Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re third country nationals and stateless persons, returned from the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights, to be taken without debate; No. 2, Pensions (Amendment) Bill, 2001 – Committee Stage; and No. 18, motion 17, to be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Business will be interrupted from 1.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.
Mr. Manning: I asked the Leader yesterday about school supervision and he assured me that we could have full confidence in the Minister for Education and Science and that all would be well – in fact, one of the Leader's colleagues assured me on that as the Leader was slightly reticent on the subject. It is clear this morning, from listening to the leader of the parents' group involved, that no plans are in place, that schools are facing  chaos and that, if people are recruited, there will be a legacy of bad feeling. We are facing chaos, yet the Minister is blithely assuring the country that all is well. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House, as was requested yesterday, to face questions on what measures are in place, what are the proposals and to consider if steps could be taken to resolve a dispute that can be resolved?
I seek a debate on the role of the media as I was very taken yesterday by what I heard while listening to RTÉ reports on the JNLR listenership figures. At the top of the news in each bulletin was the claim that RTÉ programmes were in the “top ten”. It was only when I read this morning's newspapers that I realised almost every RTÉ programme has lost listeners over the period in question. My concern is not about which company lost or won. However, we expect news and not spin from a national news service. What we got yesterday from RTÉ was spin and propaganda about its performance dressed up as news. We expect that journalists and newscasters detect spin, sniff it out and ignore it; we do not expect them to propagate spin in their own interests. If they cannot be objective about themselves, how can we expect them to be objective about the rest of us?
Mr. O'Toole: I raised yesterday on the Order of Business the need for greater contact with the European Commission, a matter I have raised countless times before. Yesterday, we again saw evidence that there is a two-tier club within the Commission. Certain small countries, and Ireland in particular, have borne the brunt of criticism. Irish economic, financial and budgetary policies seem to count for less with the Commission than those of larger countries. I appeal to the Leader to ask the Minister for Finance to come to the House to explain how Members should explain this to a doubting public.
What was done yesterday, apart from proving that there is a two-tier Commission, also undermines the euro. The Commission has not worked according to its rules and regulations and we may all suffer due to the vanity of the larger nations, the lack of commitment in the Commission and the absence of fair and equitable treatment for all members of the EU. It is creating a difficulty for us. We should continue the process, as recommended by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, which has been considering the issue. I ask the Leader to allow time for a debate on the matter as soon as possible.
Mr. Ryan: As a parent of a leaving certificate student I blissfully accepted that there would not be disruption. The ASTI has gone to great lengths to avoid being disruptive and made its position clear. The assurances of the Minister, however, are becoming more transparent and it is urgent that he come into the House and explain the precise nature of his contingency plans. Senator O'Toole has raised a fundamental issue.
We should examine the code of practice we operate when debating sensitive issues, particularly race, in Irish society. I live in a city that has not had its reputation added to by the behaviour of a certain individual. All of us in politics have a responsibility to avoid seeking cheap headlines. The media also has a responsibility to avoid allowing itself to be used by cheap headline seekers and an obligation to ensure that those who stand up for decency are not squeezed out in the rush for extremist headlines.
Speaking of extremism, I call for a debate on international law, particularly international jurisdiction. Sadly, the university in my city is running a commercial event at which the international mass murderer, Henry Kissinger, will be the number one guest.
Mr. Farrell: I would like to see the “compo” culture included in any debate about insurance. Last night's edition of “Prime Time” reported that up to 50% of claims for compensation are spurious and are backed up by the medical and legal professions. It is a disgrace. The ordinary punters, small businessmen and young people trying to get insurance are paying the bill, not the insurance companies or the State. There should be a serious debate about behaviour. There should be a tribunal to investigate the Four Courts and what goes on in them because there is more criminality there than justice.
Mr. Norris: I welcome the conversion of Senator Ryan to plain speaking in the House. When I described Mr. Mugabe as a dictator, he said it was unparliamentary language and insisted I withdraw the remark.
Mr. Norris: The Senator now describes Henry Kissinger as a mass murderer and, of course, he is perfectly right. Kissinger was complicit in the murder of a large number of people, the bombing of Kampuchea—
Mr. Norris: The Chair might have thought of directing such instructions towards Senator Ryan as well. I stand reproved from time to time in the House for using mild expressions but I would like to state that this gentleman was clearly complicit in the invasion of East Timor, an issue on which every section of the House agrees, and Senator Ryan's point is valid. It is time we told the truth plainly and bluntly, although always obeying the judgment of the Chair.
Mr. Norris: Will the Leader specify a date on which he would be prepared to take No. 18, motion 16, which concerns West Papua? Last week, he kindly indicated that he would arrange for this debate to be held but will he provide us with some kind of timescale?
No. 18, motion 19, highlights the point that despite the fact that there have been cosmetic rises in eligibility limits for access to civil legal aid, because of other attendant circumstances which I have specified in the motion, they do not assist the most vulnerable people. When will the Leader provide time for that debate?
Will the Leader ask the Government when it proposes to introduce amending legislation in this House governing the rules of criminal responsibility – the McNaughten rules – and the question of the “guilty but insane” plea? The attention of both Houses has been drawn by the courts to this gap in legislation. Great distress is being caused to accused persons, the victims and their families because of the lack of action in the Oireachtas. I would like us to consider if we can do something about this matter.
I support what Senator Manning said about the media, although I have great regard for RTE. I wonder if the Leader, Senator Manning and the House generally would agree to expand such a debate to include all media, including the press? We do not have a press council so an individual whose reputation is traduced by the media has virtually no recourse. Irish newspapers have been taken over by the English gutter press, English editors have been parachuted in and journalists have been instructed to leave the National Union of Journalists, so there is no NUJ code to which one can appeal.
Mr. Connor: While I will not rush to judgment on Henry Kissinger, there is no international criminal court in place where anyone, such as Dr.  Kissinger, who might be arraigned, could be tried. This is because Ireland is one of the countries that has so far failed to ratify an international treaty to establish such a court. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when the relevant legislation will be introduced? It would be ideal to initiate such legislation in this House.
I wish to raise the issue of the recent appalling weather conditions which have caused widespread damage. Notwithstanding No. 17 on the Order Paper, it is time for a debate on what has happened in the midlands in recent weeks where massive inundation of land has occurred. Thousands of acres have become waterlogged and millions of euro in income have been lost by the farming community. A debate on this issue would be appropriate in light of the Government's prompt attention to the problems in the North Wall and East Wall areas of Dublin where many houses were flooded. Equality should apply to all citizens. If compensation is available for citizens of Dublin, and rightly so, then such a compensation package should be contemplated for people in the midlands, bordering the Shannon basin, who have suffered severe losses yet again. The Leader should arrange an early debate on this issue. There is no point having such a debate when the floods have subsided and the problem will be seen, at least by some people, to have gone away. The debate should take place this or next week.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: Last year, the Minister for Finance stood steadfastly against what I would regard as questionable pressure from Europe regarding our internal affairs. Recently, he has been proved correct. The bigger EU member states seem to believe that they can bend the rules when their interests are at stake. I get the impression there is a certain envy abroad regarding Ireland's economic progress. It would be appropriate for the Leader to arrange a debate on this matter now and the Minister for Finance should attend it. He has certainly proved to be a match for those people who do not want to play according to the rules.
Dr. Henry: Last week, Senator Keogh and I raised concerns about the availability of the morning-after pill in Ireland and what effect the proposed referendum may have on its availability. I asked then if the Minister for Health and Children could attend the House to discuss the issue. The Leader kindly said he would try to make that possible. In view of the fact that Dr. Tom O'Dowd, professor of general practice in Trinity College, has queried the effect of this legislation in the proposed referendum on doctor-patient confidentiality, I ask the Leader to put this matter higher up on the agenda and inquire whether the Minister will come to the House next week to address the issue.
Mr. O'Donovan: I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the subject of rural decline and decentralisation. One of the ways to stymie the decline in rural Ireland and to halt the closure of post offices and small rural shops is to have more decentralisation. Successive Governments have paid lip service to the decentralisation of Departments. In my county one must travel 110 miles to meet a planner or even to pay tax. It is about time the Department of the Environment and Local Government took action on decentralisation. Everything seems to emanate from the Pale. There should be decentralisation to the rest of the country as a matter of urgency and it is about time action was taken on this matter.
Mr. O'Dowd: I ask the Leader to arrange a debate in the presence of the Minister for Health and Children on the subject of how mental health services can be improved and to highlight the concern in many communities at the increasing number of suicides and the increasing number of people who are in despair and are not receiving help. The health boards should set up task forces to deal with the issue of improving mental health services in the community. There should be outreach facilities to help in the prevention of these terrible tragedies which shock the whole community. We need to do a lot more about this issue.
Mr. Mooney: Once again the long-suffering rail commuter on the Dublin-Sligo line has had to experience medieval conditions as reported in the newspapers. The ongoing media campaign being carried out by Iarnród Éireann tells us about the brave new world of railways. This may be the case in the Pale, as Senator O'Donovan said, but it certainly is not happening in the outer reaches of this country. I ask that the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, come to this House for a debate on rail investment. I fully appreciate that she is not responsible for the day-to-day operations of the rail system, but as the Minister responsible for overall policy and for the massive Government investment in rail networks, it would be helpful for the House and for the wider public if she outlined the specifics of that investment programme. It would provide balance to the obvious propaganda of Iarnród Éireann which tells us that it is doing all this work – I have no doubt it is – but certainly it is not happening on the ground.
Mrs. A. Doyle: I support Senator O'Toole's request that the Minister for Finance come into the House to explain not just to this House but to a rather sceptical public the apparent difference in treatment of Germany compared to Ireland in recent days by ECOFIN and by the Commission in terms of budgetary matters. There are differences in the two cases but most people do not engage in what is happening in Europe and the few who do are completely confused by the signals that are coming. In the context of the  review and the reform for which I commend this House, to use this esteemed Chamber to get our Commissioners and our Ministers to bring us all into the loop and to answer for decisions in Europe would be one of the most worthwhile ways in which we could look at the review of this House.
Like all public representatives, I fully respect the right of the legitimate withdrawal of services in any industrial action when the case is a just one. On the matter of the secondary school teachers issue, I understand that there are major problems at second level. I ask the Leader to ask if there is any method whereby the teachers might exempt examination students from the industrial action. I plead with them to exempt junior certificate and especially leaving certificate students from their legitimate industrial action because, regardless of what the Minister says, there will be a huge supervision problem.
I support the comments on mental health expressed by my colleague, Senator O'Dowd. The Government is sending a serious message on mental health in the context of the forthcoming referendum on abortion. Apparently it proposes not to believe genuinely suicidal women that they have a psychiatric problem in this area—
Mrs. A. Doyle: The Government is also insulting psychiatrists by proposing that they cannot determine those who have genuine problems. These are serious signals that mental health issues might be swept under the carpet while we deal with physical health issues.
Ms O'Meara: As one who has had different experiences of the quality of service provided by Iarnród Éireann, I was taken aback by its advertising campaign. This morning I travelled from Thurles in an unheated railway carriage and I laughed with irony when told of the massive investment in the company. There is little or no investment in the Ballybrophy to Limerick railway line—
Ms O'Meara: I support a call for a debate on the details of Iarnród Éireann's investment project. I have provided an example and I ask the Leader to broaden any debate to consider regional development in view of the call by SFADCo to extend a railway line to Shannon Airport. Despite what Iarnród Éireann says, the provision of 50 rail carriages nationwide does not amount to massive investment.
Mr. Burke: I support Senator Manning's request that the Minister for Education and Science come to the House as a matter of urgency to advise us on what is happening regarding the teachers' dispute. I ask the Leader to request the attendance in the House of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to debate the breakdown of law and order throughout the country. All Members are aware of street violence and acts of murder at weekends. It is laughable that the Minister should have used the phrase “zero tolerance”.
Mr. D. Cregan: According to a report in this morning's newspapers, 75% of all insurance claims are false. Surely the legal authorities have a responsibility to ensure that they are not brought before the courts. Much more importantly, jobs are being lost because of increases in insurance premiums. It is important that the Leader arranges the attendance in the House of the relevant Minister to debate this very serious issue. Surely some people are accountable for what is happening.
Mr. Cassidy: Senators Manning, O'Toole, Ryan, Avril Doyle and Burke called on the Minister for Education and Science to update the House on the dilemma facing the Department and the ASTI. I will endeavour to arrange this debate. Senator Manning and Senator Norris requested a debate on the role of the media, especially with regard to the new JNLR survey and the spin put on the events of yesterday, as outlined by Senator Manning. The Senator has much experience and expertise in this area and I will take his request very seriously.
Mr. Cassidy: I will endeavour to ensure a debate takes place at the earliest opportunity. I have always believed that there should be a press council, including for the 11 years I was the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on communications. Such a council must ensure that people are accountable and if the truth is not told, sanctions should be imposed on those in the media who are culpable in the same manner as they are imposed in other walks of life. I will take the Senator's request on board.
I have come to know and have much experience of the media and if one pontificates the negative all the time, people will switch off and turn away. That is what is happening to the media on the airwaves. People have an alternative and will switch to something that is uplifting. As a small nation we are an example to the world in terms  of what we have done. From 1987 to date, all Governments and all parties—
Mr. Cassidy: Senators O'Toole, Ó Murchú and Doyle called for a debate on financial issues and, in particular, the position in which larger member states find themselves this year with the Commission and the way in which it attempted to treat Ireland last year. I congratulate the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, as I did on a previous occasion, on his sound, solid stance. One cannot beat a professional being in charge of a portfolio. He has proved that he knew his business.
When the matter is reviewed later today, in the event of progress being made, I will endeavour to get agreement, as a matter of urgency, with the leaders and the Whips to have the banking and financial issue discussed by the House tomorrow. The Minister for Finance is out of the country but I have an agreement with the Minister of State. We will review progress—
Mr. Cassidy: I have doubts in that regard. Senator Ryan and Senator Norris called for a debate on sensitive issues and international law. I will discuss this with the leaders, the Whips and perhaps the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Senator Farrell and Senator Dino Cregan called for a debate on the insurance industry. I will make time available for such a debate, as I said yesterday.
Senator Norris asked about No. 18, motions 16 and 19. I have already given a commitment on these issues. I am keeping them foremost in mind, but legislation must take precedence and an enormous amount of legislation is being initiated here. I shall endeavour to arrange the debates at the earliest possible opportunity.
Senator Connor asked for a debate on the flooding in the midlands, the East Wall area of Dublin and elsewhere. Not since 1924 have rainfalls been as heavy or caused so much damage. I share the Senator's views and will endeavour to have this matter debated during the Private Members' time of one of the parties.
Senator Henry requested an explanation from the Minister for Health and Children. The Minister clarified the position regarding the morning-after pill at length in the House and on radio this  morning. He firmly rejected it out of hand. That is clarification enough in regard to the Senator's proposal.
Senator O'Donovan called for a debate on Government decentralisation. He particularly wants decentralisation in the area in which he resides. I agree that many areas are in urgent need of it. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government has started off the process in County Meath and many other counties have taken up the system where local authorities introduce their own decentralisation by having one-stop-shops in each electoral area. We have them in County Westmeath. The services include motor taxation and driving licences and the planning officer is on duty full-time. It creates jobs and services for people in the locality which means they no longer have to make journeys of 70, 80 or 100 miles.
Senator O'Dowd and Senator Avril Doyle expressed grave concerns about the mental health services. I will pass on their views to the Minister for Health and Children. Senators Mooney and O'Meara called on my colleague, the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, to take part in a debate on the rail services. The Minister gave a very full account of investment and progress in the railways the second last time she appeared before the House, and I will endeavour to receive an up-date on that matter. While I fully agree that much needs to be done, there has been major investment in the railways since 1997 and it continues.
Senator Burke called for a debate on law and order in towns and villages. I fully agree with his comments. The major benefit of one-stop-shops will be that regulations, particularly those issued by local authorities, will be stricter and more strictly enforced, notably where planning permission is given to restaurants and late night facilities. A great deal of undesirable activity takes place when people returning from late night entertainment venues get together at 3 a.m., 4 a.m. or sometimes even 5 a.m. Things go wrong and sometimes get out of hand. Many of these establishments do not have planning permission to open at these hours. Perhaps we will be able to include the issue in a future debate.
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