Thursday, 22 March 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, Trustee Savings Banks (Amendment) Bill, 2000 – Committee and Remaining Stages; No. 2, statements on under age drinking, to be taken not earlier than 12.30 p.m. Contributions of spokespersons are not to exceed 15 minutes and all other Senators not to exceed 12 minutes. Senators may share time.
Mr. Manning: The Order of Business is agreed as far as I am concerned. There was an official statement earlier this week that the Government intended to hold four referenda on 31 May 2001. The remainder of the statement was vague. It appears that one referendum will be on the Nice treaty, another will relate to the Judiciary and I am not sure about the other two.
 As any referendum involving constitutional change is a very serious matter, could the Leader find out, for the benefit of the House, details of the Government's proposals and the proposed time-scale for publication of these Bills? On a matter so fundamental as the Constitution, it is only reasonable that the period for debate on the issues concerned should be as long as possible. Experience shows that when Governments treat referenda in a cavalier way or try to rush matters through, the people have their own way of giving their answer to that approach.
Can the Leader now clarify the Government's intentions in this regard? The date of 31 May is only nine or ten weeks away. Can he say what the proposals are and when the Bills will be published? Although such Bills must be initiated in the other House, could the Leader arrange for a debate in this House on the substance of the proposals, even before the legislation is actually published?
Mr. Ross: I wish to raise an issue, which I have raised previously, but the practice in question seems to be recurring. It is appropriate that, when issues are before this House, the appropriate Minister should be present. Last night on the Adjournment debate in this House on an issue concerning foreign aid, a Minister of State attended who has great abilities in the area of consumer protection. It is a serious issue. It is obvious that this system of “renting a Minister” means that a Minister, or Minister of State, reads a script written by the Civil Service, with which he is not familiar, on a subject on which he has no authority whatsoever.
This practice tends to bring the House into some degree of contempt. We all know that we are going through the motions of asking a question about a serious issue and the Minister is going through the motions of answering that question, on an issue with which he is not familiar. I suggest to the Leader that, in future, if he cannot guarantee the attendance of the appropriate Minister, either a reason should be given for the Minister's absence or the procedures of the House should be changed, particularly on Adjournment Matters, so that the matter can be deferred, by agreement, until the relevant Minister is available.
Mr. Costello: I agree with Senator Ross it is important that the appropriate Ministers come before the House. It often happens that even the appropriate Minister of State does not appear but a Minister of State with no responsibility for the area about which he or she is speaking. That is not good enough.
I also agree with Senator Manning's comments on the forthcoming referenda. The Treaty of Nice represents an important step in the enlargement process and in the development of the European Union. It would be a pity if confusion arose as a result of the number of referenda being taken together. The Government should give careful  consideration to how it intends to proceed with these referenda on 31 May. The Leader should make time available for a full-scale debate on the draft treaty document produced at the Nice summit.
I wish to request a debate on waste management. This matter has reached crisis point with the publication of the Waste Management (Amendment) Bill by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, who proposes to denude local authorities of powers in relation to the compilation of plans. In addition, the Minister proposes to put in place incinerators instead of landfill dumps.
Mr. Costello: This matter has been raised on the Order of Business on numerous occasions, by Senator Coogan in particular, but a debate has not been forthcoming. We have requested that the Minister come before the House to outline his plans for a national waste management strategy, but instead we have been presented with legislation which is critical of local authorities. The Minister has not made proposals in this area. I am concerned that we will go through the motions of putting through the Bill without having an opportunity to discuss the broader issues. I ask the Leader to facilitate us by arranging a full-scale debate on waste management policy as distinct from a debate on the narrow provisions contained in the new Bill.
I welcome the initiative being taken at present in relation to the teachers' dispute. On numerous occasions we have highlighted the fact that there is a need for both parties to enter negotiations. It seems that the teachers are responding to what appears to be an invitation from the Taoiseach. As stated yesterday, there is a need for clarification on the benchmarking process and on the proposals put forward by the Labour Court. It would be a welcome development if there was some movement in relation to this dispute.
Mr. Dardis: I hope the Cathaoirleach will grant me a degree of latitude, given the significance of what I am about to say. The Taoiseach has just announced on the Order of Business in the Lower House that the overnight tests for foot and mouth disease carried out at the Pirbright laboratory have proven positive on two samples from animals in the Jenkinstown area which is within the exclusion zone near the Border. Obviously this is a huge blow and it is a matter of grave disappointment. The Taoiseach stated that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development will make a full statement in the Lower House between 11 a.m. and 11.15 a.m., that the Opposition spokespersons will also make statements and that he hopes there will be a question and answer session. However, it is imperative that the  Minister be allowed to return as quickly as possible to his Department because a case has to be prepared for presentation to the veterinary committee tomorrow morning regarding our national response to this issue.
This is a matter of enormous national significance. It is unfortunate that there has been an outbreak, particularly in view of the marvellous efforts made by official bodies and, on a voluntary basis, by people throughout the country. Our hope must be that the outbreak can be confined to this small area and the risks to other areas can be minimised. All we can do at this stage is appeal to everyone to co-operate fully with whatever additional measures are introduced and call for continued vigilance in local communities, on farms and on the Border. There will be ongoing developments in respect of this matter and perhaps it would be appropriate to review them later in the day.
Mr. T. Hayes: In view of the serious announcement that has been made in the Lower House, the first thing people must do is co-operate fully with the regulations laid down. We must do whatever is needed. It is important that the public is made aware of the consequences of this outbreak. When the debate in the Dáil has concluded, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development or the Minister of State should come before the House to discuss the outbreak. This is an issue of major national importance and Fine Gael will give the Government every co-operation and assistance in respect of it.
Mr. Callanan: This is not a good morning. The Taoiseach's announcement in the Lower House that the tests have proved positive has left the country reeling because our worst fears have come true. Everyone had hoped and prayed that this disease would remain outside our borders but, unfortunately and regrettably, it has finally arrived here. Senator Tom Hayes was correct in stating that everyone's total co-operation is now required. It is regrettable that a measure of complacency was creeping in on the part of members of the public because of our success to date in keeping the disease out. In view of the seriousness of the situation, people must continue to be vigilant. Given that the Minister will be making a statement in the Lower House between 11 a.m. and 11.30 a.m., would it be possible for him to make a short statement in this House? There would be no need for a lengthy debate, but it would be desirable if the Minister came before us.
Mr. Coghlan: Senator Manning raised an important subject, namely, the holding of referenda. In view of the Taoiseach's announcement in the Lower House, I take it there will be no question of these referenda being held in May. Perhaps the Leader will confirm that when he replies.
 We now know officially that it is expected that the crisis in Britain will not peak before May. The British authorities admitted yesterday that they cannot envisage the disease being wiped out before August. In view of those facts, I support Senator Tom Hayes's call for the Minister to come before the House to make a brief statement outlining the precautions that will be taken and indicating what, if any, relaxations have been introduced in respect of existing restrictions. It is vital that this information is disseminated widely and immediately because people are concerned and confused. I repeat the call I made yesterday in this regard.
Mr. Quinn: This morning's news is sad and it is a reminder that, despite our national commitment to keep this disease out, our economy hangs by a thin thread. I welcome Senator Tom Hayes's indication that his party will co-operate fully with the Government on this matter. I would expect the Minister will find time to come before the House to outline the position.
In view of the seriousness of the Taoiseach's announcement, it will be difficult to talk about other matters. However, Padraic White, the chairman of the Irish Maritime Development Office, issued a severely critical statement recently. It would be appropriate for the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources to come before the House in the immediate future to answer the criticisms made by the Irish Maritime Development Office. It appears that Ireland is one of the few countries which did not avail of the opportunity provided by the EU to develop its fishing industry. The criticism levelled by the office and by Padraic White was particularly severe in nature and it does not seem to have received the attention it deserves. I ask the Leader to arrange to have the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources come into the House shortly to explain to us the steps he is planning to take to avoid the catastrophe that is forecast for the Irish shipping industry.
Mr. Coogan: The issue I wish to raise takes secondary position to the unfortunate events that have taken place in Louth. Nonetheless, it would be wrong for us not to mention what Senator Costello has already pointed out, namely, the fact that this House has called repeatedly for a debate on waste management. That request is on the Order Paper but the Minister has refused to come into the House to listen to our views and outline his proposals. We are now being made aware today that he intends to introduce an amendment to remove decision making from local authority members. That is heavy handedness without debate and it is most unfortunate that the Minister will not come before us. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to come in here and give us an  explanation of what he intends to do with this Bill.
Mr. D. Kiely: I am disturbed and disappointed by the announcement this morning by the Taoiseach, and I know everybody in the House is of the same view. Many calls have been made to invite the Minister to the House for a debate on the matter but rather than do that we should suspend the House at 11 o'clock to allow us go to the other House to hear what he has to say on the matter. We could get on with the rest of the business later in the day.
Mr. O'Dowd: Coming from County Louth, I know the area in which the foot and mouth disease has broken out. In light of my knowledge of the area, particularly of the farmers and the livelihoods that are now at risk, I agree with Senator Hayes that we should fully support every action the Government must take to restrict this disease as much as possible. The inevitability of this outbreak is shocking and traumatic, particularly for all the farmers in County Louth and the entire country. This is a national crisis and those of us on the Opposition benches will respond positively and constructively to anything that needs to be done to support the Minister in stopping the spread of this disease.
Mr. Norris: In response to what Senator Dardis, it is very serious news. Unfortunately, it is not entirely unexpected because the Border is just a line on a map and once the disease got into the North of Ireland it was 90% likely that it would spread to the South. It is important that we should not lose heart at this stage. We have put in very useful precautions and as long as we ring fence those and try to concentrate the outbreak in this small area, we have a chance of rescuing our industry.
I heard the leading authority in these islands, an English professor, speaking about this disease. He said the disease would not peak before May, that there will be at least 4,000 cases and it will be worse than the outbreak in 1967. If it will not peak until May, will the British continue with their general election during that period, regardless of this disease? We need to make representations on that. I know it could be seen as interfering but they are such bad neighbours. Look at Sellafield. Look at what they have now inflicted on us. It is time we made a friendly plea to them to be better neighbours in future because they are not good neighbours, and I say that even though my father was English.
Mr. Norris: Is it possible to have some discussion or at least to communicate to the Minister for Health and Children the strong concern of a number of people in this House for parents of  young people with autism and for autistic children? We had debates previously in this House and we got rambling answers from the Minister but again today we heard parents on the radio say they have had to watch their children's linguistic facility disappear, that the children were drawing away from them. That is at least in part because of the absence of speech therapists. Something has to be done about this issue. Perhaps we could ask the Minister for Health and Children, who I know is a caring father, to do something in this area, even if it takes some time.
Mr. Connor: In relation to the proposed four referenda on 31 May, I understand one of them deals with an issue I have often raised in this House, namely, to remove a constitutional bar on Ireland implementing the statute of the International Criminal Court and from that point of view I welcome it warmly. Another referendum deals with Nice and I gather the other two concern judicial matters.
On the foot and mouth outbreak, this is the news of Armageddon for this country. I support fully the view of our party spokesperson on agriculture, Senator Hayes, that all sides of the House must co-operate in every way. There are no political footballs in respect of this issue. Irish food exports totalling £5.5 billion will probably be banned from tomorrow, including perishable exports. That is the prospect we are facing, so it is very bad news.
I had intended to ask the Cathaoirleach if we could also examine the other implications of this news, namely, for the tourism industry. There are reports from the industry in today's newspapers that it can have catastrophic effects on the industry and that was even before the announcement of an outbreak in this country. We should put that on hold for the moment, although no doubt I will come back to it at a later stage. All focus must now be on what has happened in Louth and on co-operating to ensure that everything possible is done to contain the outbreak to one area.
Mr. Lydon: I support the calls for a debate on the foot and mouth crisis. With regard to Senator Norris's remark that the British are bad neighbours, they have been lousy neighbours for 800 years. I doubt they will change now.
Mr. Ryan: As Senator Costello had spoken before Senator Dardis, I want to confirm that the Labour Party will give every co-operation to anything the Government intends to do. This is far too serious an issue for politics to come into it. Most people believe that once we got started, the response here was very good, both politically and administratively, and by people generally, partic ularly those in urban Ireland who appeared to quickly understand the significance of it. I would not be as gloomy as everybody else. We can get over this with the same spirit that the country has shown up to now and those of us on this side of the House will do everything we can to facilitate the Government on this issue.
Mr. Cassidy: Senators Manning and Connor referred to the referendum. The Government's intention is to have a referendum later this year on various matters which were mentioned by Senator Manning. The announcement this morning, however, defers everything in terms of elections of any kind until the issue is dealt with. I will come back to the House on that. I agree with Senator Manning that we should have a full and open debate on the various issues in relation to the proposed amendment of the Constitution.
I will pass on Senator Ross's view in relation to the presence of Ministers in the House to the Government Chief Whip. It has been the policy of all Governments and Leaders of this House to have the relevant Ministers present for debates where possible.
Senators Dardis, Hayes, Callanan, Quinn, Dan Kiely, O'Dowd, Norris, Connor, Lydon and Ryan offered words of advice in relation to the confirmation from Senator Dardis, following the Taoiseach's announcement regarding the two samples which tested positive in the Jenkinstown area of County Louth. That is in the Cooley area, which Senator O'Dowd knows well, and only three or four miles from the previous outbreak in the North of our country. It is news that we did not want to hear. There is a great effort and total co-operation from everyone on the island in containing the spread of this dreadful disease. It brings home the seriousness of the situation and how difficult it is to contain it. As Senator Ryan said, we should not overstate the problem as it is so close to the other outbreak in an area where it has occurred. All the various proposals to allow events to go ahead, or relaxation of the stringent controls we had over the last four weeks, will no longer be put in place.
In order to allow Senators time to hear the Minister's address in the Dáil I will shorten the Order of Business. Senators may go to the Dáil and spokespersons for the Bill before us can remain to deal with it as the Minister of State is waiting to come in.
I will meet with the leaders of the House and the Whips at 12 noon. We will assess the situation and, if necessary, invite the Minister to come before the House today. I will propose an amendment to the Order of Business later.
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