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Constitutional Convention Agenda

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 785 No. 1

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Constitutional Convention Agenda

 11. Deputy Micheál Martin Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny if he has approached persons to chair the Constitutional Convention and the responses that have been received; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45693/12]

 12. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn Information on Pádraig MacLochlainn Zoom on Pádraig MacLochlainn asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny if he will reaffirm his commitment that marriage equality for same sex couples will be prioritised in the upcoming Constitutional Convention. [46415/12]

 13. Deputy Gerry Adams Information on Gerry Adams Zoom on Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny if he will outline the process used in identifying a chairman for the Constitutional Convention.  [47413/12]

 14. Deputy Micheál Martin Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny if he has met the new Chairman of the Constitutional Convention; the areas that were discussed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48012/12]

 15. Deputy Gerry Adams Information on Gerry Adams Zoom on Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny the date on which the first meeting of the Constitutional Convention is to be held. [49430/12]

 16. Deputy Gerry Adams Information on Gerry Adams Zoom on Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny if he will report on his decision to appoint Mr. Tom Arnold as chairman of the Constitutional Convention.  [49431/12]

 17. Deputy Micheál Martin Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny the date on which the Constitutional Convention will convene its first plenary meeting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49611/12]

 18. Deputy Gerry Adams Information on Gerry Adams Zoom on Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny the contact he has had with representatives of the Irish diaspora in relation to the forthcoming Constitutional Convention. [49614/12]

 19. Deputy Joe Higgins Information on Joe Higgins Zoom on Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny if he will report on any discussions he has had with the new chairman of the Constitutional Convention.  [49713/12]

 20. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny if he will provide the timeline for the different meetings and topics of the constitutional convention; and if he will make a statement on the matter.  [54227/12]

The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 20, inclusive, together.

  As I announced in the House on 24 October, the Government appointed Mr. Tom Arnold as independent chairperson of the Constitutional Convention. Deputies will agree that Mr. Arnold's personal commitment, qualities and experience make him an ideal choice to lead the convention. Mr. Arnold paid a courtesy call on the Tánaiste and myself on 5 November last when we thanked him for agreeing to chair the convention and wished him well in this important role.

  The convention held its inaugural meeting in Dublin Castle on Saturday, 1 December. The Tánaiste and I attended the meeting to wish the members well in their work, as did other party leaders. The convention operates independently of the Government and will report directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It decides on all matters relating to its operation, including its rules and procedures, the timing of its meetings and, subject to the resolutions passed by the Houses, the prioritisation of its work programme. I understand these matters were discussed in private session at the inaugural meeting.

  The Government is keen to ensure the views of the diaspora will be heard as part of the convention process and I understand the convention's website has been designed specifically to facilitate the involvement of those currently abroad. I am told the convention secretariat is working to ensure our network of embassies and community groups abroad will receive as much information as possible about the work of the convention, which can then be widely disseminated.

  The convention is a new and exciting way of considering constitutional reform. For the first time, ordinary citizens will work side by side with elected representatives from North and South in a dynamic approach to examining constitutional change. I am sure every Member will join me in wishing it well in its work. I also trust that Deputies who are members of the convention will be anxious to work co-operatively with the convention chairperson and the other members to ensure the convention carries out its tasks in an exemplary manner.

  I met citizens who have been selected to work with the convention. They are excited about it and many see it as a brand new opportunity for involvement in the political system and working towards improvements, if that be so, of a document that belongs them, the Constitution. It belongs to the people and no one else. I felt a sense of excitement among those nominated as citizens and I wished them well in their endeavours. While it is a completely independent operation, we will respond appropriately when the convention reports to us.

  The following information was provided under Standing Order 40A.

  The Resolution passed by Dáil Éireann on 10 July (and by Seanad Éireann on 12 July), agreeing to the setting up of the Convention, set out the matters to be considered by the Convention, including provision for same-sex marriage.

  The Resolution also noted that, not later than two months from the date of the first public hearing held by it, the Convention will make a report and recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas on each of the following (two) matters set out in the Resolution: reducing the Presidential term of office to five years and aligning it with the local and European elections; and reducing the voting age to 17.

  As I said in my reply on 4 December, the Convention operates independently of the Government and will report direct to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It decides on all matters relating to its operation, including (subject to the Resolutions passed by the Houses) the prioritisation of its work programme. Accordingly, once it has reported on the two matters mentioned above, it is a matter for the Convention to prioritise its consideration of the other matters referred to in the Resolution, including the issue of same-sex marriage.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I welcome the appointment of Mr. Tom Arnold. On Saturday, it became clear that there is a restricted agenda imposed by the Government on the work of the convention. It has undermined the idea of radical reform of the Constitution. The difference between the rhetoric of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and the reality of the agenda was striking. On Saturday, the Taoiseach gave a commitment to a Government response to the recommendations but not a commitment that the Dáil or the people will have the chance to decide on recommended amendments. It appears we are talking reform but keeping all power in the hands of the Government. Can the Taoiseach state whether he will allow the Dáil and the people the right to vote on the convention's recommendations, irrespective of the Government's view on the recommendations?

I am pleased with the chairperson but I am concerned there is no formal requirement that groups on whom decisions of the convention will have an impact are involved in all stages of discussions. With regard to marriage equality, it would be shocking if same-sex couples were only heard as outsiders rather than entitled to be there for detailed debate. The same applies to the diaspora.

There is a major suspicion that marriage equality is being put into the convention to be kicked down the road for a while. Is it the understanding of the Taoiseach that groups affected by issues such as this will be included in the convention's deliberations, regardless of whether they are members with votes? Is it the understanding of the Taoiseach that the marriage equality recommendation will go to the people and will be dealt with during the lifetime of this Oireachtas?

The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny I have discussed the matter with Deputy Martin before. The convention is set up and is independent in how it does its job. We set out a number of issues on the agenda and asked it to consider, in the first instance, two simple issues that require a "Yes" or "No", although one issue may require a constitutional bridge if it was to make such a recommendation. I wanted that to happen so that the convention, of which Deputy James Bannon is a member, could see how effectively it works. We may have to tweak its capacity to do its job well. The convention has had a discussion in private about how it wants to conduct its business. We have said that, if there are other constitutional issues the convention thinks it appropriate to raise, it is the remit of the convention to do so in working with the convention chairman.

I am not sure what Deputy Martin meant when he referred to the convention making a recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The commitment I gave on Saturday, which will be honoured, is that the Government will respond within four months. If there is a positive response, we will set out a tentative timeline. I am not sure if Deputy Martin intended for a debate in the Dáil on the recommendation.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin The recommendation should go straight to the Dáil, for the Dáil to have an opinion on whether it is good idea. The Taoiseach is proposing the Government takes possession of it and that the Dáil does not see it until the Taoiseach has made up his mind whether it is a good idea. That is the problem.

The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny As I understand it, the convention will report directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas but the Government will give its response because it must set out whether it will prepare for a referendum, including preparing Bills. I do not have any difficulty with this and there is no reason the Oireachtas cannot have a discussion on the recommendations that arise. If the chairman and the convention wish to reorganise the priorities attached to particular issues, it is their right. They are not set beyond dealing with the first two to see how effective it is in the order in which it does its business. I had said that we will hold the children's rights referendum separate to it and that, next year, we will hold a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. Beyond that, the convention, the chairman and its members are fully entitled to say they consider Dáil reform, electoral reform and whether the electoral system should be proportional representation, PR, or straight vote to be the priority. It is absolutely the right of the convention to make recommendations where it considers there is an issue of constitutional importance and on which it wishes to make a recommendation to the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I asked a question about marriage equality.

The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny If the chairman and the convention decide that is the next issue to deal with, it is the right of the convention to do so. The convention can make a recommendation and we will respond to it.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett I call Deputy Adams.

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information on Micheál Martin Zoom on Micheál Martin I asked a question on whether particular groups would be invited.

The Taoiseach: Information on Enda Kenny Zoom on Enda Kenny I do not want to go down the road of having the convention hear endlessly from different lobby groups. We had this in the Forum on Europe, with an endless stream of them. It is an important sector with a particular issue but if the chairman wishes to do so, he is entitled to take into account the requirement for hearings from various groups. That is the business of the convention and it is not set in stone in that regard. It is a matter for the chairman and the members, political and lay.

Deputy Gerry Adams: Information on Gerry Adams Zoom on Gerry Adams I agree the first meeting of the convention was an important day and contributions were informative and educational. The citizen delegates, along with the rest of us, were buoyed by the great privilege of being able to fulfil the patriotic role they were asked to complete. That is all to the good. However, the Government has put the convention on a very tight leash. Voting age and the length of the presidential term are important issues but we do not need a convention to tell us what to do about it. There are more contentious and difficult issues such as marriage equality, which Sinn Féin believes is a civil rights issue for same-sex couples, and the role of the diaspora.


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