Wednesday, 11 May 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 20 to 26, inclusive, together.
The Government agreed on 8 February 2022 to the establishment of two citizens' assemblies, one dealing with the issue of biodiversity loss and the other dealing with the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin. The inaugural meeting for both assemblies took place on Saturday, 9 April 2022. The terms of reference, as set out by the Oireachtas, call on the assemblies to conclude their deliberations within eight months and to submit their reports ideally not later than nine months from the date of commencement and sooner if possible.
The establishment of the next citizens' assemblies, one on drug use and the other on the future of education, will be subject to a Government decision and resolutions of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann at the appropriate time. The question of when the next assemblies might commence depends in large part on how soon the current assemblies conclude their work and submit their reports.
We recently sought to hold a referendum to debate our neutrality. The Taoiseach suggested, in response to that and in voting down our motion for a referendum, that we consider a citizens' assembly on neutrality. Is he serious about that? I believe we should still have a referendum to give the people the right to debate and decide. Will we have a citizens' assembly, which would also be welcome, to discuss the issue? One of the issues it could discuss as part of defining neutrality is consistency in standards and principles when it comes to foreign policy.
I draw attention yet again to the double standards in the response to what happened in Jenin in the past 24 hours. The Taoiseach has rightly condemned the murder of a journalist, and I am glad he has done so. He also called for an investigation. However, there is another important issue about that event. What the hell were the Israeli Defense Forces, IDF, doing carrying out “an operation” on Palestinian territory? For the last six weeks, the Taoiseach and western leaders have rightly condemned Russia’s “operation” in Ukraine. They have called it out for what it is, namely, a brutal, unjustifiable, inexcusable act of military aggression on somebody else’s territory. Why is the same thing not being said about Israel’s incursion into Jenin in Palestinian territory? What was Israel doing carrying out a military operation on Palestinian territory? What is it doing day-in, day-out carrying out military operations on Palestinian territory? Will we call that out as well?
Many in this House believe we should already have a citizens' assembly on drug use. We need to make sure that happens as early as possible in 2023. Anybody who has engaged with any community in Ireland knows the dangers and harm drug addiction is causing. Looking outside my constituency office on court days, I can see people who have been impacted by drug addiction. This impacts utterly negatively on wider society. People will often say it is like looking at a squad of zombies. It is incredibly frightening. There has been a failure in this regard. We are dealing with huge levels of drug debt intimidation, with families being put under severe pressure and gangs demanding money at high rates of interest.
We need to ensure the citizens' assembly happens. We have spoken about Europe and European affairs this week. At the Conference on the Future of Europe, I was surprised - this possibly points to the lack of representation of peripheral communities across Europe - that the issues of drug addiction and dealing with organised crime and its impact on communities were not brought up by anyone other than me, as far as I could see. That is frightening. If we are to talk about engagement, it has to happen at a real level. We probably need to look at a Europe-wide solution. We need this to happen as soon as possible. There has been a failure by everyone in this House in this regard. The Taoiseach should not get me wrong. I have taken an incredibly strong position on policing actions but we need further action.
As Chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality, I thank the Taoiseach for his engagement with our committee. We are making progress on reviewing the recommendations of the citizens' assembly. Its 45 important recommendations are effectively a blueprint for achieving gender equality. We want to produce an action plan by the end of this year to ensure those recommendations will be implemented. We have sought assurances from the Taoiseach and the Government that a referendum will be held next year to put into effect recommendations Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, of the citizens’ assembly. In other words, we are seeking constitutional change to delete the sexist language about women and mothers from the Constitution and to strengthen our equality guarantee. Can the Taoiseach give some indication that the Government will commit to holding that referendum, building on the work the joint committee is doing and the citizens’ assembly has done?
My colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and others have repeatedly sought a date for the proposed citizens’ assembly on drug use. Can that be brought forward to commence early next year, as I believe the Taoiseach indicated previously? Can that be confirmed?
We welcomed the citizens’ assembly on a directly-elected mayor for Dublin. Is it the intention to have an election for that office in May 2024? What is holding up plans for a directly-elected mayor of Limerick? We do not see any sign of plans to ensure the election for that office will take place either this year or next year. Since it has been three years since a plebiscite was held to introduce the office of a directly-elected mayor of Limerick and more than a year since the general scheme of the relevant Bill was published, we ask for a timeline for having a directly-elected mayor of Limerick.
I will ask the Taoiseach a question on the Stardust inquests. The families who lost loved ones in the Stardust fire have been waiting more than 41 years for truth and justice. They cannot be left waiting any longer. The Taoiseach has acknowledged that given the length of time the inquest will run, the juries will need to be paid. As the Taoiseach will know, neither the Coroners Act 1962 nor the Juries Act 1976 allows for juries at inquests to be paid. The Government gave commitments back in February that this would be addressed urgently. When will this matter be resolved? Will legislation be brought forward in this Dáil term, as it needs to be? What approach will the Government take to this?
I thank all Deputies for raising the various issues in the context of this group of questions.
On Deputy Boyd Barrett’s question, it is my view that there should be a citizens’ assembly in relation to all aspects of neutrality. In the first instance, however, we have committed to citizens’ assemblies on education and drugs. We will be examining the timeline around a citizens’ assembly on neutrality. We have to get Government agreement on that. Conscious of the war in Ukraine, it is my view that we should try to maintain unity of purpose in relation to the war across all of the various strands of Government policy on and responses to Ukraine; in relation to the European Union in terms of our humanitarian response and facilitation of the EU peace facility; in terms of our humanitarian aid to Ukraine, amounting to €20 million, which we have sent through the UN's international agencies to facilitate that contribution; and in terms of supporting Ukraine’s application to join the European Union. I want to maintain the broadest possible unity of purpose across society. If we were to have a premature debate on military neutrality, that in itself could take the focus away from where it needs to be right now, which is on the humanitarian crisis and dealing with accommodation and access to services in this country. We do that well. That is my view.
I do not necessarily accept Deputy Boyd Barrett’s view, which he put so starkly, that there is a contrast in standards in respect of different issues, conflicts and behaviours in different parts of the world. I do not want to get into scale but what is happening in Ukraine represents the worst humanitarian crisis historically since the Second World War. Those are not my words but the words of the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, and the United Nations. This is not a comparable situation, even though what is going on in Palestine is shocking too. I have been a strong, outspoken critic of-----
My point is that I have consistently been an outspoken critic of Israeli Government policy in respect of Palestine. Ireland as a country has consistently called out, to use the Deputy’s phrase, the constant and consistent violation of agreements already reached on Palestine. Our view is that the Palestinian people have a right to a homeland. We believe in a two-state solution to resolve this long-standing, historical conflict, with two states that go back to the 1967 borders.
We have been very strong and proactive supporters of UNRWA, as has the European Union. The Deputy never, ever gives credit to the European Union for the work it does for Palestinians.
He never mentions it, for whatever reason, because it does not suit the anti-European Union perspective that he has. The Deputy never does. He always has to be reminded. He talks about consistency of approach and consistency of standards. What amazes me from time to time, from certain parts of the opposite side of the House, is the complete lack of any acknowledgement of the fact the European Union represents the most significant supporter and benefactor of Palestinian humanitarian causes, of UNRWA and so on. That never gets acknowledged, although that has been a consistent European Union position.
What I have said is that the Government has condemned this appalling murder of a journalist and also the continued violation of basic human rights in terms of the Palestinians' freedom of movement and so forth.
Deputy Ó Murchú legitimately raised the issue of drug abuse. I accept fully the shocking impact that drug abuse has on communities, as well as organised crime. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, has commenced preparations for the Citizens' Assembly on drug use, which Deputy Bacik also raised. This has been done to ensure that there will be no delay in establishing the Citizens' Assembly on drugs when the two assemblies that are currently operating complete their work before the end of this year or, at the latest, in quarter 1 of 2023. That will allow a period of over one year for the Government to consider its recommendations.
In the meantime, of course, work is under way in regard to drugs policy, there is a whole range of activities going on and the Minister of State is involved. A health-led approach to drug use is what the Government is pursuing. The Government has adopted a health diversion programme to offer compassion, not punishment, to people who are in possession of drugs for personal use. The programme will connect participants with health services to provide a pathway to recovery and will also allow participants to avoid a criminal conviction, which can have far-reaching consequences, particularly for younger people.
In regard to Deputy Bacik's points, I look forward to the output and the work of the Committee on Gender Equality and the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly. The Government is positive about holding a referendum in regard to those recommendations. The timelines are something we can discuss with leaders of the Opposition parties and the Oireachtas more generally in terms of those issues because the timing is important in regard to a proper lead-in and so forth. There also has to be agreement on the precise wording which has prevented that referendum from happening previously, when, in my view, it should have happened. I look forward to the action plan that the committee is going to produce. I have already discussed the drugs issue.
In response to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, I have met with the families of the victims of the Stardust fire, in particular in regard to the issue of payment of juries because the Coroners Act and the Juries Act do not facilitate that. I have asked the Minister for Justice to give consideration to that issue. My understanding is that discussions were taking place between the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice and I will follow up on that. Time is moving on and I accept this issue needs to be brought to resolution. There has been significant progress in terms of the holding of inquests and so on, but this is an issue that has been raised in respect of ensuring that one can have juries for the much lengthier time that will be involved here.