Tuesday, 9 June 2015
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed)
Constitutional Convention Recommendations
16. To ask the Taoiseach his plans to hold a referendum on whether to insert general economic, social, and cultural rights, and especially a right to housing, in the Constitution, as recommended by the Constitutional Convention in 2014; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9017/15]
17. To ask the Taoiseach the position regarding the outstanding recommendations from the Constitutional Convention; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12773/15]
18. To ask the Taoiseach the position regarding the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention, which his Department has the responsibility of co-ordinating, and which would require a referendum if they were accepted; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12775/15]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 13 to 19, inclusive, together.
On Friday, 22 May, the Government held two referendums on foot of recommendations from the Convention on the Constitution, on the age threshold for candidates in presidential elections and on marriage equality. As the House is aware, the referendum on marriage equality was passed by a decisive majority. This is the first time that a proposal for constitutional change put forward by a constitutional convention will have resulted in actual constitutional change. It will also be the first time that marriage equality was carried by popular vote and so marks an historic first for Ireland among the nations of the world.
As regards the convention's other reports, Ministers from the relevant Departments have already given the Government's response in the Dáil to five reports of the Convention on the Constitution: on 18 July 2013 to the first report on reducing the voting age and the presidential term; on 10 October 2013 to the second report on the role of women and women in politics; on 17 December 2013 to the third report on same-sex marriage; on 18 December 2014 to the fourth report on electoral reform; and on 2 October 2014 to the sixth report on blasphemy. In the process of responding to these reports of the convention, the Government has committed to establishing an electoral commission, as recommended in the convention's fourth report. The Government also accepted the convention's recommendations for referendums on four items: removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution; reducing the voting age to 16; reducing the age threshold for candidacy in presidential elections; and marriage equality. As I mentioned earlier, referendums on two of these, on reducing the age threshold for candidacy in presidential elections and on marriage equality, were held on Friday, 22 May 2015.
The fifth report, about giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in Presidential elections was scheduled to be debated in the House two weeks ago but other business intervened. I expect the debate will be rescheduled shortly. However, Deputies will be aware that the Government made the point in its recent diaspora strategy that it is necessary to analyse the full range of practical and policy issues that would arise from any significant extension of the franchise before any decision could be made on the holding of a referendum. The analysis is being undertaken by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in co-operation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora.
Work is underway on the seventh, eighth and ninth reports, respectively, on Dáil reform, economic, social and cultural rights, including housing, and the convention's conclusions and recommendations. I expect that the Government's responses on these will be given in the Dáil shortly.
The future of the convention was one of the issues considered in the ninth report. While there was unanimous support for a second convention in the report, it was acknowledged that this is an exercise that can only be achieved once in the lifetime of any Dáil. The possibility of another Convention on the Constitution will be for the next Administration to determine. I am sure, however, that all sides of the House will join with me in congratulating and thanking the convention chairman, members, secretariat, expert panel and, indeed, all associated with the convention on their work on the unique project that it represented.
I should add that the Government has now held eight referendums in the four years since coming into office, namely, investigative powers for Oireachtas committees; judges' remuneration; the Fiscal Stability Treaty; children; abolition of the Seanad; the establishment of a Court of Appeal; marriage equality; and on the age threshold for candidates in Presidential elections. This is a much more intense programme of constitutional reform than has been carried out by any Government since 1937. The last Government, for example, held just two referendums. The Government does not propose to hold any further referendums during the remainder of its term, but I think the House will agree that the changes in our Constitution since 2011 have both improved and strengthened the fundamental law of our State.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I pay tribute to Tom Arnold, the chairman of the Constitutional Convention, and all those who participated for their enthusiasm and commitment. However, I must say that the follow-through from the Government has been extremely disappointing. The Taoiseach might outline for me the cost of the entire exercise of establishing and hosting the Constitutional Convention.
Marriage equality aside, the issues the Government went for are surprising. Furthermore, the Taoiseach is being a bit disingenuous on marriage equality. Although it was considered by the Constitutional Convention, many political parties had committed to a referendum before the convention was established. Fianna Fáil formally adopted a position of support for a referendum prior to the convention's establishment, as did the Labour Party and Sinn Féin . The only party that did not was Fine Gael, which had not at that stage outlined a view. Although marriage equality was covered by the Constitutional Convention, it arguably did not have to go to the convention at all.
I have welcomed the overwhelming majority in support of the marriage equality referendum. I was glad to have the opportunity to debate the issue one-on-one with John Waters on TV3. I did not get the opportunity to debate on RTE, unfortunately. RTE could not facilitate me as it was reserved for Fine Gael and Labour Party Ministers. We got it in writing that we could not be facilitated.
"Morning Ireland" facilitated me at the eleventh hour, and Mr. Bruce Arnold also took part in the programme. Despite what the Taoiseach said earlier, I was glad to participate. Perhaps he was distracted by other issues when he made a comment he should not have made. I would have been glad to have participated in more debates if I had gotten the opportunity. However, it was a very emphatic win.
Most people, however, could not understand why the reduction in the age of eligibility to become President was prioritised over other issues. We have just discussed the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. What about blasphemy being taken out of the Constitution? What about reducing the voting age from 18 to 16 or 17?
I have gone through the convention's report. The Government promised a lot - for example, that it would respond to every decision within four months. There is a long list, including the reduction of the Presidential term of office to five years, which the Government has committed to referring to the relevant Oireachtas committee for further consideration. Apparently, the Government committed to holding a referendum on reducing the voting age to 17, which did not take place. We could have had it instead of the Presidential age referendum. Most people on the doorsteps thought the one that was put to them was nonsensical. Although I supported it, the bottom line is that people thought there was more serious stuff.
The convention's report recommended an amendment to the clause on the role of women, and apparently a task force was established and was meant to have reported by 31 October 2014. The task force on increasing the participation of women in politics was also to report by 31 October. The Government's response to the proposed review of the Dáil electoral system was expected in spring 2014, as was its response to the recommendation on giving the right to vote in Presidential elections to citizens outside the State. As regards the removal of the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution, the Government's response was also expected in spring 2014. It was expected to respond to the recommendations on Dáil reform in 2014. Its response to the proposals on economic, social and cultural rights was expected in summer 2014.
We have not had any substantive responses from the Government on a host of issues considered by the convention, including the Office of the Ceann Comhairle, Dáil committees, various articles of the Constitution and political reform. It seems that, although the Government set up the convention, it ran out of enthusiasm fairly quickly afterwards and has not given the necessary substantive responses to the issues raised. The Government's prioritisation of issues was strange, particularly on the age questions and on blasphemy, which could have been put to the people.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also commend Tom Arnold, Art O'Leary, their teams and the respective experts who came forward. The convention, journalists, secretariat and, especially, the citizens who participated did an excellent job and produced a series of first class reports and recommendations. I attended every session of the convention except for one. It was a very uplifting experience and process, even though the convention as set up by the Government did not go as far as Sinn Féin had proposed.
As we have heard, the convention proposed serious constitutional changes, including extending voting rights to citizens in the North and in the diaspora for Presidential elections, as well as to those aged 16 and up. As I understand it, four outstanding reports have yet to be debated in the Dáil. I have been told at different times, most recently two weeks ago as well as in March and a few months before that, that these matters would be dealt with. If I understand the Taoiseach's remarks today, he is giving the commitment again that they will be dealt with before the summer recess.
The decision to progress with the marriage equality referendum was the right one. The decision to hold a referendum on lowering the age at which candidates could stand for the Presidency was wrong, as it was not the most important issue.
All of the folks who came home to vote committed an illegality by voting, yet were lauded by the Government and by me as well, of course. It is obvious that there are many citizens who are forced to live outside the State, yet who want to play their part in democratic processes here. The representation of the diaspora and of our citizens in the North is long overdue. It is in the programme for Government that Fine Gael and the Labour Party drew up and is a recommendation of the Constitutional Convention and yet the Government ignored it. I do not understand why it would do so. When we talk about this issue I am always reminded of the occasion when Tyrone was playing Armagh in an All-Ireland match in Croke Park, when Mary McAleese was the President. Neither the President nor any of the players had the right to vote, simply because they came from the northern part of the island.
I note the Taoiseach has said he will not deal with this before the general election and we do not know whether he will have a chance to deal with it after the general election. It was a wonderful opportunity. There are other elements of this. I want to refer particularly to the final report which the convention proposed in March of last year. It recommended that the Government and the Oireachtas should empower another convention to continue the work of constitutional review and reform. I note the Taoiseach said this would not happen at this point. However, as we approach the centenary of 1916, a genuine dialogue, nationally and internationally with our own diaspora, on constitutional renewal as another step on the road to unity, peace and reconciliation would be a fitting tribute to the vision of the founders and signatories of the Proclamation. I am disappointed the Taoiseach has ruled this out and I ask him to review and reconsider that proposition.
I have given the House commitments before. The problem for me was that, when the convention reports came back, they were considered by Departments and sometimes by a number of Departments because of the issues that were being discussed. There were certainly some delays and I accept responsibility for not having been able to live up to the timeline we set for debates in the House. I would like to think we can have the remainder discussed here before the House rises for the summer recess.
In respect of the reduction in the age for presidential eligibility, the issue was not that people would be required to elect a person at 21 years of age but that a 21 year old would not be disallowed from competing for the highest office in the land. The question is would we elect somebody at 30, 34 or 29 years of age.
If the Deputy was 21 again and was going to become the Taoiseach, there is no limitation upon him doing so and there is no limitation on him appointing Ministers, in that there is no age bar, whether at 35, 21 or 18 years. The convention voted against the five-year term and against aligning it with the term of MEPs.
The Government accepted the convention's recommendation to reduce the voting age to 16. We said we did not want to give dates for referendums, while accepting the principle to set out a date if possible. We have had eight referendums altogether.
On the role of women, the convention voted to modify the clause in Article 40.1.2° on the role of women in the home. It wanted to see more Government action to encourage greater participation by women and it voted very narrowly against this being provided for in the Constitution. The recommendation on same-sex marriage was carried.
On the review of the Dáil electoral system, the convention recommended retaining the PR-STV electoral system but recommended that constituency sizes be increased. The convention also recommended a number of election-related changes, including establishment of the electoral commission, and we accepted that. The Government rejected the recommendation to increase constituency sizes as it was of the view that the current constituency arrangement has served the State well since 1948.
The convention recommended that people outside the State would have the right to vote in presidential elections. The fifth report was scheduled and debated here two weeks ago and will come in, having been rescheduled. On blasphemy, we said that, yes, there will be a referendum under the next Administration, and we informed the Islamic community of that last week.
On Dáil reform, the convention made recommendations on the role, powers and election of the Ceann Comhairle, committee membership and powers, and the whip system, as well as the introduction of a Dáil reform committee in its own right. The Government is preparing that response. The position is similar in respect of economic, social and cultural rights.
Members have rightly expressed our thanks to Tom Arnold, Art O'Leary and all of the team, particularly the members of the public who were chosen in a very particular way to serve on the convention. They said to me, from the point of view of being civilians in our State, that it was a brilliant period in their lives, where they were able to discuss and make recommendations, one of which is now enshrined in our Constitution forever. I thank the Members for their contributions.