Thursday, 6 April 2017
In March 2014, the Attorney General informed the Taoiseach that there was a very sensitive issue that could jeopardise the State because it had come to her attention that Garda stations were taping phone conversations for the past 30 years without having a legal basis. That conversation was had in the middle of all of the controversy surrounding the departure of the former Commissioner, Martin Callinan. The State was involved in one case in particular and the Attorney General wanted to brief the Taoiseach personally at the time without the Minister for Justice and Equality being present. The Garda taping allegations went back over the previous 30 years. What was reported in 2014 appeared to be a serious infringement of the privacy rights of citizens, a right we all value and assume is respected by the State. The Attorney General gave instructions to all Garda stations not to destroy any tapes. The Taoiseach informed the House of that particular serious development after the Cabinet discussed it and confirmed that Mr. Justice Fennelly was to be appointed to examine that and other issues.
The Taoiseach told the Dáil he thought this was a matter of very considerable concern in the sense of having confidence, public accountability and trust in the justice system. For that reason, he advised the Attorney General that all the facts, both of the individual case and the wider trawl, should be assessed by somebody competent in the legal profession to see how serious the issue was. The newspapers say that Mr. Justice Fennelly's second report is being published today. It is meant to be 740 pages long and was delivered to the Department of An Taoiseach and the Attorney General's office last Friday so they have had it for six days. It seems exceptionally convenient that this report is being published when the Taoiseach is due to be in Germany today and will be unavailable to answer any questions in this House or from the media this afternoon, as there is no provision for questions at the press conference in Germany. That seems quite bizarre and similar to the likes of North Korea. Perhaps in the context of every other scandal the Government is presiding over, the Taoiseach has become desensitised to issues of this nature. Perhaps he does not think it is that big of a deal. Everything should be taken in context. In the context of the Bus Éireann strike, the Charleton tribunal, a struggling Garda Commissioner whom the Government continues to support, a homelessness crisis, a housing crisis, a health service crisis - I could go on - the meeting with Angela Merkel is probably a welcome break.
Despite all of that, the Fennelly report and its contents are of huge importance to this House and to the public. Simply because the Taoiseach has decided to publish the report when he is conveniently out of the country at a meeting that apparently could not be changed does not mean he will get away from answering questions in this House on that matter. The report is on his desk since last Friday and today's meeting with Angela Merkel was presumably in the calendar for some time. The public can make up their own minds as to why An Taoiseach chose today to publish such a serious and damning report. My question to the Minister is whether he has seen a copy of the report. Could he confirm when the report will be published? Could he also confirm whether a press conference will be held, and when, and whether the Minister for Justice and Equality will appear in this Chamber to answer questions before the House?
The second report of the Fennelly commission was received by the Taoiseach last Friday evening and it was then furnished to the Attorney General. It is the normal course of action that the Attorney General will read and review a report before its publication and this has now been done. The report has been cleared by the Attorney General. There will be a briefing for Ministers at approximately 3 p.m. today and the report will be published later this evening. It is a very long report. I have not seen a copy of it yet, but I understand it runs to almost 800 pages. The executive summary alone runs to approximately 70 pages. I am sure all Members of the House will want to have time to read it themselves before expressing views on it or being in a position to ask informed questions about it. The report has been cleared by the Attorney General and will be published later this afternoon. The Tánaiste and Minister of Justice and Equality is studying it at present and will be in a position to answer questions on it in due course. After Members of the House have had a chance to read it, consider it and come up with considered questions we will find an appropriate time that is agreeable so the House can debate it and we can answer any questions about it Deputies may have.
Does the Minister think it is acceptable to allow a report like this to be published without anybody from the Government being available to answer questions on it? It is reported the commission will send its report today but there will be no press conference. It is further reported the Irish media travelling abroad today have specifically requested the Taoiseach to have a separate press briefing to that on his meeting with Chancellor Merkel to facilitate the Irish media and he has refused this.
In March 2014, the Taoiseach said he appointed Mr. Justice Fennelly in the interests of having a Garda Síochána that stood up to scrutiny in terms of its competence and professionalism. He seemed concerned back in 2014 about the matters Mr. Justice Fennelly was about to investigate, but today no one is around to answer questions. Is it the case there are no concerns arising from the report on behalf of the Government or the Taoiseach? The Minister said that in the normal course of proceedings a report goes from An Taoiseach to the Attorney General and is then published. The normal course of proceedings is that the Taoiseach makes himself available to the House and the media to answer questions on reports of this nature and he is not doing so.
The Minister spoke about Deputies in the House being allowed to express a view and ask questions. Will the Minister confirm to the House that we will have an opportunity to debate the report? When will we have a press conference? Will the Tánaiste come to the House to answer questions and, if so, when?
One thing I have seen a little too much of in politics is a report being published and within half an hour people expressing views and considered opinions on it and having many questions on it. So often we see things-----
-----and unless they have some superhero-type speed-reading powers they could not possibly have read them. This report has been cleared by the Attorney General and will be published this afternoon. It is 800 pages long. Any normal person would probably need to read it overnight or, better still, over the weekend, so any opinions on it can be informed and any questions on it can be intelligent. Of course the Taoiseach will be available in the House next Tuesday to answer questions in the normal course of events. There will be a debate on the report of the Fennelly commission and it is a matter for the Business Committee to decide when this will be. I do not think anything will change over the next couple of days that should not allow us to have time, for once, to actually read a report before we express opinions on it and come up with intelligent questions that can be asked at that point to the Taoiseach and the relevant authorities.
Tá súil agam nach bhfuil mé ag briseadh riail ar bith ach chímse anseo daltaí agus múinteoirí ó Gairmscoil Mhic Diarmada a tháinig anseo ó Oiléain Árainn Mhór inniu. Thar mo cheann féin, an Teachta O'Doherty, an Teachta Pringle agus duine ar bith eile atá anseo, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur rompu. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh na múinteoirí agus na daltaí taitneamh as a gcuairt. Go raibh maith agaibh. Bogfaimid ar aghaidh anois go dtí an Teachta McDonald.
Cuirim fáilte mór rompu go léir. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water will meet later this afternoon to vote on its report on the future of water services. The report recommends the abolition of water charges, the scrapping of domestic metering, including for new builds, and provision for a referendum to retain our water infrastructure in public ownership.
This represents a massive and deserved victory for all those people from communities throughout Ireland who campaigned and resisted the imposition of charges, and who fought against the push to privatise our water services. The right to water movement has endured and has prevailed against great odds. The Minister knows that the majority of Deputies elected to this Dáil were elected on an anti-water charges platform.
If the sights and sounds of thousands of people marching time and again in protest was not enough for the Minister's party to grasp the level of public opposition to water charges, then surely the democratic vote at a general election should have been. Of course it was not. It fell on the closed ears of a Fine Gael-led Government. The Minister's Government turned its face against the express will of the people and it stopped the Dáil from dealing with the matter of water charges. His ministerial colleague and superhero friend, the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, pushed this politically charged issue of water charges into a new committee. He set it up. It was his process as well as the Minister, Deputy Varadkar's process. With its establishment, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, gave a very clear commitment to legislate and give full effect to the final recommendation of the committee. Now we hear that the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, is saying that he will not legislate on the basis of this report. He is blatantly stating that he will go back on a commitment that he gave. It was a very clear commitment. The result of the committee's deliberation did not go his way and now he is using a mangled interpretation of the European water framework directive to spin his way and the Government's way out of trouble.
The people have made their demands clear in protest after protest. They delivered a mandate to this Dáil to see that those demands were met. The Oireachtas, containing the democratically elected representatives of the people, has made its recommendations through the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. These recommendations are fully in line with what the people of Ireland have been demanding for some years. The Minister needs to heed the advice of the committee that he himself established. I ask the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar, if he will tell the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, that he must stand by his word and legislate on the basis of the committee report.
First of all, the report on water is not yet finalised. I understand there will be a further meeting of the committee today to finalise the report. I am informed that while it does not provide for any mandatory provision of applying meters to new builds, it does not propose to scrap the metering programme altogether. The House will have a lengthy opportunity to debate the report, ideally next week. That will be an opportunity for everyone to give their views on it.
I point out to the Deputy that the confidence and supply agreement, which was agreed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, states very clearly that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties reserve their right to adopt differing positions on any consequent legislation or resolutions being debated by the Oireachtas. I will repeat that.
Both parties reserve the right to adopt differing positions on any consequent legislation or resolutions being debated by the Oireachtas. I very much echo the words of the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, and stand by what he has said and has made clear throughout this process, that Fine Gael and this Government will not bring forward legislation that we know to be contrary to European law. We will not bring forward legislation that we believe to be contrary to the interests of the environment, and particularly legislation that might expose Irish people to be liable to enormous fines that would not be in the interests of the public. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Government have been clear all along that we cannot be expected to facilitate legislation that is contrary to European law. We are not going to do so.
On one level, it is touching to see such solidarity between the two Ministers, all things considered. It is tragic that this solidarity and joint sense of purpose only emerges when they are intent on frustrating the repeated and democratically mandated demands of the people of this State.
Water charges are over. We have known this since we met here first as a Dáil. The individual views of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Party members on any given issue is a matter for themselves, except in circumstances where the people, the electorate, the citizens have made their views abundantly clear on a particular matter. Not alone that, in these circumstances we had the committee that was insisted upon by the Government. The committee has deliberated and has considered in some detail the framework directive which was referred to. That directive is all about preservation of water and environmental standards. That is the test for whether or not we comply. It makes no direct reference or insistence on charges for excessive use, for example. The commitment made was absolutely clear. The Government refused to listen directly to the voices of the people, but did say very clearly that whatever the individual positions taken, it would legislate in accordance with the outcome of that committee.
The Leas Ceann-Comhairle broke a rule so he can allow me to bend one slightly.
If the Ministers, Deputies Varadkar and Coveney continue to insist on turning their faces again against the express will of the people, be very clear that thousands of people will be on the street on Saturday to remind them that it is their job to fulfil their democratic mandate.
-----has overtaken what we all know deep down to be the right decision for the Irish people, and the correct decision long-term. When a previous Government - not lead by Fine Gael - signed up to the European water framework directive, they did not just sign up to some silly European law. They signed up to principles which make sense. Metering makes sense, because that is how leaks are identified and how conservation is promoted. Charging people for excess use of water makes sense because that is the fairest way to pay and-----
There will be other Dáileanna after this, and sooner or later some Dáil will make the correct decision by the Irish people, will do the right thing for the long term, and that will not reflect very well on the type of personality politics and party politics that we have seen displayed in this House in recent months. I want to ask one simple question and I would like an answer to it. Is Deputy McDonald seriously suggesting that a Minister of this Government or any Government should be forced to legislate for something that the Attorney General has advised them is contrary to European law and European treaties?
It is nice to see such a public audition for the job of Taoiseach. This is the only sight that the public will have to see of who is the next leader. This audition is a test of who can break commitments that are made. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar has indicated that he is willing to break it, as has the Minister, Deputy Coveney. It is a test of who cannot answer the questions most effectively in the best possible spirit of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny, which is again clear today.
Let me help Fine Gael and the two prospective taoisigh in front of us. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar quoted from one bullet point of the supply and confidence agreement. If he had done us the favour of quoting the next bullet point things might be a bit clearer. I quote: "The Government will facilitate the passage of legislation, whether it be a money Bill or otherwise, for the implementation of the recommendations relating to domestic water charging supported by the Oireachtas, including abolition, a reformed charging regime or other options". The Minister, Deputy Varadkar should tell us if he is going to accept what has been agreed or if he is going to break it. There is no question here. The notion that the Attorney General read the report overnight - it was agreed yesterday, but we have not signed off on it yet - and said that it was not legal is nonsense. Do not try and mislead the Dáil. Let us be clear what has happened here.
He was the one who declared us to be the sinister fringe, and talked about the reasonable people who did not have a problem with water charges, water commodification or the prospect of privatisation. It turns out that we were not such a fringe and that we are a majority in society. Hundreds of thousands of people protesting had an impact, as did people organising in their communities and 73% of people refusing to pay. The result was a change of politics, including a change in the positions of different political parties. The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, said at the end of last year that an unpaid bill would be an outstanding debt, just like an ESB bill or management charge, and that, ultimately, people would end up having to pay their bill. It does not look very likely now, Minister, does it?
The report recommends that water charges be abolished, refunds issued, a referendum on public ownership held, the metering programme halted and no excessive usage charge introduced. The Minister's people decided to get legal advice yesterday and rang a lawyer in Tokyo to ask if it was okay to get rid of excessive usage charges. The lawyer said it was grand but his people now say it is not proper legal advice. He is fine with a special committee deciding on this as long as it decides in the way he wants, and with legal advice as long as that advice is the advice he wants. The Minister needs to read the writing on the wall. It is over, he has lost and the sinister fringe has won. Give it up and scrap the charges.
I reiterate that the report has yet to be signed off on and yet to be published. When it is signed off on and published, it will be debated in this House. It will be sent to the Attorney General, the constitutional officer and the Government's legal adviser, to give all of us in the Oireachtas sound legal advice-----
-----as to whether what is proposed is contrary or not to European law.
The confidence and supply agreement states that we will facilitate legislation but it has always been understood, and indeed accepted by the major party opposite, that it does not require a Minister to bring forward legislation which that Minister knows to be contrary to European law and where he or she has been advised to such effect by the Attorney General. We will await her advice on this.
I congratulate Deputy Paul Murphy on one enormous success, though not on the role he has played in the campaign against water charges. I congratulate him on the role he has played in reducing Fianna Fáil to what it is now. The party of Lemass, which was once proud to stand up for things and would do the right things by the Irish people, now determines its policy on water solely out of its fear of Deputy Murphy and of Sinn Féin.
As we all know, the truth hurts and this one hurts really bad. The original proposal to introduce metering and water charges in this State was made in 2010 in an agreement between Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.
It was not imposed on us by the troika and was not about austerity. It was Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, in government, agreeing to bring forward a policy because it was the right one by the Irish people. Why have they changed their position now?
It is not because the facts have changed or European law has changed, but because they are terrified of Sinn Féin and terrified of the far left. It is a sad thing to see a party such as Fianna Fáil reduced to the position it is in now.
The Minister's response to the issue is quite incredible. He is suggesting that a secret agreement lies behind this agreement, to the effect that we should forget about what is written in the agreement because, if the Government decides it does not want to go ahead, it will not do so. Is that the case? That is not what is in the legislation. The Minister for Social Protection, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and the Government increasingly resemble a lost soldier left in a jungle after the war is over. They have lost but they are trying to hang on to anything they can, in this case to maintain a back door for water charges in the future.
I appreciate the compliment but, of course, I do not agree about some fine past of Fianna Fáil either, nor a fine past of Fine Gael. The thanks for Fianna Fáil's undoubted change of position does not lie with me but with the movement. It lies with the hundreds of thousands who came out to protest and those who refused to pay. They all know we are very close to a total victory now and the only thing that lies between us and that victory are the two Ministers and the Taoiseach. Everyone knows that the Government has now been beaten on this issue repeatedly and everyone feels confident that it can be beaten on the issue again. For that reason people will be on the streets this Saturday at 2 o'clock at Heuston Station and Connolly Station to ensure the Government reads the writing that is on the wall.
What is this total victory that Deputy Paul Murphy talks about? Everyone in this House accepts that water has to be paid for. The Deputy's total victory is that water continues to be paid for through general taxation.
The Government has committed itself to do what it can to help Irish emigrants abroad as evidenced by the appointment of a Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and a Senator representing the diaspora. In this regard, I compliment the Taoiseach on speaking up for the undocumented Irish in America in his excellent speech in Washington last month. However, when it comes down to the practicalities, we appear to be putting barrier after barrier in the way of our emigrants returning home and making a contribution to the rebuilding of Ireland.
About 300,000 people left this country over the past decade to find work when jobs were not available here. Many others were forced to extend stays abroad because of the downturn in our economy. Many of these people now want to come back home, but for many it is an economic impossibility. The cost of motor insurance is typical of the issues they face. Drivers who have been out of the country for just two years lose any no-claims entitlements they had before they left, possibly adding thousands to already prohibitive insurance costs.
There is also a particular barrier regarding access to universities and third-level colleges. If people have lived outside the EU for two of the previous five years their children are treated as international students and must pay exorbitant fees to go to college. Those fees could come to €100,000 for an undergraduate course.
I was recently contacted by a group of Irish families living and working in California for the past three to 12 years. Most of them work with Medtronic, the medical device manufacturer, whose plant in Galway is one of the largest employers in Ireland with close to 3,000 workers directly employed there. These are mainly highly educated and skilled people, Irish to the core, who feel they have much to contribute to this country if they were to return. With many of them now having children approaching college age they are anxious that they should get an Irish third level education, but the costs allied to the reduction to their salaries should they return to Ireland, make this prohibitive. If they go to college in the United States it is likely that they will stay there for their lives, their talents lost to Ireland along with those of their parents.
Others in the United States are becoming more fearful for their future there because they are undocumented. For them and many other Irish families in Australia, Canada and around the globe, the question of returning home is a heartbreaking quandary because they know if they do, their children will not be able to advance to a college education which is considered a basic necessity for accessing so many careers today.
When will the Government remove the barrier to people returning home and relax the strict residency rules that are preventing Irish children from accessing affordable Irish education that should be their right? They are essentially being treated as foreigners in their own land.
One of the greatest difficulties for the undocumented Irish in the United States is the renewal of their Irish driver's licence. For many, it is the only thing preventing deportation from the United States. In all the sanctuary cities, the production of that licence saves people from arrest.
An Irish passport can be renewed online and at the post office, but a driver's licence cannot be renewed unless the applicant presents himself or herself in person at a National Driver Licence Service centre in this country. This is an impossibility for those living in the US and other parts of the world. When will the same online renewal facilities be extended to cover driver licences?
I thank the Deputy for raising a number of important issues affecting the Irish abroad and returning migrants and for acknowledging the Taoiseach's important contribution to the effort to resolve the problems facing undocumented Irish living in the United States in particular. I wish to record the fact that the Government has made the decision to extend voting rights in presidential elections from 2026 onwards to Irish citizens abroad. The Deputy also mentioned the appointment of Senator Billy Lawless to represent the diaspora in our Seanad.
At the moment 400 Irish citizens living abroad return every week to live in Ireland, which is a great thing to see. Who would have thought only five or six years ago that we would be returning to net inward migration and that more people would be coming home to Ireland than are leaving? This reflects better than most statistics the extent to which our economy has turned around and how well our jobs market is doing.
I am advised that we are devising a protocol on access to motor insurance for returning emigrants. The Minister of State, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, wants to act on this in particular. Those who are coming back here and taking up jobs want to be able to access insurance and carry their good no claims record with them, as they should be allowed to do.
We run into a very particular issue in respect of education, which is that we must treat all EU citizens the same. This means treating an Irish citizen exactly the same as we would a French, Italian or German citizen. If we say to an Irish citizen who has never lived in Ireland that he or she is entitled to free education and college grants, we must say the same thing to more than 400 million EU citizens. A consequence of providing free education and grants to anyone in the European Union who wants it would be the enormous cost implications for the State. We need to take that into account.
Our rules and regulations require a person to be resident in the State to have an Irish driver licence, but people can apply for their driver licence if back here for a short period of time. If they have an Irish passport, they may wish to apply for the new passport card online, which can be done from America. This could be useful in terms of having an ID. It can be done using an app and providing a selfie online. If photo ID is required, they can use the Irish passport card instead of the driver licence.
I thank the Minister for his reply. It is all very well to give our emigrants abroad the opportunity to vote in our presidential elections - I welcome it - but there is an issue regarding driver licences, particularly in the sanctuary cities in the Unites States. Last year I attended a wedding in the United States where a number of Irish people came up to me. Their biggest issue was that they cannot renew their Irish driver's licence. The passport card is not a driver's licence. When pulled in in the United States, the first thing a person is asked for is his or her driver's licence. Most young Irish people in the United States are carpenters or labourers, etc. and they have to have a vehicle for work. Some of them have been arrested. The most important document a person has is his or her passport and an application can be made online, through An Post and by ordinary post. However, this is not possible with a driver's licence.
Recently in Australia, a young person's wallet was stolen with his driver's licence in it. He turned up for work on the Monday morning but could not work because his job was driving. He had to come home to get his driver's licence renewed and fly back out again. It is one of the biggest issues affecting the young undocumented in the United States. I will finish on a point that we have raised in the foreign affairs committee. Deputy Joe McHugh, who is the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, is working on this through an interdepartmental group. Will the Minister get the message to the Taoiseach to find a solution to the issue so that people can apply online?
I am due to discuss some other matters with him today.
On the face of it, given that passports can be renewed online, it seems to make sense that people would be able to renew a driver's licence online provided we have on record the applicants safe II photograph. It should be possible to do this and I will discuss the matter with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, later today and perhaps ask him to speak directly to the Deputy.