Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 12 March 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions
Decisions on Public Petitions Received
We have deliberated at length in private session on the petitions before us and we will now go into public session to record the decisions of the committee.
The first petition is No. P00060/12 from Mr. Ross Quinn, who is of the view that there is a conflict of interest with regard to Clare County Council's traffic and tourist signage management and rates collection given that it operates the Cliffs of Moher visitor centre, café and shops. The committee has previously considered this petition and has corresponded with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in the context of its role in overseeing the implementation of county development plans to ask whether it is satisfied that current departmental guidelines to councils ensure that proper procedures are followed and if it is possible under existing rules that councils could give themselves preferential treatment in terms of promoting their own facilities to the detriment of surrounding areas. The committee has agreed to forward a copy of the Minister’s response to the petitioner for information and to close the petition on the basis that we are satisfied from the response that there is no breach of policy.
The Wild Atlantic Way involves a considerable investment of money. One of the key issues emphasised in the plan is proper signage. This is a golden opportunity to assist the petitioner and others in ensuring proper signage is put in place. It is a great idea but it will not work without signage. I hope the petitioner can take that seriously and that it will work in a way that addresses his valid observation, even though the matter is more complicated than it might appear.
In ten years' time it is possible that the idea of signage as we now know it will no longer be relevant, given the development of electronic devices as the equivalent of Moses's tablets being brought down from the mountain and with self-driving cars on the way.
We will forward the correspondence from the Department and note that the Wild Atlantic Way will address some of the issues raised.
Petition No. P00072/12 from Dr. Edward Horgan and 19 associated petitioners calls for an investigation into the use of Shannon Airport and Irish airspace by the US military and the CIA. The petition seeks a parliamentary investigation focusing on the two issues of extraordinary rendition and US military use of Shannon Airport and confining itself to the involvement of the Irish Government and its agencies and agents in these matters. The committee previously considered this petition at its meeting of 27 November 2013 and agreed, as a preliminary step, to refer the petition to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade requesting a specific report on the issues raised. The committee has deliberated further in light of the Tánaiste’s response.
Further action is required on this petition. We have received correspondence from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade but I do not think it addresses all the points raised by Dr. Horgan. He referred in particular to a High Court judgment in 2003 which found Ireland to be in breach of international laws on neutrality. The State took no action on foot of that judgment. He also makes charges that gardaí at Shannon Airport were instructed, on the advice of the Attorney General, not to search these aircraft and that complaints made by activists at Shannon were not acted on. That is a serious charge. We should invite Dr. Horgan and the other petitioners to appear before us to expand on their petition and, perhaps, ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to address the issues raised and clarify whether previous Ministers for Foreign Affairs ever gave permission for extraordinary rendition flights, transfers of prisoners or commercial aircraft to be used in ways that are contrary to our neutrality laws, and whether exemptions were granted for flights carrying arms, ammunition or explosives. I am not sure whether the issue is within the remit of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, however. It may be more appropriate to direct our questions to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. If we can ask these questions in advance of the petitioners' appearance before the committee, they could inform us in our deliberations.
The Government has made its position clear in regard to this matter. It is completely opposed to these practices. We start from that position and, therefore, the claims made by the petitioners are very serious, not least in respect of the allegation that gardaí at Shannon Airport were advised by the Attorney General not to search or investigate aircraft. This is a serious matter and the petitioners have invested considerable effort in investigating it, but they are saying it is still not resolved. The Department sent us a detailed response but it does not answer all of the questions arising. I agree that we should invite Dr. Horgan and, perhaps, some of the other petitioners to give evidence but I suggest that they be asked to clarify the claims made to allow us to study them prior to their appearance before us. We might also invite the Tánaiste to come before the committee separately.
It would be an excellent opportunity to bring the topic into this building for discussion. At times I feel as though being a whistleblower in this country is like the cartoons I used to watch as a child. In one cartoon there was a dog whistle which nobody but the dog could hear. I wonder whether there is a certain pitch of whistle that is never heard in this country. Dr. Horgan has been consistently meticulous on this issue. What he has to say is astonishing, and it would be even more astonishing if he was incorrect because it would be the first time in my experience that he has been incorrect. It is essential that we bring the petitioners before us, because whether an attack results in a charred body in America or Afghanistan, the pain is the same. If we are facilitating the infliction of that pain, it needs to be exposed and we need to do something about it.
All petitioners will argue that they have been meticulous, and we will treat them as such.
We will treat each of them as meticulous, but in their meticulousness they must provide sufficient evidence to back up any claim they make, whoever they are and on whatever occasion they come here, and in that case they would, hopefully, get a fair hearing.
That is all agreed. We have agreed that we will invite the petitioner, along with two others who are associated with it, and ask for clarification on some of the key points he has made. We will also invite the Minister.
The next petition is P00021/13, concerning superannuation. Mr. Rossa O'Briain is calling for a change in the legislation governing superannuation payments to allow for discontinuation of superannuation contributions once 40 years' service and contributions have been attained.
The committee notes that the local government superannuation scheme is the responsibility of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. However, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has a role regarding public service pensions generally. The committee has deliberated on this matter and has resolved that current legislation does not require amendment on the basis that if a person's pension is based on salary upon actual retirement, then it is appropriate that a person should continue to make pension contributions until actual retirement. The recommendation is that we forward a copy of the response received from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to the petitioner for his information and inform him that this petition is now closed. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The final petition is P00001/14 fromMr. David Kelly calling for a referendum to legalise cannabis for both medical and recreational use. The committee has previously deliberated on a similar petition, P00029/13, in regard to legalising cannabis at its meeting of 11December 2013. Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan also tabled a Private Members' motion in this regard in November 2013. We have had a chance to deliberate on this but I would like to open it up to members to make recommendations.
I recommend that this petition be forwarded to the Joint Committee on Health and Children, as the Minister for Health is responsible for the legalisation or not of different substances, and to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to ask it if it could deliberate on this issue, as it is one that is constantly raised. We do not have the expertise to deliberate on it fully - nor do we have the powers, because no public policy has as yet been breached. However, it is an issue of concern to the public and we should refer it to those committees to see whether the expertise they can draw on can look at it in the future. It would be up to them to decide, but they should inform us of whatever decision they make so that we can keep the petitioner informed of the progress of this petition if it is referred to another committee, or to both these committees.
The argument for the legalisation of cannabis has raged for years and it generally falls into two camps, namely, health and crime, which divide the issue. In a way, I am quite delighted to see it raised at our committee, even though I do not think this is the right one to deal with it. It does not really fall into the matter of oversight or public policy. However, it is very close to the hearts of many people not only in Ireland but around the world. Therefore, it is right and proper that we refer the matter to the Joint Committee on Health and Children and the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality to see if they wish to engage in a proper debate with the experts who, undoubtedly, will give both sides of that argument. It would at least further the debate, because it has been a matter of the public interest for a very long time. Unfortunately, this is not the committee to host such a debate.
While I welcome the debating of this issue in any forum, I see the logic in recommending that it be sent to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and the Joint Committee on Health and Children. From the point of view of the petitioner, it shows that it definitely was not a waste of time contacting the committee - in fact, it was anything but. If, as a result, it is discussed at the two other committees, that would be positive.
As Senator O'Keeffe said, the relevant experts could be brought in, such as Dr. Garrett McGovern and Dr. Cathal O Suiliobhain, who are on the pro side, and Dr. Bobby Smith, Dr. Des Corrigan and Professor Patricia Casey, who are on the other side. From a policing point of view, we could invite Tom Lloyd, the former head of the Cambridgeshire police force, and other people in the justice area. I am sure there would be any number of people on the justice side of the argument who would come in and argue for the status quo.
On foot of this, I will contact those people, including the people who do not want to see cannabis legalised, because we need a proper debate and not a one-sided one. Hopefully, something good will come out of this because this is a debate which is raging all around the world, particularly in Uruguay and in many South and Central American states. This issue is on the move, and wherever it ends up, we should be part of that debate.
As I mentioned, there was a previous petition - No. P00029/13 - so out of courtesy, we should inform that petitioner that while his or her petition was closed, the matter raised will now, hopefully, be deliberated on by the Joint Committee on Health and Children and the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. Is that agreed? Agreed.