Tuesday, 4 December 2012
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)
To ask the Taoiseach if he has approached persons to chair the Constitutional Convention and the responses that have been received; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45693/12]
To ask the Taoiseach if he has met the new Chairman of the Constitutional Convention; the areas that were discussed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48012/12]
To ask the Taoiseach if he will provide the timeline for the different meetings and topics of the constitutional convention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [54227/12]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 20, inclusive, together.
As I announced in the House on 24 October, the Government appointed Mr. Tom Arnold as independent chairperson of the constitutional convention. Deputies will agree that Mr. Arnold's personal commitment, qualities and experience make him an ideal choice to lead the convention. Mr. Arnold paid a courtesy call on the Tánaiste and myself on 5 November last when we thanked him for agreeing to chair the convention and wished him well in this important role.
The convention held its inaugural meeting in Dublin Castle on Saturday, 1 December. The Tánaiste and I attended the meeting to wish the members well in their work, as did other party leaders. The convention operates independently of the Government and will report directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It decides on all matters relating to its operation, including its rules and procedures, the timing of its meetings and, subject to the resolutions passed by the Houses, the prioritisation of its work programme. I understand these matters were discussed in private session at the inaugural meeting.
The Government is keen to ensure the views of the diaspora will be heard as part of the convention process and I understand the convention's website has been designed specifically to facilitate the involvement of those currently abroad. I am told the convention secretariat is working to ensure our network of embassies and community groups abroad will receive as much information as possible about the work of the convention, which can then be widely disseminated.
The convention is a new and exciting way of considering constitutional reform. For the first time, ordinary citizens will work side by side with elected representatives from North and South in a dynamic approach to examining constitutional change. I am sure every Member will join me in wishing it well in its work. I also trust that Deputies who are members of the convention will be anxious to work co-operatively with the convention chairperson and the other members to ensure the convention carries out its tasks in an exemplary manner.
I met citizens who have been selected to work with the convention. They are excited about it and many see it as a brand new opportunity for involvement in the political system and working towards improvements, if that be so, of a document that belongs them, the Constitution. It belongs to the people and no one else. I felt a sense of excitement among those nominated as citizens and I wished them well in their endeavours. While it is a completely independent operation, we will respond appropriately when the convention reports to us.
The following information was provided under Standing Order 40A.
The Resolution passed by Dáil Éireann on 10 July (and by Seanad Éireann on 12 July), agreeing to the setting up of the Convention, set out the matters to be considered by the Convention, including provision for same-sex marriage.
The Resolution also noted that, not later than two months from the date of the first public hearing held by it, the Convention will make a report and recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas on each of the following (two) matters set out in the Resolution: reducing the Presidential term of office to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections; and reducing the voting age to 17.
As I said in my reply on 4 December, the Convention operates independently of the Government and will report direct to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It decides on all matters relating to its operation, including (subject to the Resolutions passed by the Houses) the prioritisation of its work programme. Accordingly, once it has reported on the two matters mentioned above, it is a matter for the Convention to prioritise its consideration of the other matters referred to in the Resolution, including the issue of same-sex marriage.
I welcome the appointment of Mr. Tom Arnold. On Saturday, it became clear that there is a restricted agenda imposed by the Government on the work of the convention. It has undermined the idea of radical reform of the Constitution. The difference between the rhetoric of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and the reality of the agenda was striking. On Saturday, the Taoiseach gave a commitment to a Government response to the recommendations but not a commitment that the Dáil or the people will have the chance to decide on recommended amendments. It appears we are talking reform but keeping all power in the hands of the Government. Can the Taoiseach state whether he will allow the Dáil and the people the right to vote on the convention's recommendations, irrespective of the Government's view on the recommendations?
I am pleased with the chairperson but I am concerned there is no formal requirement that groups on whom decisions of the convention will have an impact are involved in all stages of discussions. With regard to marriage equality, it would be shocking if same-sex couples were only heard as outsiders rather than entitled to be there for detailed debate. The same applies to the diaspora.
There is a major suspicion that marriage equality is being put into the convention to be kicked down the road for a while. Is it the understanding of the Taoiseach that groups affected by issues such as this will be included in the convention's deliberations, regardless of whether they are members with votes? Is it the understanding of the Taoiseach that the marriage equality recommendation will go to the people and will be dealt with during the lifetime of this Oireachtas?
I have discussed the matter with Deputy Martin before. The convention is set up and is independent in how it does its job. We set out a number of issues on the agenda and asked it to consider, in the first instance, two simple issues that require a "Yes" or "No", although one issue may require a constitutional bridge if it was to make such a recommendation. I wanted that to happen so that the convention, of which Deputy James Bannon is a member, could see how effectively it works. We may have to tweak its capacity to do its job well. The convention has had a discussion in private about how it wants to conduct its business. We have said that, if there are other constitutional issues the convention thinks it appropriate to raise, it is the remit of the convention to do so in working with the convention chairman.
I am not sure what Deputy Martin meant when he referred to the convention making a recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The commitment I gave on Saturday, which will be honoured, is that the Government will respond within four months. If there is a positive response, we will set out a tentative timeline. I am not sure if Deputy Martin intended for a debate in the Dáil on the recommendation.
The recommendation should go straight to the Dáil, for the Dáil to have an opinion on whether it is good idea. The Taoiseach is proposing the Government takes possession of it and that the Dáil does not see it until the Taoiseach has made up his mind whether it is a good idea. That is the problem.
As I understand it, the convention will report directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas but the Government will give its response because it must set out whether it will prepare for a referendum, including preparing Bills. I do not have any difficulty with this and there is no reason the Oireachtas cannot have a discussion on the recommendations that arise. If the chairman and the convention wish to reorganise the priorities attached to particular issues, it is their right. They are not set beyond dealing with the first two to see how effective it is in the order in which it does its business. I had said that we will hold the children's rights referendum separate to it and that, next year, we will hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. Beyond that, the convention, the chairman and its members are fully entitled to say they consider Dáil reform, electoral reform and whether the electoral system should be proportional representation, PR, or straight vote to be the priority. It is absolutely the right of the convention to make recommendations where it considers there is an issue of constitutional importance and on which it wishes to make a recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas.
If the chairman and the convention decide that is the next issue to deal with, it is the right of the convention to do so. The convention can make a recommendation and we will respond to it.
I do not want to go down the road of having the convention hear endlessly from different lobby groups. We had this in the Forum on Europe, with an endless stream of them. It is an important sector with a particular issue but if the chairman wishes to do so, he is entitled to take into account the requirement for hearings from various groups. That is the business of the convention and it is not set in stone in that regard. It is a matter for the chairman and the members, political and lay.
I agree the first meeting of the convention was an important day and contributions were informative and educational. The citizen delegates, along with the rest of us, were buoyed by the great privilege of being able to fulfil the patriotic role they were asked to complete. That is all to the good. However, the Government has put the convention on a very tight leash. Voting age and the length of the presidential term are important issues but we do not need a convention to tell us what to do about it. There are more contentious and difficult issues such as marriage equality, which Sinn Féin believes is a civil rights issue for same-sex couples, and the role of the diaspora.
We were talking earlier about the diaspora. The importance of President Obama coming to Ireland, whatever part of the island, is not just because he is the President of the United States of America, although that is a huge thing because the US is such a powerful nation, but because of the connections we have with the USA. Despite this, we have no place for the diaspora in the convention. Next year we will ask them to come for The Gathering and we ask them all the time to assist us in our economic regeneration. We know of all the nascanna idir an oileán seo agus an Oileán Úr. The Government must repair that.
The issue of our ethnic minority is not raised very often. Our ethnic minority, the Traveller community, are treated dreadfully. They are discriminated against dreadfully and yet they are part of what we are and, rightfully, demand to be treated as an ethnic minority. Could that not be looked at by the convention?
Similarly, there are new folk who have come to live on this island. Some people refer to them as the new Irish. They bring great colour, history and culture to mesh with our won history and culture. Do we not do outreach with them? Why can we not go into the North, into Gaeltacht areas or the Border corridor? Why can we not make this a living example of what a constitutional convention can be?
On a previous occasion I commended the approach of the conference put in place in South Africa as it moved into democracy. A wonderful job was done there. We, obviously, have to do it within our own lights.
I throw these ideas forward. I commend and congratulate Mr. Tom Arnold and I wish him well in his role as chairman of the convention. I still think the Government is missing a great opportunity to re-imagine Ireland and to re-imagine a real constitution for a real republic.
In light of the fact that our independence and our sovereignty was handed to the International Monetary Fund by the previous Administration and that the banking debt of this country has become the personal debt of every man, woman and child in the country, our sovereignty needs to be debated. The previous Administration handed our sovereignty over to the EU.
It was symbolic that the leaders of different parties and representatives from Northern Ireland attended the launch of the Constitutional Convention in the great hall of Dublin Castle.
I apologise for not giving a full answer to Deputy Martin. Any proposal that comes from the convention, be it about same-sex marriage or whatever, will be responded to by the Government within a four month timeframe. We are not going to hang around. There may be a recommendation regarding the Traveller community. That is a matter for the convention itself. There may be a recommendation about Irish sign language. I know this is a small issue but it is important for those who use sign language.
It will be up to the chairman to take the convention to locations throughout the country. That was done with the forum on Europe. It remains to be seen whether the members of the convention will speak to one another or whether there will be sufficient interest from groups who might want to watch the proceedings or listen to the discussions that take place.
With regard to the diaspora, the convention website is flexible and vigorous. It may well be extended to video links to groups on the far side of the United States or to individuals who want to speak from New Zealand or wherever. These are all matters that the convention can consider.
I would like this to work and to work well. The convention has been inaugurated and is in place now. It has got its remit and independence and has a very good chairman. Let us see how it operates at its first meeting when it meets again in the spring and move on from there. It may be that the excitement I felt from the citizens in Dublin Castle will be reflected in the energy that is put into the work of and the output from the convention. At this end of the spectrum we will not be found wanting in giving a response to the convention. Let us see how effective it can be. It is new and untried in Ireland. It is an opportunity for ordinary men and women to work with politicians from all parties, North and South, on a document that belongs to them and to no one else.