Deputy Micheál Martin: Today the Dáil is launching, via resolution, the constitutional convention. Before the election, both of the Government parties promised very radical political and constitutional reform within 12 months. We know the timeframe has slipped but, more seriously, the ambition has shrunk very significantly. What we are being presented with today in reality represents a sham compared to what was promised.
The issues of the voting age being reduced from 18 to 17 or the presidential term of office are not earth-shattering and do not need referral to a convention of this kind. What is perhaps more surprising is the referral of marriage equality to the convention, particularly given that the Tánaiste has described it as the civil rights issue of this generation. Some would suggest the issue was referred to the convention to buy time and perhaps to avoid having to make a decision on the issue. In referring it to the convention, the Taoiseach raised the prospect of there never being a referendum on marriage equality during the life of this Government and Dáil.
I believe in marriage equality and it is important that a referendum would take place. Last week, journalists attempted to ask a question of the Taoiseach on that basic issue.
A melee developed afterwards and the only thing that emerged subsequently was a letter from the press secretary to the management of TV3 and the political correspondent stating the collective behaviour of journalists in attendance was disgraceful. The Taoiseach can clarify in his own time who authorised what and what his attitude was to the response. If a simple answer had been given there would not have been any melee. Will the Taoiseach clarify his position for once and for all on marriage equality? Is he in favour of same-sex marriage? Will he confirm for the House that a referendum will be held on the issue during the lifetime of the Dáil?
The Taoiseach: Deputy Martin did not attend any of the briefings I gave to all of the parties in respect of the constitutional convention, although his party was represented and I grant that.
It may well be that he was otherwise busy. The Government was elected with a particular mandate and, comprising two parties, set out its programme for Government very clearly. The programme for Government includes the establishment of a constitutional convention to review named aspects of the Constitution and aspects relevant to it. When it is functioning the convention will have an opportunity to make a case for other issues that it considers important or of sufficient priority to be given consideration with a view to action by the Government or not as the case may be.
What is important is that the constitutional convention, on which I expect to move the resolution after these questions, will consider a named list of issues and will reflect on them on behalf of the Government. It is important to note the Government, unlike its predecessors, has committed to giving an answer on each of the convention's recommendations within a four-month period. If the Government's answer is that a referendum will not be held on a particular issue then so be it. If the Government's answer is that a referendum will be held, the Government will set out a timeline for when it might be appropriate to hold such a referendum.
Deputy Martin is well aware by now that in respect of the convention we decided to examine two issues in the first instance, which are very clearly not earth shattering but are important in their own way. It will also be pretty easy to determine a "Yes" or "No" answer in respect of these issues, which are the reduction of the service period for the Presidency and the possibility of reducing the voting age. The reason for choosing these two issues is to see whether the convention works efficiently, whether it would need enhanced powers and whether its structure is appropriate as it will be comprised of politicians and citizens determined by law and selected by an appropriate polling company.
One of the other issues for the convention mentioned in the programme for Government is equality of marriage or same-sex marriage. The process set out by the Government for which I speak is that the convention will reflect on the question of same-sex marriage, give its recommendation to the Government and the Government will respond on whether a referendum will be held within a four-month period. If a referendum is to be held the Government will set out the timescale on when it would intend to hold that referendum. Deputy Martin is aware that within the past 15 months we have held four referenda, three of which were carried and one of which was not.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Taoiseach studiously avoided answering the question I asked.
Is he in favour of marriage equality? Does he favour the rights of same-sex couples to marry? I simply asked this question.
The reason I asked the question is very straightforward.
I do not need a random selection of citizens to tell me whether I favour marriage equality and neither does the Tánaiste. It is a matter on which the Oireachtas could decide tomorrow morning. I can understand if the Taoiseach wants to go through different electoral systems, and people have different perspectives. This is something on which every citizen has the right to decide. They will not be told or given recommendations on this issue by a random selection of citizens. This is not the type of issue that lends itself to this determination. Governments must lead on these fundamental issues. This should never have been referred to the referendum commission.
Timelines are very important. If this is the civil rights issue of a generation then referring it to the convention opens up the very real possibility, or dare I say probability, that there will never be a referendum on this issue during the lifetime of the Government because the first two issues will take the guts of the year. The issue of Seanad Éireann is not being referred, which one could argue is a complex issue and the Taoiseach has made up his mind on this. I ask him to answer the question on whether he is in favour of same-sex marriage and if there will be a referendum on it during the lifetime of the Government.
The Taoiseach: Do I recall properly that Deputy Martin was in government for 14 years and showed scant leadership on any of these issues?
The party I have the honour of leading was the first party to introduce a real issue about civil partnership which we are very happy to support and we will follow through in terms of taxation issues, property rights and now civil union.
Deputy Martin stated the citizens have a right to decide for themselves and this is exactly what is involved here. Deputy Martin will not pressurise me as a citizen or as Leader of the Government into a box ticking exercise-----
Deputy Micheál Martin: No, it was the Tánaiste who raised the bar last week. I want to get a sense of where the Government is on this.
The Taoiseach: I speak from this seat on behalf of the Government. With respect to Deputy Martin and everybody else there is only one Taoiseach at any time and I happen to speak for the Government.
The Government's view and decision is to establish a constitutional convention and for this process to be followed through in respect of the issues named in the programme for Government. When the constitutional convention is up and running and decides to reflect on the issue of same-sex marriage and the other issues named in the programme for Government, it will respond to the Government with its view and the Government is committed to making a decision on each of these issues within a four-month period.
If Deputy Martin thinks he can stand up and ask my view on this, we are speaking about the Constitution and it is a matter for each individual citizen.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The people would like to know where the leader of the country stands on issues.
The Taoiseach: The process we have set in train for this Government is to take a number of these important issues, which were never dealt with by Deputy Martin's crowd, and state the constitutional convention will reflect on each of these issues, will give its view to the Government and the Government will respond.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Minister for Justice and Equality and the Tánaiste are very clear on it.
The Taoiseach: As the head of Government and Taoiseach, it is the Government's responsibility to establish the structure by which this will happen and the Government is committed to responding to the constitutional convention when it considers this and all of the other matters.
Deputy Micheál Martin: The Taoiseach is blustering. The Taoiseach is going to wait for the convention to tell him where he stands on it.
The Taoiseach: As I stated we have held four referenda in 15 months and we will have more. Deputy Martin should not come here and say scant leadership is being shown on the issues which were left behind by Deputy Martin's Government. These are named in the programme for Government and they will be followed through in the structure we have set out, and the Government is committed to responding to each and every one of them in respect of holding a referendum or not.
Deputy Micheál Martin: I would like to know what the Labour Party thinks of all of this. Is it the civil rights issue of a generation? It does not seem so from the Taoiseach's response.