland next month.

Deputy Martin is correct to say that the special economic arrangement that is envisaged for Northern Ireland under the withdrawal agreement is not a threat to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and certainly is not intended to be. That is guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement and can only be changed if there is a referendum in Northern Ireland that seeks to change it.

On the Stormont institutions, we have an ongoing engagement with the UK Government, even during this election phase. Number 10 is in touch with Government Buildings, and the Taoiseach is in touch with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I hope there is an opportunity between the elections for Westminster - we will have the results of those on 13 and 14 December - and the deadline of 13 January for Stormont to be re-established, during the Christmas and New Year period, for the two Governments and all of the parties to work closely together to achieve what is our shared, collective, stated objective, which is to re-establish the institutions in Stormont and to strengthen negotiations and relations between Britain and Ireland. It is an election phase and that work is best done when we know the results of the UK elections.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.08 p.m. and resumed at 3.10 p.m.