Tuesday, 15 February 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
It is an honour for me to open the debate on this motion because, as the House is aware, the voters of Meath entrusted their confidence in my brother, John, over a period of 35 years. That was a major vote of faith in Fine Gael and his service to the constituency.
It is appropriate that we have, in Shane McEntee, a candidate who carries on the great political traditions created in County Meath. Shane is steeped in the traditions of the county. His name is synonymous with Gaelic football in County Meath and both he and members of his family have trained teams throughout the county. His family is known for its commitment to many voluntary organisations for a long period and has built up a huge amount of what we term “social capital”. There is no doubt that County Meath badly needs this because, despite the best efforts of Government over many years, major problems have been created in areas of the county such as Ratoath, Dunshaughlin, Dunboyne and Ashbourne. These places were just villages but have become major centres obliged to absorb huge numbers from Dublin. A similar position obtains in the traditional centres of Trim, Navan and Kells.
The challenge in the forthcoming by-election is for the people of County Meath to give voice to their frustration with the failure of the Government to address their needs. It is difficult to believe the Government spends three times more on health today than it did seven years ago but that the accident and emergency service is in crisis and that fewer people possess medical cards. In towns such as Ashbourne and Dunboyne there is a complete lack of community and school facilities to match the pace of growth. The pressures in County Kildare to which Deputies referred earlier are equally apparent in County Meath. Increasing numbers of those who live and vote in County Meath are obliged to rise early, become involved in unendurable commuting difficulties, cope without child care support and fund new schools that are not adequately developed and which lack facilities. The voices of the people to whom I refer need to be heard.
I was disappointed that there was a suggestion from the Government to the effect that the by-election might be delayed. Elections are a great leveller. Everyone is aware of the verdict the people passed on the Government’s efforts last year when it was obliged to go before them in the local and European elections. People have not forgotten all that was promised, namely, the end of waiting lists and the fact that first-time buyers would be cherished. None of the promises has come to pass. One can see the extreme pressures caused in counties Meath and Kildare by a lack of proper planning and proper use of the resources given to the Government.
In Shane McEntee we have the sort of candidate who can give momentum to the need to express what is required throughout County Meath. This is a great opportunity for the people of the county to express their confidence in alternative strategies to address their needs. Many commentators refer to the need to offer an alternative Government and the creation of the basis on which one can be formed. It is to address the problems that counties Meath and Kildare, more than any other, have experienced that such an alternative Government must be forged. This is an opportunity for the parties in opposition to show their capacity to work together to deliver seats in counties Meath and Kildare. I will not spare my efforts in that regard.
Shane McEntee has already done great work in County Meath. We will deliver a message to the Government, namely, that this country needs change and that it can do so much better than it has done to date.
Mr. English: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the forthcoming by-election in County Meath which I am glad is going ahead. The people of the county and the Opposition had an excellent Deputy in John Bruton. He is greatly missed, particularly in County Meath which has suffered a great deal since the Government came to office.
We will be campaigning with our excellent candidate, Shane McEntee, whose record stands for itself. His family are well known. He is an upstanding, honest and straightforward man and a hard worker. He has great passion and is stubborn. When he believes in something, he will stand by and fight for it. The three Fianna Fáil Deputies already representing the county do not seem to be fighting for it.
Mr. English: We had a discussion earlier with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, in respect of rail services in County Meath. It seemed as it if was the first occasion on which he had heard Navan being mentioned. I wonder whether the Minister discusses Meath issues with them when he is there. I know he is working for the country, but does Meath every get a say at the Cabinet table? Surely the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, can talk to Iarnród Éireann to secure an update on the Navan line. He did not know that was happening or what was needed but he indicated that he would consider it. I wonder who he sits beside at Cabinet.
I thought Deputy Johnny Brady and his colleagues would hide when it came to defending the Government’s record. Perhaps Deputy Cassidy might give a hand with this election because it will be some challenge. If one accepts the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen’s point that the outcome of the by-elections will be based on records, I am afraid Fianna Fáil is in for trouble in County Meath. Its record there is terrible. Deputy Johnny Brady must admit this when he goes canvassing. How will he be able to stand on doorsteps where people, four years later, are still waiting for the disabled persons housing grant and are still suffering? I heard him say recently that he has known a woman for the last seven or eight years who still has to leave her house to use the bathroom facilities. What will he say to her when he is looking for the vote? Who was in Government for the last seven or eight years? It was not us. That is the Fianna Fáil record.
Mr. English: The proof is there. The last time Navan hospital got any investment — the female medical ward — was under the rainbow coalition Government. Let us see what it got. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, tried to defend the Government’s record as regards Navan hospital. She talked about painting the place and the refurbishment of the accident and emergency department. The accident and emergency department is a cardboard box, a portakabin. To talk of refurbishment is an insult to the people of Meath and they will not forget that.
I warn anyone coming to Meath to bring a car because one cannot get access by rail. If there is a meeting at 10 o’clock in the morning, one had better leave at 7 o’clock because there is no guarantee of getting there on time. That is because the Government is failing.
Mr. English: My office and that of the Minister, Deputy Johnny Brady and Deputy Mary Wallace are besieged by parents who cannot get school places for their children, despite the promises made. Boards of management are having to discriminate on grounds of age, taking children who are five and a half years of age before those who are a year younger.
Mr. English: Deputy Johnny Brady will get his chance to defend his record on the doorsteps and I bet he will hide from most of the criticisms. He will probably be seen in Leinster House more than normally.
Mr. English: I will continue when the Deputies are finished. We do not often see that great man, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, in County Meath. I hope the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, took the opportunity to inform him, when he was talking to him at the Cabinet table, that we have the same number of gardaí in Navan as we had 20 years ago. The population of Meath has jumped by 26,000 in the last five years. Navan’s population has doubled. One imagines that would justify a few extra gardaí, yet the number has stayed the same. That is indefensible and is pure neglect. Mr. Shane McEntee will have an easy election.
Mr. English: I would like to conclude, but I should be given a few extra minutes. I will make one last point. Anyone who is canvassing in Meath should not look to change his or her job while there. To look for a new job in Meath is like trying to find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There is none there. IDA Ireland jobs have been reduced over the last number of years. Most towns have seen a reduction in employment. A few might be created because of decentralisation moves to Trim but, overall, no new jobs have been created for the people of Meath. The record stands for itself. The Government is failing the people of Meath. They will not forget this in three and half weeks’ time. We are looking forward to it and the people are looking forward to it.
Mr. English: The Deputies will get their doom and gloom. I will remind the Minister that yesterday he said we were afraid to go to the doors. We are not afraid to go to the doors. We will see who is right in three and half weeks.
Ms McManus: I wish to share time with Deputy Penrose. Today is a good day for democratic accountability and for the people of County Meath and County Kildare. Both the Labour Party candidates, Mr. Dominic Hannigan in Meath and Mr. Paddy McNamara in Kildare, have been campaigning since well before Christmas. Both of them will welcome an opportunity now to put their cases to the electorate. It is quite clear that the Government did not want to have by-elections. It was resistant and was forced to climb down as a result of pressure from the Opposition. Despite the fact that the appointment of former Deputy McCreevy dates from July and former Deputy John Bruton from last autumn, it was necessary to have by-elections to ensure that the people of those constituencies had full representation in Parliament. However, the indication from Government was that it wanted to postpone, delay and avoid the inevitable.
I thought it ironic when the Taoiseach said that having by-elections would interfere with Dáil business. The Taoiseach, more than any other Member of this House, has tried to ensure that Dáil business does not carry on to its full capacity. Holidays have been extended and he disappears on a Wednesday. In fact, this is the Taoiseach who has no difficulty in providing Government Ministers with an extra week off to go to Cheltenham. It is somewhat rich of him to start to make an argument like this. The reality is these are important by-elections——
Ms McManus: In Councillor Dominic Hannigan, we have the type of candidate who would excel in this House. He would represent the people of County Meath in a new dynamic way that they deserve. He has shown himself to be a man of energy and commitment, somebody who wants to service the people and his own community.
Ms McManus: I ask the Minister to hold off for a minute. I know he has talked a good deal about these by-elections, but he has not said anything. He should let other people talk because these are important by-elections. This would provide the first opportunity since the local elections in June for the people to have their say. I have no doubt that the Government is going to get a rough drubbing, as it did in the local elections. In particular there is a strong case to be made to ensure that the Government is not permitted to hold four seats out of the five. Labour Party Councillor Dominic Hannigan has been campaigning intensively for several months and is in a good position, not just to express the frustrations of the people of County Meath at the Government’s shortcomings, but to ensure they are met.
Some of the issues need to be recorded here. Meath has some of the largest classroom sizes in the country. According to figures obtained recently, there are 5,715 pupils in Meath schools in classes of more than 30. This is despite promise after promise from the Minister for Education and Science to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio. Meath has suffered from medical card cutbacks. Since the Government came into power in 1997, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have taken 8,312 medical cards out of the hands of people in need. This is type of issue which needs strong representation. I look forward to Councillor Dominic Hanigan become Deputy Dominic Hannigan in the near future.
Mr. Penrose: I welcome the opportunity to go into the nice, fresh lands of Meath as director of elections for the Labour Party and particularly for the candidate, Mr. Dominic Hannigan. He reminds me of myself, when I started off. Many people, particularly from the large parties, wrote me off. They will attempt to do the same to Mr. Hannigan at their peril. He has been campaigning since December. He is young, enthusiastic, vibrant and intelligent, somebody who really wants to represent the people. One has to have the enthusiasm to want to represent the people.
I have had the opportunity to visit Meath. I do not purport to know everything about it, but I know that some parts of Westmeath have been annexed for the next elections. I noticed that the Minister was in that part of our county last week and I was surprised that Deputy Brady was not there. I do not know why he was not invited, because he is someone who——
Mr. Penrose: —— lives very close to the area. I know he has an interest in the area. Deputy Mary Wallace lives a little further away than that, but she does have relations in Mullingar. Dominic Hannigan’s priorities are noticeable on the campaign trail, as they are important to the people of Meath. These priorities include an enhanced rail and public transport service for Meath, an end to the school and child-care crisis that faces hundreds of families across the county and the upgrading of the hospital facilities and major investment in primary care. We believe in upgrading hospital facilities. We do not believe in photo-opportunities where people arrive and get a photograph taken for the papers. A Minister did that in Mullingar, County Westmeath and then she disappeared, even though the 12 bed unit she visited was closed and would not open for another two months. The people of Meath do not want that kind of thing. It is time to cut out the nonsense where people are treated like fools. This Government is renowned for that and we will be telling them so on the doorsteps. The Government has three representatives in Meath and it does not want another one. It is taking people for fools. I have never taken a person for a fool. I treat people as they are, I treat them fairly.
We also need intelligent planning where people are put before profit. There are big estates in Navan, Athboy and Trim and I have been in them. Why is planning permission given to developers when they fail to complete estates to the required norms and to the exact specifications of the planning conditions? The Labour Party brought a Bill before the House in the name of Deputy Seán Ryan that was turned down. Why was it turned down? Dominic Hannigan, as chairperson of the planning committee on Meath County Council, will make sure that those issues are chased without fear or favour. He is someone who will bring the issues to the floor of this House in the same way he has articulated them at Meath County Council.
I spoke to a young mother on a doorstep in Navan the other day, who was looking after her own mother inside. She told me that her mother gets one day’s respite care every year. That is some society about which the Government blows its trumpet. I asked her where the respite care places were in Navan. She told me that there was one. I asked her could she not even get that one but she replied they were lucky they got one.
Mr. Penrose: Well she must have told me lies at the door. I do not tell lies. I relay what I hear and I have a habit of believing what I hear. Across the country that is the type of issue that arises. Where are the respite care facilities? I welcomed the disability legislation, but I have listened to what people are telling me about it. We need to look after such people, people who need social and affordable housing. We need to improve their quality of life. These are the issues that we will articulate in the Labour Party.
Child care is one of the biggest single policy failures of the Government. We will bring out a number of policy issues in this area and we will let the people of Meath decide. We have had representatives before from Meath, who fought very hard for their constituents. We hope to continue that tradition on 11 March with the election of Councillor Dominic Hannigan.
Mr. Sargent: This by-election will be a welcome opportunity for the people of Meath to have their say. They can pass judgment on their neglect by the main parties down the years. Meath will not be taken for granted and there are many issues about which the people feel angry. The Green Party candidate, Fergal O’Byrne, has been a campaigner and community worker for many years and knows how the pernicious and rapacious policies on waste have been carried out in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind manner. When it was thought that such a policy would be accepted by the people of Meath——
Mr. Sargent: This Minister has decided that he will not listen to the views of the people of Meath. He thinks he knows best, but he will get his answer this time around. The people of Meath will not be found wanting when they pass judgement——
Mr. Sargent: ——on a Minister who does not even want to listen to elected representatives, not to mind the people of his own county. Will he listen to the people of Meath when they speak? He will have no choice in the matter, whether he likes it or not. He will have to realise that places like Navan had an industrial base and employment which did not require people to leave their homes at the crack of dawn like lemmings to make their way to Dublin on the N3.
Mr. Sargent: The Minister and the Government need to realise that there are much better ways of local planning and local employment. The rail corridor was closed down by Fianna Fáil many years ago. Now is the time of reckoning. This Government will have to pay the price for neglecting the people of County Meath.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Cuirim fáilte roimh an rún seo chun votachán na Mí a chur ar siúl ar 11 Márta. I welcome the Government’s acceptance of the writ for the Meath by-election. The Sinn Féin candidate, Councillor Joe O’Reilly, has been on the campaign trail for weeks. He is by far the best known and the most experienced candidate in the field. He has a proven record in community leadership in local government and he has played a key role in Sinn Féin’s national project for lasting peace and an Ireland of equals. He is chair of the forum which brings together our elected representatives from throughout the 32 counties of Ireland and he has performed in that role admirably for a number of years.
These by-elections will take place two and a half years into the term of this Government. Undoubtedly, it will be a poll on the Government, not only in Meath and in north Kildare, but throughout the State. County Meath is a prime example of how the State has been misgoverned over the past decade. The long term residents and those who have moved there in recent years are victims of bad planning——
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: ——and a lack of planning that has characterised economic development under the Government. The Deputy should be aware of that. The great shortage of affordable housing in Dublin has pushed people into surrounding counties, including my own constituency. Counties Meath and Kildare continue to take up the greatest outflow of people from Dublin. However, the jobs have not followed and this point has been made repeatedly by speakers from the Opposition.
County Meath has, in effect, become a giant suburb of Dublin from which many thousands commute to the capital every day. There is no proper public transport infrastructure and the roads are unable to cope with the volume of daily traffic.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: With respect to the cackle in the background, in which I thank Deputy Mary Wallace for not participating, we will have every opportunity in the coming weeks to make these points. I am sure Deputy Brady will be heard well from behind his newspaper which is where he usually hides.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The by-election is an opportunity for the people to demand delivery on the broken promises of this Administration in the areas of health and education. In the area of health, in particular, the time is ripe for the people to give the Government a very clear message. They demand the equitable and efficient health service they and we have been promised so often and clearly deserve.
The people of County Meath have not had the representation they deserve. Deputy Brady is a perfect example. If there was ever an example of the need for change in County Meath, the Deputy epitomises it 100%. Recognising that they demand change——
Councillor Joe Reilly is the voice of real change in County Meath. I have every confidence that, much to Deputy Brady’s heartache, he will take the vacant seat in this corner of the House after the by-election.
Mr. Connolly: I had not realised the moving of a writ could be so exciting. It is a mixture of tributes and party political broadcasts. I pay tribute to the Deputies who have left the House and who were independent-minded individuals. I hope the by-election will throw up a genuine independent candidate rather than someone attached to a party. There are strong independent candidates in both constituencies. While I am pleased the Government has decided to go ahead and announce a date, I cannot understand what difference another two weeks would have made. A great deal of political capital was made out of something from which there was no need to make political capital. It is now done but it would have been a travesty of justice if County Meath had been left without a Deputy for a long period.
As Deputy English said, the population of County Meath increased by 22% between 1996 and 2000. It increased by 86% between 1971 and 2002. It increases daily. In villages like Ratoath where the population has increased by approximately 250% there are significant implications for services and people living in the area. The county shares a substantial border with my constituency and what happens within it has serious implications for County Cavan.
There has not been enough emphasis placed on the M3 project. I would like to know what positions people are taking on the development. Every candidate should be asked about the effect the M3 will have in County Meath as well as County Cavan. It will make County Cavan much more accessible to industry and big business. I will be examining what people have to say on this issue as it cannot be dodged. That it can take half a day to get through County Meath informs our perspective on the project. The issue must be addressed.
The issue of the hospital in Navan must be considered also. I read in the newspaper today that 11 hospitals had been told not to accept paediatric admissions. Every candidate must address this issue on the doorsteps.
I welcome the fact that polling stations will be open until 9 p.m. to facilitate workers and students. Many students who return to the constituency from Dublin will be tired or want to catch up with friends or play football and politics will not be at the top of their agenda. We should consider setting up polling stations in Dublin. There is no reason one station could not accommodate students from counties Kildare and Meath. Students should be allowed to exercise their voting rights from Dublin.
Mr. N. Dempsey: If Deputy Connolly proposes the use of electronic voting machines for the by-election in County Meath, he will have the full support of Deputies on this side of the House as well as Deputy English. The system worked excellently before to give us a fast, good result. Fianna Fáil won three seats.
Mr. N. Dempsey: Fine Gael did not do too badly either. The by-election in County Meath is caused by the departure of former Deputy John Bruton. While we were political rivals and at different points of the political spectrum for many years, I take the opportunity to acknowledge the contribution he made to politics, County Meath, Ireland and Europe. As I have done previously, I wish him a very successful tenure in Washington as EU ambassador.
John Bruton was first elected to the House in 1969 as a young man of 22 years. The by-election gives a great opportunity to the County Meath electorate to elect another young man of undoubted ability. Mr. Shane Cassells is an excellent candidate and, despite being relatively young, has a wealth of experience. He was the youngest councillor elected to Meath County Council in 1999 and in 2004 the youngest ever mayor of Navan where he was elected to the town council in 1999.
Mr. Cassells has served at various levels in the Fianna Fáil organisation during the years and his family has a long tradition in the party and a proud name. While people outside County Meath put the emphasis on the second syllable when pronouncing the family name, we place it on the first. Peter Cassells is Shane’s uncle while another served Meath well on playing fields throughout Ireland. His family is very proud of his decision to put his name forward to serve the local community in Dáil Éireann.
Mr. Cassells belongs to a new generation in Irish politics. It is great to see someone in his mid-20s putting himself forward for election. As we have a young Deputy from the constituency on the other side of the House, it is important to ensure balance on this side.
Mr. N. Dempsey: I testify to Mr. Cassells’ capacity as a councillor. He has shown in the past five or six years immense aptitude for hard work and a great grasp of detail which are invaluable qualities in a modern and effective politician. He will work very hard on behalf of the organisation and the people of the county. He said today that the by-election offered the voters of County Meath a chance to support a new generation of strong representatives who could voice local concerns at national level. I have no doubt that he will help to capitalise on the unprecedented investment made in the county in the past ten years.
Opposition Deputies can see only that a glass is either half full or empty. Deputy Bruton spoke of an alternative to Fianna Fáil. He is looking for an alternative to the massive expenditure on water, sewerage, housing, roads and schools in the constituency since 1997. We have made a massive commitment to roads and motorways in the county as well as schools. I could name schools in every part of County Meath. Almost €10 million has been spent in County Meath in terms of grants from my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We are fully committed to the hospital and have invested in it. It is difficult to listen to the truth.
Mr. N. Dempsey: We have the lowest level of unemployment ever in County Meath. The Government continues to provide infrastructure in the county. Up until 1997, Meath’s economic development was hindered by a lack of infrastructure, but we have rectified that and turned it around.
I agree with Deputy Connolly with regard to the issue of the M3. It is time that every Deputy — and prospective Deputy — put his or her cards on the table with regard to that issue. People cannot talk out of both sides of their mouth. Before he was elected, Deputy English organised meetings throughout County Meath to oppose the M3.
Mr. J. Brady: Deputy Mary Wallace has two minutes also. I would like to be associated with my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, in wishing John Bruton well. As a new Deputy coming in to this House, it was a pleasure working with him over the past eight years. He was very helpful. As a councillor since 1974, I have met with Mr. Bruton at different functions across the constituency, in particular when he was Taoiseach and I was Chairman of Meath County Council. I wish him and his family well in the years ahead. I also wish our candidate, Shane Cassells, well. He is an energetic young man and will make an excellent Dáil Deputy when the election takes place on 11 March.
Mr. J. Brady: As the Minister stated, we have delivered an enormous amount into County Meath since 1997. It would be marvellous to have another Deputy in a position to deliver more. I am sure it will happen. It is vital we elect a man who can deliver because none of the other candidates, if elected, will be in a position to deliver to County Meath in the same manner as myself, the Minister and Deputy Mary Wallace have in the past eight years.
Not too long ago, in the 1980s, young people had to emigrate. However, thanks to Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats, young people can stay at home. They have jobs in this country, and do not have to emigrate any more.
Ms M. Wallace: I join my colleagues in paying tribute to John Bruton whose seat we are talking about today. He is a friend and neighbour of mine from Dunboyne. Shane Cassells is a man who can deliver. He is a young energetic councillor elected in Meath since 1999.
People on the opposite side of the House talk about quality of life issues. In Meath these issues relate to being able to travel to work on the new M3 motorway, being able to get the railway from Dunboyne and being able to be educated in all the new school buildings being built at this time. We are delivering on these issues and Shane Cassells will deliver with us.
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