When I had the privilege of being appointed to Government this country was on its knees. The catastrophic failures of the previous government had left the State on the verge of bankruptcy with a contracting economy, continuously increasing unemployment, unsustainable public expenditure, a collapsed property market, our people fearful of their future and with no sense of hope. Over two years we have substantially reduced public expenditure, maintained industrial peace, stabilised our banking system, stabilised the property market, put in place essential new structures to assist those burdened by unsustainable debt, substantially reformed the way Government works, restored the States international reputation and the number of those unemployed is reducing. Moreover, by the end of this year, we should exit the Troika programme and regain our economic sovereignty. We have taken Fianna Fáil’s nightmare legacy by the scruff of the neck and our people can now have faith in the future. It is a privilege to be a member of a Government that has achieved so much in such a short period of time and to have had the opportunity of contributing to the work that has been done.
I have very important responsibilities in Government and I take them very seriously. My concern in Government is for the citizens of this State and my priority is ensuring that they live in a safe and secure environment.
If this debate has any value it provides me with an opportunity to detail some of the real issues presently being addressed and what is behind us. Fianna Fail’s confidence motion is particularly galling considering that one of my biggest problems upon being appointed to Government in March 2011 was trying to unravel the expenditure ceilings for the Justice and Defence sectors contained in the Fianna Fáil National Recovery Plan of November 2010. If implemented, they would have led to devastating cuts which I could not and would not have stood over. Fortunately, I was able to secure necessary additional funding for the Justice area in excess of €400m for the years 2012-2014 and to also mitigate the shortfall in funding for Defence.
Deputy Collins should consider where the Force would be today with an average of €90 million per annum less in the Garda budget - which is where we would have been with Fianna Fáil’s 2010 Plan. He talks about Garda numbers but fails to acknowledge that – with the dedication and cooperation of the force - we have preserved them at a higher level than Fianna Fáil intended in 2010. He talks about Garda resources. Well, by effecting efficiencies within my Department, and with the assistance of the Commissioner and my Government colleague Minister Brendan Howlin, we allocated approximately €4m in 2012 and a further €5m this year for the purchase of Garda vehicles, none of which was provided for in Fianna Fáil's 2010 Plan. The truth is Fianna Fáil’s no confidence motion is both disingenuous and opportunistic.
In the two great Departments that I lead it has been a time of unprecedented dramatic change and reform. The achievements are not mine alone but of all in both the Justice and the Defence family who have travelled the route with me. The public owes a debt of gratitude to the officials in both of my Departments at all levels, many of whom work hours well beyond the call of duty. I also want to particularly acknowledge the contribution of my two Ministers of State, Chief Whip and Minister of State in the Department of Defence, Paul Kehoe and Kathleen Lynch, Minister of State in both Justice and Health, each of whom makes an invaluable contribution. Also of course there is the very considerable commitment, expertise and dedication to public service in the Defence Forces, the Garda Síochána and the Prison Service. I also greatly value the crucial support of my Cabinet colleagues in the Fine Gael and Labour parliamentary parties.
For some, reform and change brings uncertainty and causes worry. However, through talk and discussions, we have together addressed problems and have overcome very many of them. Together, we have implemented reform in the public interest through dialogue with the various representative bodies with the objective of resolving, insofar as is possible, the concerns of those who work in vital services. In the vital area of curtailing public expenditure, in the talks relating to Croke Park 2, agreements were successfully concluded with the Defence Forces representative bodies and with the Prison Officers Association. Unfortunately at that time, it did not prove possible to engage in talks with the Garda representative bodies.
That is now history and I am pleased that in the context of the Haddington Road Agreement, there has been a successful conclusion to discussions with the staff representative bodies in the Irish Prison Service; the Garda Síochána and the Defence Forces and I look forward to a successful outcome to the ballot on these proposals. Deputy Collins in all of his recent comments has chosen to ignore the fact that these agreements have been concluded.
It is appropriate that I just list, without detail, some of what has happened over the last two years:
We have completed the reorganisation of the Permanent Defence Forces into a two brigade structure.
The strength of the PDF has been preserved at 9,500.
We have consolidated Army barracks.
We have made crucial financial savings through increasing efficiencies.
Despite the very severe financial difficulties facing the State, we have continued our commitment to and engagement in vital UN peace keeping and training missions.
We have completed a value for money review on the Reserve Defence Forces and the reorganisation of these forces is taking place.
The Defence budget has kept within its allocated spend for each year in which I have been Minister.
We have abolished unnecessary quangos.
By thoroughly engaging through dialogue with the Red Cross, reforms in that great organisation have been effected.
The Dáil has enacted a World War II Amnesty Bill in relation to deserters who fought the Nazis.
We have re-energized Ireland’s engagement in Common Security and Defence Policy. During the EU presidency we have taken the opportunity to provide leadership on a broad range of issues of importance to this country, and to Europe as a whole, relating to security and defence.
As Minister for Justice and Equality, I have brought the following legislation to the Oireachtas and seen it enacted:
· Personal Insolvency Act 2012;
· National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable persons) Act 2012;
· Criminal Justice Search Warrants Act 2012;
· European Arrest Warrant (Application to Third Countries and Amendment) and Extradition (Amendment) Act 2012;
· Jurisdiction of Courts and Enforcement of Judgements (Amendment) Act 2012;
· Criminal Justice Withholding Information on Crimes Against Children and Vulnerable Adults Act 2012;
· Property Services Regulation Act 2011;
· Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011;
· 29th Amendment of the Constitution (Judges Remuneration) Act 2011
· Criminal Justice Act 2011;
· Criminal Law Defence of the Dwelling Act 2011;
· Criminal Justice Community Service Act 2011.
Innovation and bringing reforming legislation to this House has been a large part of my life’s work as a TD over the past three decades as well as tackling injustice and child abuse. It is what I do. With the expertise of Government Departments and the Attorney General’s office working with me, a great deal more can be done than from the opposition benches. There is of course the additional benefit of a parliamentary majority!
Much of the work of government is executive rather than legislative.
We have addressed the plight of former residents of the Magdalen Laundries – a matter ignored by our predecessors in government. The Taoiseach has apologised in the Dáil.
We have reformed the approach taken to processing citizenship applications. Amongst the formalities of office which give me most pride and pleasure is the citizenship ceremonies which we have initiated. Through these we fully embrace the many thousands from across the globe residing here who have become part of the Irish Nation.
We are bringing enormous change to our prison system and we are taking initiatives to end slopping out and to reduce recidivism and drug addiction.
Of course, there was opportunistic political play made on the consolidation of Garda stations. The truth of course is that criminals are mobile and the single member of the Garda Síochána in the station cannot leave his or her desk. That is why we have made available €9 Million for the purchase of new Garda vehicles. Also the long promised new Garda roster system is now operational. This is working. Crime figures have reduced across the majority of crime categories due to the success of targeted Garda operations and smart policing. Drugs to the value of over €100,000 million were seized in 2012.
A new visa investment programme has resulted in investments of over €10 million to date and the Visa Waiver Programme is contributing to an increase in tourist and business visits by non-EU nationals to Ireland.
We have brought in regulations extending recognition to single sex marriages and civil partnerships entered into in many foreign states.
As with the Department of Defence, the Justice budget has kept within its allocated spend.
The above is only a sketch of what has been happening – often quietly – beneath the surface of media noise and public discourse. Each one of those initiatives was made possible because we listened to those most closely involved. This was not done by press release. It was done by people - who share a sense of the common good - meeting and working through the practical detail to overcome obstacles.
There is a process which I intend to see through – relating directly to the real needs of people. This is far removed from the sort of political circus we have seen over the past two weeks. In the coming weeks and months I will be dealing with the following:
· Publication of a Green Paper on Defence
· The enactment of the Criminal Justice Bill 2013
· The Dáil Committee Stage of the Legal Services Bill and the Bill’s ultimate enactment by the end of the year.
· The enactment of the Landlord and Tenant (Amendment) Bill 2013
· The enactment of the Courts Bill before the Summer vacation
· Signing into law Regulations applicable to Personal Insolvency Practitioners
· The publication of the Assisted Decision Making (Mental Capacity) Bill
· The publication of the Fines (Amendment) Bill
· The publication of the DNA Database Bill
· Publication of the Human Rights and Equality Commission Bill
· Publication of the Bill required for the forthcoming referendum to establish a Court of Appeal
· Publication of the new Immigration and Asylum Bill
· Work is also continuing on the Criminal Justice Corruption Bill, the Mediation Bill, the Gambling Bill, the Family Relationships and Children Bill and the creation of an integrated Family Court Structure.
I look forward to constructive contributions from all corners and sides of this House on this stream of legislation.
On the EU front, this Government realised, upon taking office that we had a huge task in restoring Ireland's reputation in the EU. It was felt in European circles that the previous Fianna Fáil Government had become disengaged from the EU process. For example, Ministers failed to attend important Council meetings. This led important decision makers at EU level to take an increasingly negative view of Ireland. One of the main priorities of An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, upon taking office, was to restore Ireland's reputation which had taken a hammering during the previous Fianna Fáil Government's term of office. He asked all Government Ministers to give their full commitment to rebuilding Ireland's reputation in Europe. I have committed myself wholeheartedly to this task since taking office as Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence. I have regularly attended at Justice and Home Affairs Council meetings and at meetings of Defence Ministers. I have also regularly bilaterally met with my European counterparts. As with all matters, personal contact is critically important. In this case the issue was our Country's reputation abroad. Of course, there remains the final month of our EU presidency in which I hope to achieve many of the objectives for our Presidency term on a broad range of measures and issues.
In relation to Northern Ireland, I have been fully engaged with my counterpart David Ford and with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers in ensuring continuing cooperation in tackling criminal terrorism and cross border crime.
The catalyst for this motion is nothing to do with my substantial work as a Minister. It revolves around two matters; the comment I made on Prime Time and Deputy McGrath’s questions to the Tánaiste last Thursday.
Because of concerns which arose I addressed the House on the first matter last week and answered questions. I do not intend to revisit all of that again. With hindsight, do I think it was a mistake to mention the incident regarding Deputy Wallace? I explained my reasoning but put simply, I do. Is it something for which I owe Deputy Wallace an apology? It is and I have already apologised. Would I do it again? No.
The very particular circumstances in which the matter arose meant that it was absurd to contend that it had implications for the manner in which I deal with sensitive matters from the Gardaí. No allegation can credibly be made of me ever having misused sensitive information or information relating to national security nor of using such information for any personal political benefit. I was asked the origin of the information and truthfully replied. Had I not done so I would have been accused of covering something up. Once I did reply, I was accused of landing the Commissioner in it! As the Commissioner cannot respond publicly to criticism voiced, it is important that I explain that I am advised that it was only in the context of the controversy involving the use of Garda discretion that Deputy Wallace’s car phone incident was recalled by a member of the Force and brought to the attention of the Commissioner who mentioned it to me. The Commissioner never suggested I mention the incident without Deputy Wallace first himself mentioning it publicly. So it is unfair for the Commissioner to be the object of criticism. Any criticism should be directed at me.
I now turn to the event raised by Deputy Mattie McGrath. The Deputy last Thursday used the privilege of this House to ask questions about an occasion when I stopped at a Garda checkpoint in early 2011, shortly prior to my appointment to Cabinet. I was involved in no such event at that time. He alleged this involved an offence under the Road Traffic 2010. The relevant provisions of that Act did not become operative until a Ministerial Order was made on 27 Oct 2011, seven months after my appointment.
Despite these inaccuracies, I detailed in a statement on Thursday last, the facts of an event that occurred long before I became Minister. The extent to which this matter grew legs and has been the subject of media comment and analysis has been extraordinary. Together with other motorists, I stopped at a Garda checkpoint, queued until reached, had my tax and insurance checked; cooperated with a request to exhale in to a breathalyser, attempted to do so but did not exhale sufficiently due to my suffering from asthma; informed the Garda that I was on my way home from the Dáil where I had been working all evening, had consumed no alcohol and that I suffered from asthma. I was subsequently waved on.
All of the commentary to date, whether it has come from my political opponents, appeared in articles, or in the context of broadcasters interviewing other broadcasters or journalists, has studiously avoided mentioning that, under the then relevant legislation the Road Traffic Act 2006, which Deputy McGrath reverted to referring to on RTE Morning Ireland on Friday last, there is an express provision which states that, where an individual has "a reasonable excuse" for not completing a breathalyser, no offence is committed. This provision is replicated in the 2010 Act.
I stated this event occurred in either late 2008 or during 2009. It did not occur in 2011 as Deputy McGrath alleged. What is the issue? There is no allegation that I had consumed any alcohol of any nature whatsoever that day but I presume this is what Deputy McGrath intended to insinuate. The simple fact is, there was no wrongdoing on my part and the law was not broken. Whilst I can be accused of being a workaholic no one can truthfully accuse me of ever abusing alcohol or of driving over the permitted limit.
I am not aware of any precedent for publishing Garda reports on incidents or events involving individual citizens. Nevertheless, last Thursday, following questions raised by the Deputy during Leaders Questions’, I asked the Secretary General of my Department to enquire of An Garda Síochána if they had any report on the matter. My Department has been advised by the Commissioner that the Garda Síochána have not been able to locate any such report and that no report was generated by the Garda member involved which, given that there is no wrongdoing at issue, is hardly a surprise. Consequently, no report of the Garda member could have disappeared as alleged in a morning paper.
Now let us get back to conclude on what really does matter. Being in office just for its own sake holds no special value for me. What I value as a Member of Government is the opportunity it gives to implement reforms, many of which are long overdue, in the areas that fall within my responsibility. What I value is the privilege of making my contribution in Cabinet and working with talented colleagues committed to public service. It is a commitment we all share.
What I value is the opportunity to make this State a better and safer place for all who reside in it. I assume that is something we can all agree upon.
On occasions tough decisions must be taken which in the short term are unpopular and can make Ministerial life uncomfortable. On occasions such decisions have been necessary but in making them I have always acted in the public interest, even where doing so made life politically difficult in my own constituency. As a Minister I have never shirked the responsibilities of my office.
As a Minister, I always carefully listen to well motivated proposals that come from any side of the House that can improve Bills published or policies being implemented. I also welcome the use of Private Members time and Private Members Bills to propose necessary reforms to the benefit of people in this State.
I hope following the vote on this Motion that we can get back to our real jobs as legislators and Members of Dáil Éireann and concentrate on what really matters and affects the lives of those who have elected us to represent them in this House.