Thursday, 21 June 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 2, Horse and Greyhound Racing Bill, 2001 – Second Stage; No. 1, Carer's Leave Bill, 2000 – Committee and Remaining Stages; and No. 3, Electoral (Amendment) Bill, 2000 – Report and Final Stages, which is not to be taken before 1 p.m.
Mr. Manning: There are two ways to do business in the House. The right way is to consult people. If there are to be changes, people should be told in advance and their agreement should be sought. We received an urgent revised schedule of business for this week last Monday which stated that the Carer's Leave Bill, 2000, would be taken first today followed by the Horse and Greyhound Racing Bill, 2001. The Leader has told us the latter will be taken first without having consulted any of the groups on this side of the House. That is a great discourtesy to the Opposition, the spokespersons and the House.
I have had this row with the Leader previously and he apparently has not learned. Last Tuesday a complicated motion relating to Europe was before the House and I asked for one day's postponement so that the House could be informed as to what it meant. The Leader refused that reasonable request. I did not try to ambush him while he was on his feet. I asked him to get an  explanation but he said “No” and bulldozed it through the House.
This morning when I arrived in the House I learned that the Order of Business had been changed. That is not the way to do business. I can agree to the Order of Business as it suits our spokespersons, but the Leader should at least do the Opposition the courtesy of telling or asking about such changes. I can agree to the Order of Business because our spokesperson, Senator Coghlan, has agreed to be discommoded. The same applies to Senator Cosgrave, who is a spokesperson on horses, greyhounds and other such matters. If the Leader wants co-operation he will get it but I appeal to him to inform people in advance and ask their permission.
The Leader said on Tuesday he would have definite news for me about when the reviews by the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform into the arms affairs will be published. Can we expect those before the end of this session?
I ask the Leader for a debate on Europe as a matter of urgency. It is becoming a national scandal that there is no policy on Europe and that the Government is speaking out of approximately five different sides of various mouths. I ask the Leader to reply to me, which he did not do on Tuesday, about the possibility of the Attorney General being invited to address the House under our new Standing Orders and to start a debate on European policy.
What is the Government's policy on work for asylum seekers who have been here for more than six months? The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy O'Donnell, and the Tánaiste are saying one thing, while the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is saying another. Is there a coherent Government policy on this matter?
I ask the Leader about the legal basis of the proposal to create two separate classes of county councillors, namely, those who are paid for their work and those who are not. Is there a political basis for that?
Mr. O'Toole: As regards the visit of European Commissioners to Ireland, Commissioner Prodi was in Ireland yesterday and Commissioner Solbes is due today. The Committee on Finance and the Public Service has again sought a meeting with Commissioner Solbes. I understand that is the view of the representatives of all parties.
Mr. O'Toole: I will not make the argument. It is important for the House to recognise that a committee of the House is seeking a meeting and that it takes the view that these Commissioners  should engage with the elected representatives of the people.
As regards the compellability committee, perhaps the Government will indicate to us its view on the initial stages of the Abbeylara inquiry. Is there an entitlement to compel the Garda witnesses to attend? This is a significant issue of democratic and political accountability and we should get an answer to that. I understand the process and I am not rushing it, but my understanding is that the month is now up and we should know what is happening. I would like to hear the Government's view on that.
We have discussed many times the recognition of the views of public representatives. While I am utterly disinterested in this issue, it seems there is a clearly understood process. It is one thing if there is a matter of principle to be determined as to whether Members of the Oireachtas can become members of local authorities. However, once the issue of principle has been determined, it would be invidious discrimination to decide that some of them will be paid while others will not.
Mr. O'Toole: In the interest of anticipating difficulties which could arise, it should be clearly understood from a trade union point of view and in terms of equal pay for equal work that this would be utterly unacceptable to anyone. The issue of principle should not be confused with the issue of remuneration.
Mr. O'Toole: I accept that. The Bill should look at it from that point of view. I hope Members of the Oireachtas will not be cowed by their party leaders on this issue and that they will take a stand for once.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the Nice treaty. We can invite Commissioners, such as Commissioner Prodi, Commissioner Solbes or Commissioner Byrne, to the House but we must debate the issue first and find out where we stand. Different versions emanate daily from both parties in Government. I would like the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come into the House to give us the definitive position, if there is one, on behalf of the Government. I would also like him to come into the House to discuss the possibility of putting in place accountability and communication structures between our Parliament and the European  Union. If we do not provide such communication structures, the Tower of Babel we have at present will continue into the future.
I ask the Leader to communicate to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, if he does not come into the House in the near future, the outrage at the fact that one of the European Union countries is detaining a 15 year old boy, who was attending a special school here. When an application was made by his lawyer to allow him to make a telephone call home or to allow his family to telephone him, the German court refused the request. This is a serious matter.
I ask the Leader for a debate on Northern Ireland, of which we have lost sight. There is a crisis looming as 1 July is almost upon us. There is also a crisis in terms of decommissioning and the resignation of the First Minister. If we do not discuss this matter shortly and let our views be heard, it may be too late. The marching season is almost upon us. I ask for an urgent debate on this issue.
Dr. Henry: An important report on the acute hospital services in Northern Ireland has been  published under the chairmanship of Senator Maurice Hayes. There are changes in the accident and emergency locations in Northern Ireland. It has been suggested that some specialist departments will be shared with the Republic of Ireland and that we will share some of its services. I ask the Leader for a debate on this report as it is important in terms of plans for our health service.
Mr. Coghlan: I will move on to another matter. Despite differences on such matters relating to the root of all evil, refugees and the issues Senator Manning alluded to in relation to European affairs, one sensible thing is proposed to happen tomorrow which I hope will soothe tempers, namely, the trip around the Ring of Kerry. I urge all Members to make that pilgrimage, following which the Government might be returned.
I note that the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, or somebody else in his absence, has made an order increasing the numbers of members of An Bord Pleanála. I understand there are two increases – one for five years and one for two years. Could the Leader tell us the number of members on An Bord Pleanála, and what is the Government expectancy in regard to reducing the enormous delays which have taken place in the recent past?
Dr. M. Hayes: I am very grateful to Senator Henry for her kind words and recognition of our report. It is flattering to be suggested as a subject for debate in the House, as long as it is not a debate on impeachment. At least it is better than being referred to a tribunal. I am not totally sure it is appropriate to debate the report here. It is a report to a Minister in another jurisdiction, although it does contain a cross-Border element. I am talking about a different system in which there are different relationships between the public and private sector. I hope Senator Henry will agree that we should reiterate the request she and I, and several Members, have made for a broader debate on health services, on which this report could have an input. I would be happy to draw on some of the ideas exposed in the report. That may be a better context in which to have a debate.
Mr. Ross: At a time when Europe is being debated everywhere else on the Continent, it seems extraordinary that this House appears to be avoiding the subject. That may be material. President Prodi is due to come to Ireland tomorrow when he will meet a large number of anti-Nice treaty groups, or people who opposed it, which is a welcome development, but why will he not meet Members of this House who are opposed to the treaty also? This is totally symptomatic of the way in which European bureaucrats and civil servants in Europe ignore democratically elected representatives. It would be important for him to meet Members of this House who stated publicly that they voted against the Nice treaty, including Senator Norris and myself, for what we considered to be good reasons.
On the substantial issue raised by Senators Manning and O'Toole about the injustice of paying people for one thing and not another, I hope the Minister will shed a tear in sympathy and spare a thought for those who took redundancy of £5,000 from the county councils about two years ago and are now losing about £10,000 a year by not being there.
Mr. Glynn: Will the Leader convey to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera, that whenever the licence increase is being awarded, one of the conditions will be that more air time be given to local artists? What is happening currently is just not acceptable.
Mr. Norris: I join my colleagues in deploring the fact that Signor Prodi has refused to meet elected representatives. It would be important if people were given the opportunity to express their views to him, particularly in view of the ill-informed criticism that has come from some quarters in Europe. I would like also to be helpful to the leader of Fine Gael, Senator Manning, who spoke about Government spokespersons and officials talking out of all five corners of the mouth. The mouth, like everything else, has only four corners. There are other orifices which may have been employed by the Government.
Yesterday was World Refugee Day. That puts in context the call by Senator Costello for a debate on this matter and the Minister to give some indications as to progress that may have taken place in this area, of which there seems to have been very little.
Since the tribunals were established by the Oireachtas, the Oireachtas, in particular this House, should have a report on their progress. That is important. I was very disturbed to read accounts that medical records of the wife of Mr. Denis O'Brien were summoned. That is the impression I was given, perhaps it was incorrect. If that is the case, it is an outrage. Are we going back to the days of the French Revolution? That woman was not a witness. She was not called to give evidence and if that is true—
Mr. Cosgrave: I want to raise a number of matters. First, is it the Leader's intention to have a debate on the Ombudsman's report before the summer recess, given that it highlighted certain matters? Second, without wishing to get into trouble with you, a Chathaoirligh, in terms of the question from Senators Manning and O'Toole on allowances to members of local authorities, I hope the Members opposite, prior to their next meeting with the Minister, will take on board the general views that have been articulated here and bring them to the proper quarter because if one is doing the work of a councillor, one deserves to be rewarded. Third, can the Leader confirm that, in line with the McKenna judgment, Commissioner Prodi will meet with both wings of the Cabinet?
Mr. Finneran: I support the call from Senator Maurice Hayes regarding his report on the acute hospital services in Northern Ireland. That would be valuable in the overall context of acute hospital services and a health debate here which I request for two reasons. First, the greatest difficulty is in the accident and emergency service. Second, the Government is formulating a health strategy. From the experience of the acute services, in particular accident and emergency over  many years, the report could provide vital information for any health strategy that would be brought forward. It would be a worthwhile debate and I hope it could take place before the summer recess.
Mrs. Jackman: In joining Senator Ross's request for Commissioner Prodi to speak to Senators and Deputies, it should not be exclusive to those who voted “No”. That would be extremely discriminatory. He will be in the University of Limerick on Friday at 3 p.m. to give a lecture to which the public is invited, but I support Senator Ross's call on the condition that it would be inclusive of both sides.
I support fully the call to debate Senator Maurice Hayes's report. Occasionally when we debate issues in relation to health, we get interesting glimpses as to how these issues are dealt with in Northern Ireland. It seems logical that we should be aware of what is happening on the other side of the Border. I would therefore welcome that opportunity.
This is the third successive day on which I have called for a debate on the refugee and asylum seekers issue. Yesterday, being World Refugee Day, would have been the appropriate time for such a debate, we had signalled this many months ago in terms of asking that refugees and asylum seekers in the country for six months be allowed to work. Many of them have been waiting two years to have their applications dealt with. These are the forgotten people and it is extraordinary that we in this House have ignored them. We have been seeking a debate on this issue for many months.
Mr. Coogan: It is appropriate that the Government intends to do the Ring of Kerry as it is doing rings on every other issue, including the Local Government Bill. This Bill will come before the House and I will welcome the opportunity to debate the legislation. Another such issue concerns the right of refugees to work. The Government is speaking with different voices on this issue. However, this situation is most prevalent as regards the Nice treaty. The House and the public are demanding clarity on where the Government stands on this issue. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come into the House to speak from whatever orifice he wishes, but to give clarity on this issue and outline whether there are as many views on the Nice treaty in Cabinet as in the media?
Mr. Cassidy: Senator Manning inquired about progress on the Arms Trial papers. I have not received word back on this issue, but I hope to have information by next Tuesday. Senators Manning, Costello and Ross called for a debate on Europe and the Nice treaty. I gave a commit ment regarding this issue during the past few days.
Senators Manning, O'Toole, Coghlan and Jackman asked for a debate on asylum seekers. I hope to be able to come back to the Whips and the leaders next Wednesday regarding finalising business to come before the House before the summer recess. Many debates have been called for. What I have in mind is to make available one full day to try to cover as many urgent debates as possible. This will be necessary due to the amount of legislation with which the House will deal before the summer recess.
Senator O'Toole referred to the compellability committee and, in particular, the Abbeylara inquiry. The Senator pointed out that the one month has expired and I will make inquiries regarding this issue. Senators Manning, O'Toole, Cosgrave and Coogan expressed an eagerness to see the Local Government Bill before the House. I share Senator O'Toole's views regarding equal pay for equal work, as do many Members. This is important legislation and the House will not take its summer recess until the Bill is completed. Many Members have been waiting a long time for this Bill and I congratulate the Government for having the courage to introduce it and bring it before both Houses.
Senators Costello and Norris asked for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come into the House to debate World Refugee Day and the difficulties being faced by a young Irishman in a neighbouring country's prison. I will pass on these views to the Minister and will consider these issues for the one day debate on various items.
I will consider Senator Norris's call for a debate on Northern Ireland. Senators Henry and Maurice Hayes called for a debate on acute hospital services and the report on hospital services in Northern Ireland. I will consider these issues for inclusion in the one day debate. Senator Coghlan inquired about the number of members of An Bord Pleanála and the number of members who will be appointed to the board. I will make inquiries in this regard and communicate with the Senator later today.
Senator Glynn called on RTÉ to increase the amount of air time it gives to Irish artists. This would not be difficult as it gives little time to such artists. This is a disgrace and a scandal and the RTÉ Authority has much to answer for in this regard. Irish artists cannot get air time on RTÉ. When there was one radio station 25 or 30 years ago it had single and album of the week, and powerplay of the day. Irish artists cannot get their music played on our national station. Senator Norris supports this view. The situation is appalling and if it does not improve there will be no opportunity for Irish artists to record or to work in Ireland. People in this industry have been good ambassadors in terms of portraying young Ireland all over the world. However, it is a scandal that their music is not played on RTÉ radio. I call on the director general of RTÉ and the chairman of  the RTÉ Authority to intervene to see what can be done in the interests of great Irish talent, including writers.
Mr. Cassidy: Senator Norris inquired about the powers of tribunals and I will pass on the Senator's views to the Minister. Senator Cosgrave called for a debate on the report of the Ombudsman and I hope to include this issue during the one day debate. The Senator also expressed a view regarding Romano Prodi's meeting with the Cabinet. The alternative Cabinet would include three or four parties so he would have a busy time with such an alternative Cabinet.
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