Dáil debates

Thursday, 8 November 2007

4:00 pm

Photo of Joe CostelloJoe Costello (Dublin Central, Labour)
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I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this item. I am also pleased that the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Roche, who is responsible for this area, is here.

It seems there is no sense of urgency on the part of the Government in communicating the contents of the reform treaty to the people of Ireland. I raised this matter with the Taoiseach, asking him what were his proposals for the lead-up to the ratification of the reform treaty. Amazingly, he answered briefly, stating that there were none at this stage. It was an incredible answer. Ireland is the only one of 27 countries that must undergo a referendum, all other countries will ratify the treaty by a vote in parliament. There is an onus on Ireland to get it right.

There is an onus to transmit information as quickly as possible. The reform treaty is not the most simple document. It is difficult to read and unintelligible to the layman. The constitutional treaty was in a different format and was a well-written consolidation document. The reform treaty is an amendment of the other seven treaties and is written in legalese. It is easy to understand if one is a lawyer but the people who will vote on it will find it difficult to understand.

The Taoiseach stated he could not produce any plans until Ireland formally signed the document on 13 December. However, the Government approved the document on 16 October, nearly two months before it will be signed. The text was approved on that occasion in Brussels. All that remains is for the 27 member states to formally sign what they have approved. There is no reason the Government should delay in preparing for the ratification.

The Joint Committee on European Affairs met this week and was full of enthusiasm for inviting Commissioners and Members of the European Parliament, holding meetings in the provinces and holding public meetings. Its response is to play a major role. The National Forum on Europe, which I attended this morning, produced a document on what it proposed, including meetings and publications. The Government, which has already approved the text, and which will sign the text on our behalf pending ratification, shows no leadership. I am worried that we will see a repetition of the Nice treaty. In 2001 the Irish people rejected that treaty initially because they were ignorant of the contents. The Fianna Fáil-led Government showed similar negligence and inertia in communicating the contents in a legible fashion.

The Minister of State is enthusiastic about ratification but the Taoiseach's reply shows no sense of urgency at the highest point of leadership. I urge the Minister of State to ensure the Cabinet discusses this as a matter of urgency and that we communicate the sense of urgency to the Houses and the country at large.

5:00 pm

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I am grateful to Deputy Costello for raising this matter because it is important to have a full, frank, open and honest debate on the issue. The reform treaty was agreed by European Heads of State and Government at the informal European Council in Lisbon on 18 and 19 October. It is planned that the treaty will be signed at the European Council in December. Thereafter, the treaty will need to be ratified by each member state.

After 50 years of European integration, the EU treaties were in need of updating. That process has been under way since the European Convention in which I participated with former Deputies John Bruton and De Rossa. Deputies Gormley and Pat Carey operated as alternates.

The reform treaty is an important achievement for the EU. We now have a treaty that will allow the European Union to turn away from institutional reform and focus instead on delivering tangible benefits to our citizens. The treaty preserves the essential substance and balance of the draft European constitution, which was the product of lengthy and inclusive negotiations culminating during Ireland's 2004 EU Presidency. It is a pity the treaty is not contained in a single document. That is the format we would have wished for but events conspired to change the circumstances.

The treaty will serve to equip the European Union to deal with the challenges of the future. Ratification of the EU reform treaty will be a priority for the Government. It is, of course, a matter for each country to determine how it will ratify the treaty and most of our EU partners intend to do so through parliamentary means. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has requested legal advice from the Attorney General on whether ratification of the EU reform treaty will require an amendment to the Constitution. This is a legal formality that is observed on each occasion that an EU treaty comes for ratification.

As on previous occasions, a referendum commission will be created to inform the public about the treaty and to encourage citizens to exercise their right to vote. As was the case with the previous EU referendum in 2002, the referendum commission will be properly resourced so as to enable it to carry out its role in an effective manner. I have already had a meeting with the Minister for Finance on financing for the commission.

The Government will also undertake an information campaign to explain the contents of the treaty and its benefits to Ireland. This is a challenging task given the inevitably complex character of the reform treaty. Nonetheless, it will also be an important opportunity for us to have an informed and comprehensive debate about Ireland's place within the European Union.

To this end, work is already under way on producing accessible material that explains the main elements of the treaty in plain language. More detailed information on the treaty is already available on the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Public representatives have a special responsibility to promote constructive, well-informed public debate on issues of such national importance. In that regard, I urge all Members of the Oireachtas to engage with the public on the treaty.

The National Forum on Europe will also have an important role to play in promoting greater awareness of, and debate on, the reform treaty. The forum has done an outstanding job since it was established. We are the envy of many of our EU partners in having such a forum and I look forward to its work. I also look forward to working with the Joint Committee on European Affairs and I have had some informal contact with the Chairman already.

We have considerable experience of ratifying European treaties by referendum and our track record is good. The first Nice referendum taught us the salutary lesson that there can be no room for complacency. The House need have no concerns about complacency while I am in this role. There is wide public appreciation of Europe's importance to Ireland and of the role that we play within the European Union. The Irish public has been shown to be consistently among the most positive in Europe about the advantages of EU membership.

Along with my colleagues in Government, I look forward to playing an active role in informing the public about this important treaty. Colleagues from Fine Gael and the Labour Party have indicated they will be active. I welcome the positive statements on the record of this House by Deputies Kenny and Gilmore. I will write to all Members of the Oireachtas in the next few days providing details of the treaty. I will be available to Deputies and Senators from all sides of the House and from all viewpoints, those in favour and those opposed, if further briefing or explanations are required.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I intend to make information available to every Member. This will be a vigorous, frank debate that we must carry to the people. This treaty will free us from the introspection Europe has had for the past six years. It will allow the 27 member states of the European Union to progress and serve all the people of Europe. I hope the debate will be informed and honest and that the Irish people will, as they have done previously, vote "Yes" to Europe.