Tuesday, 4 November 2008
Ceisteanna — Questions
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the constitutional referenda he will hold during the remainder of 2008; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29458/08]
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Constitution; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29493/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The Government does not plan to hold any constitutional referendum at present. I would like it put on the record again that neither I nor my Department is responsible for the implementation of all the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Constitution.
The fine work of the current committee and its predecessors has produced 11 reports, which form a very useful repository of informed work on various aspects of the Constitution. Many recommendations have been acted upon and many others continue to be under active consideration by the relevant Minister or Department. However, the committee does not report to me — the reports are published and the recommendations are made for all.
As issues arise, they will be dealt with appropriately and the valuable information contained in these reports will be availed of. If there is any particular recommendation of interest to Deputies, they should get in touch with, or table a parliamentary question to, the relevant Minister.
Arising from the Taoiseach's response, will he outline the Government's current position on the endorsement of the Lisbon treaty? Everybody knows the decision of the Irish people was in the negative. The fact is that the Lisbon treaty cannot come into effect unless or until it is endorsed by the people of this country.
An analysis was carried out of the "No" campaign. Was any analysis carried out of the "Yes" campaign? Have the Heads of the other EU Governments asked the Taoiseach to consider holding a second Lisbon treaty referendum before the European Parliament elections scheduled for the first week of June 2009? If so, will spending and fundraising rules be introduced to prevent a repeat of the behaviour of a number of groups and organisations involved in the last Lisbon treaty campaign?
What is the position of the Taoiseach, as Head of Government, on responding in December to the Heads of Government meeting at the Council in view of President Sarkozy's statement that his aim is to reach agreement between the 27 member states on the common path during that meeting?
Our position on the Lisbon treaty is obviously as Deputy Kenny states. What we have been doing with colleagues, counterparts, governments and institutions in the European Union is providing them with the information we have gleaned from the survey on why people voted "Yes" or "No" in the referendum in May, and indicating to them, as I did at the October meeting, the broad areas we need to discuss further as to whether concerns raised during the last campaign can be dealt with. Our task is to engage in this exercise with them between now and December. On the basis of the outcome of that exercise, we will determine how to proceed from there. Obviously, it is the hope of the Government and the other 26 member states to be able to indicate a pathway forward and the elements to move the issue forward.
On the question of spending and fundraising rules, I have not sought to address that issue in any way. It has not arisen and we are still working on the policy issues concerned.
The statements of the President of the Council obviously reflect the European Council conclusions which we discussed here last week and which indicate the hope that we can all outline the elements of the way forward by way of a roadmap.
Arising from that reply, does the Taoiseach agree the Lisbon treaty cannot be endorsed or brought into effect unless or until the Irish people decide to do so? Does he accept there are only two options, namely, to proceed down some legal route, with some element of constitutionality thrown in, or to decide to put the question to the people again? I respect the good work the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union in this regard. I have seen some of the contributions made at its meetings. I am sure the sub-committee will publish a number of recommendations or proposals when it concludes its work on 28 November 2008.
Consider the serious implications for the next European Commission, which, according to the Nice treaty, must have its membership reduced to a number less than the number of member states in the Union, that is, less than 27. There is considerable angst and concern in EU member states over the fighting of the EU elections on the basis of the Nice treaty rather than the Lisbon treaty, as they had expected. These are obviously matters for the Taoiseach and the Government to consider. Are we likely to have another attempt to have the Lisbon treaty endorsed? That is the bottom line. If that is to be the eventual decision does the Taoiseach see it happening before or after the European elections in June next year?
The Deputy is asking me to speculate on work that is still ongoing, its purpose being to see in what way the concerns raised by the people can be addressed. Until that exercise is conducted and until we see if we can form the basis of an agreement to move forward it is speculative to say what might happen. Obviously we are very grateful that colleague governments and other member states are providing us with the opportunity to explore those options with them. Until we explore them, have those conversations and see what is available, we know only one thing, namely, that 26 states do not wish to revert to their parliaments for re-ratification of the treaty. It is also obvious that unless all 27 states ratify the treaty it will not come into force. The political dilemma is how to act in solidarity with colleagues and other member states while respecting the decision we came to; we must see in what way we can move the situation forward based on further clarification and elucidation of the concerns raised during the course of the last referendum. That is the exercise we are involved in at present and to project beyond that at this point is premature.
Last week in the Dáil the Taoiseach told us that it was his intention always to be honest and straight with the Irish electorate. I would not question the Taoiseach's honesty but how straight is he being with us in this House and with the electorate? Last week he had ample opportunity to indicate to us his intentions regarding a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Today he has again had the opportunity and yet we read over the course of the weekend that it is the intention of the Government to hold a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty in 2009. Will the Taoiseach comment on those press reports and tell us exactly what status he attributes to them? How accurate are they? It is important that we know exactly the situation. How straight is the Taoiseach with the electorate when so far he has clearly failed to accept the verdict of the people in respect of the Lisbon treaty during the earlier stage of this year? He will differ strongly from what I have to say.
Will the Taoiseach accept that it is of great concern to the people that they have exercised their democratic right and have expressed their will in the course of a properly constituted referendum? They have given their answer. The Irish electorate expects the Taoiseach and Government to represent its views in Europe and not to kowtow to what is clearly a bullying exercise on the part of other parliamentary interests across the European Union. The Taoiseach will reject this terminology but can he outline to us what steps he has taken to address the critical issues that were identified during the course of the referendum, namely, sovereignty, neutrality, workers' rights, protection of public services, etc.? What steps has he taken to seek to re-negotiate a treaty that will address all those core concerns of the people? These include a social progress clause for workers, strengthening of key vetoes in public services, taxation and international trade, the securing of the removal of the self-amending clauses including Article 48 and the retention of Ireland's permanent Commissioner. Would the Taoiseach agree that these are the actions, utterances and commitments that the electorate, having clearly spoken during the course of a protracted Lisbon referendum campaign earlier this year, now expects of its Taoiseach and Government? Does he accept that there is no evidence that he has in any way lived up to those expectations and that there is a clear and ever growing frustration, not only on the part of those who voted "No" to Lisbon but also among many who voted "Yes" and are looking on in incredulity at their Government's failure to respect democratic wishes?
My party asked the following question of the Taoiseach's predecessor regarding the Nice treaty and perhaps the Taoiseach will avail of the opportunity to make his position clear on the matter. If he is proposing to have a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, will he let us have a "best of three"?
I fundamentally disagree with Deputy Ó Caoláin on all these matters for the following reasons. The decision of the Irish people is being respected and the Lisbon treaty cannot be ratified without the agreement of all member states, including the Irish people, in the matter. The problem we have is our understanding of the consequences of the real situation. The Deputy outlined to me the Sinn Féin version of the world which is that we would go back and renegotiate the treaty. Having spoken to the Heads of State and Government of the other 26 member states which negotiated the treaty, the option of renegotiation is not available because they do not wish to re-ratify or renegotiate the treaty.
Sinn Féin adapts its position from time to time to suit its circumstances. I have attended many functions at which prominent members of the Deputy's party who hold executive responsibility welcomed the fact that funds are being provided under INTERREG on the Border for this, that and the other. Thanks to the solidarity of citizens of the European Union, many millions of euro have facilitated all of that.
At the same time, however, the Deputy is telling me not to kowtow to bullying exercises. There is no bullying taking place; member states are stating positions. Ireland must decide where this leaves us, what we want to do about it and which of the concerns raised it will be possible to have addressed in a way that would give people more confidence on some of the issues. That is my job and responsibility.
Deputy Ó Caoláin can remain on the Opposition benches, from which he can continue to argue that the Irish people has spoken and that is the end of the matter but I have to determine what is in our national interest arising out of that decision, while also respecting it. The idea that this matter is done and dusted, we can proceed as before, our position has not changed, our interests are fine and we can wait to see whether others will decide to renegotiate the treaty, is wrong. Other member states have stated their position.
Obviously, if we maintain our present position and the treaty is not ratified, it will create a new political situation at European level, which I do not believe would be in our interests. In the meantime, I will do my job, which is to see in what way I can address some of the concerns being raised. I will establish from member states at the December Council what precisely is available, rather that what the Deputy claims is or should be available, in this 27-way street as opposed to two-way or one-way street. A consensus has been built up over many years of negotiation and we have made a certain decision which others respect. Having established what further issues can be addressed to us, we will return to the House and determine where we will go from there.
One cannot continue to carry on as if the realities are as set out by Deputy Ó Caoláin. All the realities have to be put on the table and if the reality is that Irish people decide they do not want to be part of the building up of the institutions of the European Union or the direction in which it is going, let us have a clear understanding of how that affects our interests. Let us have a debate on the issue.
Let us understand what we are doing as a consequence. I am not questioning the decision. That decision was taken. Decisions are taken by democratic vote in parliaments and by governments and local authorities every day of the week. However, I would be a long time waiting for Deputy Ó Caoláin's view of the world to extend to me.
This is not about one's view of the world. Does the Taoiseach not accept it is about one's view of the democratically expressed will of the Irish people? With all due respect to the response he has given, which was a typical filibuster on his part, he never answered a single question I put to him.
Will the Taoiseach accept it is not about Sinn Féin's previous disposition about the European Union, as he likes to put it in his reply as if that were in some way substantive? It was as empty a response as could be. Does he not have a responsibility to answer this Deputy fairly and the Irish people responsibly, and state clearly what his intentions are? He has failed time after time to use the opportunity to confirm the situation. This is another opportunity for him.
No newspaper can anticipate Government decisions. They can write about them and there are many items in the average Sunday newspaper and in daily newspapers. I would have to spend a great deal of time here talking to the Deputy if I was answerable for every one of them.
We will leave that aside for the moment. The first point is that no decision has been taken on a second referendum. The second point is that the situation at the moment is as the people decided last May. The third point is that the 26 other member states have given their views as a result of that and, fourth, it is my job to work with them to see whether the concerns raised in the referendum might possibly be addressed so that we can make an assessment of where we go from here. Finally, the idea that we can reject the treaty and there are no consequences is cuckoo land.
Will the Taoiseach consult with Opposition party leaders in advance of the December summit? Will he say whether there is any provision in the Estimates and the budget for the holding of a referendum in 2009? The question relates not just to whether there will be another referendum on Europe, but to referendums in general. What is the position in relation to the holding of a referendum on children's rights and what are the Government's intentions in that regard?
Reference is made in the Agreed Programme for Government to the possibility of a referendum on the introduction of means to ensure that criminal trials may no longer be collapsed on the grounds of legal technicalities. Is it intended to hold a referendum on that matter?
I do not have any supplementary information on the last point raised by the Deputy.
I have no problem talking to Opposition party leaders before the December Council meeting.
No provision was made in the Estimates for a referendum next year because no decision has been taken. Calls for a constitutional amendment to enshrine children's rights under the Constitution have been referred to. Government proposals to amend the Constitution in relation to children were published in the Twenty-eighth Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2007. The programme for Government includes a commitment to deepen consensus on these proposals. As a result, a Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children was established in November 2007. The committee has already presented an interim report to the Oireachtas recommending that the Government should publish legislation to establish a statutory scheme for Garda vetting and the exchange of soft information on persons posing a threat to children. That is the current position.
Am I to understand from that response that the Taoiseach has confirmed no financial provision has been made for the holding of a referendum in 2009 and that the position, therefore, is that the Government has no plans to hold a referendum on any matter in 2009?
I cannot anticipate any Government decision. As of today, that is the situation. I have explained what the Government is attempting to achieve in its work with colleagues at the European level, arising out of the various European Councils we have had and the conclusions that have been reached since the most recent referendum. I do not wish to anticipate any decision until we see how this process proceeds.
I return to the Lisbon treaty. The Taoiseach said we were assessing the implications of our decision through the work of the sub-committee and considering how the reason Ireland voted "No" can be addressed and how we can move ahead. There are some practical problems in that regard. By this time next year we will have to deal with the question of the Commission and its size. Currently, the Commission is decided on the basis of the Nice treaty — for which we voted on the second occasion — and this means the Commission must be smaller than the number of member states and some countries would lose out in terms of the appointment of a Commissioner. Does the Taoiseach envisage a situation whereby the lifetime of the existing Commission could be extended into 2010, which would allow for plenty of time for the Taoiseach to consider the options open to him, and the question of the extension of the Commission would not be a constitutional issue? I would say the 27 member states could agree this.
From my involvement with the European People's Party, I can confirm for the Taoiseach that there is a major practical issue with regard to the holding of the elections next June on the basis of Nice, rather than Lisbon as originally intended. The Irish people have made their decision on this and it is expected the elections will be fought on the basis of the Nice treaty, which has implications for the number of MEPs in a number of countries, but does not impact on us. Does the Taoiseach see this issue being addressed at the December summit or is it a foregone conclusion that the elections next year will be held on the basis of the Nice treaty?
Another problem brought to my attention relates to referenda generally, where there may be a need for tidying up. No disrespect to the current incumbent, but a number of people have mentioned that the period of time for the Presidency is seven years. There seems to be a view that this might be adjusted to a five-year period, but this would require a referendum. I do not know whether the Taoiseach's immediate predecessor is interested in that, but I hear comments in that regard in various locations around the country. Has the Taoiseach a view on that?
I do not see any reason to change the term of office of the President of Ireland, as seven years is a proper and adequate length. I am not aware of any major public demand to change the term.
On the other questions, if the treaty of Lisbon is not ratified before May 2009, the European Parliament elections will have to be held under the existing arrangements. The question of whether that will be the case depends on the work that is ongoing. I cannot anticipate the outcome of the December Council or what its conclusions will be. Obviously, member states would like to bring some clarity to the issue of the basis for the holding the elections at that point. Many of their selection arrangements will, I am sure, kick in and the list systems in countries with various methods of selection will come into play on these issues. That issue may be addressed at the December Council meeting.
However, it is idle to speculate beyond the fact that we are engaged in this process and we have undertaken with colleagues to proceed with our efforts. Come December, it is the hope of all 27 member states that we will be in a position to set out the elements of a roadmap so that certainty and clarity are brought to issues in order to address some of the uncertainties to which the Deputy referred.
In regard to the Commission, I could not offer a substitute for the legal advice of the Commission and the Council's legal services on these matters in terms of the practical arrangements which might be found. In purely legal terms, I would not think there is much leeway beyond the tenure itself. Some form of minor extension may be possible but I do not think it could be done as simply as was suggested.
I raise the issue because, as the Taoiseach will be aware, the Lisbon treaty contains a reverse clause. Irrespective of how the Government decides to seek endorsement of Lisbon by the Irish people, the 27 member states could decide in December, if the treaty is endorsed by Ireland, to invoke this clause. According to Millward Brown and others, retaining a Commissioner was a matter of interest to the Irish people, although it was my view that, with 27 Commissioners, we would have Commissioners for back gardens and whatever else rather than positions with real influence. Perhaps the other 26 Heads of State will consider the clause in conjunction with the Taoiseach at December's Council meeting.
A range of views are expressed on individual issues but, particularly in light of events that have arisen in the past several months, such as the Georgia situation and the international financial crisis, it is a strongly held view that speedy co-ordination and institutional rigour within the institutions are prerequisites for the Union's effectiveness, not only in its own region but also globally. The other 26 member states firmly believe that the institutional arrangements of the Lisbon treaty would greatly advance the effectiveness of the European Union in its present enlarged situation and were other states to join subsequently. In regard to these matters, which are often discussed in isolation, many member states would contend that a delicate institutional balance was struck between the Parliament, the Commission and the Council, and the changes must be seen as a package. It is important that we understand this view is strongly held by others.
I will conclude on the issue of the Lisbon treaty by noting the Taoiseach's remark that he has reached no decision in regard to how he intends to proceed, whether by constitutional referendum or otherwise. Leaving aside Government decisions, he has not yet told us his intentions.
On a separate constitutional matter and not to let the opportunity pass, has the Taoiseach given consideration since taking office to an idea proposed by my party when we tabled a Bill on the constitutional right to housing? Has the Taoiseach noted, as many of us who leave this institution late in the evening do, the number of people who remain homeless on the streets of this city? Does he accept this is not confined to the streets of Dublin but is echoed in many major population centres and large towns throughout the country? Would he accept that, in this ever-straightening economic climate, with repossession requests building almost weekly and repossession orders being granted, more and more people are facing straightened circumstances in respect of housing provision for themselves and their families? A key approach would be a confirmation of the constitutional right of citizens to housing, which would be a significant impetus in addressing the need of social housing provision throughout the country. This has not been addressed with the focus required, or we would not be looking at such misery on our streets. At this time of the year, it becomes increasingly apparent and distressing. I ask the Taoiseach to take my urging on this matter. It is a matter on which we could find common purpose and support.
The constitutional tradition is not to enumerate each constitutional right in the Constitution. We have a doctrine of unenumerated rights, directives of social policy, Articles 41 and 44 and a range of articles where the rights of citizens are well-protected by our courts. They have displayed an ability to develop Irish jurisprudence in a way in which we can all be proud.
In recent times, there has been a tendency to suggest including in the Constitution every problem that is identified. The Constitution is a set of principles, which are not meant as an all-encompassing set of rights limited to those mentioned therein. Nor are they interpreted by those in the Supreme Court — the only ones who can interpret the Constitution — as such. That has been a fundamental part of Irish judicial thinking for many years. Through the provisions that exist, we can seek to ensure that statutory rights are respected and that we continue with the developments in this area, of which this Administration can be proud. One quarter of all houses extant in Ireland have been built in the past 12 or 13 years.
The Taoiseach referred to the consequences of the referendum decision on the Lisbon treaty. One of those consequences was that Irish citizens do not have access to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which would have been part of the Lisbon treaty, had it been ratified. That would have provided Irish citizens, in European law, with a right to housing. Has the Taoiseach or the Government given consideration to enshrining the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the Constitution?
No, one must be careful that what might seem like a good idea might raise questions of interpretation and might affect existing jurisprudence. These are complex issues and the Charter of Fundamental Rights stands in its own right. It has been set within the treaty context. Incorporating this into our constitutional law in that way would not necessarily provide the clarity people believe it might bring in terms of how it would impact on existing property rights, etc., within our Constitution. This is a complex area of the direct applicability of EU law. Our treaties are incorporated as part of our constitutional law, depending on what provisions we use in terms of when we put them before the people. In practice, that has been the outcome.
In an effort to bring more clarity to the situation, we are concentrating very much on some of the issues raised that had an impact on people's view of the treaty. I emphasise again that all the evidence suggests that the Irish people are pro the European Union and pro what we have achieved during the past 35 years. Specific issues arose which were debated. People took a certain view on them. Whether there was a sufficient legal basis for that view is not something I want to go into now, but clearly we need to bring some more clarity to these issues. We should concentrate on that in the coming months.
Will the Taoiseach note my disappointment that he does not view a constitutional amendment on an entitlement to housing as a priority or something he is prepared to consider? Will he accept also that the enshrining of a particular right in the Constitution is not the assertion of a principle, that the Constitution creates an imperative, that there is a huge and critical difference here and that the Government must respect that and act accordingly? The imperative that placing the right to housing in the Constitution would create would allow for hopefully a more dynamic approach to housing provision that could address the terrible tragedy that unfolds outside this institution every night of every week year on year?
The point I am making is that I would be very slow to change the Constitution. There must be a strong imperative to do so. The objectives the Deputy seeks to achieve can be achieved without the necessity of inserting such a constitutional principle into the Constitution. The directives on social policy as part of that constitutional document have provided a means by which we have seen a veritable social revolution in this country in terms of the state of the nation and the quality of life we now enjoy. That flexibility was one of the geniuses behind its creation and subsequent enactment.
In regard to amending the Constitution, we had the All- Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, which produced ten or 11 reports, the last of which was produced in January 2006. That process appears to have run out of steam. Very few of the recommendations for constitutional change made by the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution appear to have been given effect. What is the Government's position on the reports of the all-party committee? Are they now to gather dust or is there some programme or plan by which recommendations made by the all-party committee will be given effect in constitutional change?
The Government's record of acting on recommendations of that particular committee has been good I would argue and most of the more significant proposals have been acted upon. The recommendations involving a constitutional amendment that were acted upon include the abolition of reference to the death penalty, the abortion question and the local government recognition issue; the judicial oversight issue was not passed by the Dáil. Other recommendations acted upon which did not require a constitutional amendment include the conduct of referenda and the scrutiny of EU business. I do not believe that any of the work of the committee on the Constitution was wasted; even if some recommendations were not acted upon immediately, the work of the committee provides a very firm basis for consideration of many issues involving a constitutional change into the future. These are also points to be made in this context.