Wednesday, 14 June 2006
Ceisteanna — Questions.
Question 5: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the recommendations of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18046/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 13, inclusive, together.
The All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution published its report relating to the family on 24 January. The relevant Departments are considering its recommendations. The Government has acted on most of the key recommendations that emanated from earlier reports of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution. In all, this and the previous Government brought forward ten referenda. The Government will avail of appropriate opportunities to take forward further recommendations of the all-party committee.
The complexities involved in holding a referendum require that careful consideration be given to the frequency with which referenda can realistically be held and the significance of the issues in question. There are no specific plans to hold any referenda during the lifetime of the 29th Dáil.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, stated he had spoken to the Attorney General and that his advice had been that it would be legal to change the Constitution after a referendum on statutory rape to get back to the position which pertained prior to the striking down of the law. When the Minister made this comment, the Taoiseach's office seemed to distance itself from it——
Was the Minister for Foreign Affairs speaking on behalf of the Government when he said it would be appropriate to have a referendum to reverse the recent Supreme Court ruling on statutory rape? Is it the intention of the Government to have a referendum to change the Constitution in this regard?
What is the current position with regard to the European Constitution? The Taoiseach will not be able to attend the meeting on Friday due to the State funeral for Mr. Haughey but, in light of the briefing documents provided to him, he can indicate whether the period of reflection is complete and whether it is the intention of the Heads of Government to move ahead with a referendum. What should we in Ireland look forward to in terms of taking from the original constitutional proposal elements that we should move on with? What is the overall position?
On the first issue, the Minister for Foreign Affairs said he had some sympathy with the view that had been expressed by many groups and organisations. I did not differ from that but said that all these issues should be examined by the all-party group, where people would be able to reflect their views. However, we do not have a plan at this stage to have a constitutional referendum in the lifetime of this Dáil. I spoke at length——
The Attorney General's advice was that it would be legal to change the Constitution after a referendum to get back to the position prior to the decision. Is that not an option now?
With regard to the constitution, I spoke to the Austrian Chancellor, the President in office of the European Council, Wolfgang Schüssel. At the meeting on Thursday night and Friday it will be decided to push the reflection period out further, as I have been saying for a long time. It is unlikely there will be any change until the French and Dutch elections next year. Based on that, I doubt that the European Council will consider any pre-emptive action. Since I will not be at the meeting, I have put forward my views and the Irish position to WolfgangSchüssel. I will be represented at ministerial level. That is probably the view of most, if not all, member states.
The Finns are due to ratify the constitution shortly, becoming the 16th country to do so. It has now been ratified by a large majority of countries and a large majority of the population. Germany has stated that it wants the matter carried forward during its Presidency next year. The problem for the German Presidency next year is that the French election is not due until the end of the Presidency so the time to make any progress afterwards is too short. The Germans will press forward on the issue but I do not envisage them being able to get to a conclusion on it given that they will only have about ten days after the election to make progress.
I also spoke to the President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, on Friday. I reminded him that the last thing the Commission should engage in is proposals to start cherry-picking the constitution in any area. As Deputy Kenny is aware, there are some ideas around in that regard as well. It would be the wrong thing to do and just cause difficulties in the future and make it harder to deal with these issues. I was central to the debate about many of the balances on these matters. To try to go back to the Nice treaty, when there was a huge discussion, and to start picking out these issues would create great difficulties. That is not just an Irish view; the majority of countries would hold that view.
The Germans were firm in their denunciation of that on JHA issues last week and I agree with the Chancellor's view. To start cherry-picking what was a delicately balanced document — it was not just balanced in the Irish Presidency but also in the Convention and in the discussions — will create untold damage. It is better to wait until after the elections before taking it forward. At that stage, I believe 17 or 18 countries might have ratified the constitution.
The committee recommended legislation rather than constitutional change to give rights to non-marital heterosexual and same sex couples. The Taoiseach is correct that a constitutional amendment was not recommended. However, the committee took the view that people in non-traditional marital or couple arrangements should have the same rights as other citizens and it recommended legislative change. The committee recommended legislation to provide for cohabiting, heterosexual couples by either a civil partnership or a presumptive scheme. It recommended that civil partnership legislation should be provided for same sex couples. It also recommended similar legislation to meet the needs of other long-term cohabiting couples.
Does the Taoiseach accept that this is an issue of acute concern, for obvious reasons, for a significant number of our population? Am I right in deducing that the Government has decided to kick the issue to touch and that no legislation will be brought forward in the lifetime of this Dáil?
The majority view in the committee was that a referendum that proposed to extend the definition of family would be divisive and, having created division, would not necessarily carry majority support. Rather than put our community through a divisive campaign the committee decided to examine whether the problems presented in the submissions might be dealt with by a combination of other less divisive constitutional and legislative proposals. I agree with that approach.
I also agree with the Deputy. It is a divisive issue and there are those who hold the view put forward by the Deputy. At the launch of the report it was clear that there were people who held the other view. There was strong division between the statements made at the launch. The Government established a distinguished group under Anne Colley, which commenced its work last February and is due to finish at the end of October, to report on how we should take these issues forward. Having spoken to Anne Colley recently, I am aware the group intends to adhere to its remit and have the report ready in the autumn or early winter. We must then consider how to proceed. I certainly would not rule out the possibility that we could at least start, if not complete, a legislative process over the winter.
I am surprised to hear the Taoiseach say there will be no referendum given that the Minister for Foreign Affairs has made a case for one. The Children's Rights Alliance says we need a referendum on enshrining the rights of children in the Constitution. It appeared before the United Nations with a report, From Rhetoric To Rights. While there may not be a referendum in the lifetime of this Government, does the Taoiseach recognise the need for a referendum to enshrine the rights of children in the Constitution? Does he see that as part of a response to the 250 children who have gone missing from a Health Service Executive funded residential centre in Dublin and to the growing suspicion of trafficking in children? Is the Taoiseach amenable to such a referendum as proposed by the Children's Rights Alliance?
A number of groups have put forward suggestions about amendments and seek a constitutional referendum. My view is that all these issues should be examined in the context of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution. To take one and go with it is——
As well as the alliance there are a number of others who have put their views forward and are seeking a constitutional referendum. That would be to take one view and not to consider the others. These are issues that will have to be examined in the context of the group. They are difficult issues and, from reading some of the correspondence, there are strongly held views on these issues. We will have to examine them within the committee.
Does the Taoiseach intend to address by constitutional referendum the ongoing speculation in building land in the State? Each year of the Government's tenure, the speculative ventures and profits of the speculators have become more blatant and more obscene, being driven by more naked greed. Does he agree there is an urgent need to address this issue given that young working people pay the price for the speculators' greed and bloat their already huge profits by being shackled with 40 year mortgages?
Will the Taoiseach refer to the All-Party Committee on the Constitution the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006, which was rushed through the House, to deal with the blatant criminalisation of male teenagers engaged in consensual relations while female teenagers, quite correctly, are not criminalised? Does this matter not need to be urgently addressed by the Government?
On the issue of building land, as I said here recently in reply to another question, the issue is being dealt with legislatively. The issue of zoning sufficient land does not need a constitutional referendum.
On the second issue, all the issues arising from that legislation and the fallout from the Supreme Court decision should be dealt with in the committee. The legislation is passed. Any issues people consider are not substantially passed, including the equality issue raised by the Deputy, should be examined by the all-party committee.
Given that real reform of the Seanad would require a referendum, will the Taoiseach initiate constitutional reform so that the Seanad can be elected by universal suffrage of citizens throughout the 32 counties? This would provide for Six Counties representation in the Oireachtas. Will the Taoiseach also restore his proposal for MPs from the Six Counties to be accommodated here by means of the Dáil sitting as a committee in whole? Given that, during the Good Friday Agreement and the negotiations since, the Taoiseach gave a commitment that speaking rights would be forthcoming for MPs from the Six Counties to address the House, will he fulfil his commitment in that regard?
The Seanad reform group has presented its report. A group, chaired by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Roche, is examining that report. Any questions on the matter should be put to the Minister, Deputy Roche. Any changes would not be of the nature suggested by Deputy Ferris. I did say as part of the proposals that an extension of how we appoint Senators, to ensure there are Senators from Northern Ireland that represent all communities in Northern Ireland, should be looked at as part of the proposals to increase their representation, but that they should be selected in the normal way. That is what the proposal was.
In regard to participation by elected members from Northern Ireland in committees, I have already stated the proposal we have so that they could attend a committee of the House. The only way we can get agreement on that issue is through the position I have outlined.
The Government has given a commitment for Irish participation in EU battle groups and legislation will be published to permit Irish troops to train abroad as part of this commitment. However, foreign armies cannot train in this country. Has the Taoiseach any plans to hold a referendum to permit troops from foreign armies to train in Ireland? Does he not regard it as unusual that if Ireland is part of a battle group, our troops can train elsewhere but those who make up the battle group with us will not be able to train in this country?