Address by President of the Irish Human Rights Commission

28th September 2011

I thank Dr. Manning for a very informative and enlightening address. I am strongly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights in Ireland, particularly children’s rights. I note that today is the 19th anniversary of Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – I am calling it national children’s day.

I wish to focus on commending all the national NGOs, civil society organisations and relevant stakeholders for their contributions to the UPR process. I would particularly like to congratulate the UPR cross-sectoral steering group for its innovative and inclusive national consultation process, which I believe is the model of best practice for NGO consultation and could be shared with others, particularly developing countries, after the report. I note also the act of engagement by the Department of Justice and Equality.
I wish to ask Dr. Manning the value of establishing a Department of Justice and Equality NGO standing committee, akin to the Department of Foreign Affairs NGO standing committee which was established in 1997, in order to provide a formal framework for a regular exchange of views between the Department and the NGO-civil society community on the follow-up and implementation of the UPR recommendations in Ireland over the next four years.

Thirtieth Amendment of the Constitution (Houses of the Oireachtas Inquiries) Bill 2011- Second Stage

22nd September 2011

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Howlin, and the Government’s proposed amendment to the Constitution, which will give the Houses of the Oireachtas full inquiry jurisdiction and rectify the deficiencies identified by the Supreme Court in the Abbeylara judgment.

While listening to Senator O’Brien, Sir Humphrey Appleby telling “Yes, Minister” that this is a courageous decision came to mind.

I am sure the Senator did not mean it in the same spirit as Sir Humphrey Appleby. I worked in a previous capacity with the Minister and I am aware of his commitment to fairness and on this issue.
In July, we had an opportunity to speak in this House on the Cloyne report, which right I fully exercised. I take this opportunity to reiterate my admiration for the work done by Judge Yvonne Murphy, as chairperson of the commission, and her fellow commission members. The Murphy reports were empowered under the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 which was enacted to provide a more timely and cost-effective option to the tribunal of inquiry mechanism by taking a less adversarial approach, thus reducing the likelihood of resource to judicial intervention.

The Murphy reports have shown that this legislation is capable of providing for a robust, effective and efficient means of conducting investigations into matters of significant public concern. I understand that the proposed amendment is intended to provide a further improvement to and additional option within our inquiry mechanisms. I fully support the finding of the Joint Committee on the Constitution that the Constitution should expressly provide the Oireachtas with the power to conduct inquiries into matters of general public importance for the purpose of making findings in respect of the conduct of named individuals. I believe that subsections (2) and (3) of the proposed amendment meet these criteria. However, subsection (4) is a cause for concern for me. It gives the Oireachtas the power to “determine the appropriate balance between the rights of persons and the public interest and for the purpose of ensuring an effective inquiry”. I am concerned about where that balance is.

Twenty-Ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Judges Remuneration) Bill 2011- Second Stage

21st September 2011

I thank the Minister and I greatly appreciate the openness in his approach to his work. I will make a brief point on the national vetting bureau Bill, which was mentioned by Senator Bradford. I welcome the Minister giving us some holiday work and I welcome his office being so open with regard to the questions I have had on the Bill. I thank the Minister.

To turn to the Bill before us, I welcome the Minister’s initiative to introduce constitutional and legislative mechanisms through which judges’ pay can be reduced in line with that of other public sector employees. It very much echoes public feeling, which the Minister has caught, and it is good that we will put this to a vote of the people. I wholeheartedly agree it is imperative to ensure that no echelon of the public sector or Irish society is immune from contributing to the betterment of the public finances. I hope a similar principle of fairness and proportionality is adopted by other Departments in their considerations for the budgets for 2012 to 2016.

Like the Minister, I commend the recently appointed Chief Justice, Susan Denham, on her decision to forego the €38,000 pay rise she is entitled to as Chief Justice until the issue of judges’ pay has been resolved. Nevertheless, I echo the concerns of a number of leading academics, practitioners and the Judiciary itself with respect to the implications of the proposed amendment as formulated on judicial independence, which forms part of the bedrock of the doctrine of separation of powers in Ireland. In its recent response to the Bill, the Judiciary maintained it is not opposed to the holding of a referendum on judges’ pay but rather with how the salary reduction should be achieved with the least interference with the principle of judicial independence. Presuming, and with no doubt about, the sincerity of this contention I ask the Minister to explain why the Bill does not incorporate a safeguard whereby a decision regarding judicial remuneration and a reduction in judicial pay is taken at least on the advice of an independent body.

In light of the debate raised about judicial independence, I also ask the Minister whether he intends to move on his previous commitment to review the system of judicial appointments.

These are the two questions I would like to put to the Minister. I will support the Bill but I ask that the Minister addresses my questions.

Reporting of Lobbying in Criminal Legal Cases Bill 2011- Second Stage

21st September 2011

I am sorry I could not be here earlier, but I wish to support this Bill. It is a welcome initiative and I commend Senator Crown on bringing it forward. Having followed the discussion, I agree that elements of the Bill should be examined on Committee Stage, particularly concerning communications with the Judiciary, the Garda Síochána and the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Bill’s principle is that when and where they are made, communications should be transparent and publicly available. It is an important principle that warrants a statutory footing. This is a question of making parliamentarians, such as ourselves, accountable for the representations they make.

I strongly support the Bill although I hear people saying that while they accept it, it should be put aside for the time being. We should pass it on this Stage. We will have plenty of opportunity to make amendments, as appropriate, to ensure that we make ourselves accountable and act transparently, which is the intention of the Bill. I wish to support it.

Innovation at the Heart of the Jobs Challenge – Statements

14th September 2011

I thank the Minister for joining us today. He might be wondering what I, as a children’s rights advocate, have to say about jobs. For more than 15 years I worked for a small and medium-sized enterprise, through the good times and bad times. As I dealt with making staff redundant and dealt with transfer of undertakings to a UK entity, I understand the sleepless nights that people are going through. I very much welcome the commitments the Minister made today about driving down costs for businesses, increasing the access to credit and the need for regulatory reform. I also appreciate his understanding of the situation for young people because according to the National Youth Council of Ireland, Ireland has the second highest rate of youth unemployment in western Europe, with one in three young men unemployed, which represents a trebling of the figure since 2008.

Senator Cummins asked us to keep our comments for today short. I have one question and one proposal for the Minister. My question is very topical as it relates to the junior certificate examination results. I know there has been a focus on mathematics, and in doing so I take the opportunity to congratulate my nephew who got an A in his honours mathematics paper and who single-handedly may have contributed to the upward trend. However, people have not focused on foreign languages. Some 12% failed ordinary level French, 8% failed ordinary level Spanish and 7.5% failed ordinary level German. Poor foreign language capacity will hinder job creation, especially in the emerging export-led markets and with the changing demand for the global economy, the focus having shifted towards Asia and the consequent need for graduates with, for example, Mandarin. Only one secondary school in Ireland teaches Mandarin as a foreign language subject. I ask the Minister to clarify the role he will play regarding education and whether we will actually join the dots.

I was very encouraged by what the Minister had to say about us needing to add to our exports and we need to put a foot on that export ladder. In preparation for today’s debate I talked to representatives of a number of companies and I will now make what I believe to be an innovative proposal. I will give credit for this to a home-grown entrepreneur, Colm Lyons, of Realex Payments. Irish businesses need to get established in overseas markets, which can sometimes be achieved online, but more often it requires staff to relocate to set up offices. This can often take from 18 to 36 months. During this time local staff are typically recruiting others to train, after which they go back to the head office. Realex has asked several staff to move and while some have moved, many are concerned about the general state of things here and want to remain in their job in Ireland. The proposal is to have a scheme for Irish staff working abroad whereby if a staff member is assigned to grow the business in an overseas market, the company could accrue a bonus for the staff member that is paid tax free when the assignment is completed. It could be controlled, for example, by Enterprise Ireland, which would approve the company, the role and the individual against certain criteria. I believe this scheme would act as a great incentive for staff to be based abroad for a certain period of time and thus accelerate the growth of Irish businesses overseas. I ask the Minister to give the proposal serious consideration.

I conclude by going back to my children’s rights background. Research in the UK and US has found a negative impact of parental unemployment on children and young people. For example, young people living in a workless household are more likely to have poor educational outcomes, including increased incidence of truancy and early school leaving. Therefore I believe the Minister’s brief includes children’s rights and I will be doing what I can to support his work.