Dáil debates

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Ceisteanna — Questions

Agreements with Members.

2:30 pm

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the nature of the agreement between the Government and Deputy Jackie Healy-Rae; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29487/08]

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 the nature of the agreement between the Government and Deputy Michael Lowry; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29488/08]

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach the nature of the agreement between the Government and Deputy Finian McGrath; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29489/08]

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Question 4: To ask the Taoiseach the arrangements in place in his office for providing special assistance to certain Independent Members of Dáil Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29490/08]

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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Question 5: To ask the Taoiseach the arrangements in place for providing assistance to certain Independent Members of Dáil Éireann; the Members who benefit from this arrangement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32378/08]

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Question 6: To ask the Taoiseach the changes that have occurred in arrangements between the Government and the Independent Deputies of Dáil Éireann; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37597/08]

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

These are political agreements that my predecessor entered into as leader of the Fianna Fáil Party with individual Independent Deputies. I have confirmed to those Deputies concerned that I will continue to implement those agreements. The House is aware such agreements have existed for over 11 years. The House is also aware of the decision taken by Deputy Finian McGrath to withdraw from his agreement.

The agreements are confidential but they are, as always, based on the programme for Government which incorporates the national development plan, approved Government programmes and annual Estimates for capital and current expenditure.

I have continued the practice whereby a staff member in my office assists the Government Chief Whip's office in its work in liasing with these Deputies. This official meets with these Deputies on a regular basis and arranges to keep them briefed on issues as they arise. The official dealing with the Deputies is an assistant principal and he assists the Chief Whip in this matter.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to see we are graced with the presence of a Green Minister today; it is most unusual. I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley.

Photo of John GormleyJohn Gormley (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Dublin South East, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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He is reflecting on Ringsend today. As I understand it there was a specific agreement with the Independent Members of the House, including Deputy Finian McGrath, who is not here now. He seems to have withdrawn his support for the Government so is the agreement that was in place with him now withdrawn? Does it stand or have any relevance?

What is the arrangement that now applies between the Government and the remaining Independents? Is there a weekly meeting, how many officials attend that meeting, if so, and is there a prescriptive list being followed from the documents that are supposed to be worth millions?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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As I outlined in my initial reply, Deputy Finian McGrath has withdrawn from the agreement on the basis that he can no longer formally offer support to the Government.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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His agreement has ended.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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It is not being worked through on the basis of his own decision to withdraw support from the Government.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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Fair enough.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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That was the basis on which it was provided. I am sure he will continue to make representations and seek to obtain benefits for his constituency as he is entitled to, like any other Member. There is a liaison arrangement, as I have said, with the Chief Whip, who is assisted by a person from my office in dealing with other Independents who support the Government, and they meet from time to time as required.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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In the case of Deputies Healy-Rae or Lowry, for example, does the Whip meet with both Independent Deputies on a weekly basis, together with somebody from the Taoiseach's office? Is that a good use of a public servant's time? These are so-called secret deals that nobody knows anything about except the Government, the Whip and the person from the Taoiseach's office. Are these meetings a progress report on road X or project Y? Is that the kind of format the Whip and the person from the Taoiseach's office goes through in order to see that the Independents in question are kept comfortable?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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As I stated in both my original reply and the supplementary, there is a liaison arrangement so the Chief Whip, as he would with Members from all parties, has ongoing contact with regard to the business of the House and any other issues arising that would be of interest to the people who support the Government. The arrangements and contacts are informal and could take the form of a meeting, phone call or other form of contact.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I have a final point. The Taoiseach rightly states that every Deputy is entitled to make representations. Is there any priority accorded to these Independent Deputies in representations they make, along with other Deputies from the Government side, with regard to particular projects or issues that may arise in constituencies from time to time? Is the effect of the meetings with the Whip and the person from the Taoiseach's office to accord the Independents any priority over Deputies on the Government backbenches or those in other parts of the House who make perfectly legitimate representations?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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In his dealings, the Chief Whip extends courtesy to all Members. Those who support the Government get his particular attention.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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The Taoiseach referred to an official in his Department assisting the Independent Deputies and their special arrangement with the Government. I understand, from previous replies, the person is at the level of assistant principal officer. An assistant principal officer is on the same scale as a Deputy and would earn up to €100,000 a year. I understand the person spends much time minding the Independent Deputies but even if only a third of his or her time was used in this way, in current economic conditions, when the Government is withdrawing foreign language support teachers etc. and when the Estimates have hit various elements of service very severely, how can this be justified? Surely they could mind themselves. They hardly need the ministrations, for however long, of an assistant principal officer.

As regards the economic situation, the Taoiseach said he would take whatever steps are necessary and whatever temporary adjustments are required. The Taoiseach has deals with the Independent Deputies and when Deputy Finian McGrath was in that category it amounted to tens of millions of euro. We have been told, for instance, that extra officials are being deployed to the Equality Authority in Roscrea. Has the fact that we are facing very difficult economic times meant any reduction in the cost of the deals the Taoiseach has done with Independent Deputies? Given the serious economic situation we now find ourselves in, has there been any variation in their part of the programme for Government that is to be implemented at constituency level?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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As I said in the reply, there is an assistant principal officer who, in the course of the duties he undertakes, helps to liaise with Independent Deputies as required. On the question of agreements with them concerning their support for the Government, as I pointed out here last week, all commitments are predicated on the overriding consideration of trying to ensure that we maintain healthy public finances. As we know, there has been a sharp deterioration in the public finance position over the past 12 months in the context of the contraction that has taken place in the international economy generally, which is having its effect here. Ireland is a very open economy, which depends on the demand for exports of goods and services in order to provide revenue, jobs and investment. Priorities must, of course, be established in respect of all aspects of Government administration. That must continue to be the case in the months and years ahead as we try to work our way through this particularly difficult period. The political agreements which have been reached with Deputies who support the Government are also dealt with in that context.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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The Taoiseach and his Minister for Finance have announced the establishment of an bord snip nua specifically to address public service numbers and efficiency. How can the Taoiseach stand over the time of an assistant principal officer being devoted to ministering to Independent Deputies as part of a governmental sweetheart deal? Is this not precisely the kind of waste of Civil Service time that ought to be addressed by some of the legions of Ministers of State who are already very well paid, rather than a civil servant? Such a civil servant earns a salary in the region of €100,000 — the same as Dáil Deputies. If the Taoiseach was serious about cutting back economically, how can he justify this? The Taoiseach may say that the person does not spend much time, but sorting out the various issues that Deputy Healy-Rae raises from time to time would require a degree of ingenuity and thoughtfulness that could take up days or even weeks of a civil servant's time to address fully. I do not understand how the Taoiseach can justify using a civil servant for this arrangement in this time of cutbacks when language teachers are being cut in schools. There are other cutbacks across a range of services, yet we continue to have a senior civil servant, much of whose time is devoted to ministering to these individuals.

The Equality Authority is part of a specific agreement that Deputy Lowry has spoken about in the context of the authority decentralising to Roscrea in his constituency. Some 15 staff of the authority have already been decentralised there, while 25 others are staying in Dublin. Given the cutbacks, what economic sense does it make to have half and half arrangements whereby people are given travel expenses for travelling between Roscrea and Dublin? It is part of the botched decentralisation programme, which has cost the taxpayer up to €1.5 billion so far. Can we afford this kind of largesse, given the economic circumstances in which we find ourselves?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The main liaison in respect of political arrangements is the Chief Whip, but if a person wishes to contact my office, the normal arrangement is for a designated person to handle it. On the one hand, the Deputy argues that no one should be appointed as liaison, as he or she would not have time to do his or her other work and, on the other, the Deputy states that it takes weeks to deal with certain issues. Neither argument is true.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Dublin West, Labour)
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The Taoiseach should ask the Ceann Comhairle.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The normal liaising arrangements apply.

For the purpose of accuracy, a Deputy's salary equates to that of a principal officer, not an assistant principal officer.

The Deputy referred to the decentralisation of the Equality Authority. I do not know from where she got her figures. Last week in the House, I indicated that the amount of money spent in respect of the property aspects of the decentralisation programme is less than the amount obtained through the sales of properties in Dublin vacated as a result of the programme's implementation. Last week's replies to parliamentary questions outlined the details.

This being the case, the system of Departments having more than one location has worked well for the Departments of Finance, Education and Science and Social and Family Affairs and the Revenue Commissioners. I do not see why this should not be the case for the Equality Authority. I assure the Deputy that the rental costs of accommodating people in Roscrea will be much less than what they are being charged in Dublin.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Were the agreements reached between the Independent Deputies and the Government negotiated directly with the Taoiseach's predecessor? If so, was the Taoiseach privy to the detail of what was agreed to secure the support of Deputies Healy-Rae, Finian McGrath and Lowry? If he did not have prior sight of the agreements, has he been given copies? Will the Taoiseach clarify whether my assumption that there were written agreements is correct? Upon ascending to his current position, was he made aware of the detail of the agreements?

The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, the leader of the Green Party, is sitting beside the Taoiseach for Question Time. Were the agreements with the then Taoiseach, the Fianna Fáil Party or the Government? The Deputies gave their support to the Government and have voted with it continuously since last year's general election, irrespective of the issues. If the agreements were with the Government, was the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, who was then leader of the Green Party, is an integral part of the Government and a co-signatory to the programme for Government, made aware of their details?

Given Deputy Finian McGrath's decision to withdraw his support, what were the negative consequences for the issues addressed in his agreement with the Government? Did his withdrawal have a down side for specific projects and commitments entered into? What is the quid pro quo regarding the debit side of the balance sheet as opposed to that relating to the support the Government clearly committed to provide when the agreement entered into with Deputy Finian McGrath was finalised in the aftermath of the general election in 2007?

In view of the fact that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, no longer belongs to a political party and will be an independent member of the Government, will the Taoiseach be entering into negotiations with her in respect of her continued support? Is the Taoiseach happy to allow the Minister to continue to run riot in respect of the health service?

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I reject the Deputy's assertion in respect of the Minister.

I answered the other questions he posed in my initial reply. The agreements in question are political in nature and were entered into by my predecessor as leader of the Fianna Fáil Party with individual Independent Deputies. The House is aware that such arrangements have existed for over 11 years. The decision taken by Deputy Finian McGrath to withdraw from the agreement made with him obviously has its own implications. That is understood. These agreements are confidential but are, as always, based on the programme for Government, which incorporates the national development plan, approved Government programmes and annual Estimates for capital and current expenditure. That answers the questions Deputy Ó Caoláin asked.

These are normal arrangements that have been in place for 11 years. The agreements were entered into by my predecessor. I am aware of their contents and can confirm that they exist in written form. Upon becoming Taoiseach I met those who have given their support to the Government and confirmed my intention to assist in the implementation of their agreements — consistent with the provisions in the programme for Government and overall economic and social policy — in good faith and to the greatest extent possible.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I appreciate the confirmation that the negotiations involving the various Deputies concluded with written agreements and that the Taoiseach is privy to their detail. Will he clarify the position as to when he became privy to their contents? Was it prior to taking up the office of Taoiseach?

Will the Taoiseach also indicate what knowledge Deputy Gormley, leader of the Green Party — an integral part of the Government — and Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, possesses in respect of these agreements? Has the Minister been brought into the loop with regard to what was agreed with Deputies Michael Lowry, Jackie Healy-Rae and Finian McGrath following last year's general election?

The Taoiseach made an extremely important statement in his reply to the initial supplementary questions I posed when he indicated that Deputy Finian McGrath's decision to withdraw his support for the Government "has its own implications". Outside the obvious implication that the Government no longer enjoys the Deputy's voting support in respect of matters dealt with in this Chamber, will the Taoiseach explain the meaning of the term "has its own implications? From what I understand of Deputy Finian McGrath's interests, I believe his agreement related to matters that go beyond the bounds of his constituency. What are the implications for the areas in respect of which he sought agreement and on which, we are informed, he secured commitments from the Government in the context of funding, resourcing, etc.?

The Taoiseach indicated that there are implications. I ask him to indicate in exact terms the nature of those implications. The House, the wider public and the people who live in the specific areas to which parts of the Deputy's agreement related and who will be directly affected have a right to know the position in this regard.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I have just explained that these are political agreements involving the parties in Government and the individuals who support it.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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We are talking about public money.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Absolutely. As already stated, the agreements in question are based on the programme for Government, which incorporates the national development plan, approved Government programmes and annual Estimates for capital and current expenditure. The implication regarding the public finances and the need to prioritise the programmes to which I refer is obviously a matter of extreme importance for the Government. The then leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, in an effort to ensure sufficient support for Government in the House and to allow it to get on with the programme for Government for five years, entered into political negotiations with Independent Deputies, a practice tried and utilised by others when the numbers suited them or they believed an opportunity presented itself to allow them put together a programme for Government. These are the type of normal political arrangements entered into in negotiations. As I said, they are based on the programme for Government and other public documents, which are available, and one continues to seek to implement them to the best extent one can. They are agreements completed through negotiation on the basis of support for Government. If Deputies or any individual seeks to modify, address or change that stance, that has implications, which we all understand. However, this does not mean the Deputy will not continue to make representations or continue in his or her efforts on behalf of their constituents, as would other Members of the House, whether in Government or in Opposition.

Ministers seek to address all issues on the basis of their intrinsic merit in any event. That aspect of the interaction will, I am sure, continue. With respect to the agreements, it is obvious they are dependent upon continued support for the Government.

3:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I fully understand the downsides in terms of the Budget Statement announced by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, on 14 October. We have seen the consequences of the Government's interaction in preparing that budget in terms of the cuts and slashes announced. However, there is something we are not seeing. The Taoiseach has confirmed to the House that there are implications in respect of Deputy McGrath's decision to withdraw his support for Government. I put it to him that it is not through reading the headlines or watching the nuance of some news report that we will get an understanding of these implications. We do not know, in the first instance, what is in these agreements, which I argue we should. We know only by way of confirmation from the Taoiseach today that there are implications in this regard. I believe it is the Taoiseach's responsibility to spell out what exactly are those implications.

We understand, though we oppose, the decisions announced in the budget and which will be followed through in the Finance Bill. However, there are other forces at work here. Other decisions have been taken in regard to resources, which are to be either withdrawn, withheld or delayed. We do not know what is the position in this regard. I am asking that the Taoiseach spell out what is the Government's decision and response in this regard. Deputy McGrath and every other Deputy continues to lobby on all of the interests and issues of direct concern to them and they have a right to that hearing by every Minister and Minister of State, without question. A specific agreement was made with Deputy McGrath, who has withdrawn his support for Government. The Taoiseach has stated there are implications in this regard. It is not good enough to just brush off the questioning today and to tell us the information is contained in the subtext of a report and so on. We want this information spelled out. We have every right to know what is contained in the agreements and what are the consequences of Deputy McGrath's withdrawing his support for Government.

I share the concern of Deputy McGrath in respect of many of the issues he has pursued, not least in regard to people with special needs, of which Deputy McGrath is an ardent advocate. A representative body of people with special needs will appear before a committee of this House this afternoon. Are there implications for children with special needs? The Taoiseach cannot leave the question hanging in the air with people not knowing the implications of this — people who have real concerns as to what exactly the Government is intent on doing in response to Deputy Finian McGrath's decision. He should spell it out. He should manfully get up before the Dáil this day and state exactly what are those implications. Let us hope there are none, but that is the answer we would like to hear. The Taoiseach has told us there are implications and we have every right to know what they are. I ask the Taoiseach again to spell out to the House this afternoon exactly what the implications are for any of the interests Deputy Finian McGrath had pursued in coming to the agreement to support the Government following the election in 2007?

Photo of John O'DonoghueJohn O'Donoghue (Ceann Comhairle; Kerry South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I remind the Deputy he was supposed to be asking a supplementary question and not imparting information to the House. I am also slightly concerned about his definition of "brief".

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The Ceann Comhairle is more concerned about Deputy Healy-Rae's website.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I would be delighted to clarify the matter during my speaking time.

Photo of Brian CowenBrian Cowen (Taoiseach; Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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If I may say so, that was a long way of stating the obvious. One enters an agreement for the purposes of support for a Government, if one withdraws support from it, then obviously the relationship changes. That is obvious. There is nothing surreptitious or sinister about it.

In regard to specific areas of policy, the Government has outlined its intentions in this and other respects. In terms of my own interests in that area, I defend the Government's policies in those areas. Our efforts to prioritise those areas in the past compares favourably with any predecessor Government one would like to mention. I do not have any problem standing over those particular aspects. As the Deputy Ó Caoláin said, they are not the preserve of any one, two or three Deputies, these are interests we all share.

What political agreements allow us to do from time to time is to bring a focus to certain issues on the basis that we can in that way maintain sufficient numbers in the House to pursue a programme for Government. What we have seen since then is a deterioration in the public finance position of which we must take serious note. All programmes for Government worth their name are constructed on the basis of trying to maintain and restore order to the public finances in order that we can have a sustainable level of service going forward. Where there are changed economic circumstances, one must take cognisance of that. If one is in opposition, perhaps one does not have to worry about that aspect, but if one is in government, one has to do so.