Tuesday, 24 March 2009
Ceisteanna — Questions
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent meeting of the British Irish Council in Cardiff; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8419/09]
Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussions with the First Minister of Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8421/09]
Question 4: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent contacts with the political parties in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8422/09]
Question 7: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone conversation with the British Prime Minister following the murders of two members of the British army in County Antrim; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10889/09]
Question 8: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the leadership of Sinn Féin on 12 March 2009; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11618/09]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.
I attended the twelfth summit of the British Irish Council in Cardiff, Wales on 20 February last. I was accompanied by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cúiv. The meeting was hosted by the First Minister for Wales, Rhodri Morgan, and brought together representatives of all eight member administrations. The Northern Ireland delegation was led by First Minister, Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.
The summit began with a discussion on the current economic situation, with a sharing of views on efforts to assist those facing unemployment and on providing support for businesses. Other issues discussed included social inclusion initiatives, energy, initiatives to address the misuse of drugs, the promotion of minority and lesser used languages and early years education. The Council also agreed to adopt four new strategic work areas: energy, digital inclusion, housing and collaborative spatial planning. It also discussed the progress made on the establishment of a standing secretariat and looked forward to bringing this to a conclusion at the next British Irish Council summit in Jersey in October.
I am glad the House had an opportunity the week before last to express its views on the terrible atrocities that had been perpetrated in Northern Ireland. Together with all other democratic representatives on these islands, the Members of this House have made clear their unity of purpose in resisting and dealing with the unrepresentative criminal groups that carried out those atrocities. In the course of that debate, I spoke about my discussions with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown, whom I met again at last week's meeting of the European Council. Like the Northern Ireland First Minister, Mr. Peter Robinson and the Deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, the Prime Minister and I are determined that these groups will not succeed — everything possible will be done to bring them to justice. I have met a Sinn Féin delegation, led by the President of that party, Mr. Gerry Adams, since then. At that meeting, on 12 March, we discussed the recent attacks and the collective response of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish and British Governments. I met the Northern Ireland First Minister, Mr. Robinson, the Deputy First Minister, Mr. McGuinness, and various other Northern Ireland party leaders during my visit to the United States for St Patrick's Day. During that trip, the US President, Mr. Barack Obama, delivered a powerful message of support for the people of Northern Ireland, their democratic institutions and their public representatives.
Two matters arise from the Taoiseach's reply. First, the Taoiseach referred to the discussions on the proposed arrangements for the establishment of a permanent secretariat of the British-Irish Council. Where is it intended that such a secretariat will be located? What is the estimated cost to the Exchequer of the establishment of such a secretariat?
Second, the Taoiseach mentioned the atrocities that occurred in Northern Ireland a couple of weeks ago. I agree that the unity of reaction that was evident during the discussion in this House was remarkable. Such unity of purpose was also a feature of the Northern Ireland parties' responses to the two atrocities. Can the Taoiseach tell the House anything further about the information available to him on the extent of the possible threat from dissident republican organisations? What is the extent of the connection between such organisations and organised gun crime, for example in this State? To what extent do dissident republicans have connections with criminal gangs? Is the kind of information that led Sir Hugh Orde to issue a warning before the recent atrocities available to the Garda Síochána? Before the atrocities occurred in Northern Ireland earlier this month, Sir Hugh Orde had warned that dissident groups were active again and were likely to do serious damage. Can the Taoiseach tell the House whether the groups have acquired additional bomb-making capabilities in recent times? Have they armed themselves with additional equipment? What is the assessment of their potential threat to political institutions and, more particularly, the security forces in the North and the South?
I can inform Deputy Gilmore, in response to his first question, that a decision on the possible establishment of a standing secretariat, which has been on the agenda for some time, will be made next October. A number of jurisdictions have indicated an interest in providing the location of the secretariat. We have kept out of that to give a number of other countries an opportunity to follow up their interest in housing the standing secretariat. The Northern Ireland Executive, like its counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Jersey, has indicated an interest in providing a location. I am sure all of them would prove suitable, in their own way. All parties accept that there is a need to find consensus on this. The necessity to come to a decision has been agreed. No decision has been made on where it will be located. It is a matter for the various applicants that have indicated their interest to discuss the issue between now and next October, to see what the final outcome will be. It is felt that a decision, one way or the other, should be made next October. We will have to wait and see what the outcome will be.
On North-South issues and the recent atrocities and the consequences in so far as we can gauge them, the Garda has been keeping close surveillance on, and has been monitoring, dissident activity for some time with a fair degree of success. People will recall on numerous occasions over the past number of years the Garda's ability to intercept and intervene in what could have developed into full-scale operations directed into Northern Ireland. That level of success is a reflection of both the professionalism of the security services in this jurisdiction and also the level of co-operation taking place between the Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
The Garda Commissioner has spoken, not in the immediate recent past but from time to time, about the continuing threat of dissident activity and the need to monitor and conduct surveillance on those individuals. In many respects, such is the nature of terrorism and I do not think there is a capacity to sustain a campaign of the type we saw in the past from these groups. However, clearly these are factions which would have the capacity, and have demonstrated their intention in the past, even if intercepted, to conduct incidents here that would be a major threat to life and limb for anyone in the proximity of attempts, for example, to transport bomb material or to locate bombs in Northern Ireland.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that they have no mandate whatever and no support, these small factions seem intent on trying to continue to create mayhem and to commit murder where they can. Obviously, our security services are doing everything they can to prevent that happening. As I stated, a number of incidents have been brought to public attention as a result of various surveillance operations undertaken by the Garda. Many of them in jail and others may be charged. There is also an investigation taking place presently in respect of the recent atrocities and I understand a 17 year old has been charged with the murder of the policeman.
I do not have any other information beyond what I know to be the case from security committee briefings in recent times, that is, that the Garda Síochána is fully au fait with the need to deploy all and any resources and it has indicated that those resources are available to it to conduct the necessary surveillance and monitoring that it does on an ongoing daily basis to ensure that these people do not succeed in the terms in which they regard as success.
As Deputy Gilmore will be aware, progress continues to be made on this matter and the passage of the necessary legislation at Westminster two weeks ago was an important step in this regard. It is also important that all the political parties continue to engage proactively through the Assembly committee to move the issue forward, and that is happening.
Both the Irish and British Governments remain fully committed to seeing the devolution of policing and justice brought to a conclusion. As I said, it is a matter of continuing discussion between the parties directly and I welcome the fact that they have found a means to do that. I believe it is important that the transfer of policing and devolution continues as envisaged and takes place as quickly as possible so that the people of Northern Ireland will know that this issue is being addressed by the people who are best capable of doing so, that is, the local representatives themselves.
I note that a teenager has been charged with the murder of the late Constable Stephen Carroll. When I was in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday I took the opportunity to brief the EPP members on the necessity for continued demonstration of support and solidarity from the European Union regarding the situation in Northern Ireland. At Thursday's meeting of the Heads of Government, did the Taoiseach take the opportunity to brief his fellow leaders on the situation and strongly stress the point that this country has always appreciated American and European Union support and that this should not be allowed to flag under any circumstances?
Has the Taoiseach or Government received any information from Garda information sources on one of these dissident groups having what is described as a very large bomb for use on the British mainland? Has the Taoiseach received any evidence that this is anything other than an allegation or rumour?
I have no such information but if I had, as the Deputy will be aware, it is not something I would bring into the public domain anyway. I did not raise the other matter formally at the European Council meeting. Colleagues are aware of the close co-operation between us and the British Government on this matter at governmental level. We have maintained contact at that level.
We have raised these questions here on a number of occasions in the past number of months. The PSNI was concerned at the increasing threat from dissident groups in Northern Ireland, which resulted in the Chief Constable calling in specialist intelligence units from Great Britain. In the briefings the Garda has given him over the past number of months was there any evidence of activity or was concern expressed by the Garda information units that this might become a reality?
There are very small numbers involved, but they are people of evil intent. Does the Taoiseach have any evidence of recruitment going on in particular locations in this jurisdiction? Is he aware of vulnerable young people being encouraged to join either of these two dissident groups? Is any evidence available to him from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform or Garda intelligence sources that this is the case? Where vulnerable young people might be encouraged, pressurised or forced to join either of these two dissident groups, has the Government any contingency plan to counteract that by pointing out that there is a better way and that the way to achieve political objectives for all who support paramilitaries is through peaceful means and democratic dialogue? I am sure the Taoiseach shares those sentiments.
Part of the security briefings is an update by the heads of security in the country, including the Garda Commissioner, on nefarious activities being sought to be undertaken by these dissident and terrorist groups. Unfortunately, because of the length of the previous conflict we had, we know the Garda Síochána is very professional and adept at identifying suspects and keeping very close tabs on their activities, the company they keep, the places they go and what they might be up to. The general stance of our security services, despite the success of the peace process, has always been a vigilant one. The gardaí, knowing members of their force have paid the ultimate price in trying to deal with this threat in the past, need no reminding from me or anybody that constant vigilance is the norm in trying to deal with these individuals. One never underestimates, despite their small number, their capacity to cause mayhem, destruction and loss of life and the evil intent that motivates their activities in the first place.
Second, regarding the effort to recruit, I am sure these individuals try to see if they can inveigle people to join them in their criminal conspiracies but I understand the numbers involved are small. It is not a numbers game but a small number of people can do a great deal of harm, depending on the depth of evil in their intent and their capacity to execute it. It is a question of constant vigilance, full deployment of all necessary resources, building on the expertise in the Garda over many years — a record of many successful interventions, which have stopped operations and actions taking place that would have put many people at risk — and a common determination now with the PSNI to ensure those responsible for the most recent acts of terror are identified, brought before the courts and prosecuted. The rule of law in our democratic society will ensure justice prevails.
Does the Taoiseach agree the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to the executive in Belfast is absolutely essential and a vital element in the delivery of the full content and intent of the Good Friday Agreement? Has he noted the policing Bill passed through its last Stage in the British Parliament on 11 March, the required order-in-council was laid before it on 19 March and this is due to come into effect on 10 April? Does he understand, as I do, the next stage is for the Assembly and the executive review committee to address how the transfer will take place? Can he outline the role of the Government in these developments I have indicated? Will he join me in welcoming the progress made, albeit long overdue, and in encouraging all involved in moving the project of the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast at the earliest opportunity?
The Government has noted these legislative developments and it is aware of the procedural steps that have been taken. We welcome the fact that the orders-in-council reflect the legislation and enable the intention of all the parties to proceed on the basis of the agreement reached. It is important we proceed consistent with the agreements reached at political level in order that the devolution of justice and policing powers takes place as expeditiously as possible, consistent with those agreements.
With regard to the Government's participation, the Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Foreign Affairs met the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Shaun Woodward, and his deputy, Mr. Paul Goggins. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has met the Secretary of State since and he expressed the Government's view that, to move forward, the devolution of policing and justice powers should take place as soon as possible consistent with the procedures and discussions envisaged since the legislation was passed in Westminster.
Nuair a bhí an Taoiseach ag labhairt le Gordon Brown, an raibh ceist na póilíneachta á plé acu? Cad eile a bhí á phlé? Ní raibh an Taoiseach ábalta a rá go raibh seans aige ceist an chlaonpháirteachais a phlé le Príomh-Aire an Breataine go dtí seo. An raibh an t-ábhar sin a phlé aige ón chéad lá deireanach a raibh na ceisteanna seo á bplé againn sa Teach anseo?
Has the Taoiseach yet had the opportunity to raise with the British Prime Minister the communications forwarded by the Houses of the Oireachtas to our counterparts in the British Parliament, concerning the agreed motion, supported by all elected voices in these Houses, calling on our counterparts in the British Parliament in Westminster to address the serious matters of collusion? Has he had the opportunity since the last occasion we addressed these questions in this Chamber to raise this matter and was the issue of progress towards the transfer of policing and justice addressed too?
I hope the Taoiseach accepts that I hold no brief for those responsible for the recent atrocities in Antrim and Craigavon. My condemnation of these actions was, and remains, as strong as that of any other voice in this Chamber. Has the Taoiseach noted the concerns of human rights groups, which have long-standing credibility on this island and elsewhere, at the continuing renewal of detention of individuals brought in for questioning on these matters? Does the Taoiseach share the legitimate concern at the prospect of people being detained for questioning over long periods, and up to four weeks? Has he considered the expressions of concern reported on "Morning Ireland" this morning on RTE? Would the Taoiseach and Ministers use any opportunity they might have to reflect the human rights concerns of many about protracted questioning and all that entails? We want to see speedy movement towards charging those responsible for these actions, and due process taking its course.
Nuair a bhí mé ag labhairt le Príomh-Aire na Breataine, níor shíl mé go raibh sé oiriúnach na hábhair a luaigh an Teachta a thabhairt suas leis mar bhí ag tabhairt bá an náisiúin do phobal na Breataine mar gheall ar na dúnmharuithe a tharla in Aontroim agus i gCraigavon. Bhí mé ag rá leis an Phríomh-Aire go bhfuil sé riachtanach go bhfuil comhoibriú idir na Rialtais chomh láidir agus is féidir go mbeimid in ann na daoine atá ciontach as seo a chur os comhair na cúirte chomh luath agus is féidir.
I did not raise the issue of collusion with the British Prime Minister on the occasion of my discussions with him because I was expressing the sympathy of the Irish people with the families of those who had been murdered. An bhéim a bhí agam sa chomhrá ná go bhfuilimid ag déanamh ár ndícheall chomhoibriú leis na forsaí póilíneachta sa Tuaisceart go mbeimid in ann na daoine a bhí ciontach a chur os comhair na cúirte.
It was important to indicate the strong determination of all democrats in Ireland to ensure that those who were responsible for these atrocious murders would be brought to justice as quickly as possible and to assure him of the full co-operation of our security services in that effort. It was also important to say that the politics should remain in the ascendant and that we continue to pursue political progress as a confirmation to people throughout the island of Ireland that the peace process would not be derailed by such an unrepresentative group of people engaged in criminal activity.
That was the context in which the contact was made and maintained during that period.
Regarding the other matter the Deputy raised, the British criminal justice system has rights of detention that were brought forward by legislative enactment in recent years in the House of Commons. This was mainly because of acts of Islamist terrorism which caused huge loss of life in London, and on another occasion when it was clear that the basic security of the British people was being put at risk by acts of terrorism about which nobody has notice. As the British Government saw it, there was, therefore, a democratic wish to improve legislation. The need to detain those who would be held as suspects for such atrocious crimes was seen to be increased and the British made their decisions in that respect.
It is important to point out that in any democracy the right is available to any accused person to use the independent legal system for the purpose of reviewing the legality of his or her detention. I believe the reforms we have seen in Northern Ireland in both policing and justice are such that one can expect, with confidence, that those issues will be dealt with before the courts in a way consistent with the rule of law.
I am sure the Taoiseach is aware that many Members of this House, including myself, are members of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, formerly the British Irish Interparliamentary Body. That body does good work in trying to pursue a number of the issues in which the British Irish Council is involved. Does the Taoiseach consider as useful the suggestion that we might have a debate after Council meetings at which he, as Head of Government represents our country? Such a debate could be similar in format to those that follow a short period after EU summit meetings. In that way, issues such as the mutual recognition of penalty points and other issues that need to be dealt with on an east-west and North-South basis could be examined. Would the Taoiseach consider that suggestion?
Does the Taoiseach agree with me that one of the great successes in the immediate aftermath of the Omagh atrocity was that our security forces and those north of the Border had the capacity to sit on these people and to close them down? Many of them were known to security forces and are now in prison. The problem that has emerged since is that a younger, more vicious and unknown group has effectively taken over positions within these organisations. We have been very lucky to date. I cite the example of Castlewellan where mass murder was averted by superb intelligence and interception on the part of both security forces. Does the Taoiseach agree that the position now needs to be severely examined in terms of ramping up the work, the resources and the co-operation? I accept that these are already at a very heightened level and that must continue apace.
I am loath to ask the following question because I believe I know the answer but it would be useful to have it put on the record. Is it the case that there are no circumstances whereby any formal, informal, backchat or back-channel discussions could occur during the next while with these two organisations, or with other self-styled republican groups, as a means of trying to understand what they are doing? I am sure that the Taoiseach speaks for us when he says these are criminal organisations and that no effort will be made to to have discussions with them, formal or informal.
With regard to the first matter Deputy Hayes raised, namely, the British Irish Council, issues arising from its meetings are dealt with through parliamentary questions, as now. Members may be of the opinion that a formal debate from time to time would help to improve the visibility of that work or perhaps a more structured approach within the committee system. There are a number of options which the Whips could consider to see how we could keep the agenda active.
I welcome the widest possible participation by the Oireachtas in these matters because they are an important part of the architecture of the Agreement. It is important that everybody gives them the attention they deserve and that we are seen to be participants in all aspects of the work of the institutions in so far as it refers and relates to us and that we are not selective in any way. These are matters that can be considered in due course in terms of what is the best way to go about it.
On the second issue raised by the Deputy, I do not think it is right to say that a new, young leadership has taken over these factions and that they are any more determined than those who preceded them. In the main, those active in these organisations are people who would have knowledge of terrorist activity in the past. While they have broken away from other organisations at various times and it is obvious that recruitment efforts are being made and some people may well be inveigled into joining such organisations now in an effort to find people who do not have a previous record — I will not put it stronger than that — because this might be beneficial to them in their efforts to maintain activity of this kind, the leadership or the direction of these organisations remain in the hands of those who have had experience in this matter in the past. This is my considered view in so far as I am aware of the situation.
We only deal with people on the basis of commitment to a process of peace and democracy and the involvement of these people in the activities in which they are engaged is a very clear statement of their evil intent. The fact that they are not part of this process is obvious for all to see.
For the purposes of clarification, I appreciate the Taoiseach's detailed reply to my question but I take it as a given that no discussions, either formal or informal, have taken place with these organisations and that there is no prospect of any discussions, formal or informal, with these organisations.
I refer to my earlier question about the decision of these Houses and the passing of a unanimous motion in this Chamber on the issue of collusion. While I accept the Taoiseach's response and his explanation that the last time he met the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was an inappropriate or unsuitable opportunity to raise that specific matter because it was particular to one purpose in the conveying of sympathy in the context of the recent murders in Antrim and Armagh, will he not accept that there has been an inordinate delay in the unanimous decision of this House being properly responded to by the British Government, by the British Parliament, and that an acknowledgment from Clerk of the Dáil's counterpart in Westminster is not a response that we would have envisaged, given the seriousness and the enormity of all involved in the issue that was addressed in this House in a very serious way by Members of all parties and none on that occasion? Will the Taoiseach accept there is a responsibility on him to seek and secure a specific meeting with the British Prime Minister in order to address these matters with him, so that he may take due ownership and responsibility for having the matters raised by the parties and Independent Members of this House dealt with by his fellow parliamentarians in Westminster? There needs to be a product, result and action relevant to the importance of the matter concerned, emanating from that body.
Will the Taoiseach now undertake to act in accordance with the decision of this House and proactively pursue this matter at the earliest opportunity?
This matter had come up in previous parliamentary questions and we have notified the British Parliament in this regard and indicated the united view pertaining to it in the Dáil, etc. Such matters are raised through the relevant Ministers, for example, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who have line responsibility for dealing with the specific policy issues as they arise. As I have said before, I have not had an opportunity to raise such matters with the British Prime Minister to date. Opportunities may present themselves in the future, where I can do so.
All Members of the House are united that the various dissident groups who now appear to be reactivating, should be closed down and put out of business. One aspect of this, obviously, is their access to weaponry. What is the Government's assessment or, indeed, that of the Garda as regards the extent of the weaponry available to dissident groups? Are they still getting weapons from outside the State and are new weapons being assembled?
To come back to the question I raised earlier about the links between some of these groups and criminal gangs and their connection with the gun crimes and shootings we see in this jurisdiction on a weekly basis, what action is being taken to close down access to weaponry and to stop either dissidents or other criminals from getting their hands on guns?
I want to ask the Taoiseach a different question. In his discussions with the First Minister of Northern Ireland, did he deal with the question of cross-Border trade activities? Does the Taoiseach accept, for instance, the admission of the Minister for Finance that his decision to increase VAT by 0.5% was a mistake, which has had serious implications for retail business 30 miles south of the Border? In that context, did the Taoiseach discuss with the First Minister of Northern Ireland the situation as regards planning in this jurisdiction where, as he is aware, there is a cap on retail size, while north of the Border there is not? For instance, in Newry a planning application has been lodged for a 1.5 million sq. ft. facility which will have serious consequences for retailing in Dundalk, Armagh, Monaghan, Enniskillen and Sligo. Was that an issue discussed by the Taoiseach with the First Minister, in respect of trade on both sides of the Border?
In view of both the strength and fragility of the tourism industry, does the Taoiseach consider it appropriate that the tourism bodies, North and South, which co-operate very well, should again adopt, for example, ambassadors for golf, Pádraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy in an all-Ireland sense? This would have enormous implications for golf tourism throughout the island, with particular reference to links golf from Royal County Down right around to the southern coast. There is serious potential there in a cross-Border sense. Has the Taoiseach discussed this with the First Minister?
In regard to what Deputy Gilmore said, efforts have been made to get weapons in from outside for these groups. Obviously, the Garda works with Interpol and other international agencies to try to deal with that threat and there have been some successes in that area in the past.
I have seen reports but I understand from the Garda Commissioner that there is not this cross connection between drugs-gun gangs and these factions and that, in the main, they operate separately and for different purposes. Again, I have seen reports of that but based on the Garda Commissioner's views, I do not believe it is an accurate assessment of the situation.
On the issue raised by Deputy Kenny, I believe what the Minister for Finance referred to was that having increased VAT by 0.5%, two weeks later the British Government brought down VAT. Its budget came some weeks after his own but he was not suggesting that, in itself, was the reason for the differential. We all know the exchange rate is the issue. Unfortunately, that is something which is not within our control. We have seen the devaluation of the exchange rate vis-À-vis sterling over the past four months of anything up to 25% to 30%. That is a real issue.
On the question of tourism, I agree we must use every opportunity we can to promote the country. Many millions of people will come to our shores this year despite it being a difficult one. I spoke to some tour operators in New York when I was there for St. Patrick's weekend and while obviously the demand is down, it is still reasonably good despite the bad year. They are working away and hope they will provide some tourists for the country this year. Many people are still coming, although fewer than last year and the year before. In historical terms, it is still a fair performance given the times in which we are living.
On the Irish Open, efforts are being made to see if it is possible to hold it in venues North and South in consecutive years. Those ideas are being worked on. As Deputy Kenny said, the golfing ambassadorship issue of Mr. Harrington and Mr. McIlroy would not go astray either.