Dáil debates

Wednesday, 16 November 2022

Ceisteanna - Questions

Government Communications

1:22 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Leader of the Opposition; Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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1. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [51354/22]

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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2. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [54841/22]

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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3. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [56314/22]

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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4. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government Information Service unit of his Department. [56448/22]

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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5. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Government information service unit of his Department. [55389/22]

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

The Government Information Service, GIS, includes the Government Press Office and the MerrionStreet.ie content team and works on a cross-functional and collaborative basis to provide the Taoiseach, the Government and the Department with press office and communications support; to ensure strong collaboration and co-ordination among press and communications officials in other Departments and agencies; to co-ordinate, support, amplify and create communications around key Government priorities, such as Housing for All, climate action and energy, Ukraine, the shared island, Brexit, Covid-19 and the national well-being framework; to lead the development of Government communications, support and encourage capacity-building in the area of communications and engagement across the civil and public services, and to manage the Government of Ireland identity and unified web presence, www.gov.ie.

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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It appears that last week's Supreme Court judgment on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, was a shock not only to the Government but also to the Taoiseach's communications officials. Throughout the CETA debate, Government parties consistently sought to reduce the discussion to one in which one was either for trade or against it. The reality, of course, is that no one in this Chamber is opposed to trade that incorporates and protects environmental rights and the rights of workers. Investment courts actively work against these rights and ride roughshod over democracy and domestic judicial systems.

I commend Deputy Costello on pursuing this matter through the courts. I am sure it was a difficult decision for him. The Government parties must now take time to consider in depth the significant judgment, which includes the seven separate opinions of the Supreme Court members. As has been stated repeatedly, the trading element of the agreement is already under way. There is no urgent requirement for Ireland to ratify it. Several EU countries, including France and Germany, have not yet ratified it in full. Ireland is not alone in its concerns. There is growing opposition across Europe and in the US to investor courts, for which there is neither a need nor a legal basis. I urge the Government's three party leaders to fully consider the implications of the judgment and, if they remain wedded to the investor courts system, to put the question to the people through a referendum.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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One of the most depressing aspects of being a Deputy is dealing with the hardship and despair of people suffering from the housing crisis and the fact that they just do not know what to do. This week, I had two families in tears in my clinic. They felt absolutely hopeless owing to the prospect of their being made homeless with their children. They were worrying about the mental health impact on their children, who were on the floor with depression at the prospect of being made homeless. In addition to addressing all the policy issues related to delivering affordable and public housing and stopping evictions, many of which the Government will not address, could the Taoiseach, at a minimum, provide better Government information on what people should do so they will have a place to go? I suggest that we develop a housing hub or portal as part of the GIS. It should be widely advertised on radio and television in order that there would at least be a place for people to get information on what they should do in a crisis and how they should access affordable housing or cost-rental accommodation. It should deal with all the frequently asked questions of people in acute distress because of the housing crisis, giving them a place to go. I will set aside the wider policy debates, which we have had many times. At the very least, the Government could vastly improve the information it makes available to people, particularly those in desperate circumstances.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I presume the Taoiseach is aware that the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, decided, on the basis of a 3:2 majority, that it would not investigate further my complaint about the leaking by the then Taoiseach, now the Tánaiste, of the GP contract to his political supporter Maitiú Ó Tuathail. I want to focus on the reasoning set out by the commission. In its concluding paragraph, it states, "The commission carefully considered its legal advice and all the evidence before it, including the acceptance by the respondent that he did disclose the agreement but that it was done pursuant to the functions of the office of the Taoiseach and in furtherance of the policy goals of the Government." It adds, "In such circumstances, where the commission is of the view that it has no role and/or remit to consider either the lawfulness of the action or the extent of the powers of the office of Taoiseach, it is the opinion of the commission that evidence sufficient to sustain a complaint is not and will not be available, even in circumstances where the disclosure of the Agreement is not in dispute." Effectively the Tánaiste, the then Taoiseach, used the Nixon defence or Trump defence: I leaked the contract, broke the ethics legislation and breached the codes of conduct but did it as Taoiseach in pursuance of the policy goals of the Government, and therefore it is okay. The commission has accepted that defence and does not go into whether it is true. It does not make a judgment on whether the former Taoiseach did what he did in pursuance of the policy goals of the Government. Once he raises the defence in question, the commission states it cannot look into the matter any further. Does the Taoiseach agree there is a problem here that creates a very troublesome precedent, whereby the next Taoiseach, who just happens to be the person complained about, or another future Taoiseach will be able to blatantly breach ethics legislation and stop any investigation by simply saying he did what he did as Taoiseach?

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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You are at the cinema, the lights go down and the ads start up. If the audience is going to groan at one of the ads, which one will it be? I bet it will be the one that ends with the words, "This ad was brought to you by the Government of Ireland." When the punter goes to the cinema or switches on the television, he or she should be able to watch the movie or television show without having to swallow a dose of Government propaganda. A person who, for example, strongly dislikes this Government and its policy might, unfortunately, be more inclined to ignore public health advice if it is part of a package that finishes up by telling him that the ad and information have been brought to him by the Government of Ireland. Does the Taoiseach agree with the point I am making? Does he agree that it is high time for Big Brother to take a bit of a hike on this issue and for the Government to decide to lay off on the propaganda?

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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On the GIS, who in the Taoiseach's Department now oversees the commissioning and production of television and radio advertisements generally for Government information campaigns? Is there political oversight of these advertising campaigns?

I welcome the news that the Taoiseach will be meeting the Irish Thalidomide Association tomorrow, 17 November. It is a long overdue meeting. Colleagues will be aware that I have circulated the text of a cross-party motion calling for action to be taken by the Government for the members of the association and their parents, and for the establishment of an engagement process to resolve all outstanding issues between the association's members and the health authorities. I hope the Government will move to act on these calls.

The Taoiseach is meeting the association tomorrow but I have circulated a cross-party motion and I would welcome support for that.

1:32 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will reply to the situation pertaining to CETA, as it was raised first. I have welcomed the clarity the Supreme Court has brought to the issue in respect of the manner in which CETA can be ratified. The ruling by a 6:1 majority was that CETA could be ratified by the Oireachtas if certain changes were made to domestic legislation, in particular the Arbitration Act 2010. The Deputy opposite criticised me for raising free trade but it is my view that her party has been very negative about CETA and has never commented on the benefits of the free trade deal with Canada, which as she outlined, has provisionally been in operation for five years. Trade has increased by 30%. It is good for jobs in the country. I have never heard ringing declarations from Sinn Féin about free trade. It has always been the opposite, consistently, in recent years. That has been Sinn Féin's position. The party is entitled to have the position it has held, and it may change it. I am even beginning to detect subtle hints of change already in the Deputy's contribution this afternoon. We will see.

More fundamentally, I would make the point that all the free trade agreements have a standard practice globally of using arbitration mechanisms. It is not to enable companies to sue countries on anything but rather to make sure that the terms of the actual agreement are met in terms of fairness and the application of the rules pertaining to any agreement. It is very clear that as a member of the European Union, we cannot engage in any practice via the trade agreements that would be contrary to the treaties. It is the European Union, specifically the Commission, that negotiates these trade agreements with parties like Canada, which is a liberal democracy itself. The overall benefit to Ireland is always very positive from such trade deals.

It never gets acknowledged in the debate that it has been a positive for Ireland, right across all the various trade deals that have been negotiated. We are a small country with an open economy and we sell most of what we produce and make, which creates jobs and enables companies to develop and grow. We will analyse the judgment. We will give sufficient time to all parties to do so, and we will come forward with our view then in respect of how we deal with the situation. To date, some 16 of the 27 EU member states have ratified CETA. It remains provisionally applied, as the Deputy says, since 21 September 2017. In respect of this, in the past five years, the world has not caved in. Canada is a very important export market. Some 400 Enterprise Ireland client companies are doing business in the Canadian market now. We exported approximately €4 billion worth of goods and services to Canada in 20-----

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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The investment court system, ICS, has not been applied.

Photo of Sorca ClarkeSorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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If the Taoiseach is so confident, he should hold a referendum.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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We exported €4 billion worth of goods and services to Canada in 2020. CETA is in the interests of workers, taxpayers and businesses in rural and urban Ireland. All agreements have dispute resolution mechanisms.

Deputy Paul Murphy raised the SIPO decision. SIPO has decided. It is a body that is independent of the Oireachtas. At times, I worry that if a decision does not go a person's way that it somehow has to be re-interrogated and it must be wrong because it does not accord with the Deputy's position. Every decision can be subject to subjective analysis. In this case, the Deputy has a perspective on it. Whether one likes it or not, the decision has been taken by an independent body that is independent of the Oireachtas. We should respect that decision. There already has been an investigation that went the whole way to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. The Deputy knows that the decision was that there was no case to proceed with. SIPO should be allowed to continue to act independently of the Oireachtas in respect of all its duties and in terms of decisions. There is a danger of indirect pressure being put on SIPO to get the right result.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Yes, I can imagine.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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No, I mean from the Deputy's perspective. By raising it in the manner he did, he raised the spectre of not liking the result, suggesting it is wrong and that it should be changed. That would be a concern of mine.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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Is the Taoiseach saying that we cannot challenge these decisions?

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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No. My point is that if we create independent bodies, there comes a stage when they make decisions and adjudicate, and we must just get on with it.

In terms of Deputy Barry's point, I would love to be at the cinema. I have not been there for quite some time.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The Taoiseach is nearly there.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I missed the Cork Film Festival this year, for the first time in a long time, so busy was I. in terms of the Government message at the end of the advertisements, depending on the quality of the advertisements, some people like watching them while others are impatient to get on with the film. I recall that some years back I went to see the premiere of "Michael Collins" in the Capitol cinema in Cork and a rather innovative PR adviser to the Fianna Fáil Party at the time decided to put advertisements about getting tough with the drug lords, and lo and behold, at the end of the advertisement, it was announced to the full audience that the advertisement was brought to them by Fianna Fáil. There was a collective groan from the audience, which was waiting for the premiere of "Michael Collins". Deputy Barry brought that memory back to me. Covid proves him wrong. The vaccination level was 96%. The advertisements were brought to the people by the Government of Ireland and people responded to the public health message. In fairness, they were brought in a very non-political way. It is important that that is the case.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The Taoiseach did not respond to my question.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I apologise.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Dublin Bay South, Labour)
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He did not deal either with my question on Thalidomide.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am coming to that. I was missing a pen when Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue about housing. There is a cross-government communications approach to housing. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has clear communications portals for people to contact depending on their housing situation on the various schemes they can access. I will come back to Deputy Boyd Barrett and follow up on the point he made about his suggestion for a one-stop-shop. I think his suggestion was along those lines.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Yes.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will come back to him in that regard. It was a fair point.

In response to Deputy Bacik, during Covid, an assistant secretary in my Department oversaw the Covid situation and co-ordinated with other Departments. Advice was taken from professionals in the field about the type of advertisements and other such issues. Research was done by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and other such bodies as to the best type of advertisements. There are professionals in that field and there is no political involvement in terms of either the content of advertisements or how they are designed.

I am meeting with the Irish Thalidomide Association tomorrow morning.