Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 10 December 2020

Committee on Public Petitions

Business of Joint Committee

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome members to the first meeting of the new committee. I am delighted and honoured to have been appointed Chairman. I welcome all members of the third Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Petitions. The committee's first task is to review its terms of reference and report to the Dáil and Seanad within three months. The committee has three main roles. First, all petitions submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas stand referred to the committee. Second, the committee may decide to examine matters of general public concern or interest or issues of public policy and third, the committee may consider reports of the Ombudsman.

The petitions committee has a unique role in the Parliament. People have direct access to the Parliament using an informal process, people have a right to reply and petitions can act as a safety valve or fire alarm when reviewing public policy. I look forward to working with all members in the genuine spirit of partnership and co-operation as we review the terms of reference and consider petitions. We all have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in our lives, and how we conduct the business of the Houses of the Oireachtas has been altered in ways we could not have envisaged when the year began. I trust that all members will work with me and will ensure that the committee works effectively and safely during these testing times.

The next item on the agenda is the election of a Vice Chairman but the protocol to date has been to fix a date for the election at the second meeting. Is that agreed?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Is there an agreement among the parties as to who that person should be?

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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No.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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That is fine.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I think the protocol in the previous committees has been that a Government Member was Vice Chairman.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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On that point, there have been some discussions but there has not yet been a conclusion. It would be helpful, therefore, if we could set a date for the election at a future meeting and have nominations decided before then in order that they can be voted on by members.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I propose we hold the election at the next meeting. Expressions of interest can be submitted to the clerk to the committee. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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Chairman, before we go into private session, I wish to point out I was very concerned by comments attributed to you in the past 24 hours, as were many people throughout the country. I wonder whether you, as Chairman of this committee, will take this opportunity to explain those comments. They have caused a great deal of hurt and upset to many people and this is an opportunity for you to explain them.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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This is not on the agenda but instead of focusing on the newspaper articles to which Deputy Griffin alluded, I will seek the recording of my interview on Tipp FM, and we will come back to it.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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No-----

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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It is not on the agenda and has not been flagged with the clerk before now. I am going to move on with the agenda-----

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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As Chairman of the committee, I believe you owe it to the people to explain your comments. As the committee will consider petitions from members of the public on matters of grave sensitivity in some cases, it is of critical importance that they have confidence in the Chairman of the committee. Quite frankly, I believe your comments may have undermined that level of confidence that people may have in you. I am offering you an opportunity, therefore, to explain your comments.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I have explained and have asked the Deputy, out of courtesy, to listen to the interview in order that we can return to it, and not to attribute to me comments that have appeared in print media. The matter is not on the agenda. We will now move to private session to continue with the agenda, which is what we are here for. The matter has not been flagged with the clerk or the committee up to now.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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Chairman, I appreciate the point you are making, although it has not been flagged because the news emerged only in the past 24 hours. I share the concerns of Deputy Griffin but fully understand that you would like to allow people the time to hear the full spectrum of what he said. Nevertheless, I do not see how we can continue to review the terms of reference of the committee when such a serious question hangs over the work of the committee into the future, and how we might review those terms with you as Chairman, given the potential conflicts that might arise in future, which Deputy Griffin outlined. This is a perfect opportunity for you to say to members what he said on radio yesterday in order that we can have full confidence in the work we are about to undertake.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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We are going into private session-----

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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Sorry, Chair-----

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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This is a public matter.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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This is a public matter for public discussion. This is not something that can just be brushed under the carpet and put behind closed doors-----

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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There is nothing under the carpet-----

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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That is not how the Houses of the Oireachtas operate.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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We are asking the Deputy-----

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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We operate in an open and transparent way.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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We are going into private session to continue with the agenda.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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I object to going into private session.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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This feels like censorship.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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It does. I object to going into private session.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I am not going to dwell on the matter because Deputies have outlined the details but the briefing paper laid before us by the secretariat and commissioned by the committee earlier this month refers to what constitutes policy and public concern or interest. Without being personal, this is a very important committee. I was a member of the previous committee and this could be one of the most important committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I genuinely wish the Chairman well in his role, but there is a need for the issue to be addressed. I say that in a genuine manner.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I take members' concerns on board but, as I said, the matter is not on the agenda and we are sticking to the agenda. This is the first meeting and I ask everyone to co-operate as we go into private session-----

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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Chairman, we cannot simply ignore this and move on as if nothing happened and as if you had not said anything. It is important that this be dealt with now. Will you either explain to the committee his comments or make an explanation to the Dáil this week, as your colleague, Deputy Stanley, has committed to doing?

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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This is not the forum for that. I have asked the Deputy, along with all members, to listen to the interview and we can come back to it then. We are now going to continue with the agenda in private session.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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Chairman, will you make a statement on this to the Dáil?

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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Chairman, if I could make a comment, I genuinely wish you well in your role. Perhaps as a compromise, as Deputy Griffin suggested, you may be prepared to tell members that you will make a statement to the Dáil next week in order that we can move on with the committee. That would be one form of compromise and it is not a big ask. I do not want to get embroiled in a major controversy. The committee can be a very important one for members of the public and it would be a pity if we became embroiled in a nasty controversy today. Perhaps as a gesture to the valid questions that have been asked, you will consider making a statement to the Dáil on what emerged yesterday in order that we could move forward.

I ask the members to accept that, if you are willing to make the statement.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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Valid questions can be asked at a later date.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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So you will not do that. Would you consider it?

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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We will continue with the agenda.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I have given you a way out on this.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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May I make a proposal?

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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The way I see this going, the committee will be gone from here in two minutes. We do not want that to happen. As a way forward — I am giving you a way out here — I ask you to consider making a statement next week and addressing the members here who have asked questions. Then we can move on with our business. I believe that would be acceptable to most members.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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To the best of my knowledge, Ministers make statements to the Dáil-----

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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Under Standing Orders, a Member of the House may make a statement-----

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I am going to go into private session.

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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Chairman, I have a proposal that we might hear in public session. I completely support what Senator Buttimer has said about the importance of this committee and the work it is about to undertake immediately on reviewing its terms of reference and petitions that might be considered by it. Public statements were made by you, Chairman. This is not personal at all but it is about the role you now occupy as Chairman at the first meeting of this committee. For this committee to continue in its work, public or private, those comments need to be clarified. They were publicly made, and made very recently. They are not comments from the past that someone has dug up. You are not denying you made comments on this matter yesterday in a public forum. If you cannot clarify the comments now in public, I do not see how the meeting can continue.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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Deputy Murphy, I can guarantee everybody here that I will be impartial and that I will carry out this role to the best of my ability, being fair to every member here and to every member of the public or witness who takes part. I have suggested that we go into private session. The public session is over in that we have dealt with the two matters on the agenda-----

Photo of Eoghan MurphyEoghan Murphy (Dublin Bay South, Fine Gael)
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Chair, I understand your bona fides in that regard, as you have outlined them. The public may not have the confidence right now, given what they have read about what you said on a radio show yesterday. For the public to have confidence in the work we are about to embark upon, could you offer clarification? If you spoke on radio yesterday, surely you can speak at an Oireachtas committee.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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We are going into private session-----

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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Your refusal to address the comments makes it impossible for this meeting to continue, in private session or in public. You have an opportunity, under Standing Order 56, to go to the Dáil and explain your comments next week, if you so choose. A proposal was made that you consider that but you will not. Therefore, I do not see how this meeting can continue.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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We are continuing the meeting in private session.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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With the Chairman's refusal, I cannot see how this meeting can continue.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I am asking that we go into private session. I am putting the question, "That we go into private session."

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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I propose that the meeting be adjourned.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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The question is agreed.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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It is not agreed.

Question put: "That the committee go into private session."

The Committee divided: Tá, 3; Níl, 5.



Question declared lost.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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We cannot continue with the agenda because the business was to be conducted in private session. We are in a quandary. A notice of motion has not been submitted to the clerk.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
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I propose that if the Chairman insists on not explaining his comments to the committee, we adjourn the meeting and give him time to consider how he is going to address this matter.

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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I was going to suggest that we adjourn. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will set a date for the next meeting and if any motions need to be submitted, I ask that members submit them to the clerk.

The committee adjourned at 2.15 p.m. sine die.