Thursday, 5 December 1985
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Howard: I want to begin by thanking you for allowing Senator O'Leary and myself this matter on the Adjournment. I would mention that Senator O'Leary is unavoidably absent at this stage and suggest the Chair give some of my time to Senator Belton. I would like to thank the Minister of State for coming in to listen to my protest and what I have to say about this totally unsatisfactory state of affairs in relation to repairs to the ceiling of the Seanad Chamber.
Members will recall that in early summer we had a very clear understanding that the period of the summer recess would be used to do the work, or at least to do a substantial part of it. The House went into recess on 17 July and returned on 25 September, a period of over two months. Nothing whatsoever was done during that period as far as the repairs to the ceiling were concerned, except towards the end of that time to erect the  scaffolding which we have now around us. A valuable nine weeks were wasted and since then a further ten weeks have passed by and nothing has been done.
I realise there are time constraints on me and for that reason I have to condense what I say. What I have outlined and the performance we have witnessed here in relation to this work represents a level of ineptitude and incompetence on the part of the Office of Public Works that is totally unacceptable. We have five wasted months behind us. Ineptitude and incompetence are bad enough but more serious still as far as Members of this House are concerned is the level of disrespect to this Chamber as a House of the Oireachtas that is inherent in all of this and is being offered to the Parliament of one's country and to its Members. That is disrespect and it cannot be tolerated. I want to say quite firmly at this stage it is time that heads began to roll.
I am not prepared to accept this level of inefficiency. I am not prepared to accept this attitude of “could not care less” that we have witnessed over the past half year. I am not prepared to accept what amounts to contempt for a House of the Oireachtas which is implicit in every aspect of this sorry saga. I want to know who has been responsible for this mess. If those responsible are not identified to me then, in these circumstances, I have no choice but to place the blame fairly and squarely on the Chairman of the Office of Public Works and to call for his removal.
There is another aspect to this matter to which I want to refer. If work were proceeding overhead I would accept the inconvenience and so on but nothing is happening. Therefore, I feel obliged to draw attention to the fact that the work that has been done here constitutes a danger and a hazard to the Members of the House. The temporary ceiling that has been erected here is composed of material that is condemned by every fire officer in the country. Fire officers up and down the country have gone to public places such as hotels, restaurants, pubs and dance halls and have closed down these premises unless that material was  removed from them. That material as far as I can establish is formica glued on to hardwood. The glue is petroleum-based and it is highly inflammable. If it caught fire it would emit volumes of black smoke that is both poisonous and suffocating. In addition to that, one of the three exits of this Chamber has been closed off and thereby it reduces by one-third the means of escape for Members and staff of this House in case of an accident. Furthermore, additions and obstructions in the shape of steel barriers have been erected in every passageway throughout the Chamber.
No work has yet commenced on the ceiling, five months after we were told that it was going to begin. All that has happened in that period is something that to me represents insult and ridicule to the Members of Seanad Éireann. I ask you, a Chathaoirligh, to insist that the dignity of the Seanad be respected and that the work required to be done is done with the urgency that it deserves. The Chamber of Seanad Éireann is not some derelict room in a remote bog in rural Ireland. It is the Upper House of the Oireachtas. Yet, the priority and the urgency which have been accorded to its repair is at the same pace and in the same timescale as the Office of Public Works would apply to the repair of other rooms. I ask you and Members of Seanad Éireann this evening to support me in my call that this unacceptable and unsatisfactory matter be resolved in the very near future.
Mr. Belton: As most people know, it is very rarely that I speak in this Chamber but I am alarmed and annoyed at the delay and the lack of progress with regard to the renovation of the Seanad Chamber. Like Senator Howard I regard it as entirely unsatisfactory. We adjourned in July for the summer recess and naturally we thought it was a very opportune time for the Office of Public Works to carry out the necessary renovations to the ceiling. Many of us hoped that by the time we would resume quite  substantial progress would have been effected. When we came back we discovered that the only progress made was that scaffolding had been erected.
At the beginning of this we discussed whether it would be necessary for us to look for alternative accommodation or whether we could continue here and various places were suggested where the Seanad could convene and meet. We discussed the using of the ante-room and also the possibility of going to the Mansion House. Then it was said that the scaffolding would be erected, no inconvenience would be caused and that a lot of the work could be done during the recess.
I am not entirely in agreement with Senator Howard in giving full blame to the Office of Public Works. I have been trying to discover what happened — I must say I did not make a lot of progress — and I understand that other agencies were at fault also. The blame cannot be fully and entirely laid at the feet of the Office of Public Works. I am told there were certain other delays with regard to the issuing of contracts and the completion of certain documents and I am not at all fully aware where the fault lies.
Senator Howard has talked about the fire hazard. Most Senators received a very large document yesterday from a certain gentleman who was caught up in the fire hazard of the Stardust tragedy. Sometimes there is an over-reaction in regard to the danger of using certain materials. Recently I was having some repairs carried out myself and I was told there are various forms of this plasterboard which is covered by formica. Some of it has very good backing and some of it has not; some of it is a greater fire risk than the other products. Last week we were told that due to some fault on behalf of the contractor work had to cease and that we had to get some sort of a new contractor. Something new had to be done. Last week or the week before, when we met, all those pillars had a second covering around them just to camouflage. That was deemed sufficient for us to meet and we met several weeks  and that was quite all right. The pedestal on which those pillars rest was just ordinary timber. It is now of a more decorative nature. Apart from doing that, all that has happened in the last week or two is that the scaffolding is being repainted. Those have been repadded. I do not know whether that was necessary at all or not or whether more useful work could have been carried out during the time.
I am not at all aware of the idea whether the original estimate from the Office of the Public Works will be adhered to or whether we are going to have a completely new estimate or what is going to happen here. However, we will all agree with Senator Howard when we say that this Chamber has not been given the dignity and the respect it was entitled to and sufficient effort has not been made to try to conclude the necessary works within the minimum period of time and to the least dissatisfaction of the Members of the Seanad.
Mr. Fitzsimons: Closing off the visitors' gallery has been a serious inconvenience. I do not think this was necessary. I would like to know if there is a possibility of getting that opened in the near future.
Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. J. Bermingham): In 1980 the Office of Public Works investigated cracks which had appeared in the plasterwork in the ceiling of the recess in the Seanad Chamber. The opinion was that the cracks were not serious and that apart from their somewhat unsightly appearance, a major disruption of the Seanad to carry out the repairs did not seem justified. The cracks widened, however, and in late 1984 it became obvious that there could be a danger from falling plaster. To remedy this it was decided to embark on a comprehensive programme of plaster repair to be carried out by a specialist contractor, followed by a scheme of redecoration of the entire Chamber.
This work was estimated to take from nine to 12 months. Ideally, the Seanad should have been moved to another  location for a shorter period, but as this was not feasible, a scheme was proposed which would provide a false ceiling and at the same time a working base for the repair work.
The proposals were very carefully examined by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and in July 1985 they indicated their agreement to the plan. A contract was placed immediately for the erection of the scaffolding. The scaffolding and the false ceiling were erected in October and the second stage of the work — the actual repair — was embarked on. It was only then that it came to the attention of the Office of Public Works that the specialist firm which they had intended engaging for the plaster work was going into voluntary liquidation at the end of the year.
There was no way that this could have been anticipated. The firm in question was very experienced in the highly-skilled area of delicate plaster restoration and have performed similar major contracts for the Office of Public Works with complete satisfaction. However, an alternative arrangement has now been made and the Office of Public Works will shortly be in a position to carry out the work themselves
While it might have appeared to the House that very little was happening overhead, in fact the preparatory work necessary to permit faithful restoration was in progress. This amounted to taking impressions, photographs and samples of the plaster work before disturbing it.
The next stage was to open up the area by removing some of the cracked plaster from the recess and from the upstand at the front of the recess. This work was done last week and I regret to have to inform the House of the discovery of dry rot in the heels of a number of rafters and wet rot in some valley boards. In addition, the timber beam which supports the upstand at the front of the recess has weakened and must be replaced by a steel joint. While the wet rot is not of a very serious problem, the dry rot is. The only course available is to engage the services of a rot eradication firm who will thoroughly investigate the area and treat  all affected timbers. This is being done urgently. As of now, the only information at my disposal is that dry rot is present in the recess. It may well be that, hopefully, it is confined to this area alone. Consequently until the full extent is known, I regret that I am not in a position to give any indication of the completion date.
While the inconvenience to the Seanad is fully appreciated, the work must be carried out and I will ensure that no avoidable delays occur. Because it is not possible to carry out work on two or three days a week while the Seanad is sitting, this will be compensated for by weekend working.
I have asked the Commissioners of Public Works as soon as they have any further information to communicate with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and to keep the committee informed as to the progress throughout the course of the work.
I should now like to point out that the cosmetic appearance of the scaffolding has been greatly improved. The reason we did this — it has been criticised here — is to try to restore some bit of dignity to this Chamber. We understand the problem. It is fair to say that the scaffolding has been greatly improved.
Mr. Bermingham: The commissioners will ensure that very special attention will be given to the work. I ask the House to be patient while the work is being carried out and I guarantee that the result will be a completely refurbished Chamber of which the Senators will be proud. I have always been proud of the ceiling here and it is one of the places to which I brought visitors from my own constituency. The ceiling is the most artistic feature in this Chamber. It is a outstanding example of an artistic ceiling. It is something that you do not tear down and replace in a week. I want to impress that on people. It is going to be slow because it is an intricate job. The replacement of the ceiling is one of the most important things  ever undertaken in relation to the repair of this House. It is a ceiling of which we can all be proud. It is absolutely magnificent. As a Kildare man and this being the former town house of the Duke of Leinster who owned Kildare and many of the artistic people who worked here came from Kildare — I have a very great feeling for that ceiling and for this Chamber which was part of the original House.
Having said that, I want to tell the House that this is the first I heard of a fire hazard here. I am told that there is no problem in that area. Perhaps the second speaker gave a better view of it than the first. I can assure Members that I will investigate this. It is the first time I have heard that there is any fire hazard and if there is I guarantee to have it investigated and I will report back to the committee.
I am proud of the restoration work done by the Office of Public Works in keeping structures as they were not only in this House. I want to emphasise that it is necessary to take photographs and impressions of the ceiling before it is taken down.
Mr. J. Bermingham: I explained about the expert contractor and in fairness to him, I should not go any further into that, but it could not have been done last July. There was also a small matter regarding that contractor and it is a problem with any repairs we do in Leinster House. It has to do with the seriousness of the question of security here. Not only has the contractor to be cleared but every one of the people he wants to work here has to be cleared. It is a slow process. I am not responsible for that clearance. I am not laying any blame on any one but it is necessary. There has to be clearance from the security people, the police and the authorities.
I am proud of restoration work that has been done in this city by the Office of Public Works. I am proud of the job done on the Casino in Marino. I am proud  of the job done on the Royal Hospital. I want to spell out with regard to the publicity given recently to damage done to the valuable display in the Royal Hospital, that that scaffolding was not erected by the Office of Public Works. They had no part in the putting up of that scaffolding and they had no part in erecting the light standard which fell and did such damage. Despite rumours which have been circulating, I want to spell out that the Office of Public Works had no hand, act or part in that. A company are now running that hospital and they do their own work.
Having said that, I want to assure Senators that I am as anxious as anybody else to respect this House. There will be difficulties, but the first commitment I have is to restore that most famous ceiling properly. It cannot be done in a week or  two. It is a slow business. I am sorry it is that way. The discovery of the dry rot is another impediment. There was no way anybody could have known it was there. I am sorry there is inconvenience to Senators. I do not know whether or not it should be removed but I can give no indication at this time as to when it will be finished. I will certainly give an undertaking that when it is finished it will be restored as it was, and will be a ceiling we can be proud of. We will finish the restoration of this Chamber room in a manner that all Members and I can be proud of.
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