Seanad debates

Friday, 19 December 2008

5:00 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Pat Carey, for coming in at this late hour to respond to this motion. It is an odd topic to raise as an adjournment motion because it is a matter of such national importance. I do not want to sound a discordant note at the end of festive words, but we have not been able to discuss where we stand post the European Council meeting.

I and many of my Seanad colleagues put a significant amount of work into a sub-committee which tried to play a role in helping the country move forward on an important topic. I am very disappointed we did not get an opportunity to discuss where things stand for our country in light of the European Council meeting in Brussels. I had to resort to putting down an adjournment motion to deal with what I believe, with the economy, is the most important issue facing our country.

The main thrust of the report I put together, with my colleagues, was that we need to make the Oireachtas more relevant to European affairs. I cannot think of a greater example of how we failed to do that than an important issue for our country is not discussed in the House, particularly given that the Seanad and chambers like it all over the world and western Europe play a strong role in contributing to European matters.

We tend to have the time and capacity to discuss these matters in a more detailed manner than is sometimes available elsewhere. I will not speak on the motion itself as it is self-evident, but I want the Government to outline its plan because the opportunity was not given in the House for this side to hear its thinking. We all want to contribute and help, and I regret that opportunity was not taken. I look forward to what the Minister of State has to say on such a vital topic.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Minister of State (Government Chief Whip), Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Minister of State with special responsibility for Active Citizenship; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Donohoe for tabling this motion. I am taking it on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin. I was impressed with how the Senator marshalled the sub-committee——

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Minister of State (Government Chief Whip), Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Minister of State with special responsibility for Active Citizenship; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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——and produced what I regard as a very important report which will frame the agenda for much, if not all, of next year. I have more than a passing interest in this topic and will facilitate further debate on it in any way I can.

In the Dáil, we have decided on a regular — if possible, monthly — basis to have a debate on European issues. There are many European scrutiny reports that never see the light of day. I spent two years on that committee and know what goes through undetected. Perhaps that is something this House could also look at and set aside dedicated time each month for a debate on European matters.

As the Taoiseach stated in the Dáil on Wednesday, the outcome of last week's European Council represents a very major step towards delivering the way forward concerning the Lisbon treaty. It provides us with a clear path for how Ireland, together with our EU partners, will address the issue of the Lisbon treaty during the year ahead. What was achieved was the product of painstaking work undertaken in the months since the referendum. This included the Government's efforts to understand and analyse what lay behind the votes cast last June; our close work with all parties in the Oireachtas in the Sub-Committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union, the report of which was such a valuable input; and our detailed discussions and negotiations with partners at EU level, especially the French Presidency under the expert guidance of President Sarkozy.

Last week's agreement does not mark the end of the process. Turning it into concrete commitments — the legal guarantees promised in the Council conclusions — will be the subject of much detailed work in the months ahead. However, it offers a solid basis on which the concerns raised by Irish people about the Lisbon treaty can be addressed. I would highlight, in particular, the agreement to retain one Commissioner per member state. If Lisbon enters into force, Ireland, like all member states, will maintain the right to nominate a Commissioner to every Commission. This concession was hard won. A considerable number of member states were strongly of the view that a smaller Commission would be a more effective one. But, despite this, all of them listened carefully to our concerns and were prepared to compromise and to move to meet our position.

We should be very clear that for this agreement to take effect, the Lisbon treaty has to enter into force. If we remain under Nice, the size of the European Commission will be reduced from next year and there can be no guarantee that the 2009-14 Commission would contain an Irish member. Only by ratifying Lisbon can we secure the continued presence of an Irish person at the Commission table.

On the other issues of concern to the Irish people, including taxation policy, social and ethical issues, as well as our traditional policy of military neutrality, the EU leaders have given a solemn commitment that our concerns will be fully addressed to our satisfaction. In pursuit of this, Ireland will be provided with the necessary legal guarantees. This is a most significant undertaking and again demonstrates the effort our European partners are prepared to make to offer us the reassurances we sought. Over the months ahead, we will have to flesh out the precise form and content of these guarantees. I have every expectation that our partners will work with us in good faith and that this work will yield positive results for Ireland.

During this time we will also be giving careful consideration to measures we can take at national level to provide further reassurance about elements of the Lisbon treaty. Naturally, we will be giving careful consideration to how to address the recommendations of Senator Donohoe's sub-committee. The sub-committee's report envisages greater engagement by the Oireachtas in the workings of the European Union. This is to be very warmly welcomed and encouraged and the Lisbon treaty explicitly provides for such enhanced involvement by national parliaments in EU affairs.

The Houses of the Oireachtas, including the Seanad, have a unique and critical role to play in bringing important EU issues to public attention. Through enhanced and extended debate of European issues in these Houses, the Oireachtas can bring the work of the EU that bit closer to the Irish people. Regrettably, it is abundantly clear from the detailed research commissioned by the Government following the June referendum that a significant knowledge deficit exists. Not only did many people lack understanding about the provisions of the Lisbon treaty, they had little solid knowledge about the operation of the European Union itself. It will be vital to the success of any future referendum on the Lisbon treaty, that we address this deficit and find a means to communicate to the public how important the outcome of any referendum will be for Ireland.

We are working intensively to identify ways in which we can improve how European issues are communicated generally. This is an issue on which we can benefit from a Europe-wide approach, and the Government has been working closely with the European Commission and the European Parliament to explore what can usefully be done in this important area. Early in the new year the Government plans to sign a memorandum of understanding with those institutions with a view to progressing this co-operative approach. The Government has sought additional expertise to assist in ongoing communications about Ireland's EU membership and related issues.

Over the period ahead, the Government will continue to work closely with the main Opposition parties. As the Taoiseach emphasised last week, this is an issue of great national importance to Ireland, over and above party differences. We cannot and will not allow party politics to get in the way of pursuing the best way forward for Ireland.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his kind words on the work I did on the sub-committee. I was honoured to be chosen and I did it as well as I could. I make my point more in sorrow than in anger. This is desperately important and it transcends party politics. Over the past fortnight Members from this side of the House constantly asked for an update on where matters stand for our country after the European Council meeting in Brussels and that opportunity was not afforded us. This was brought into the Seanad at 6.55 p.m. on a Friday, the last day of this year's sitting. Voices in the Seanad will make a difference to the outcome of this referendum in their constituency. Some voices have the capacity to make a difference nationally. I implore the Minister to treat them with the respect they deserve. That approach will ensure the right people come behind this referendum and give the country the result it so desperately needs.

Photo of Pat CareyPat Carey (Minister of State (Government Chief Whip), Department of An Taoiseach; Minister of State, Department of Defence; Minister of State with special responsibility for Active Citizenship; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I agree with the Senator that we must engage in this debate on an ongoing basis. I sang from the same hymn sheet as him for many years when I was a member of the European affairs and the European scrutiny committees. Sometimes one thinks nobody listens to what one says, but they do. Here is the primary place where that debate should take place. I will convey Senator Donohoe's views and concerns to the Minister and we will attempt to address them at the earliest possible opportunity.