Tuesday, 1 July 2014
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 and 4 together.
Like public representatives generally, I meet church and other religious leaders, for the most part on an informal basis, in the course of attending official or public events. In addition, I meet representatives of religious and other philosophical bodies through a formal structured dialogue process, which provides a channel for consultation and communication between the State and such bodies on matters of mutual concern. These meetings take place at both ministerial and official level and meetings may be sought by either side on the basis of a proposed agenda, agreed in advance of the meeting. The arrangements for such meetings are made by my Department, which provides the administrative support for the process.
I wish to point out, however, that this process does not displace arrangements for the conduct of policy and administration by Departments and agencies in their functional responsibilities. Since taking office, I have attended a plenary meeting with all the partners in the structured dialogue process. Last year, I also met representatives of the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland and an ecumenical delegation of European churches to discuss the priorities of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union. I have previously outlined for the House in detail the matters discussed at these meetings.
It is my intention to continue to hold meetings with the dialogue partners not only from the Christian churches, but from other faiths and philosophical traditions.
I have not met with the churches formally this year. Last year, I met with the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and a delegation of European churches to deal with their priorities for the Presidency of the European Union.
I thank the Taoiseach. I know that he has a very full schedule and that the churches are in the front line, doing very good work for charities and working with citizens who are disadvantaged by austerity policies and so on. This year, we have seen the scandal of the mother and baby homes. New facts and the tragic stories of abuse and loss have emerged and continue to emerge. I read over the weekend that more 660 infants and children died in one mother and baby home in Dublin over a seven year period, from 1923 to 1930. The Catholic religious orders ran these homes with the agreement of the Government. I note and very much welcome Archbishop Martin’s positive remarks about a full inquiry. Protestant churches have also been involved in these institutions, particularly in the Bethany Home. Until recently the Government excluded the Bethany Home from any type of redress or investigation. I welcome very much the fact that has been corrected.
I was trying to ascertain whether the Taoiseach had discussions with church leaders on any of these matters, or whether any member of the Government has had discussions with them about the terms of reference for the commission of investigation into the mother and baby homes. The closing date for submissions was yesterday. A complete investigation of county homes seems to have been ruled out. All of this should be a wake-up call and incentive for the Government to consider how children and mothers have been looked after, or in this case not looked after, since this State was established. Can the Taoiseach indicate whether there has been any discussion with any of the church leaders on any of these matters? Will the terms of reference for the commission of investigation be ready on time and will they include the broader attitude of the State and its institutions towards women and children since its establishment?
We have had some discussion of this matter before. It concerns a time in our country when women came through a very difficult period, when there was neither respect nor comfort for many. The topics I discussed with the Catholic Church were Northern Ireland; the safeguarding and welfare of children; education matters; protection of life during pregnancy; and I outlined our European Presidency priorities. In respect of Northern Ireland, Cardinal Brady and I expressed revulsion at the street violence taking place at the time and the potential damage to Northern Ireland’s reputation and economic prospects. We also discussed the positive engagement between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, particularly through the North-South Ministerial Council. It was agreed at that time that the relevant Ministers and officials would continue to work together.
With the Church of Ireland I discussed education matters; the protection of life during pregnancy; issues relating to rural Ireland; Bethany Home; Northern Ireland; the elderly and child and family support issues, and I outlined our priorities for the European Presidency which was forthcoming. In respect of the delegation of European churches, we agreed on the social consequences of the economic crisis in Europe and on the particular seriousness of the level of youth unemployment in Europe. I emphasised to the churches that this would be assessed as a priority in our Presidency with its focus on jobs, stability and growth. I was happy that the Youth Guarantee came out of that focus, with the prompting of the Minister for Social Protection. The churches raised their concerns about the new proposals for data protection and how this might affect them. I undertook at the time to bring that to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality. They also stressed the importance of taxation policy in developing countries and argued for an extension of reporting requirements by multinational companies. Finally, the delegation underlined the importance of peace funding for reconciliation in Northern Ireland and I am glad that during our discussions with our European colleagues we were able to get some further funding for the Border region.
The Deputy mentioned Bethany Home, which he and other Deputies raised here. At the time the consideration was in respect of Magdalen laundries. Since the revelations about the mother and baby home in Tuam and the extent of what happened there, the Government committed to the establishment of a commission of investigation to examine these homes and that includes the Bethany Home. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs briefed the Government this morning on the interim report of the cross-departmental review committee which comprised senior officials from eight Departments and several State agencies and was asked to scope the issues relevant to a commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and to report to the Minister by the end of June.
Clearly, the Minister has highlighted at all times the need to be mindful in any public discussion of the very sensitive nature of the issues involved here. Many families and individuals have had personal experiences of mother and baby homes and other issues that have arisen, including infant and child death and adoption. I reiterate the call for sensitivity that has been expressed by the Minister. There should be no sensationalism in respect of these matters.
I can confirm for Deputy Adams that the Minister has held meetings with politicians on all sides of the House, a number of individuals outside the House, a number of advocacy groups and church leaders. He has thanked everyone for their views, initial reactions and proposals in this regard. More than 100 submissions have been received from a range of individuals and groups. I do not doubt they will be of assistance to the cross-departmental committee when it is finalising the terms of reference for the commission. I hope the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, will bring his proposed terms of reference for a commission back to the Government as soon as possible in order we can get on with this. I will wait to see what the Minister proposes to the Government.
We have had a long and difficult history in many respects. The Minister has had discussions about several hundred other entities of one sort or another. It is probable that very few records, or no records at all, exist in many such cases. The Minister will bring his recommendations regarding the commission of investigation to the Government shortly. If one were to examine everything that has happened since the Famine, it is clear that one would find tragic histories in many homes, townlands, towns and cities throughout the country. Just this morning, someone reminded me of the tenements that used to be down the street from here. Two little girls lost their lives when an element of those tenements collapsed many years ago. I suppose the difficulties experienced by people in this city and other cities, and the hardships that were imposed on them, were endemic across many places. The Minister will come back quickly with his recommendations for this commission. I hope we will then be able to get on with the business of assessing and investigating what has emerged from all the discussions and proposals regarding the mother and baby homes, including the Bethany Home, in Tuam and throughout the country.
As one might expect, Sinn Féin has made a detailed submission regarding the terms of reference of the commission of investigation. As I said earlier, I think there needs to be an investigation into the treatment of women and babies since the foundation of the State. I accept that the State is unlikely to do this. Anything that happened when the British were here is another matter. We are talking here about matters that occurred under a native Government, which basically surrendered the rights of citizens to the dogma of a church. In my view, no church should have to depend on the State to uphold its teachings. It should be a matter of private conscience. I know the Taoiseach has tackled these issues in a very courageous and forthright way. The rights of citizens, particularly those who are vulnerable, should not be hostages to fortune over some dogma. I think we probably have an opportunity to open a new chapter in all of this. I appreciate that things obviously have to be judged in their own time. The Government, which has a busy agenda, could do a huge service by insisting on equality in all things. Of course people have the right to full religious and civil liberties. That goes without saying and has to be upheld at all times. For all we know, people are still being abused and ill-treated in institutions of the State. Not all of these difficulties are historic legacy issues. I ask the Taoiseach to consider providing for as wide a remit as possible in order that the broader question of the State's attitude to women may be examined.
I am often reminded of an incident mentioned in a very good book written by Nell McCafferty. She had come here from Derry after being employed by The Irish Times. She went into a shop to buy a gramophone record or a wireless, to use the parlance of those days, on hire purchase. The shopkeeper told her he could not give it to her on hire purchase without getting a man to sign for it. This was in 1974 or 1975. When she told him she did not have a man, he told her to hold on while he stopped a man in the street and asked him to come in and sign the form on behalf of Nell. After the man had done so, Nell asked him if he was working and he said he was not. Even though she had a very good job in The Irish Times, presumably with very good wages, she could not get a household item on hire purchase because she was a woman. While it might seem half-humorous, none the less it shows how her rights were contravened. That is the type of attitude that allowed what occurred in the mother and baby homes and Magdalen laundries and malpractices like symphysiotomy to continue. Perhaps there is an opportunity for a national conversation on these big matters and on the need for equality for all citizens, regardless of gender, disability or anything else. A formal commission might not be needed.
I have to say I support the idea that if governments are sufficiently decisive, equality can be brought much more to the fore. I thank Deputy Adams for his party's submission to the Minister. I am sure it has made a detailed analysis. I agree with what the Deputy had to say. The fact is that child abuse is not just a matter of history. Were we not reminded of that by the words of a justice in the court recently, in the context of an horrific case that occurred over a period of years in the last decade? It is because this is true that vigilance and information are so important.
The public consultation process that is starting now, along with the commission of investigation, will certainly be part of a national conversation about Ireland as a society, about its people and about what happened here. I do not want to pre-empt the detail of the final recommendations the Minister will bring before Government. In so far as he can - obviously, it is impossible to please every strand here - he will attempt to do his best and the Government will respond to that. I hope the conversation is broad, comprehensive, sensitive and understanding. I hope it takes account of the questions of equality and inequality. Equality was an issue for women in our country, in particular, because they did not have it over all those years. I hope the terms of reference given to the commission of investigation in this case will be comprehensive and sensitive to the thousands of people who have memories of being in mother and baby homes, who lost babies or children or who were involved in cases where adoption occurred. It is a sensitive discussion and one that needs to be treated seriously. I am sure the Minister will lead that discussion in an appropriate manner.
It is impossible to understand the horrors that took place in the Irish Free State and the Irish Republic, such as those which have only recently come to light with the mother and baby home scandals, without understanding the unique relationship that developed between the Irish State and the Catholic Church. In essence, a very weak capitalist State dominated by gombeens, small business owners, right-wing politicians and so on, desperately in search of security and legitimacy, leaned on the authority of the Catholic Church for that legitimacy and ceded considerable powers that should have been democratically controlled by a democratic state to a church institution. Does the Taoiseach agree that the theological writ of one church dictated horrific control mechanisms informed by a misogynistic and patriarchal outlook, of which women and girls were particularly the victims, involving an obsession with women's sexuality which fostered shame, fear and secrecy? This view was preached from the pulpit to Dáil Éireann and reflected in the media.
Does the Taoiseach agree that the State we have today is still marked considerably by that history and, in particular, that the outsourcing of critical social services like health and education to a religious institution ensured those services were never developed in the comprehensive, all-embracing way they should have been by a democratic state if it was truly democratic and representative of the people, and that the effect of that is evident to this day? In his discussions currently and in recent times with church leaders, has the Taoiseach spoken about the need for the complete separation of church and State? Has he spoken about the implications of such a separation in respect of the control of education, for example, and the need to develop and implement democratic structures for running education that involve parents, students, teachers, instructors and the community in general but do not rely on authoritarian patronage that is decided simply by two or three churches which are influential in this society? What measures is he taking to ensure this complete democratic separation of church and State is brought about in all the services that are crucial to our people, particularly in education?
I have tried to articulate my view on this issue on a number of occasions in the past. It is true to say that our people and society were dominated by one church for many decades. Clearly, that brought with it its difficulties and legacies. I am glad there has been a very significant shift in recognising that these legacy issues of the past need to be apologised for, opened up and dealt with, and those who were involved must be brought before the hand of justice. I agree with the Deputy regarding the impact on young girls and women. Where I come from, where births occurred out of wedlock many women had to go to Liverpool or elsewhere in England because of a perception of scandal and shame being brought upon their families. I must say, however, that during my years in the De La Salle day secondary school in Castlebar, I do not know of anybody who was sexually abused there. While the regime was as hard as any other in terms of corporal punishment - the same practices applied across the board - the De La Salle brothers and the small number of lay teachers at the school did the very best they could in trying to uphold the standards of teaching. I am saying this from personal experience; others might have different experiences depending on where they were.
I have spoken about this issue with the archbishop of Dublin on a number of occasions. Archbishop Martin has made the point that the extent of ownership of schools by the church is too great and, for that reason, it would like to have part of its patronage extended to others while retaining the right to have its own ethos in Catholic schools, the same as for any other religion in its schools. This is an issue that is all the time part of the progress of our society. The relationship between church and State is clearer, stronger and more healthy now because of the actions taken by Government in, for instance, setting up the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, holding a referendum on children's rights and making changes in the law. There has been a positive response from the Catholic Church and other churches to having that clarity as to what they stand for and, on the other hand, the responsibilities of the State towards society and our people.
Perhaps the Deputy's view of history is slightly revisionist in some ways. Others might have different views. I agree with him, however, regarding the domination of the people and society by the church and the consequent legacies of that domination, which was unhealthy for many people. We are working to address these issues. The commission of investigation being set up by the Government into mother and baby homes is another step in dealing with a sad element of that particular legacy.
The Taoiseach mentioned in his reply that his discussions with church leaders have included a consideration of issues to do with Northern Ireland and education. In the context of what happened at mother and baby homes and state-run institutions, it is interesting that Northern Ireland has been very slow and behind the curve in responding to these issues. I understand an inquiry is taking place into industrial-type schools in the North, but the Executive and others have been refusing for some time, as I understand, to deal with the mother and baby home issue. A range of NGOs and other organisations in Northern Ireland have been pushing these issues but, for some reason, the political world has not responded. In the context of the Taoiseach's discussions with the churches, has there been reference to this difference of pace in how these issues are being dealt with North and South? In this State we have had a whole variety of inquiries into church-run institutions and examinations of diocesan stewardship in the context of incidences of child abuse. The Ryan Commission, for example, was established back in 1999. On the other hand, it has taken many years for Northern Ireland politicians of all persuasions to engage on these issues, which is reflected in the degree of resistance I understand there has been to an inquiry into mother and baby homes in the North. I would appreciate the Taoiseach's thoughts on this issue and whether he has discussed it with the church leaders.
In regard to education matters, we all understand the importance of education to minority faiths. At primary school level, the position of small schools - those with two, three or four teachers - is a vital issue for the Church of Ireland and Presbyterian churches, particularly along the Border and in rural areas, as well as in some urban areas. These churches remain very concerned about the impact on their faith of policy decisions on pupil-teacher ratios for small schools. Did the Taoiseach discuss this issue with the church leaders? In addition, second level Church of Ireland schools are equally concerned about the impact of the changes in pupil-teacher ratios for fee-paying schools.
Some have had to wind up or change their status. This is in the context of preserving their faith and the entitlement of parents to have their children educated in a particular faith. In particular in the Church of Ireland, the Protestant and the Presbyterian arena, there is a very strong linkage in their world between education and the preservation and continuation of their faith and they are very concerned about unintended consequences of policy and about the impact of these policies on their capacity in this regard. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach could indicate whether those issues were discussed because I am sure we would agree that religious diversity is most important in the educational world.
Following on from Deputies Martin, Adams and Higgins, fundamentally, this is a question of basic human rights moving up to equality - the Taoiseach mentioned the importance of equality - to tolerance and to respect, no matter where we are in this world. By accident, we just happen to be in this country. It brings up the question that is at issue in this Parliament, which is, the equality and the tolerance of the ideas of parliamentarians and their rights and responsibilities in the context of a Whip and the question of the genesis and validity of authority. These are questions for the Taoiseach to reflect on.
Last Friday, there was an international rally in Paris, supported by 120,000 people, demonstrating resistance to the fundamentalist regime in Iran. Representatives from 69 countries were there, supporting-----
-----behaviour of Khomenei and the mullahs. As a nation, we need to be aware of the contemporary times in which we live. There is a temptation to put huge energy and resources into looking back. While that is important and can be done, it should not be the prime occupation in contemporary times that deserve justice to be brought to our fellow human beings in the world's family. I think we have been remiss in this respect. I learned so much. To be present at a rally of 120,000-----
You may be very happy to engage with Deputy Mathews on that matter.
Deputy Martin raised an important and a valid point about the political response in respect of the Executive in Northern Ireland. There will be a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council on Friday in Dublin, hosted by the Government. I will make a point of raising that with the political personnel who are here. I am not sure of the extent of engagement from the Executive in Northern Ireland but that is a good point.
In regard to speaking to the Protestant and Church of Ireland communities, I spoke to archbishop Michael Jackson. He wrote to me about the inclusion of the Bethany Home in the remit of the inquiry into the mother and baby homes, and that is obviously included. We have had some discussion around that before. The other point-----
From an equality point of view, this is an issue which affects not just the Church of Ireland or other religions but quite a number locations around the country where populations have dropped. As a result of decisions made by the previous Government and our own Government-----
Believe me, there is.
As part of the 2012 budget decisions, there is a phased increase in the number of pupils required to gain and retain a classroom teaching post in small primary schools with four teachers or less. An appeals process is available to small schools which have had their staff numbers reduced because of budgetary measures. Schools with four teachers or less losing a teacher and which fail to gain an additional teacher as a result of the 2012 budget measures are entitled to submit their appeal to the primary staffing appeals board. That appeals board takes into account all those considerations and operates independently of the Department of Education and Skills and its decision on the matter is final. That issue affects schools in isolated areas. As the Deputy knows, there is a number of them in my constituency.
I was not in Paris for the-----
-----mass movement there but I was in Tibnin recently laying a wreath at the memorial to 47 members of the Defence Forces who lost their lives over a number of years in the service of the United Nations. The scale of the humanitarian issue in Syria, with millions of people displaced and 1 million gone into the Lebanon and 1 million gone into Jordan, the issues arising in Iraq between Sunnis, Shias and other forces, what is happening in Afghanistan, Crimea and Ukraine-----
-----are all issues on this the day of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. That speaks for itself. These are issues which all politicians should reflect on in respect of their responsibilities, their rights and, I hope, the requirement to make decisions where tolerance is understood and equality, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, can be brought to the fore.