Thursday, 11 November 1999
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. Dardis: The proposed Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the Lough Ree report and water quality in the Shannon estuary and its tributaries. Spokepersons will have 20 minutes and all other speakers will have 15 minutes.
Mr. Manning: The Order of Business is agreed. The statements on the Lough Ree report do not cover the Shannon River Council Bill – these statements are in addition to the promised discussion on that Bill rather than in place of it.
Arising from the contribution of Senator Avril Doyle yesterday and the specific point she raised about the failure to implement a number of aspects of European law in this country, will the Leader make time available later this session to debate this issue? There has been a great deal of discussion about giving the Chamber a European dimension and such a debate would be a good way to do that.
I draw Members' attention to an article in the current issue of The Bar Review on the issue of tribunals. Tribunals are set up by the Houses of the Oireachtas. The article makes it clear that considerable difficulties attach to the running of tribunals, both in getting the truth and safeguarding the rights of all concerned. It would be appropriate for us to debate the nature of tribunals at some point in the future. The Committee of Pub lic Accounts DIRT hearings showed that a particular job can sometimes be done more efficiently and at a fraction of the cost of tribunals. Tribunals are very important public policy instruments but there are some serious defects in the manner in which they operate.
Mr. O'Toole: I want to restate Senator Manning's point that we requested this debate this morning as a stepping stone in order that we could adopt a more informed approach to the debate on the broader issue of the Shannon River Council.
I recently raised the need for a wider debate on the area of education, one which would address issues such as literacy/illiteracy and the introduction of science and its importance to the development of the economy. There is a great deal of expertise available in this House from people involved in local authorities, vocational education committees and teaching. I would like that debate to be held as soon as possible. Education is an aspect of the National Development Plan which we should consider.
It is a long time since we debated matters relating to Northern Ireland. I am not referring here to the precise current issue. We held a number of debates in this House on the Good Friday Agreement and the follow-up agreement in December of that year which dealt with North-South and East-West bodies. I would particularly welcome a discussion on the East-West bodies which could tie into the parliamentary tier of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat in which we could discuss possible contacts with various parts of Irish life. Such a debate would provide a wider focus on the development of the northern issue. It could encompass matters such as education, politics, industry, transport, etc.
I want to raise the issue of recent prison suicides and request the Deputy Leader to ask the Minister to come into the House at an early stage for a debate on imprisonment and penal reform. It is scandalous that the suicide rate in our prisons is increasing. There have already been five deaths this year. Two of the suicides occurred within a one week period, a further one occurred in Wheatfield prison where there was a high risk to the prisoner involved and, this week, someone who stole a jacket worth £40 and who should not have been in prison at all committed suicide. There are major issues to be debated in regard to the manner in which we deal with people at risk, on the one hand, and the manner in which and reasons people are imprisoned on the other. Some people who should not be imprisoned are sent to prison while others who should be imprisoned in certain instances are not.
The MTV awards will be broadcast from the Point Depot tonight. The event will result in huge traffic congestion around the Sheriff Street and  East Wall areas and the East Link bridge will be closed for most of the day. I want to raise the issue of the very tight control on tickets for any major show or performance in town, be it a football match or a concert. In this instance, it appears that the vast majority of the tickets go to an elite and those which are available to teenage fans range in price from £300 to £400. There does not seem to be any control in this area. If such touting were to occur in regard to a football match, it would be hugely condemned but in the case of the MTV awards, we seem to be dealing with an elite which is beyond reproach. Perhaps the Leader could contact the Director of Consumer Affairs or consider whether there is some other way this issue could be debated in the House. This particular area of “star performance”, as the media puts it, appears to be immune to any challenge or criticism.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: I have asked the Leader on a number of occasions to arrange a debate on the freedom and responsibility of the press but it has not yet been possible for him to do so. The recent attempt at a character assassination of Mr. John Lonergan causes me concern. It is very important that we would discuss this matter in the House. It behoves all responsible people and us, as legislators, to stop this bandwagon which is endeavouring to steam-roll over honourable people and undermine the institutions and values in which we believe. Those journalists who constantly seek the quick fix of a sensational headline are an embarrassment to the vast majority of journalists who are hard working decent people. I believe that people in any profession, be it journalism, politics, the church or business, who adopt the high moral ground while being hypocritical will eventually leave themselves open to the accusation of having the morals of a modern day alley cat. We should discuss this matter in the House once and for all.
Mr. Connor: I support Senators Costello and Ó Murchú, particularly in regard to the Minister coming into the House to discuss our prisons. Last night, the population of Mountjoy Prison reached its highest level ever at 800 prisoners. The prison was built in the 19th century to provide accommodation to 400 prisoners at most.
I fully endorse Senator Costello's comments on the suicide of the young man who found himself in prison for the larceny of a £40 piece of merchandise. The Minister has dealt with a great deal of legislation in this House in the past year and a half and he has used every occasion to indulge himself on his prison policy, his efforts to reduce congestion in prisons and provide new prison spaces. The reality is that the opposite has occurred. The Minister should come into the House as soon as possible in order that we could have a comprehensive debate on this issue.
I endorse Senator Ó Murchú's comments on a newspaper report published yesterday which  referred to the governor of Mountjoy Prison. The governor is one of the most excellent officers employed by this State.
Mr. Connor: It is good that these issues are raised in this House and that Members can express their views. The type of journalism that was used yesterday against an excellent officer of this State, one of the most enlightened governors of any prison, was deplorable. I know the press has its dog days or days when they do not have headlines. However, to sink to that level is unacceptable.
I wish to raise the issue of the legislation to ratify in domestic law the international criminal court which is subject to an international agreement. I raised this issue before in this House. In July 1998 we were part of a signing ceremony for that agreement in Rome. All over the world outrages against human rights are being committed by states and by state parties. The setting up of an international criminal court would ensure that there was no immunity for officers or leaders of a state who are responsible for outrages. They would be made amenable to an international criminal court. However, for the agreement to come into force 60 signatures worldwide are required. As I understand it, Ireland has no axe to grind or anything to worry about and we should be one of countries to take the lead. I deplore the tardiness of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and his Department in bringing forward this legislation which is simple legislation.
Mr. Connor: A Chathaoirligh, you might protect me from these interruptions. I ask the Leader to approach the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in order that he might produce this legislation and that it would be initiated in this House.
Mr. D. Kiely: In view of yesterday's announcement that a new consortium will enter the electricity field in this country it is timely that we have a debate on the future of electricity. Many workers are concerned about their future and their jobs. We should invite the Minister for Pub lic Enterprise to attend and we could debate the proposed national grid and when it will be set up.
Mr. Norris: I wish to raise the issue of asylum seekers. I raised this a couple of days ago and we had a vote on it. The Order of Business has been agreed today but I want to serve notice on the House that I intend to call a vote next Tuesday if we do not take item No. 5 on the Order Paper or something similar. We have had the situation where members of SIPTU locked out asylum seekers. It is disgraceful that this is happening.
Mr. Norris: Will the Leader take a matter on the next sitting day referring to asylum seekers? Otherwise there will be a vote. I will not disrupt the business of the House today by calling for a vote as the Order of Business has already been agreed.
I wish to raise the advertisement which shows the actions of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform – I was interrupted the last time I raised this issue – which sought emergency accommodation. It required that the property owners had to write to the Department and tell them that their properties conformed with fire regulations. That is a cop-out and abrogation of responsibility. It is just to cover their backsides in case a few people are killed in a fire which will inevitably happen because of the irresponsible attitude of the Department of Justice,Equality and Law Reform.
Senator Costello raised the issue of prison suicides. This is extremely important. We need a wide ranging debate. Every principal political party in this State vies with the other, particularly at election time, claiming that they built the greatest number of prison spaces. They are a total waste of time and public money. Far too many people are costing the taxpayer money, idling or being put under the type of distress that leads to suicide.
Mr. Norris: No, I will not. Yesterday I asked a question but did not get a proper response. I  again ask about the European Convention on Human Rights. It was indicated that this was going to be incorporated into Irish domestic law but that has since been contradicted. This House is entitled to an update on this question.
Mr. Finneran: I support the call by Senator Ó Murchú for a press council. It is timely and appropriate that we have such a body here. Anyone in their right mind would have to be disgusted with some of the recent outbursts about people who are dead and some people who would be involved in what would be called very proper professions and doing an excellent job. I will not mention anyone here but this brings character assassination into focus. The other day I listened to a Member of the other House talk about “outing” someone. That type of comment is inappropriate in the press and in our own profession. A press council might bring some sanity to this area. Maybe it is a vicious world of journalism but I believe things have gone too far.
Mr. Finneran: Yes. I supported the call yesterday for a debate on the European Union and its regulations. The Leader indicated that he would like that debate. Senator Avril Doyle made a statement yesterday but I had spoken before her or I would have contested what she said. I believe we are implementing too severely many of the EU regulations. In my native County Roscommon people cannot cut turf for their own fires because of those regulations.
Mr. Finneran: I do not want a lecture from Senator Avril Doyle on EU law. She has been an MEP for a short time, yet she comes back here to tell me and this House how to conduct our business as regards European regulations. We are over-regulated. We are too severe because we take everything on board. I have travelled to other European countries and found that they do not implement every regulation to the letter as we do.
Mr. Finneran: I ask the Deputy Leader for a debate on that issue. I also ask that we take cognisance of what happens in other countries. Ireland does not have the same approach as Mediterranean countries who have not implemented all the regulations. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development has left 30,000  people without grants because of its over emphasis on regulations.
Mr. Coghlan: Will the Deputy Leader tell us what, if anything, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is doing with regard to the safety of passengers travelling on trains? What, following any contacts she might have had with Iarnród Éireann, is being done to ensure that passengers are not allowed on trains which are full? There are frequent reports from my part of the country that trains from the south west to Dublin and vice versa are full and that a number of passengers have to stand for the duration of their journey. That is unfair to elderly people and to all paying passengers. There is also the question of the standard of the rolling stock. I would hate to think Kerry was being singled out and discriminated against.
Mr. Chambers: I support the call for a debate on the huge increase in the number of people in prison. That is worthy of debate given that the economy is improving so much. I am not only talking about capacity in terms of space and the issues which pertain to it but about why our society, in such good economic times, has an increasing prison population.
Will the Deputy Leader arrange for the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources to come to the House to debate the gas find off County Mayo? I have read many reports in the newspapers in which Ministers are reported as speaking about the location of pipelines. It is time a decision was made and that a report was brought before this House as it is important to the economy of this country and its future. A decision should be made to locate the pipeline in County Mayo where the find was discovered.
Mrs. Jackman: I was somewhat puzzled by Senator Finneran's attack on Senator Avril  Doyle, especially when she is not here to defend herself. I hope when we have a debate on the lack of implementation of European regulations Senator Finneran will raise those points, when Senator Doyle is present. My understanding of reform of the Seanad was that we would look towards Europe and debate European issues more regularly. Senator Doyle certainly raised an interesting issue when she called for such a debate.
I support Senator O'Toole's call for a debate on education. We can talk all we like about league tables for schools, third level entry points and skills shortages, but the basic issues are literacy and numeracy. I am still waiting for the report on attention deficit disorder, and we could start that debate in this House. We could relieve many young people of considerable stress because they have not been diagnosed, assessed and monitored in respect of ADD, which causes them to drop out of the school system and, in many cases, add to the queues going into our prisons. That is a fact which has been noted in newspaper coverage of people suffering from ADD. I would like that debate to be brought forward to early in the new year.
Mr. Ryan: Will the Deputy Leader arrange for a debate with the Minister for Public Enterprise on the security of our electricity supply? There is a considerable body of evidence which suggests we are very close to the limit of the ESB's capacity and we should look at the reasons for that. I suspect that ideologically based fiddling around with competition three or four years ago delayed the ESB's generating capacity construction and that we are reaping that harvest. As I often said in this House, that is ideological nonsense.
When is it proposed to take No. 4, the Criminal Justice (Safety of United Nations Workers) Bill, 1999, which, in our usual speedy fashion, is to implement into Irish law a convention signed in December 1994, almost five years ago to the day? It is important legislation for those affected and we should pursue it.
Will the Deputy Leader arrange a debate, as a matter of urgency, on the apparent evolving entanglement of the European Union and the Western European Union, which is exemplified by the fact that the secretary of the EU to deal with common foreign and security policy will be the new general secretary of the Western European Union and that the Taoiseach said he was not keen on it but would not make an issue of it? I know what the Taoiseach is like when he says he will do something on foreign policy. He changes his mind a year later and says the opposite. I presume when he is not keen on something, it probably means he is in favour of it.
On a matter totally different, as Monty Python used to say, I am sure many Members are delighted that we have received much good publicity internationally as a result of the MTV awards which will be held here tonight. It is sad in that context that the Turkish Ambassador felt it necessary to contact the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation on the alleged activities of the FAI and others in relation to the Turkish national team which is here. I believe I speak for many people – I speak as much as a sports journalist who has been to Turkey in that capacity on a number of occasions – when I say that the majority of the people would not, in any way, wish to offend the Turkish national team or any guest of this country. I say that in the national Parliament because 3,000 Turks demonstrated in Bursa yesterday as a result of media reports in the Turkish press about the way its team is being treated in Ireland. The last thing we would wish to do is project an image of unfriendliness, certainly in the context of two extremely vital games for the national team.
Will the Deputy Leader ask the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, as he has now got involved in this issue, to convey to the Turkish Ambassador and the Turkish people that any suggestion that the Irish people were unfriendly to their national team is not the case, that a misunderstanding arose and that is all it has been? It is unfortunate and I hope they will not attempt, as the papers allege this morning, to adopt the same type of attitude on the Irish national team because, after all, it is only a game of football. I know national pride is involved but it is important to raise the matter. Perhaps the Deputy Leader will convey those views. I am sure all sides of the House would agree that we should not give any indication that we are anything other than a friendly nation.
Ms O'Meara: As an aside to the last comment on our international image of friendliness, one glance at what is happening in Mount Street  would blow that apart very quickly. We should be realistic in this regard. I would like to comment on the call for a debate on a press council, which would be useful. In an attempt to be constructive, I published a proposal for the establishment of a voluntary press council, as the Deputy Leader may know. The proposal was given considerable thought, much research was put into it and it has the support of the National Union of Journalists. If any Member would like a copy of it, I would be happy to circulate it in advance of a debate.
We should try to have a constructive debate which looks carefully at the relationship between the media and other pillars of our democracy, not a debate centred on media bashing. We should also look carefully at the influence of the British press, particularly tabloid newspapers which are the main cause of the lowering of reporting standards in this country. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that we can build a wall around us as if there were no influences from abroad, particularly commercial influences. The media are becoming increasingly global.
Mr. Glynn: It is appropriate to call on the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to substantially increase fines for those found littering. I am talking about those who dump bags of rubbish on our national secondary, national primary and county roads and, indeed, in beauty spots. They are enemies of the environment and should be punished accordingly. The present fines are insufficient to punish them.
I strongly support Senator Ó Murchú and others who have called for a debate on the establishment of a press council. Thankfully most journalists are decent, balanced people, but some of the print reports about the governor of Mountjoy Prison and the late Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, can only be described as the journalism of the sewer. That kind of trash would be more appropriately printed on toilet paper. It is an absolute disgrace.
Mr. Caffrey: I support the call by Senator Chambers for the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources to give an up to date account of what is happening with Enterprise Oil and the gas find in the Corrib field. This is potentially one of the greatest finds in Ireland. It could be of great benefit to the whole country, especially to Mayo. We read many second hand reports about what is happening, but we should know. People in Mayo are asking us for the up to date position and we cannot give it to them. I strongly support Senator Chambers's call for the Minister to tell the House about the current state of play.
Mr. Dardis: I sometimes wonder if debates are always necessary. The Chair might agree that if we had as many contributions when debates are granted as we have on the Order of Business those debates would last a lot longer than they do.
Senator Manning raised the matter of European regulations and directives and I agree it would be useful to discuss these issues. As I said to Senator Doyle yesterday, the Maastricht Treaty requires better co-operation between national Parliaments and Europe. In that context a debate would be useful but it is important to point out that there is a difference between directives and regulations. Directives have the force of law while regulations do not necessarily have the force of law. There seems to be some confusion about this and perhaps that could be clarified in the debate, but I agree that such a debate would be useful. Senators Finneran and Jackman also raised this matter.
Regarding tribunals and the Bar Council's review, the Chair will agree that it is not appropriate to discuss the details of ongoing tribunals; that has been the practice. However, in a wider sense, regarding their relevance, speed and the degree to which people use the courts to obstruct tribunals or prevent evidence being given, there are issues that could be discussed. I agree that the work of the Public Accounts Committee showed a way to deal with these matters more expeditiously and effectively.
Senator O'Toole referred to education and a debate on this issue would be useful. However, some of these issues could be dealt with in the context of the national development plan, which I am sure we will discuss when it is published. I also agree with Senator O'Toole that it would be good to discuss the east-west strand, but apart from that, the less said about Northern Ireland the better. Given the present climate all we can do is wish the participants well and pray there is a favourable outcome in the next few days. We should commend them on their restraint and that they have not waged a war of words over the airwaves. We hope and pray that the outcome will be favourable and that there will be permanent peace and stability on the island.
Senators Costello, Connor, Norris, Chambers and others raised the matter of the appalling suicides in prisons. I agree that we should debate this issue and as far as I am aware efforts are being made to arrange a debate, if not next week, then shortly thereafter. We are all appalled by what has happened and I note that the governor of Mountjoy Prison said this morning that it is impossible to have 24 hour supervision. I know that the prison staff are as traumatised by these events as the families of the victims. We do not intervene with the courts on sentencing, but obviously the overcrowding in prisons is a product of sentencing. It is worth pointing out that since this Government took office prison capacity has increased by one third. There is a commitment in the review of the programme for Govern ment to add another 1,000 prison spaces. This and the fact that crime rates have been falling since the Government took office should be borne in mind.
Senators Costello, Mooney and others referred to the MTV awards and football matches and I note what they said, particularly about ticket touts. For some of the Rugby World Cup games in Lansdowne Road the touts would perhaps have had to give tickets away for less than face value, but I agree with Senator Costello. There should be no difference between a football match and a concert in the Point Depot in how tickets should be distributed.
Senator Ó Murchú and others raised the matter of a press council. We had a debate on the Law Reform Commission's proposals for the law of defamation and it would be good to return to issues such as the freedom of the press and a press council. I will try to organise time for that. Regarding the newspaper attack on Mr. Lonergan, which was raised today and yesterday on the Order of Business, it disturbed me greatly this morning to hear the journalist in question not just talk about the story but attempt to lecture the governor on RTÉ as to his conduct. It is my view as a practising journalist that it is the journalist's responsibility to report the story but not to give lectures on the morality or otherwise of what has taken place. Mr. Lonergan should be applauded for attempting to help the situation of young people playing our national games. I hope the matter is at an end because it does not reflect well on journalism or the newspaper in question.
Senator Connor raised several matters and I will make inquiries about the International Criminal Court. Senators Ryan and Dan Kiely raised the issue of electricity and the Minister for Public Enterprise would welcome a debate on this matter. It is worth pointing out that £60 million has been allocated to the refurbishment of Ferbane power station, a peat fired station is to be built in the midlands and as far as I am aware there are proposals to build a gas fired station. I am confident the demand for electricity will be met and that it will be met in terms of competition.
I note Senator Norris's points about asylum seekers and the European Convention on Human Rights and I will get back to the Senator on that issue. Senator Coghlan referred to safety on trains and we can deal with this matter in the context of the national development plan. That plan has not been published yet, but as far as I know there are proposals to dramatically increase the amount of rolling stock on commuter trains and elsewhere. I agree that it is wrong that people should have to stand on trains when making journeys, but this issue will be dealt with effectively in terms of safety, rolling stock and improvements to the rail system by the national development plan.
The matter of gas for Mayo was dealt with effectively yesterday. I am glad that the loop is now completed, as the two remaining Senators  from Mayo have made their contributions on the issue. However, regarding this and other issues, the information could be elicited just as easily by a letter to the Minister as by statements in the House. I have dealt with Senator Ryan's points about electricity.
Senator Mooney raised the matter of the Turkish team's difficulties in Ireland. The FAI tried to encourage them to locate somewhere other than where they are located, but neither I nor the Government have any control over the people in Bursa and how they react. Bill Shankly said that football was not a matter of life or death but that it was much more important than that. There is an element of that in this issue.
Senator Glynn is right about litter. I agree that severe penalties should be imposed. In many ways, it presents a more damaging image of our country than a temporary setback because of a football match. Many tourists comment on the amount of litter here. On the basis that the polluter pays, if those responsible are caught, they should be brought to book.
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