Tuesday, 17 November 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements
6. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with a group (details supplied); and the reason the approach to religious services here during the Covid-19 pandemic is different from the approach adopted in most other European countries. [34744/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, together.
On 28 October, I met with leaders of the Catholic Church, namely, Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop Michael Neary, Archbishop Kieran O'Reilly and Bishop Dermot Farrell. Discussion focused mainly on the effect the current Covid-19 restrictions are having on the health and well-being of the faith community and the great desire to return to worship as soon as possible. The archbishops emphasised that they are fully supportive of the public health messages but highlighted that the coming together in prayer and worship, especially for mass and the sacraments, is fundamental to Christian tradition and a source of nourishment for the life and well-being of whole communities. The importance of gathering for worship as a source of consolation and hope at Christmas time was stressed.
The archbishops emphasised the mammoth effort that has been made by priests and volunteers at parish level to ensure that gatherings in church are as safe as possible. They also pointed to the consistent messaging from the church about the protection of health and life for all in the community, particularly the vulnerable. I thanked the archbishops for their support and acknowledged the major role religious leaders have in supporting people and giving hope at this time of stress and worry by reaching out to those who may feel isolated or marginalised. It was acknowledged that pastoral work continues at parish level, even as the celebration of mass is moved online. The challenges faced by people suffering bereavement at this time were acknowledged, particularly as we enter the traditional time of remembrance in the month of November.
I outlined the reasoning behind the Government's plan for living with Covid-19 and the need to strike the right balance between all forms of social and economic activity and public health. The archbishops emphasised the need to protect the most vulnerable in society at this time. They also acknowledged the positive value of keeping our schools open, especially for those who may otherwise be educationally disadvantaged by not having access to technology or the daily support of their teachers. The need for a shared understanding of the effects of the pandemic as it evolves, and an alignment of our responses accordingly, was recognised. All agreed on the importance of ongoing constructive engagement and solidarity in facing and overcoming the challenges of Covid-19 together. In responding to the pandemic, governments everywhere are making decisions that are judged to be the right ones for their country, society and economy. With the introduction of level 5 restrictions in Ireland, our objective, working together, is to reduce the spread of the virus and make it safer to reopen society.
Before I begin, I note that in the Taoiseach's response to the last round of questions, a number of the questions were not answered.
The issue raised in this group of questions is very important and I am glad that we are discussing it. Every weekend, my daughter organises for my mother - her granny - to watch mass from Portroe on YouTube. My mum goes to mass every single day of the year and long may that continue. Mass is a huge part of her life.
She is, obviously, very devout. We need to look at these matters favourably as we come towards December and the Christmas period, particularly for our elderly, many of whom go to the religious services of their different faiths. We need to look at this issue in a compassionate way. December is a very important month. November is the month of remembrance but December includes the build-up to Christmas and Christmas itself. If we go down to level 3, there will be no masses unless an exemption is made. The Taoiseach has made it quite clear that it is his ambition to move to level 3 but I urge him to consider some form of exemption for religious services and for small congregations. Perhaps - dare I say it - masses, meetings, comings together and various different religious services could be held on multiple occasions and we could facilitate those who want to attend. I urge the Taoiseach to consider the options to facilitate those of all ages, but particularly the elderly who really miss these services. I say that speaking quite personally.
This is a serious illness so when people raise this issue they are not saying they are looking for zero restrictions. Ireland, however, has the second lowest incidence of Covid in Europe but the sixth most severe restrictions in the world. People might say that those two issues are related but the fact is that restrictions come with a massive cost. Religious practice is one of those costs. Religious practice is a human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is no small issue we are talking about. The practice of religion is a significant element in people's lives. Some 100,000 people in this State do as Deputy Alan Kelly's mother does and go to mass on a daily basis. Well over 1 million attend religious services weekly. I got a phone call from a 93-year-old woman today who said that her physical and mental health are significantly deteriorating due to her lack of access to the social setting that is a religious service. Faith is also a significant pool of strength for many people in very difficult times.
I know we have to make evidence-based decisions, but Government data show very few outbreaks of Covid-19 associated with places of worship. Religious buildings are often the biggest buildings in any given town and services were run like clockwork in most communities until we entered level 5. Significant social distancing was operated. Over the coming weeks, we need to ensure that the safe elements of society start to function. Many people feel that these services are one of the safest elements of society.
The Taoiseach talked about his previous incarnations in government in terms of the survivors of industrial schools and the things he did. One of the scandalous things done under a Fianna Fáil Government was the decision to limit the liability of the religious congregations responsible for the abuse of those who went through the industrial schools and such institutions to €128 million, with the rest to be covered by the State. Contrary to his last contribution in response to my question, the survivors I am talking about are saying their needs are not being met. They say that the promises made by Bertie Ahern and previous Governments in which the Taoiseach was involved to deal with intergenerational poverty, the deprivation suffered by many survivors of the industrial schools, to provide for their mental health and counsellors they choose, to provide real housing support to people in really appalling housing conditions and so on, have not been met. They say that many of the bodies set up were set up without proper consultation with survivors and over their heads and that real engagement, particularly with some of the victims worst affected who tended to come from poorer backgrounds, has not really happened. They say the commitments and promises made have not been met.
Will the Taoiseach clarify whether he is proposing dissolution legislation? If so, is this effectively a case of the State washing its hands of its obligations to those survivors? We have had a campaign to repeal the seal on people's histories and records. Should we not repeal the Woods deal which limits the liability of those religious organisations so that they can use their very considerable property and other assets to support the survivors they abused?
I have an Aoibhe myself. It is the kind of intergenerational solidarity that will get us through the pandemic. What comes across is the importance of faith to many in our community, which Deputy Tóibín also mentioned. It is good for people's mental health to get out and about and to get to church. The support that is there is important. The meeting really focused on level 3 restrictions because the archbishops accepted that level 5 involved severe restrictions but what was a surprise to them was that in the original iteration of level 3, mass had been excluded and they were making representations on that.
Deputy Tóibín mentioned other countries. In France, places of worship may remain open for private prayer but no religious ceremonies may take place with the exception of funerals with a maximum of 30 in attendance and weddings with a maximum of six in attendance. In Northern Ireland, places of worship remain open with a mandatory requirement to wear face coverings when entering or exiting. Funerals are limited to 25 attendees. In England, places of worship are again only open for individual prayer.
What originally motivated a lot of this was that, in the first phase of the pandemic, religious events in other countries proved to be a vector. These may have involved larger congregations but they proved to be significant in the transmission of the virus. Public health advice has been extremely cautious in the context of such gatherings. That said, we will take on board what the Deputy and others have said. We are reflecting on this in terms of exiting level 5, which we want to do at the end of this month. We will take on board sectoral representations, particularly the issue of worship and people's opportunity to attend mass and other services safely and within controlled environments during Advent and the lead-up to Christmas. That is what we will seek to do.
We want to get back to level 3 but we will look at certain aspects of it because, as I said earlier, we have done a fair bit of work over recent months to see as best we can the optimal triggers for the spread of the virus. We have worked to understand what particular events have been triggers and what has caused spikes in case numbers. NPHET will also advise us on all of this. We do not want to open up and then have very high numbers again in January or February. There will be a great focus on personal responsibility and the avoidance of large crowds both indoors and outdoors. The virus thrives where large crowds congregate.
On Deputy Boyd Barrett's point, what happened to those who were committed to industrial schools was an appalling abuse by the State at the time. It is very easy for people living in the modern era to look back. These homes all evolved from previous iterations. A combination of forces committed people, from the cruelty man, to the courts and An Garda Síochána. People made decisions arbitrarily that, because a woman was separated or the father in a home had alcohol problems, someone clearly said a person was going into a home as where they were was no fit place to be. This was said to me by survivors.
The State responded comprehensively and that should be acknowledged. Perhaps the Deputy's point is that it needs to continue to respond but let us not decry and undermine completely and say that nothing was done. A lot was done. The redress scheme was simply designed to make sure that people did not have to go through the courts.
When we originally made the response, we removed the Statute of Limitations requirements to facilitate industrial schools, but in essence they would have been in the courts for years. That would have been too much anguish and it would have been too difficult for them. That is why the redress scheme was developed in a bona fide way to try to accelerate some redress for the survivors of the industrial schools. My view always was that it was much more in redress and that the focus and emphasis should always be on the housing, health, counselling and other supports that people required, given the impact that being in an industrial school had on their lives and the degree to which it shortened their education possibilities. To a certain extent, survivors of the industrial schools felt stigmatised and lacked self-esteem and self-confidence. Their presence in the industrial schools did a lot of damage. I will engage with the Minister for Education on this and I will try to ascertain where we are in terms of the needs of those who survived the institutions.