Tuesday, 8 September 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
The protocol and general division of the Department of the Taoiseach has responsibility for State protocol, including protocol for the Taoiseach and the Government. This involves the organisation and co-ordination, in conjunction with relevant stakeholders, of State and official functions. Such functions include the annual Easter 1916 commemoration, the National Day of Commemoration and State commemorations arising from the decade of centenaries from 2013 to 2023, presidential inaugurations, State funerals and inward visits from Heads of State or Government.
The programme of structured dialogue between the Government and churches, faith communities and non-confessional organisations is facilitated by the division. The division is the liaison on administrative matters between the Department and the Office of the Attorney General, the Chief State Solicitor's Office, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Law Reform Commission and the Moriarty tribunal. The division is responsible for liaison with the Office of the President. It supports the Taoiseach's functions relating to the Constitution, including its formal enrolment and publication. The division also provides secretariat support to the interdepartmental group on security of Ireland's electoral process and disinformation.
I asked the question because I wanted to raise certain matters. Is that not why one always asks questions? Has the role of the division changed in any way since the Taoiseach has taken up office? Are there any changes the Taoiseach wants to bring about in this area of his Department?
How is the section dealing with the fact that we now have another aide-de-camp traversing the country on behalf of the Tánaiste? Who requested this aide-de-camp and how much is it costing? What is the protocol for using this aide-de-camp? As none of this information is public, the Taoiseach might enlighten us as to why this aide-de-camp was requested, who made the request, how much this is costing and what the protocol is for the aide-de-camp role? Did the section have any role in suggesting another aide-de-camp was necessary? Did it have a role in making recommendations as regards protocols beyond that, particularly now that we have another Minister with a Garda driver? Has the role changed? Has the protocol division changed? As I outlined, some practical changes have taken place. How is this going to work?
What is being done with regard to protocol for parity of esteem for the three party leaders? Have there been changes in that respect? The Taoiseach referred to that several times so there must be changes.
The protocol section is also responsible for official events. As we know, the proposal in January to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary, RIC, caused a complete mess. What is being done to prevent such a mess occurring again? Will the Taoiseach provide a list of proposed events and commemorations for the rest of 2020 and 2021? That would come under that section of the Department as well.
The protocol and general division deals with relations with the religious bodies. I appeal to the Taoiseach, through this division, to engage urgently with the Sisters of Charity and the Catholic Church generally on a scandal in the St. Mary's centre, a nursing home that also provides assisted living housing for people with blindness, visual impairment and disability. In a Debenhams-style, cynical, tactical liquidation the Sisters of Charity's wholly-owned subsidiary, set up by the order, has already liquidated the Caritas convalescent centre and representatives of the subsidiary are in the High Court as I speak trying to liquidate the nursing home, which provided for 50 residents. Social housing was also specifically provided for those with blindness and disability. By the way, that was originally financed by Dublin City Council but then outsourced to the Sisters of Charity - that makes me laugh - which is now dumping these vulnerable people and all the workers on the scrapheap, while hiding behind company law. The workers are in the High Court trying to resist this move, but they are up against high-powered barristers. We have to stop and remember that the Sisters of Charity, which is doing this, is supposed to be a religious organisation. These organisations and the services provided are funded by taxpayers. This cannot be allowed to happen. I ask the Taoiseach, through his Department, to crack the whip on these religious organisations.
Continuing on that theme, it is not only the representatives of the Sisters of Charity that the Taoiseach must speak to regarding these workers from St. Mary's, St. Monica's and the Caritas convalescent centre, but also the HSE. Many of these workers have given decades of service and worked right through the Covid-19 pandemic. They were front-line workers who were applauded, if the Taoiseach remembers. By the way, a decade ago when their wages were being cut, there was no doubt or debate about who was the employer of these workers. They felt the full weight of the economic crisis then, but not that they find themselves in the middle of this calamity, they are like orphaned employees. The HSE does not want to know and the Sisters of Charity order does not want to know. The really awful part of this, in addition to the gross personal insult to these workers and the giving of the lie to all the proclamations of admiration for front-line workers, is that this will mean some 200 beds being lost to the system. This is happening when we know we are facing into very difficult times with the flu season, Covid-19, etc.
I wrote to the Taoiseach regarding this matter. I have also written to the Tánaiste and to Mr. Paul Reid, CEO of the HSE. There must be an intervention in this case. It is unacceptable on every level. Whether that fits neatly into the ambit of this protocol section of the Department of the Taoiseach is an academic matter, as far as I am concerned. The Taoiseach, as Head of Government, needs to act on this matter.
He might also set out for us the peculiar set of circumstances pertaining to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, acquiring a Garda driver. We got some sense of that before we rose for the summer. If that is the idea of a three-stranded Government working together in harmony, God help us when we see division.
They are not components of the protocol division. Let us be clear about that.
There has been no change to the protocol division. There have been no additional staff provided and the section continues the work that Deputy Kelly and I know it does in organising, on behalf of the State and the Government, various events such as centenary commemorations. Regarding the aide-de-camp to the Tánaiste, there have been two occasions when the aide-de-camp has been used, namely, on 28 June at a wreath-laying ceremony for the Connaught Rangers at a memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery and then 11 July during the Tánaiste's attendance at a vigil to mark the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in the Millennium Park in Blanchardstown. Those are the two occasions on which the aide-the-camp has been used since his appointment.
The aide-de-camp has been assigned to the Tánaiste to carry out duties and assignments required by the office of the Tánaiste, primarily relating to State ceremonials. My understanding is that the Tánaiste requested that. Ten staff are currently assigned to the protocol and general division, of which six are full-time and the remaining staff work part-time. No additional staff have been assigned to the protocol and general division to provide support to the Tánaiste.
Turning to events planned, in respect of the centenary, the then Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, on 2 January last announced a significant decade of centenaries programme for 2020, including a major commemorative programme in remembrance of the significant events that occurred in Cork city and throughout Cork county in 1920, not least the burning of Cork city. Work is ongoing on the programme, which includes a State ceremonial in November to reflect Cork's contribution to the struggle for independence. As with all event planning now, however, elements of the programme are being significantly reconfigured and rescheduled to comply with Covid-19 guidelines. I refer in particular to restrictions on mass gatherings and social distancing. Hopefully, we will be able to have the event to remember Cork's contribution to the national struggle. I know Tipperary will give way in that regard.
Hopefully, people can learn in an insightful way from how the commemorations have been planned and developed.
The protocol division does not have a role regarding the Sisters of Charity. What is happening in this regard is unacceptable, however. We are in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic but, overall, this points to a need, over time, for the State to review fundamentally how we provide services, particularly for those with special needs and adults with disabilities, and how we can secure and give certainty and guarantees to people in settings such as this one. This is an historical legacy. Down through the decades and since before the formation of the State, religious organisations provided a variety of services. Increasingly, that is coming under strain. In more modern times, both lay and religious organisations in this area have been termed section 38 and section 39 organisations. That will not be satisfactory in the future.
For special needs education, such services can refuse to accept primary school children or open new places in their schools for a variety of reasons. That limits the State's capacity to help children who urgently need places. A more State-centred approach is going to be required in the future to provide places, particularly for those with special needs and disabilities. That will take some time and, in the interim, it seems to me that certainty has to be secured from existing providers regarding such services because the type of situation the Deputy outlined creates enormous difficulties for residents and workers. Legally, the State has limited entitlement to intervene and stop what is happening but, that said, I will talk again to the HSE and Paul Reid about this matter to see what can be done.
I thank the Taoiseach for his comments. I agree with him in the broader sense that we must change the whole system in respect of how the State provides such services and that will take time but we must also do something now. The behaviour of the Sisters of Charity means that we must put pressure on them through whatever levers we have at our disposal. It is outrageous. The people in question were lauded a couple of months ago and are now being treated disgracefully. That is not acceptable. The way in which we as a State have handled our relations with this organisation and others down through the years, not under the Taoiseach's watch, beggars belief. We need to ensure that the owners of institutions that provide services respect what they are undertaking and cannot just leave or disrespect workers with that service provision disappearing and that capacity lost to the system. That is not acceptable. We need to be much tougher and more direct with them. We should leverage everything we can to get a much more satisfactory outcome.
I asked a specific question about a change that has been made to the protocol and the Taoiseach mumbled something under his breath. There is now an aide-de-camp for the Tánaiste. Who requested that? How much is it projected to cost?
I agree with the basic point that the Deputy made about Caritas and the Sisters of Charity where workers are being left in an impossible situation. Many groups have provided very good services down through the years but it is my view that the State needs to step up and do more over time.
It is my understanding that the Tánaiste requested an aide-de-camp.