Dáil debates

Tuesday, 13 December 2005

Ceisteanna — Questions.

Government-Church Dialogue.

2:30 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the position regarding the dialogue between the Government, churches and faith communities to which he referred in his reply to Questions Nos. 1 to 4 of 14 December 2004; the structure the dialogue is taking; the number of meetings that have been held; the person who has represented the Government side; if he expects the dialogue to come to conclusions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35124/05]

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the ongoing dialogue between the Government and the main churches and faiths; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36486/05]

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Dublin North, Green Party)
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Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach the progress made in establishing dialogue between the Government, churches and faith communities announced by the Government in December 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36688/05]

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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Question 4: To ask the Taoiseach the nature of the dialogue that has taken place between the Government, churches and faith communities which he referred to in his reply to Questions Nos. 1 to 4 of 14 December 2004; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36869/05]

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Question 5: To ask the Taoiseach the objectives of the Government's dialogue with churches and faith communities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38701/05]

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

Reflecting the consideration at the European Council during discussions on the draft treaty and conscious of the evolved change in our society, the Government considered that it would be of value to institute an open, transparent and regular dialogue with churches and non-confessional organisations. Accordingly, my Department initiated contact with many churches and faith communities to explore how such a dialogue might be established and what its scope might be. The Government has proposed that the dialogue process be structured on the following basis.

An annual bilateral meeting should take place with each representative body, at which the State would be led by a member of the Government — this responsibility would be shared between Ministers — and should include senior officials from appropriate Departments identified in the discussions to prepare the agenda. An annual reception should be held for all participants in the dialogue which would be addressed by the Taoiseach or another member of the Government and to which as many members of the Government as possible would be invited. An ongoing channel of communication should be maintained at official level with the Government, with a view to improving awareness and engagement. Consultation on the implementation of these arrangements has been taking place at official level. I expect the dialogue will formally commence at Government level in the new year. The churches and faith communities make an important contribution to the life of this country, not least through the participation of church representatives and church-based organisations, for example in the National Forum on Europe and through social partnership. In keeping with the nature of dialogue, I do not expect any immediate conclusions. I envisage an open-ended process that would, in principle, be capable of addressing any matter of mutual interest or concern. I am concerned, however, that this new channel should not displace the existing and ongoing consultation and dialogue between churches and church-based organisations and the various civil authorities in matters of their functional responsibilities.

Any future structured dialogue which might be put in place will, of course, have to be open, inclusive and transparent and fully in accordance with the provisions of Article 44 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which guarantees freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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More than a year has elapsed since the Minister for Foreign Affairs made this announcement. Will the Taoiseach explain the delay in getting it underway? Will he say something further about the structure? Did he say it would be led by one Minister or that Ministers will take it in turn and what type of format will it follow?

Does the Taoiseach agree with his backbench colleague, Deputy O'Donnell, that there should be a clearer separation between church and State? Will he comment in particular in that context on last Sunday's opinion poll which showed that half the people favour the Government reviewing the Catholic Church's participation in first-level education in the fashion it does?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy will recall that this was to be part of the European constitutional provisions. Unfortunately the constitution did not go ahead because of the defeats in the early summer in the Netherlands and France, so that matter is in abeyance. Notwithstanding that, we engaged in dialogue and reached agreement, having consulted with all the churches and all the faith groups. There is a long list, if anyone wants me to go through them. That process was concluded by the end of June. We then suggested to them how we might best deal with this matter and bring it forward. The basis agreed is half-yearly meetings. Responsibility is to be shared by Ministers so the same Minister will not have to interface with different churches or faith groups. It will probably depend on the Minister and the officials as to what the issues will be.

Most importantly, all the churches and faith groups have their own agendas on which they like to continue to deal with Departments, and they do so on a regular basis as regards health, education, equality and other issues. As far as I am concerned the separation of church and State exists. It is well documented and practised and it works well. On the education issue, the churches have already said they are looking at this because of the declining numbers available to carry out these roles, and it is a matter of how that will pan out. From my own perspective I trust this will not roll out too quickly because we will be at a huge loss without them.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I want to put a specific point to the Taoiseach, as to whether, for example, he intends to discuss the Ferns Report with the Catholic Church. In that context and in the light of Deputy O'Donnell's explicit criticisms of the indemnity deal, will he take her advice on board and review that deal and its terms, which exposes the taxpayer to what the Comptroller and Auditor General has estimated will be close to €1,000 million while capping the liability of the religious congregations concerned? In light of Deputy O'Donnell's remarks, is the Taoiseach minded to review that deal?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I would not see an issue. I would consider an issue like that in so far as there is the normal dialogue between church and State, but in this case there is also a legal question and the legal process is involved. In answer to the Deputy's question, there is no proposal before Government to review the arrangement on the compensation to those hurt people who were affected. The State was responsible for these institutions because the State sent people to them.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Following on Deputy Rabbitte's question, there are approximately 3,000 primary schools in the ownership of the church in the Republic and approximately 32 diocesan colleges and there are problems with a number of these. One does not wish to deny the contribution made to education over the years by the church but given the decline in vocations and the problems to which this gives rise, will the ownership of schools be a central issue for discussions with the Catholic Church and, to a lesser extent, the Church of Ireland? Will the matter of the need for a significant increase in the number of multidenominational schools also be discussed, given the growth in interest in such schools in various parts of the country? I am sure the Taoiseach has been lobbied on this issue. Will these topics be central to the discussions with the churches?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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As I stated in my reply to Deputy Rabbitte, those issues are dealt with in the normal course of discussions between the churches and Departments, in this case, the Department of Education and Science. This issue will need to be discussed and debated with the churches.

A number of new religions are now being practised in our country because we have a large immigrant population, including workers from the new EU states. The issue of education also arises and those discussions are being carried on separately by the Department of Education and Science. The management of schools is an issue which the churches have raised because of their declining population. This is a problem which arises not only in education but also in health and other areas where the churches have given the State excellent service over the generations.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Dublin North, Green Party)
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Given that it is one year since the announcement of this proposal for Government and inter-faith dialogue, will the Taoiseach indicate the number of submissions received to date? Is it his intention to publish those submissions? He has stated on previous occasions that meetings to date with various church bodies have taken place on an ad hoc basis. He also stated it has been the practice that church leaders call annually or biannually to the Department of the Taoiseach. Am I correct in assuming there is some basis for dialogue between the churches and Government? Will the Taoiseach indicate the number of different church representatives who have visited his Department on an annual or biannual basis? The total of 170 faith groups would keep him very busy if he were to meet them individually on an annual or biannual basis. When will the proposal be brought to fruition?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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There are a number of questions in that. The proposal is being brought to fruition. The Government signed off on it in June and made the churches aware of the proposals, and they made some response. The churches have an arrangement — traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, Presbyterians and Methodists, and in the past few years the Jewish community — where if there is an issue regarding their schools, health, home or institution in which they are involved, they go to the relevant Department about it, as would anybody else. When I say it is an ad hoc arrangement, that is what happens, they are as entitled to do that as anybody else, particularly when they manage those institutions and the issue affects their people. Those issues would occur in normal circumstances.

What was envisaged in the Constitution and what happens in other countries is more extended in that the churches have an opportunity to attend concordats. This is done formally in a number of European countries. The French are the latest to do this, but they are following a large number of other countries. We have looked at that model and our view is we should follow it.

What normally happens — this has happened in my time and previously — is that the Archbishop of Dublin traditionally calls to the Taoiseach of the day at Christmas time for a short visit. The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, now John Neill, would perhaps call in on some of his issues once a year. More recently, the Islamic Foundation of Ireland and some of the other churches invite the Taoiseach. My Department has dialogue with all of them in so far as they are all now involved in the national day of commemoration.

The main sources with whom we have had discussions — this is not a complete list — and who have been involved in this process over the past 12 months or so are the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, the Religious Society of Friends, the Salvation Army, the Unitarian Church, the Lutheran Church of Ireland, the Moravian Church, the Baptist Church, the Orthodox Church, which includes the Coptic, Greek, Romanian and Russian churches, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the Jehovah Witnesses, the Jewish community, the Islamic Foundation of Ireland, the Baha'i Faith, the Buddhist centres, the Association of Irish Humanists and a number of other smaller churches representing the new communities, totalling a large number. The process is an inclusive one.

Photo of Trevor SargentTrevor Sargent (Dublin North, Green Party)
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Will the Taoiseach publish his submission?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I do not think there is anything secret in it. It will probably be published, but I am not sure of the date. All this has happened in discussions with them.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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When the Taoiseach was explaining his close links with senior officers of the Catholic Church in Ireland, he referred approvingly to the central role that officers of the church play in the education system. While respecting the full right of all to their beliefs and their full freedom to practise various religions, why should a fundamental institution of the State such as education be invested in the church, rather than being democratically organised and managed? Why should so much control over primary education, for example, be given to the local bishop, any more than he should be in charge of the local diocese's road safety campaign or the filling of potholes in the diocese, which is another important function of State or local authority? In this society, which has so many churches, which the Taoiseach just listed, and many people who do not affiliate to any church, should the management of all the educational institutions of the State now be moved to the democratic control of parents, teachers, Government and students?

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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We are going outside the scope of these five questions. A general question is fine but the detailed ones might be better dealt with in another manner.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Minister, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Potholes would be a bit much.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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The potholes are merely——

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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My question is quite valid and I ask the Taoiseach to reply.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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It is a parable.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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On the Deputy's first point, I will engage with all churches, whether they are Catholic, Protestant, Educate Together, Muslim or any other group——

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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Educate Together is not a church.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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No. In terms of education I am speaking of any group that provides education to children — it does not matter which one. I am the politician who has dealt most with such groups since they first started up in this country, as Deputy Burton knows.

On the other issue raised, I have no difficulty with people holding alternative views or with their not being members of any church. It is entirely healthy in a democratic society to show public respect for the various institutions and structures that give meaning to the lives of citizens. It is right that all our main religious traditions, of whatever denomination, be reflected in acts of public significance, such as our ceremonies for the national day of commemoration. It is right that we be involved with them. I go to a host of different events. I recently celebrated with the Jewish community and celebrated the end of Ramadan with the Islamic community. I was in the mosque in Clonskeagh and the synagogue in the south of the city.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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The Taoiseach was abstemious during November anyway.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Correct. Deputy Joe Higgins asked for my view, which I will give. I totally respect his view and he has just said he respects mine. An empty secularism that denies the importance of religious belief and practice may, in the wrong circumstances, give rise to an oppressive public culture. Fortunately, we have a political and civic culture here that holds no institution above the law and respects the place of religious belief and practice. In the great tradition of Daniel O'Connell, we have proper separation of church and State and we avoid confessional politics. This is how I view the issue and I do not join in saying that anything to do with religion is a bad thing.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Does the Taoiseach accept that dialogue with churches, including some of the new faiths represented in this country — I welcome the list the Taoiseach gave us in an earlier reply — allows for engagement with the new communities represented in Ireland regarding their experiences, concerns over immigration and asylum-seeking difficulties? Does he recognise the analogy between the experience of Irish emigrants in the past and that of the new communities in the State in that churches play a central role in creating the fabric of community away from emigrants' home bases? Does he accept that in this dialogue, which I support, he would do well to listen to and learn from those who are working with our new neighbours and brothers and sisters of colour in Ireland regarding their direct experiences of our legislative and organised approach to their particular needs?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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"Yes" is the answer to those questions. On the idea of the constitutional amendment, we made a decision earlier in the year, in spite of the fact that the draft constitution was defeated in some countries and is in abeyance at this stage. The idea was that the legitimate role of all of the churches and faith communities in public life would be acknowledged and that the participatory principle regarding civil society and recognition of social dialogue in the treaty would make the provisions for dialogue with the churches entirely popular and welcome. The idea was that whatever issues were of concern to any of the churches or faith communities, they would be able to raise these at least annually and on other occasions when they would meet Government and senior civil servants.

There is no doubt about this process, as I know from what has happened already and the changes that are taking place within a number of churches that have been established in this city and other cities. People are beginning to understand the issues raised by the churches. Only good can come of this because people will come to recognise each other's positions. The members of these communities live in this country now. Dialogue will help us to form a common basis from which to move forward. This will give religious leaders and faith communities an opportunity to represent the views of their members in this country. It is a good idea.

Photo of Paul KehoePaul Kehoe (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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When the Taoiseach met Pope Benedict XVI, did he discuss the dialogue between the Government and the churches, and the faith within the different churches?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, I did. I explained to the Pope that we were continuing with our position on the constitution. Needless to say, he was very seized of what was happening at European level because the church was deeply involved in discussions in that regard.

This proposal moved on from a period when some countries would not recognise the concept of Christianity or God in the preamble to the constitution. While the Deputy knows where I stood on that issue, it was not an issue on which we were going to get agreement so I did not pursue it. However, during the negotiations, when it was my responsibility, we achieved unanimous agreement among all groups with regard to this dialogue, which many of the countries involved already have.

We are behind many countries in this regard. Our position on engaging with the churches has not been as good as that of other countries. After all that has been done through the years, we should try to catch up with secular countries like France and others that perhaps respect their churches more than we do.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I am trying to understand the distinction between the kind of business the Taoiseach would normally raise with the churches and what will be encompassed by this dialogue. Many of the churches would give a high primacy to issues of war and peace, for example. Are these the kind of issues the Taoiseach would envisage discussing with the churches? Many of the churches have voiced serious disquiet about the practice of rendition, as the United States Government calls it, and the suspected use of Shannon for transferring prisoners who might later be subjected to torture. Does the Taoiseach envisage himself discussing with the faith communities their concerns about a major issue like that, which would not be regarded as the routine stuff he might discuss with the churches in the normal way?

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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I am curious as to why the Taoiseach must use the loaded term "empty" when he refers to secularism. Secularism means——

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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Has the Deputy a question?

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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I ask the Taoiseach why he chose a deliberately loaded term to denigrate those who have a different view, in order to justify his view on relations between the church and State?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I have already explained it. I said that an empty secularism which denies the importance of religious belief and practice is not good and can create difficulties.

In terms of development and international issues, when churches wish to put forward their views this would be a good source of dialogue. Some churches are very involved, and the dean of the diplomatic corps here is the papal nuncio. He is involved in issues of the United Nations and had an active role in international relations. Some other churches may not be as involved, and this would provide an opportunity for them. All of the churches and other organisations are involved in developmental issues involving NGOs such as Trócaire and other organisations. The Islamic community and the Association of Irish Humanists may also want to share views. International issues can be raised in such a format.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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The Taoiseach has stated he does not see the Ferns Report as the kind of issue he would raise in the contemplated dialogue here. Has he discussed the Ferns Report with the Catholic Church in particular?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I have not been involved in the discussions with the Catholic Church with regard to the Ferns Report.

Photo of Liz McManusLiz McManus (Wicklow, Labour)
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Who has been involved?