Wednesday, 10 February 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The House has agreed that for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency only, the rapporteur's report on the Order of Business shall not be read out but shall be taken as read. There are two proposals to be considered by the House today arising from this week's business. Is the proposal for dealing with Wednesday's business agreed to?
Events in east Belfast and on the Ormeau Road last Friday have raised grave public concerns and have damaged public confidence in the PSNI. The fundamental duty of the PSNI to act impartially in serving the whole community is now in question. The actions of the PSNI in actively frustrating families in their search for truth - families who have lost loved ones, not least because of British state collusion - are a most toxic dynamic in the middle of all of this.
I am asking for statements from the Taoiseach and from the relevant Minister, Deputy Coveney, on these matters, and that we are given a full update as to the progress and the efforts made by the Government here in Dublin to secure the delivery of the Stormont House Agreement and arrangements that are the appropriate vehicle for dealing with the past, with legacy and the search for truth right across the community. I regard this as a matter of absolute urgency for the Dáil and the Oireachtas.
I wish to register a point in the discussion of the Order of Business. We are operating on the basis of the Dáil sitting two days per week. I, along with my group, favour three sittings per week at this stage. If the schedule is to remain at two sittings per week, then two things must change. First, is the issue of Taoiseach's Questions. Taoiseach's Questions is an important forum for questioning the Taoiseach and holding him and the Government to account on a range of key issues. There has not been a Taoiseach's Questions session in 2021. That must change. We should have it next week.
The second point I wish to make is that we are having weekly debates on health, which is absolutely necessary. However, groups such as my own group having five or six minutes per week to contribute on that issue does not facilitate proper discussion and debate. The time for those debates must be extended. I want to register those points.
First, for all those who remember the 1992 UDA attack on the Sean Graham bookmakers on the Lower Ormeau Road, it was a particularly shocking and upsetting episode. I understand completely how raw it still feels for many people. I understand completely the anger provoked by images of PSNI officers breaking up a small outdoor commemoration at the site and the arrest of a survivor of the attack, Mark Sykes, which took place on Friday. As the Chief Constable of the PSNI himself has acknowledged, it has not been a good week for policing in the North. However, I suggest to the Deputy that we need to tread very carefully. Reform of policing and building community confidence in policing was a most difficult process and is central to political stability in the North. I know that people feel very strongly about it but I urge the Deputy and people generally to direct that energy into the mechanisms that are in place to hold the PSNI to account. There is a Northern Ireland Policing Board and a Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. I call on everyone in positions of political influence to avoid escalating a political argument about policing and, instead, to use the very strong accountability processes that are in place.
I call on everyone in positions of political influence to avoid escalating a political argument about policing and instead to use the very strong accountability processes that are in place. I know the Chief Constable is taking preliminary action against a number of officers. That process should be allowed to run its course. If the Chief Constable himself has questions to answer, there is a process for that too, and that should also be allowed to run its course. I think some of the statements recently are counter to the whole area of trying to build confidence in policing and that risks undermining-----
In terms of legacy, I just want to assure the Deputy that the Irish Government and British Government are committed to a process for dealing with legacy issues and to the full implementation of the agreements that are in place.
In respect of Deputy Barry's point, first of all, I find a difficulty with reconciling a zero Covid approach with his approach in terms of the three days. Be that as it may, if we take the Deputy's proposal, it undermines the time and space for other Deputies, backbenchers in particular, to get in. I get the sense he is trying to give his own group prioritisation in terms of speaking time, to the detriment of others.
I have asked for statements on this matter and statements on the progress on the Stormont House Agreement. We are years waiting for the implementation of that agreement and it is being actively blocked. Are we to have those statements or not? It is a simple question.
Every week this happens. From my perspective, I have to say that I think there is a responsibility on the Deputy's party as well as on all of us to tread carefully. The past three weeks in Northern Ireland have witnessed different parties upping the ante and elevating issues instead of looking at it from a perspective of diffusing issues. There is that responsibility as well on all of us.
I ask the Taoiseach and Deputy to wait for a second. The Taoiseach has made it clear it is not possible to have the statements this week. The Business Committee can consult on this matter on Thursday when it meets and can consider if it is appropriate or possible to have such a debate next week. That, I suggest, is the best way to move the matter forward.
I am quite astonished at the fact, given that the Taoiseach acknowledges the seriousness of the situation north of the Border and states that he wishes to see a situation of calm and orderly progress, which is what I dearly wish, that there would be any resistance to statements on this matter. I find that astonishing and I am within my rights to ask for statements on it. This matters to all of us, not just to those of who are organised in the North.
No, the Deputy is using language like "astonished" and that. The Business Committee orders the business of the House on a weekly basis and we make a contribution to the Business Committee, like every other party and every other grouping in the House. I take issue with the political grandstanding that is so evident.
There are members of the Deputy's party questioning whether people should even be joining policing at this stage. Some of her colleagues have made that comment.
James Browne, Richard Bruton, Dara Calleary, Ciarán Cannon, Joe Carey, Jack Chambers, Cormac Devlin, Francis Noel Duffy, Bernard Durkan, Damien English, Frank Feighan, Peter Fitzpatrick, Seán Haughey, Brian Leddin, Michael Lowry, Josepha Madigan, Micheál Martin, Mattie McGrath, Joe McHugh, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Eoghan Murphy, Denis Naughten, Jim O'Callaghan, James O'Connor, Kieran O'Donnell, Richard O'Donoghue, Pádraig O'Sullivan, Marc Ó Cathasaigh.
Mick Barry, Martin Browne, Holly Cairns, Matt Carthy, Réada Cronin, David Cullinane, Marian Harkin, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mary Lou McDonald, Imelda Munster, Catherine Murphy, Johnny Mythen, Ruairi Ó Murchú, Thomas Pringle, Patricia Ryan, Seán Sherlock, Duncan Smith.
It is not agreed. For the attention of the Taoiseach and the Government, the Opposition has been co-operating with the fact that we are unique in the world in that we do not sit in our own Parliament these days and we are sitting at half the normal time. We believe that in the last few weeks the Government has taken advantage of this arrangement. We only have one Private Members' time per week. Normally there are two. We have no Private Members' time on a Thursday. We have no Taoiseach's questions or Ministers' questions. There is a range of responsibilities denied to us in this scenario.
The Business Committee is not a clearing house where we all sing "Kumbaya" and come together. The Government presents its draft schedule every week and the Opposition is normally turned down on requests it makes. Let us be clear on that: the Business Committee is not the deciding body in this House. The Government ultimately decides the schedule by coming here and voting it through every week. I ask the Government to be fair and, if it will not agree to this week's schedule, when it presents its schedule on Thursday I ask it to make sure that there is a balance of two Private Members' business slots and that the Opposition has the right to legislate. As the Government has the right to bring forward legislation, we have a right to do the same. Balance needs to be restored and I appeal that it happens this Thursday when the Government presents its schedule if it votes this through now.
I am somewhat taken aback by the Deputy's contribution because I do not think it is fair or balanced. He seems to be progressively undermining the role of the Business Committee. In olden times, Government used to come in, lay out the schedule and vote it through. That is not the position now and Government will entertain suggestions and be part of the Business Committee to discuss the schedule for the following week. We are in unprecedented times with this global pandemic. Leinster House has not been ruled as suitable, not by us but from a public health perspective. We have to be informed by public health advice on this, in terms of how we sit and the venue we locate the Dáil in. Government will be reasonable and balanced. My understanding is the request came in last evening on this and it was not put to the original Business Committee. I stand to be corrected on that in terms of a debate or statements on Northern Ireland.
It has been my experience in the last while that the Business Committee meets and agrees a schedule but then new issues arise late in the day for inclusion and people want them on the floor of the House when the Dáil sits on a Wednesday. Then the Government is told it is resisting this or that debate but that is not the case. We need balance all round but I would prefer, if we get agreement at the Business Committee, that, barring some serious topical issue that arises, we proceed with the schedule as agreed by the Business Committee.