Engagement with European Ombudsman

I welcome the European Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly. I always wonder why the office is not called "ombudsperson". It should be changed. I find it uncomfortable, like "chairman". Maybe it is something else Ms O'Reilly might achieve before the end of her term.

The committee had the opportunity to meet her this time last year in Brussels and it was a very rewarding engagement. The committee is interested in the work she has been doing on transparency and in particular a case that she opened on transparency in the Council of the European Union, which examines the legislative process. Separately, the Dutch Parliament has also been considering transparency. This committee is considering it as well. Only yesterday, Ms O'Reilly made recommendations following almost a year of work with inquiry and public consultation. The published recommendations were circulated to all members of the committee yesterday but they may not have had a chance to read them in detail. The timing of today's engagement is very helpful.

Most of our engagement today will focus on transparency in the Council but if Ms O'Reilly has the time, the committee will also be interested in other areas of her work. When the committee was in Brussels the Brexit negotiations were at an early stage and, considering how important they are for citizens, she strongly advocated for transparency.

Her work has never been so vital as it is with the negotiations that are under way at present. We are delighted that, as an Irish person, Ms O'Reilly holds that position. I was there when you were campaigning and successfully won the election. It is one of the few prestigious positions in the European Union to which a person is elected by the Parliament, not appointed. It is a great achievement for you and for Ireland.

Before we begin, I must remind everybody of the rules on privilege. You are all aware of them but for legal purposes it is necessary to read them out. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Ms O'Reilly will be aware of all this so it was probably unnecessary. I invite her to begin.

Ms Emily O'Reilly

I thank you, Vice Chairman, and the members for the warm welcome. I am pleased to be in Leinster House again and to have the opportunity to address members on an issue that goes to the heart of the current challenges facing the EU, which the members have been discussing with the MEPs. I am aware that the committee has invested a considerable amount of time over the past year to hearing from experts and assessing the current deliberations on the future of Europe. While they may not feature on the list of more high-profile institutional reforms currently under discussion, it would be a mistake not to consider democratic accountability and transparency reforms as priorities as we seek to respond to the current public uncertainty about the EU.

Laws that affect people’s daily lives should be drawn up in a manner that is as transparent as possible. This is essential for enabling meaningful public scrutiny of, and thus accountability for, those laws. More transparent lawmaking is central to the democratic legitimacy of our institutions and, at a more fundamental level, to responding to the current crisis of public confidence in democratic institutions whether at EU level or in the member states. Overall, despite what some may assume, the EU administration has higher ethical and transparency standards than the administrations of most member states. For example, very few member states have a lobbyist register as the EU does, Ireland being a commendable exception. Few national Ministers in Europe publish details of their travel expenses, as the European Commission has just recently agreed to do. The Commission and important EU agencies such as the European Medicines Agency have also made commendable strides in recent years in opening up their processes and practices to public scrutiny. Matters of great public interest, such as EU trade deals and the results of clinical trials on medicines, are now much more transparent than they were previously. As I have frequently said, the world has not stopped turning as a result.

That said, it is clear that the Council of the EU, where the national governments are represented, is not a star pupil among the institutions when it comes to transparency and accounting for its decisions. Given its crucial role in the EU’s lawmaking process, I believe this must be addressed. That is what motivated my decision to launch a strategic inquiry last year into the transparency and accountability of the Council. On the basis of that inquiry, this week I issued a series of recommendations.

When the Council formally adopts EU laws, meetings and discussions of the Ministers on the draft laws are public. However, before the Council reaches a formal position, preparatory discussions will have taken place in some of the more than 150 committees and working parties in the Council. It is at this level that not only do the nuts and bolts of the legislative work take place but it is also where legislative decisions are occasionally made. Most of the changes to draft laws are proposed and compromises between member states are sought at this stage, before Ministers adopt a final position. Unlike Council meetings, these preparatory bodies of ambassadors and civil servants do not meet in public. As such, the only way to follow their discussions on legislation is through whatever records exist of those discussions. This requires, first, that legislative discussions in preparatory bodies be documented and, second, that such documents are accessible in an easy and timely manner. Both of these factors are essential for facilitating public scrutiny of the legislative work in these bodies.

The national representatives who sit on these Council bodies are democratically accountable to the national parliaments and to citizens of their member states, in theory. However, in order for the public to be able to hold governments to account for the decisions they make on EU laws, they need to know how their governments positioned themselves in the legislative process. This crucial piece of the process is currently generally lacking. As part of my inquiry, we carried out a public consultation last year. This consultation yielded some highly relevant responses, including from the Dutch and UK Parliaments, that have helped fine-tune the outstanding issues. On the basis of this, I have made a series of recommendations and suggestions to the Council.

The Council secretariat is clearly aware of its deficiencies in this area and has certainly made some welcome progress, not least by introducing a new internal recording system in November 2016. While this is an internal register, the existence of such a system should help provide a greater incentive comprehensively to record and document all legislative discussions in the preparatory bodies. At present, it appears there is no uniform approach to reporting and documenting the legislative discussions in the preparatory bodies. The Council also takes a selective approach to how it discloses the documents that do exist. My recommendations and suggestions to the Council seek to ensure these issues are addressed.

Much of this can seem rather abstract or removed from the stuff of daily political life. However, all of us are aware of the practice by which member state governments sometimes criticise decisions taken in Brussels to their domestic audience when, very often, during the legislative process in Brussels they had supported or shaped the very decision they then criticise. Systematically recording the identity of member states expressing positions in the preparatory bodies, and proactively disclosing these records, would go some way to addressing this problem. I am aware of the challenges this may pose when the diplomatic impulse is towards arriving at a consensus with the minimum of fuss but the price of that may be to continue to feed an inaccurate view of how EU lawmaking is actually carried out, and to allow some member state governments to continue to perpetuate the stigmatisation of the so-called faceless Brussels bureaucrat. My hope is that, by addressing the opaque nature of lawmaking in the Council, my inquiry will help to encourage all EU governments to defend democratically decided EU legislation in the public interest in the future. As a result, I hope the Council responds positively to the recommendations I set out this week.

Before I conclude, I wish to mention two other pieces of work in which my office is currently engaged. Brexit is a huge issue for this country and for the EU more widely. Early last year, I wrote to both the European Commission and the Council of the EU encouraging them to be as transparent as possible in the Brexit negotiations. It is important that citizens and national parliaments can follow this crucial process which will affect the lives of millions, especially on this island. Thankfully, the EU has adopted a progressive stance to publishing all important documents during the negotiations, including the EU guidelines, negotiating directives and position papers. Unfortunately, the UK side has not been seen to be as transparent.

Also recently, following a year-long inquiry based on a complaint from Denmark, I made a recommendation to the European Central Bank, ECB, about its involvement with the Washington DC-based so-called Group of Thirty. Mario Draghi, President of the ECB, is a member of this group, which is a private group of 30 senior bankers, public officials and academics. It holds two private meetings per year and includes representatives of some global banks which the ECB supervises as part of its banking supervision mandate. My main recommendation was that the President, Mr. Draghi, suspend his membership of this group until he leaves office, in order to protect the ECB from any perception that its independence could be compromised.

I also recommended that no future executive board members become members of the Group of 30. I expect the response of the ECB in April.

Finally, I thank the committee for its support in my role as European Ombudsman and also the Irish MEPs who have been consistently supportive of my work in the European Parliament.

I thank Ms O'Reilly. I also welcome Mr. Aidan O'Sullivan who is accompanying Ms O'Reilly to today's meeting. The Chairman, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae was here earlier but is in the Dáil now. He sends his apologies for having to leave but he had a special notice question.

I thank Ms Emily O'Reilly for coming before the meeting. I think it was last year that she met members of the committee in Brussels and was very informative about the details of her work then. I welcome her more recent recommendations which all of us will support. We live in an age of openness, transparency and accountability. I will be devil's advocate for a moment. Through the years, European or even UK diplomacy involved wheeling and dealing and smoke-filled rooms, quiet diplomacy. Is Ms O'Reilly satisfied that as we move to this more open and transparent system that it will not hinder the objective of getting an outcome in terms of a deal or solution? It is mostly a philosophical question. I support the work that Ms O'Reilly does and the objectives she has outlined but will it hinder the Council's work in any way?

Another question which is not entirely related to Ms O'Reilly's work is a general issue in which she will be interested, namely the rise of illiberal tendencies in the European Union, in countries such as Poland, Hungary and so on, in terms of the freedom of the press, the appointment of judges and so forth. There are threats to European values and democratic norms. Is Ms O'Reilly concerned about that or does she feel that the EU can deal with that through its rules, mechanisms and so forth? In the course of her own experience, has Ms O'Reilly noticed a rise of such illiberal tendencies among the people she mixes with in Brussels, for instance? Is it something that we should be concerned about?

I thank Ms O'Reilly for her very interesting presentation. She is doing important work. She is critical of the Council, probably rightly. How has she found the Commission and other bodies? Which of them occupy more of her time or which are slightly more difficult to deal with? Is there a culture of cover-up, although I hesitate to use that term? They do not wish to release information. Perhaps it is natural or is human nature when certain select bodies get together, especially Mario Draghi has not formally reacted yet but I would be very interested to know if Ms O'Reilly has had any feedback on that recommendation.

I welcome the Ombudsman and thank her for her presentation.

I agree that transparency is hugely important. If one is dealing with colleagues on an international or European level, it is always good to know their hidden thoughts, and whether the views they express in one particular arena are the same as those they have expressed secretly or might be influencing things in a different direction at home. I am particularly interested in the European Medicines Agency. We have had some grief over the cost of medicines. I have complained for a long time that Ireland does not seem able to avail of the benefits of a 500 million-people market in relation to the cost of medicines, particularly in relation to trial medicines, new discoveries, orphan medicines, all of which has caused severe problems whereby the manufacturers sell the medicines at an agreed price until they become accepted and established when they then change the pricing structure. In recent days, the Minister has made arrangements with some of the smaller countries in the EU in an effort to bring about some improvement in the area.

It is very important for us in Ireland, but it is equally important for every country in the EU. Every state in the EU, big or small, there is no difference, is entitled to be able to buy their medicines at a price that reflects the type of market in which we live. After all, if we were not members of the EU, presumably we would not get medicine at all or we would do so at only a particular pricing structure. There is still a tendency to do that. I strongly support Ms O'Reilly's activities in that area and hope there will be more of it. A huge benefit accrues to all member states across the EU from achieving a result where medicines are priced within an acceptable range.

I wish Ms O'Sullivan well in the area of Brexit. In the matter of transparency, Ms O'Sullivan will have to get into what people have in their minds as well as their documents and their policies. I know that she is well capable of doing that. Any good ombudsman or journalist knows that it is crucially important in current circumstances to know where the other side is coming from in the negotiations that are now taking place. It is not on this meeting's agenda, but there has been considerable discussion about tax justice recently and the 12.5% corporation tax. Very powerful people in Europe with powerful associations have concluded that it must be dismantled or else we must collect taxes on profits earned in other jurisdictions, some of which are in Europe. I strongly oppose that. It has the potential to do us considerable damage. Last week, an international aid organisation was opining on this along side a major, multi-billion dollar international investment house. I do not know what the association is between the two, it is somewhere in the back of my mind that they appeared to complement each other in their goal of destroying what is seen as being an advantage to Ireland. Incidentally, I am in favour of equality of taxation, I have no difficulty whatever with that, where I do have difficulty is if it comes in under a guise of something else, which is to discourage foreign direct investment in this particular country.

I appreciate the opportunity to engage with Ms O'Reilly this afternoon. I am also delighted to welcome my old sparring partner Mr. Aidan O'Sullivan to the committee.

My colleagues have already mentioned Brexit so I will step away from the issue, for once, but I commend Ms O'Reilly on her efforts to ensure that the European side is as transparent as possible. It is an issue that she has raised with us in Brussels long before the negotiations. It has been heartening to see it rolled out. I wish that the UK side was as transparent, perhaps among each other as well as with the European side.

I want to raise three areas. The first may link into the future of Europe, but generally feeds into the post-Brexit scenario, with trade negotiations and discussions. I was an outspoken supporter of both TTIP and CETA, which I felt were both great trade deals. I think CETA will be excellent for the European Union. One of the main reasons TTIP stalled, apart from the change in the political direction of the United States, was the mass opposition which was bred by the idea that it was being done in secret. When I had the trade portfolio in the EU committee of the regions, I looked at the TTIP negotiation documents. I went to a basement in the Berlaymont and had to surrender my mobile phone. I was writing a report on that from the EU side. It set a really bad tone for a process that I thought was very worthwhile. CETA was exactly the same. The opposition lobby pushed those arguments. If we are looking at new trade deals with Malaysia, Vietnam, Australasia, Mercosur is particularly important for this island, I hope that the ombudsman's office is beefed up and is allowed to play the role that it is there to do.

I really have high hopes for the Office of the European Ombudsman.

An area I would like to discuss is the issue of lobbying. I have taken a major interest in the lobbyist register and other measures we have taken in the State. I wonder if there is scope for an EU-wide lobbying register, so that it is not left to the individual member state. I will be frank, many of my friends are lobbyists. When one works in politics, lobbying is an industry that one ends up going into. Who knows, someday I could be forced into it, depending on the will of the people of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown? If an Irish MEP is being lobbied in Brussels by a third party from another member state, there is huge confusion on where responsibility for that lies. Is that lobbying in Belgium, or is it lobbying in Ireland or is it lobbying by a third party lobbyist? There is a lack of clarity and there are too many discrepancies between the member states to allow it be efficient. Is there a way to simplify it? I know I possibly may be opening a can of worms. Brussels, as a city, just short of Washington has the highest number of lobbyists in the world. It is a difficult area but in order for politics to continue in the best way possible we need the highest level of transparency in our lobbyists. It should not be a black mark for an individual to say I am lobbyist. One does not know what an individual lobbying for. The vast majority of lobbyists are doing it in a very benevolent manner and they are trying to aid the legislative process. More rules and a clearer process makes it easier not just for the lobbyists but in our parlance, the designated public officeholders and officials, such as all of us who are on this side of the room and indeed Ms O'Reilly as well.

I want to raise the issue of political funding and the role of outside bodies in the domestic affairs of individual member states. I will give two examples that are unique to Ireland, first our upcoming referendum on whether to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution, Article 40. 3. 3o. Both sides of the campaign have raised really valid concerns about outside funding coming into the campaign to support campaign groups, be they NGOs or groups that have been just set up for this campaign. I raised the matter on the floor of the Seanad in the context that I received ten separate Facebook advertisements from campaigns seeking to retain the eighth amendment, supposedly from ten separate groups, even though their imagery, language and content was identical. How do we peel that back; what is the single source for that? Where is the funding coming from? The exact same applies to those who are seeking to repeal the eighth amendment. Let me declare publicly I believe in repealing the eighth amendment. There are legitimate concerns about outside funding from the US or other EU funding of certain bodies in this country. Does the European Ombudsman have a role in that area to make sure that it is fair and transparent and that the referendum can be held with the highest level of integrity?

My second point relates to direct political funding. Last week the European grouping for Freedom and Direct Democracy held an event calling for an Irexit, a damp squib in the end. The EFDD group in the European Parliament has no Irish members. No Irish political party is a constituent member, either of their European parliamentary group or their European-wide political family. All of us on this side happen to be members of the Fine Gael Party and we are all members of the European People's Party, EPP. It states that on our membership card therefore when the EPP holds events in Ireland, such as the study days with our MEPs or any campaigning for example on the Lisbon referendum or the fiscal stability, it does so through its member party and we pay a membership fee. What distinguishes any EU political family from member state parties or groupings in the European Parliament and what rights or responsibilities do they have if they are going to act in a member state where they do not have actual constituted member parties? The only member state in which the EPP does not have a member party is the United Kingdom. Could it have launched a campaign on the referendum on Brexit and run an EPP campaign? Could we as a member of the EPP have launched a campaign on Brexit during the referendum? Could we start holding public meetings and using EU funds, which is what the EFDD has, to pursue a political agenda in another member state? I welcome debate on Ireland's future in the European Union but I question why British MEPs and European funding is going to a group that has no Irish members and being used to stimulate that debate. Is the EFDD doing so within the rules? Is it an area in which there needs to be more clarity and what role can the Office of the European Ombudsman take in that?

In the interest of balance, there are other members present who are against the repeal of the eighth amendment.

I understand that.

This is a live broadcast and as Vice Chairman I want to ensure this debate is balanced and both sides are heard.

I wanted to put the issue in context and I gave examples from both sides.

I accept that Senator Richmond. As Vice Chairman I want to bring the question of balance into the debate. I am not asking members to discuss this issue. There are other voices who are absolutely against the repeal of the eighth amendment.

Some of my points have been raised already, so I will not go over them again. I would like to tease one point out further. There is a fundamental difference between a sovereign state and a national parliament legislating in a particular way. The European Union, which is a confederation of national states, is engaging in the legislative process that it has put together. I welcome a lot of the work that the Ms O'Reilly has gone into around this because I have always advocated as a passionate pro-European that one of the most significant problems we have is the way in which national governments will consistently blame the European Union or a faceless bureaucrat in the European Commission for some piece of legislation that they do not like, whereas if it is a project that has received funding, it will be the national government's success when the funded project is completed.

What worries me - and I would be interested to learn how the European Ombudsman has looked at this - is that as much failure as there is in the process of a closed door discussion between sovereign governments trying to harmonise their position, it has by and large delivered a lot of things which have significantly benefited Europe and Ireland during our period of membership of the European Union. If we go down the path of a far more open and transparent process at that stage, has the European Ombudsman considered what the repercussions could be in terms of member states effectively taking the bit of the process that they do not want to be made public outside of that structure, having private sidebar conversations and dealing off the official agenda, so that we actually end up knowing less about what is happening? I would hope that Ireland would find it perfectly okay to operate in an open and transparent way but I have no doubt that there would be other member states where that would be very alien to their process of operating. What would worry me is that in adjusting the current process we could end up with a worse process, where more of the actual initial stages of putting together legislation take place in a completely untransparent way. Has Ms O'Reilly looked at that and how does she think some of the processes she wants to engage in will ensure that does not happen?

I am very happy to have the opportunity to welcome the European Ombudsman to this committee. Interestingly enough I was in the Seanad this morning dealing with the progress of a report called Too Old to be Elderly and the mobility allowance. I had the support of the Leas-Chathaoirleach who was chairing that session.

Deputy Seán Haughey spoke about issues in Hungary, Poland and other countries. I have a particular interest in people with disabilities of whom there are 80 million across the European Union. The experiences and expectations are very different in member states. I am familiar with this from my own work, and I know the European Ombudsman would have some sense of this from her involvement with the various European disability organisations and the European social platform. There are real concerns about the growth and the development of civil society groups, but my major issue is with the groups related to disability.

Ms O'Reilly's particular work is about ensuring that European institutions are more effective, transparent and open, as well as protecting people's fundamental rights. Will she comment on the role that civil society organisations can play in member states given the right environment? From talking to colleagues in certain member states, I know they feel quite vulnerable trying to do their advocacy work and that they are being watched critically. A strong civil society movement, where people get organised, involved and criticise their governments, is important as part of one of the bedrocks of developing a strong, cohesive and socially progressive European project.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae resumed the Chair.

Ms Emily O'Reilly

I understand the arguments presented by Deputies Haughey and Brophy about how good legislation has been done through a process which is less than transparent or, indeed, accountable at European Council level. Deputy Haughey asked would we be able to get much of this work done if everything was out there and there was not this room for a diplomatic safe space. The problem is that the current process does not match the rights in the European treaty for citizens to see how legislation has been processed. In a way, the problem is that they are using the diplomatic processes we are accustomed to in the areas of defence, foreign affairs or international relations in a legislative process.

The EU cannot have it both ways. On the one hand, it cannot decry populism, along with those who blame Brussels for everything and give a distorted view of how the EU legislates, while insisting on using a process which does not allow for full transparency or for the sort of accountability one gets in the Oireachtas or other member state parliaments and governments. When one is trying to get 28 member states to agree on non-sensitive issues, their positions can be recorded and there is not a problem. On sensitive issues, however, it is a problem and one can understand the impulse of keeping one's hands across one's homework, if one likes, until one gets consensus and the issue across the line. If the price for that is that Eurosceptics, as well as those who are anti-EU, can claim that proves we are being ruled by undemocratic and faceless bureaucrats and the EU does not afford citizens the right to have full accountability for what is done in their name and for them, then that is a problem.

There is also an issue of political maturity. Obviously, the impulse in many member states, as well as at EU and Council level, would be to get these things through with the minimum of fuss. People are accustomed, and therefore expect, there to be argument and debate. People are also accustomed to political parties and groupings making compromises. According to the treaty and various rulings made by the European Court of Justice, that is the way it is supposed to happen at EU level, even though the difficulties which the Deputies spoke about can arise. There was an interesting court case in 2012, when a transparency NGO, Access Info Europe, sought to get records of member state positions on, curiously enough, the EU transparency regulation. The European Court of Justice agreed that records of member state positions should be made publicly available and as soon as possible. What happened then? The Council accepted this, meaning any member state positions which were actually recorded would be released. However, they now simply do not record them in many instances. There is a consensus, nod of the head or an informal agreement on a particular matter. If a record does not exist, then it cannot be accessed.

The Council has three months to deliberate on my proposals. Obviously, I will be interested, and I am sure other member state parliaments will be interested, in what position it takes. As an ombudsman, if I have difficult recommendations to get across the line, it can be hard to do so if mine is the only voice. All members of the committee will have observed, however, a head of steam is building up around this. There have been calls from certain member states, the Dutch in particular, as well as civil society and the European Parliament, for the Council to become more open. As we move towards the 2019 European Parliament elections, and as the debate on the future of Europe becomes more intense, this will be an issue.

On the comments I made in my investigation and here earlier, blaming Brussels has led to many bad things. We might as well try something else.

Hungary and Poland are difficult issues for the EU. The EU has soft power and has been trying to use initiatives and dialogue to have certain member states, which seem to be rolling back democratic norms and the rule of law, to heed what it is saying and bring their value systems in line with what they are supposed to accept by virtue of being members of the Union. It is difficult. We have seen what has happened in Poland. The European Commission's First Vice President, Frans Timmermans, has done much negotiating with the Polish Government and we will see what happens. People are not as engaged with this as much as they might be about Brexit or migration. However, it goes to the core of what the EU is meant to be about. If certain member states are not accepting the foundational basis of the EU, then that is a big problem. I do not believe any of us have the answers to that. We have to continue to support the ombudsmen in those countries, as well as civil society groups as much as we can.

On Senator Coghlan's question on the culture of cover-up, I do not find one. All of the institutions and agencies have become much more transparent over the past several years. Curiously enough, social media has played a large part in that, plus a generation growing up with high expectations of transparency. I do not believe they can resist that.

The President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, will respond to me in April on whether he will suspend his membership of the G30 until he leaves office in October 2019. I am hoping he will respond positively. I have had several cases with the European Central Bank. It has always collaborated well and has made all of its processes much more open as a result. I am hoping for a positive response.

On Deputy Durkan's questions about the European Medicines Agency, I remember back in 1982, when I was working in the Sunday Tribune, doing a two-page article on drugs pricing and generic drugs. It is still a significant problem. Being home over the past few days, I have listened to the conversation taking place on the Joe Duffy radio programme about the withdrawal of a certain drug. Whatever the ins and outs of it, I was struck by the human stories, the suffering the people affected are going through and their belief that this particular drug was helping them to tolerate almost intolerable situations.

The issue of pricing is also important because a number of people who spoke were able to point to the price of that drug in Northern Ireland but also in the US. A lot of work is being done at European level in the context of harmonising these issues. That is important because if the EU is to be for citizens, I cannot think of any more important areas in respect of which it should for the citizens than those of health and, as Senator Dolan mentioned, disability.

Regarding the trade negotiations and TTIP, as members are aware, we did a lot of work with the Commission regarding making the talks far more open. In fairness to the Commission, it has really transformed its transparency policy on that. I think the Commission was quite stunned by the level of engagement regarding the TTIP negotiations and realised that times have moved on, the rules of the game have changed and it could no longer do things behind closed doors and had to transform the way in which it did business. As was rightly noted, the TTIP talks are stalled at the moment but last year, the Commission set out its five principles of trade negotiations and for the first time, one of them was transparency. It is true even in the way it has conducted itself with regard to Brexit. I know there are political reasons behind the transparency as well but an awful lot is out there. It is still early days. When we really get down to the hard negotiation about the future relationship between the UK and the EU, we will see the limits of transparency.

I forgot to mention a point about Council transparency. If we look hard enough, we will be able to track a particular regulation or a particular player who is putting down amendments and so on. A lot of it is down there. If one knows the right people within a particular working group or a particular ambassador, one can get the information. In a sense, that creates a playing field that is not level because a well-resourced lobbyist or global corporation in Brussels will be able to afford to send people out to do nothing but track the trajectory of a particular regulation 24-7. In a sense, this gives privileged access to people while not allowing ordinary members of the public or civil society who would not be as well resourced to have their say.

With regard to the lobbying register, I agree that there is huge unevenness across member states. Ireland is very often talked about as a model in the context of its lobbying register. When people are speculating or talking about the improvements that could be made at EU level or within member states, they often point to the Irish register. I have tried to interest my member state colleagues in the issue of lobbying transparency. Some are very engaged with it because they recognise it as an issue and recognise the role lobbying can play in the making of legislation. Obviously, a piece of legislation is the sum total of every influence brought to bear on it. Other countries do not think it is a big deal and have a system of revolving doors where people move very rapidly from public service or politics to big industry and often back again. Some member states do not see that there is a problem with this. If one examines the Volkswagen scandal, the role lobbying played in that and the revolving door issue, one can see that people are increasingly waking up to why this is important. I think we will see developments in this area. I try to raise awareness of this issue at every opportunity, whether it be by dint of a complaint or through an investigation on my own initiative.

On disability rights, I think the Senator and I were both at the meeting at the European Parliament where people with disabilities from across member states came together in plenary. It was quite a remarkable session. I had been to one or two of those previously. What I found really interesting, not just as European Ombudsman but as a citizen and human being, is that when one is in a room where everybody present has some kind of disability, be it visual or a physical incapacity, and is attempting to do what all of us take for granted every day of the week. When one sees the challenges they face, even in a very well-resourced place like the European Parliament building, it really does bring home to one the challenges that remain. I think Ireland is about to ratify the convention, or we hope it will, which is very good. It has been delayed. I think we are only one of two countries that has not ratified it. Are we the last country?

Ms Emily O'Reilly

We are down to the last one.

When the UK leaves, we will still be the last.

Ms Emily O'Reilly

I know that very hard work has been done on this, particularly by the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. Obviously, civil society has a huge role to play in this. There is no doubt about that. One of the more disturbing things about Hungary and Poland has been the attacks on civil society. It is classic stuff. Anybody who tries to challenge any part of the ruling orthodoxy is seen and depicted as an enemy of the people. This has particularly affected civil society groupings.

I am certainly not going to give my tuppence worth regarding the referendum on repealing the eighth amendment - been there, done that. Obviously, as a citizen and a woman, I look at it very carefully. I wrote extensively on the subject as a journalist in the 1980s when the original referendum took place. I also wrote a book about what had happened. It is very interesting for me to see the debate for a new generation. Some things have not changed while others have. It is a referendum and everybody will have their say. With regard to outside funding, I did follow a debate - not one relating to this referendum but one relating to the marriage equality referendum when there was an argument between Amnesty International and the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO with regard to money received by Amnesty International. If there is an element to it involving an EU body, conceivably, there may be some role for me. I cannot see it at the moment. Unless I am mistaken, SIPO would deal with those matters. The rules are there. Obviously, decisions will be made - whether by SIPO or through the courts - as to what is legitimate.

Regarding the questions about politicians from other countries coming in and they may not be members of a grouping that has Irish members, I assume it is valid for anybody to come in and be able to speak. I think Senator Richmond was referring to Nigel Farage and some people who came here the past week or two weeks ago.

I was talking about funding as opposed to the individuals.

Ms Emily O'Reilly

Obviously, if there is an issue with funding and if an EU institution is not dealing with it administratively, as it should, theoretically, a complaint could be made to me but it is not something I have dealt with, although I am aware of the matters. I think I have pretty much covered most of the questions.

First, I apologise for having to leave but I had to go to the Dáil Chamber. I thank Senator Leyden, our Vice Chairman, for taking over. It is like the MEPs coming here earlier today. In respect of any time Ms O'Reilly takes time out of her busy schedule to come before the committee to hear the concerns members have and get a feeling for what is happening on the ground and the issues of concern we face on a daily basis as politicians, I know she is very much in tune with what is happening here all the time politically, nationally and internationally. She is really on top of her game, which is very important because we are the voice from the ground up.

Many of the issues that reach the ombudsman's desk have come to us through our constituencies and work already. I gave five years here, on the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. Many of those cases, over the years, had been to the ombudsman. It is important that we work together because, at the end of the day, it is like the matter of the Versatis patches over the last weeks. The agony that people are going through is a matter that I raised in the Dáil today during Leaders' Questions because issues like that affect people. At the end of the day, with the ombudsman in her role and us in our role, we help people, organisations, groups and individuals. Some people look down their noses at politicians when they see and hear them talking about and raising individual cases. There is nothing wrong with that and no need to be ashamed about dealing with an individual and his or her problem if one is elected or is in the role of someone such as Ms Emily O'Reilly. That is what we are supposed to do. We are advocates. We are there to speak for people who cannot speak for themselves. One thing I get great satisfaction from, which I presume the ombudsman would be interested in hearing, is that late on a Monday night, I can be in a quiet country pub, meeting people, or in a cold community centre, talking to people about a particular issue. The following day, I can stand up in the Dáil and face a Minister who might have direct responsibility for that issue, or the Taoiseach, say that I met an individual somewhere last night and raise that person's problem. That is what democracy is about. Sometimes, journalists in particular have a hang-up about that. They call it clientelism, parochial or parish-pump politics. We have to listen to all this nonsense but, in the end, that is what we are supposed to do. We are national politicians who are elected locally. We have to start somewhere and that is where we start. I look forward, for as long as we are there, to working with the ombudsman and her office. We all seek to do our best for people.

I thank the ombudsman. I will be looking back on the proceedings because I will be able to read the questions that were asked. I thank Senator Terry Leyden and all members for their contributions. Does Senator Dolan want to come back in? We are wrapping up, so he can speak now.

The ombudsman reminded me in December of the 700 plus people with disabilities in the European Parliament. I had the honour of leading an 11-strong Irish delegation. One was from Kerry, so that is parish-pump at its best. The Chairman might consider inviting some of those people to listen to what they have to say about their experiences. In fairness to Ireland, the European Down's syndrome delegation was made up entirely of Irish people. There was an Irish woman on the European Alzheimer's disease group. There was a fine presentation of people from Ireland. That makes the point that Irish groups, whether disability-related or otherwise, want to participate and have an interest in participating in matters at a European level. The ombudsman mentioned the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Government committed two weeks ago to having it ratified by the end of next month. We have got a lot of slagging internationally for being the last country in Europe to do so but I am convinced that Ireland can come out strongly over the next years and show what it can do. The ombudsman mentioned big, multi-national agencies, including the European Disability Forum, the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities, and the Social Platform. They do not have three dozen staff between them and are trying to work for people with disabilities and others. There are real issues between who has the money to get selective knowledge and insider information. I thank the Chairman for his indulgence and tolerance.

We will wrap up. We will allow the ombudsman to leave and go into private session.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.37 p.m. and adjourned at 4.46 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Wednesday, 28 February 2018.