Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 8 November 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution
Business of Joint Committee
I would like to welcome Deputy Bríd Smith as a new member of the committee. She replaces her party colleague Deputy Ruth Coppinger. I would like to acknowledge Deputy Coppinger's work on the committee and thank her for her attendance here. She was a very attentive member. Welcome, Deputy Smith, and I look forward to working together.
We have received no apologies. The draft minutes for our meeting of 25 October have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed. There are no matters arising. We have received 12 items of correspondence, all of which are noted and some require follow-up from the committee. We will return to the correspondence from the Department of Education and Skills in module 3. Sorry, can we just have the one meeting here everybody, please.
On the letter from Renua, the committee has already decided to hear expert opinion rather than advocacy groups. Renua is a registered political party so I do not propose to invite it. Is that agreed?
What I may have said is that we decided at the outset that we would have experts and, in limited circumstances, advocacy groups. I do not believe that Renua falls into either of those categories. Unless it is an issue I will move on. I thank the Deputy.
I want to note that the committee on the Future of Mental Health Care is meeting today, which is not satisfactory because this committee is a short-term committee and a clash between those is not ideal. I note that two members, Deputy Browne and Deputy Rabbitte, will have to attend. Hopefully, they can return when it is over but that is completely understood. The clerk will speak to the powers that be about that not happening in future, especially with a committee that tends to change its meeting times. They should avoid this time of the week.
There is a letter from Dr. McCaffrey and from Both Lives Matter. They will be published on our website.
On the issue of witnesses generally, I want to reiterate the position of the committee. I have said this a number of times but I wish to do so again today. We agreed last July to hear from experts. In that regard we decided to look at the availability of witnesses who attended the Citizens' Assembly and also that members would suggest individual experts or groups that they wish to hear from here. I have asked that we hear all opinion and I have written to members asking for suggestions so as to strike a balance. In the past week I have asked the clerk to make formal approaches to groups but the response has been along the lines of that contained in Dr. McCaffrey's letter and from the letter from Both Lives Matter. Their response is that it is not worthwhile for those who advocate retention of the eighth amendment to come before the committee given the decision of the committee not to retain Article 40.3.3o of the Constitution in full. Also, sorry I am not-----
I thank the Senator.
It has also been suggested that we have agreed that the eighth amendment should be repealed. That decision has not been made. We need to be very clear about the fact that the only decision that this committee has made is that Article 40.3.3o of the Constitution will not be retained in full. I do not accept that argument. For the purpose of our deliberations it is a pity that we have not heard legal and medical argument that would be different to what we have heard to date. That said, members have learned a huge amount from our interaction with witnesses and we will continue to do our work with a view to reporting to the Oireachtas by 20 December. The opportunity is still there to suggest particular witnesses to come before us but there is a struggle in getting certain sides of the argument to attend. That is regrettable.
I thank the Chairman. We appear to lack a procedure to allow an intervention at a relevant point because I merely sought and wish to know and request that the Chairman would read the letters into the record, the letters from Dr. McCaffrey and the letter from Both Lives Matter. I think it is as relevant to the work of this committee that people who were invited give their particular reason. The Chairman has given her own personal opinion as to whether a vote to recommend that the eighth amendment not be retained in full constitutes a decision in the matter and only by the most tortured twist of logic could one say that it is not a clear expression of intent from the committee. Given that is the Chairman's particular point, I think it is appropriate that she would read into the record, as she did with other letters from invited guests in the past, the explanations from Dr McCaffrey and Both Lives Matter.
Before I turn to Deputy Durkan and Deputy McGrath, I think the distinction needs to be drawn between a witness who attends here and subsequently sends correspondence and somebody who has not attended. This exact procedure was adopted in the case of Professor Patricia Casey. Deputy McGrath wished for her letter to be read into the record. I did not read it into the record because she did not attend here.
We could be reading letters into the record for expects for hours here in the committee but really they were invited to attend and should attend and I think that it proves that they should be here.
It seems to me all the more reason why one should read their view into the record. May I ask the Chairman about the decision regarding what may be read into the record and what may not? Please assist me. Is this laid out somewhere in procedures? Or is this the Chairman making a decision on the fly?
No. It is a decision we made in the last number of weeks when certain letters were being sent into the committee. We receive a lot of correspondence. If we were to read all of that correspondence into the record I would spend a lot of my time in the Chair reading letters from-----
I think what is different here, Chairman, is that it goes to the credibility of the committee. The committee did, in my view, impugn its own credibility. The Chairman herself was interviewed on RTÉ about this. There is a clear question mark in the public mind as to why the committee did not wait to hear from all witnesses before moving ahead with a very substantial recommendation about what the future of Ireland's abortion laws should be. Now-----
-----there is an issue with certain invited guests. It is interesting that people outside of the jurisdiction have noted this very irregular approach taken by the committee. It forms the basis for their refusal to come before the committee. On that basis I believe it is in the public interest, and in the interests of the credibility of this committee, that the invited guests, and as I understand it they were invited very belatedly, be given the courtesy of putting their explanation on to the record as opposed to just saying, as the Chairman did, that they should come before the committee.
I want to come in on that. I understand Senator Mullen did propose this witness originally. There was no backing documentation as to why the travel was required, which necessitated a delay in that witness being invited to the committee. We have been making efforts for a number of weeks to assess if we could find a time that would suit him. Only last night we heard that he did not want to come at all. It is not as straightforward as the Senator has laid out.
There is more to it than that, with respect. I would submit that the explanation that the Chairman has just given is disingenuous. The Chairman is now saying that when a name was suggested originally, that the Chairman did not take it on. I have always stated at this committee that it is the Chairman's response, and the secretariat behind the Chairman, to propose a list that would test the issues fully. I have always made that very clear. The fact is that the Chairman did not do the necessary investigation and then after the event, after a decision has been made by the committee, an invitation was issued by the Chairman. I would say that it is at the minimum a courtesy and I would argue more than that. It is a matter of fair procedures that the Chairman would put the response on the record. The Chairman's response just now was disingenuous.
With regard to the second organisation I referred to, the Chairman had already declined to bring it before the committee, as I understand it from correspondence with it. Then the Chairman and the secretariat appear to have changed their minds. It seems to me that different reasons are being offered for different courses of-----
I have a clear view, at least in my own humble way, of what this committee is about and what it is supposed to do. Our job is to assess the recommendations of the Citizens' to double-check and test it as far as we can and to eventually prepare the situation whereby a referendum or referenda will be put to the people on the basis of which the people will be able to vote in the clear knowledge of what they are voting for. I have done my best to raise questions and I have done interviews on this question as well, and I strongly believe that it is our job to test and verify and to try to ascertain where the opinions have come from in so far as we can. I cannot do that unless witnesses present themselves before the committee.
I fully support the points made by Senator Mullen. Please bring the witnesses in before the committee and we can ask questions. Everyone is entitled to have their view heard. It does not matter what votes are taken in this committee. Ultimately, this is the people's decision. It is not true to suggest, at all, that this is a foregone conclusion. It is far from that. What I strongly urge is this. I want to hear logical submissions from witnesses who have different points of view. I am not in favour of abortion but as I said before, I believe that we need to assess this situation in the light of various submissions that have been made. Let us hear all the submissions. To my mind it is a very serious flaw in what is happening if people do not come before the committee even though they have a strong view. Let us hear that view and the detail behind it.
I thank the Senator. I have a lot of people indicating. I am going to let Deputy McGrath in as he was just about to speak. Unless there is something different that people want to say, we have witnesses waiting outside, and I would ask members to be conscious of that.
I thank the Chairman. I too believe that Professor McCaffrey's letter should be read into the record. I ask this in regard to Professor Casey as well and also Both Lives Matter. I am proposing that they be read into the record. I want to make that proposal to the committee here today. I also take issue with the Chairman saying that it is a pity that we cannot get witnesses. We have to ask ourselves why. I have said the same privately and publically. The secretariat should have secured the attendance of the witnesses. We should not have been involved or asked to get any witnesses, any of us in this room. It is not up to us to get witnesses because we might be tainted one way or the other and everyone knows that.
May I continue? I am making my point that I believe that it was the secretariat, with the Chairman, who should have secured the attendance of the witnesses. We are in a situation now that the Chairman has described as a pity. Why should we be surprised? We took a premature vote here and we did change the intent. I agree with Deputy Durkan. It will be the electorate that will make the final decision on this and it will not matter what will happen in committee. I describe it like a jury half way through a trial and the jury foreman approaches the chair and says we are going to give our opinion now, we have found him guilty or not guilty half way through the evidence. That is where we are. That is why we have not got witnesses attending. I believe that a person of that eminence that we have decided to invite should have his letter read into the record. I am proposing that.
I thank the Chairman. I want to make a point of order. The Chairman said at the beginning that we have two letters from people who have declined to appear as witnesses having been invited and that those letters will be published and available on the website. I believe that is sufficient instead of the Chairman being obliged to read a four and a half page reply into the record of this committee. The Chairman has stated, and I fully endorse her announcement, that these letters are available for anybody anywhere in the world to read on the website. We do not have to read every letter into the record of this committee.
I think it is important to say that there is a very clear strategy in my eyes to undermine this process every step of the way. Pulling out of giving statements at this committee is part of that wider strategy to undermine the work that has been happening and to undermine the Chairman. Everyone was asked to submit recommended witnesses and if it was broken up proportionally, the people that are saying that it is biased submitted a certain number speakers. If that was divvied up around the room everyone got the same amount of speakers. It is a clear strategy every week and we are giving them time to rehearse it, which is eating into the time for the people who are here who are willing to give their time. I will be critical of the people who pulled out because there are people who agree with them who depended and wanted them here to hear their evidence. They are failing to provide that side of the argument. If they do not want to be here they should not be read into the record.
I think the letter that was sent by Professor McCaffrey was factually incorrect He said that in observing the proceedings he discovered that the Oireachtas on the 18 October has already taken a crucial vote to repeal the eighth amendment. We did not take a vote to repeal the eighth amendment. We actually took a vote that we would not retain the eighth amendment in full.
I feel sympathy for witnesses who are held up because important issues arise, but I also object to be being jollied on on the basis that witnesses are waiting outside. When are these issues going to be ventilated? There has been a pattern at this committee of inviting guests in and then going on to make decisions, including one very big decision, to propose that the eighth amendment not be retained in full, before all the evidence was heard. That decision took place after the briefest discussion, or after practically no discussion. I was here. I have to ask you the question-----
Is this committee willing to consider, in public session, the issues arising? For example, it occurs in both the Seanad and the Dáil that issues are brought forward on the Order of Business which may, if they are important enough, have the impact of changing that day's Order of Business.
They could have told us the reason when they came. The letter has been published. It would be a poor precedent for a Chair of a committee of this House to read out letters from people who decide for whatever reason not to attend.
On a point of order, Chair, if your concern has to do with delaying witnesses, I would have no problem with a vote being taken after we have heard from the witnesses. It is not our desire to be discourteous to anybody.
Can we have some respect shown by people in here who are clearly ignorant? Can we have some respect shown when we are speaking? To be scoffed at and hissed at is disgraceful. If we did it, we would be accused of bullying. It has been already said that we were bullying.
I reiterate what I have said many times, that each speaker should be given time to speak. However, at the end of the day, we are trying to hear from witnesses and to discuss matters that are pertinent and important to the committee. We will come back to this issue after we hear from the witnesses and-----
Members may be intent on discussing this issue for another half an hour or an hour but it is simply not possible to do so at this juncture. We have to show witnesses more courtesy. We will return to this issue later on, and that is where it is being left. I am going to suspend the meeting for a couple of minutes to allow witnesses to take their seats. We will then interact with witnesses as we do every week.