Tuesday, 29 June 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, a referral motion whereby the subject of motion No. 20 is being referred to the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food for discussion. It concerns the transfer of the abattoir licensing functions from the Department of Agriculture and Food to local authorities with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland providing an overall co-ordinating role. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has reached an agreement with county managers and local authority veterinarians on the transfer arrangement. It is proposed to take this item without debate; No. 2 is a motion relating to the Commission on Electronic Voting. The commission had considered that its first report could also be its final report and that it would, as set out in the legislation, be dissolved after the expiry of two months from its report unless the Government, by order, requested it to make further reports. The Electoral (Amendment) Act 2004 provides for such an order to be so made. On 24 June, the Government asked the commission to make any necessary further reports about the work it envisaged in the recommendations of its first report on 30 April. The Government also asked the commission to include in such reports a comparative assessment of the current paper-based system for voting at elections and referendums. It will be considered without debate; No. 3, Water Services Bill 2003 — Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 7 p.m.; and No. 4, Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2004 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at 7 p.m. and to conclude not later than 9 p.m. with spokespersons having 12 minutes and other Senators having eight minutes, and the Minister to be called on to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of the debate.
Mr. B. Hayes: As we enter the last two weeks of the session, I appeal to the Leader of the House to do everything in her power to ensure the Opposition is informed at all stages of the Government’s intentions in respect of proposed legislation. It always happens, as we reach the end of sessions, that Bills are rushed through and Departments put pressure on the House to accept all kinds of amendments at the last minute. We all understand that such behaviour has happened under various Governments over the years. I ask the Leader to work with the Opposition in the next two weeks to ensure all matters are properly debated.
I wish to express my party’s opposition to No. 4, the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2004. We will oppose the Bill on Second Stage because we do not think there is any need for it. In effect, the legislation will provide another election slush fund for various Ministers in the run-up to the next general election. When the Minister for Finance first proposed the fund, he had the good grace to appoint an independent board to determine the charitable causes and good community projects that were to benefit from it. The Government has decided to take the money back under its control, to be used for its pet projects in certain constituencies.
Fine Gael will oppose the Bill because it is contrary to the spirit of the initial recommendation that emerged from the Committee of Public Accounts. Even at this late stage, I ask the Government to reconsider this retrograde step, rather than rushing the legislation through the House in the final two weeks of the session. My comments are not intended as a reflection on the Leader, but as a criticism of the Government’s determination to drive the Bill home. Its actions are contrary to its recommendations, specifically those of the Minister for Finance.
Regarding No. 12, the Garda Síochána Bill 2004, the Leader is aware the House had an extensive and good debate on the matter two months ago, in the presence of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The establishment of an independent ombudsman, who will assume the power of the Garda Complaints Authority and investigate independently all aspects of complaints made against the members of the force, is central to the Bill. Last week the authority produced its report, which shows again the inadequacies of the system. Why has it taken two months to bring the Bill to where it is today? Although we have had time to debate it, it has remained on the Order Paper. Arrangements for the Committee Stage debate should have been made by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Why has there been a delay in the appointment of an independent ombudsman to ensure proper accountability of policing? I ask the Leader to respond.
Will the Leader make a statement in the House at some stage today about the Government’s intentions in respect of banning children from public houses after a certain hour? I call for such a statement in light of the recent comments of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism. A raft of legislation in this area has been passed by the Oireachtas in recent years. If the Government plans to rethink this issue, surely it will have to do so before Friday of next week. Can a change be made by order? I ask the Leader to clarify the Government’s plans for a U-turn in this regard.
Mr. O’Toole: There has been much debate recently about the impact of e-mailing and texting on the ability of the next generation to communicate by letter. We should recognise the advances made by Fianna Fáil in proving in the Wexford area that the pen is mightier than the canvass and that it has restored the ancient art of letter writing to its rightful position.
I do not object to No. 2 being taken without debate but on at least four occasions in the past two years I have raised the implications of the Abattoirs Act and the importance of certain aspects of it in terms of traceability of meat. When the joint committee has concluded its business on the Act I would like the House to have a debate on the impact of local involvement in the approval of abattoirs, which I regard as a positive step. The more localised beef production is the better. The fact that it would come off the land to the local abattoir and be sold in the local butchers is something we should support. I would like to hear a report on that when it comes back from committee.
On several occasions here recently we asked that the Minister for Education and Science be invited to the House to explain a number of issues. I am sure people will have heard the media comment over the past two or three weeks on the cutbacks to The Ark in Dublin. The Ark is one of the most progressive developments in inner city and arts education in many years. It is a place where children are exposed to the arts, arts education is developed and teachers are developed in the arts. In particular, it is a place disadvantaged schools from throughout the inner city area visit to get exposure to the arts and to meet with teachers seconded to it to raise their level of appreciation and awareness. We are talking about a small amount of money in terms of this cutback and it is quite atrocious. Ten years ago, the then Minister for Education, Deputy Brennan, decided to bring forward a Green Paper on education which did not include any aspect of arts but there was outrage and uproar and it was changed immediately. This is a similar step backward. It is a blow to teacher education, arts appreciation, arts education, disadvantage in the inner city and to support for one of the major successes in the Temple Bar area. The most successful initiative in Temple Bar has been The Ark and I ask the Minister to come to the House and explain the reasons he is cutting back on this extraordinarily progressive aspect of education.
Mr. McCarthy: Yesterday in Iraq, sovereignty was handed back to an interim Iraqi Government, and Paul Bremer has now left that country. In that context, will President Bush and Prime Minister Blair now apologise to the people of Iraq and the international community for waging an illegal war since the start of last year against the wishes of many in the international community and the fundamental ethos of the United Nations? It is abhorrent that those two men can get away with what they perpetrated in that country over the past year.
In that context also, during President Bush’s visit to this country last weekend the protests in Shannon and elsewhere were peaceful and democratic. I realise there was much hype surrounding the visit and an expected level of violence in some quarters and it is good for democracy that that uglier element of protest did not prevail last weekend. It was good to see a forum in which people could protest peacefully.
Some weeks ago there was a call for a debate on the controls in regard to the registers of electors. In the aftermath of an election many calls are made in that regard and then forgotten but this is an important issue. People’s names were removed from electoral registers throughout the country, in many cases for political motives. That casts serious aspersions on the current system, which is wide open to abuse. An independent commission should be appointed to examine and overhaul the system. Such a commission should have absolute authority in deciding people’s eligibility to vote and who should be on the register.
Senator O’Toole commented in a humorous fashion on a very serious canvassing incident in County Wexford during the recent local elections. When the Taoiseach’s signature is forged, serious questions must be raised about the abuses that take place in the highly charged atmosphere of an election. There are secondary issues that take the gloss off this incident, such as the abuse of Oireachtas envelopes. The largest victim is the body politic. I ask the Leader to ensure that Oireachtas committees recognise that such abuses and the forging of officeholders’ signatures should be severely punished.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: In recent weeks, there has been a number of high profile incidents involving tensions between Traveller and settled communities. Traveller community leaders have condemned anti-social behaviour by their members. However, just as racist sentiments are avoided, anti-Traveller sentiment should not be cultivated. Anti-social behaviour in the settled community is treated as an aberration and the whole community is not condemned for it. A spokesperson for Pavee Point made the balanced suggestion that a reconciliation forum be established. This would be helpful and necessary before the issue gets out of hand. The Seanad could play an important role in having a debate, observed by the Traveller community leadership, on how to arrive at such a reconciliation. Every Member can point to Traveller families that have fought valiantly to adapt their position to a changing world. Many Travellers have made valuable contributions to society, such as in Irish traditional music for which the Traveller community’s contribution is well noted. I ask the Leader to have a debate on this issue before the summer recess.
Mr. Finucane: On a previous occasion I raised the issue of Travellers’ convoys and recent incidents in Wexford and Ballyhaunis. I agree with Senator Ó Murchú that many Traveller families have integrated well in the community, such as in Rathkeale and Newcastle West. However, it is unfortunate that several bands of Travellers, moving between different locations during the summer months, bring disrepute to the whole Traveller community. I have asked that this be addressed through legislation. It is not satisfactory for authorities to use the Roads Acts to move on these groups. Strengthening legislation must be introduced to stop large groups of people coming together in different communities and causing mayhem. Inevitably, in these communities most of the businesses close due to fear. It is wrong that this is still allowed to happen. These groups must see how their activities are debasing the wider Traveller community. One always hears about rights but Travellers must recognise that the settled community also has rights. Their influx during the summer months into certain communities tells the settled community that its rights are debased.
Mr. Dooley: I join Senator O’Toole in calling for a debate on the Abattoirs Act following discussion in the joint committee. The traceability of beef is an important matter. However, Members should welcome the announcement this week by the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, on the labelling of beef from outside the EU, particularly from Argentina and Brazil.
Mr. Dooley: It relates to beef sold through restaurants and catering establishments. Up to now the consumer could not distinguish from where the meat came. This is a great development for consumers and is important for farmers and Irish beef producers who have had particular difficulty in marketing their product against a sub-standard item produced largely in areas where growth promoters, hormones and antibiotics are still administered to cattle right up to the production of beef. The Minister has made an important move towards levelling the playing pitch for beef producers and increasing consumer confidence in Irish food.
I join Senator McCarthy in congratulating Clare people on how they went about their business during the demonstration. One must also recognise the great work done by the Taoiseach and Romano Prodi in their meeting with President Bush at the EU-US summit. The Garda and Army also performed exceptionally well and did the country proud.
Mr. Ross: I agree with most of the sentiments expressed by Senator McCarthy and Senator Dooley. The protest was dignified and it was a great credit to the nation that everything passed off without any great difficulty.
Newspapers have reported that the Government expressed regret about a very fine interview given by President Bush to a rather finer questioner, Carole Coleman. I would hate to think that, as has been reported by some newspapers, the Government apologised to President Bush for the attitude taken in the interview. This was a very probing interview but we should not take orders from the Americans on how our interviewers conduct themselves on air. Could the Leader tell us if the Government has expressed regret about this interview? I would prefer to hear that the Government was supportive of our broadcasters on this issue rather than President Bush. We are due a reply on this question because the matter is ambiguous and the freedom of the press is more important than the dictatorship of some President from the United States of America.
Many months ago the House was given a promise that an auctioneering commission would be set up. It has not yet been established. We need an urgent response on this matter before the summer recess. I ask the Leader to comment on it.
I understand there is a question as to whether the State Airports Bill will shortly come before this House or languish in the Lower House until after the summer recess. The House is due a full debate on the Bill and needs to know if it will come before it.
Ms White: I support Senator Ó Murchú’s call for a debate on the Traveller community before the summer recess. I am afraid that racism might arise. Two very good Traveller friends of mine live a very difficult life, one which I could not endure. An editorial in The Irish Times today said that if local authorities have not addressed the housing issue of Travellers who want to be settled, it should be given to another authority.
I was very proud at the weekend of the summit backdrop formed by Dromoland Castle. The front page of yesterday’s edition of The New York Times had a picture of the Taoiseach leading us very proudly there. I am also proud of the protestors and of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, the civil servants and the Minister of State, Deputy Roche.
Last night I woke up wondering why anyone would worry about President Bush being seen in his vest at the window of his hotel when 850 Americans have been killed in Iraq along with 17,000 Iraqis, while 23,000 US members of the military have been sent home. Why should we worry about President Bush in his vest at the hotel window?
Ms Terry: Last week a well known and reputable company in Dublin issued a letter to its employees stating it was no longer in a position to honour its commitment to a pension plan for them and that it would be winding it up. I have raised the pensions issue in the House on a number of occasions but it is reaching a new level when a company, which is doing well and whose directors paid themselves millions of euro in the past year by way of bonuses, is now winding up its pension plan and leaving its employees in a very worried state. In June 2003, we were told that no company had yet wound up its pension plan in this fashion. While I am aware of this matter because I was approached in regard to it, I do not know if other people are in the same position.
We hear much about pensions and the pension time bomb from the Government, but this is the type of time bomb about which I am concerned. It explains why so many people are not taking out pension plans or PRSAs but instead are investing their money wisely in the private housing market. The pension industry needs to be examined.
Ms Terry: Will the Leader ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, to examine the issue? She can find out from the pensions board which companies are doing this to their employees while the directors are pocketing profits and leaving their employees without pension plans.
Ms Ormonde: I congratulate the Taoiseach on his role as President of the EU for the past six months, which is coming to an end this week. It included welcoming the accession countries on 1 May and bringing the draft treaty to a grand finale. I was proud of the role played by the Taoiseach, backup staff, including senior civil servants and the gardaí, during the EU-US summit last weekend. It was a delightful scene. I was proud to be Irish and to have the Taoiseach leading us, which was welcomed by everyone.
In regard to a debate on the Traveller issue, I can speak at length on this matter because I was in the thick of it three years ago as a member of South Dublin County Council. I am very aware of the rights and responsibilities on both sides. I would welcome a debate on the issue regardless of whether it takes place prior to the summer recess. It is important to have a debate on the issue to differentiate between the good type of Travellers and the blackguards who have been causing problems in recent weeks. It would be timely to have a debate prior to the summer recess because these groups can again take over in various parts of the country.
Dr. Henry: Like other speakers, I am pleased the visit of President Bush last week went so well and I congratulate all those involved. Some people appear to have difficulty with what the Taoiseach says, but I normally find him a model of clarity. I was concerned, however, when he was asked about the transport of prisoners through Shannon Airport to Guantanamo Bay. He said UN Resolution 1546 states that member states should help the coalition forces in Iraq in whatever way they could. I read the resolution and I could see nothing about the transport of untried and unsentenced people. I would be very grateful if the Leader of the House could find out whether the Taoiseach meant “Yes” or “No”.
Mr. Bradford: During the summer recess we will be in a position to reflect on the tenth anniversary of the 1994 IRA ceasefire. As someone who believes in the glass being half full rather than half empty, this island has been transformed over the past decade. There has been a sea change in politics on the island. We are now entering the next crucial phase in the ongoing debate on the future of Northern Ireland and the Government will be involved in discussions with the British Government and the various parties in Northern Ireland. While it is at times useful for us to remain silent, it might be appropriate, if possible, to hold a debate next week on current issues regarding the peace process. Issues have remained outstanding since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement which must be finalised. The Agreement was accepted by the overwhelming majority of the Irish people, North and South, and it might be helpful if we reiterated some of the keystones of the Agreement in the Oireachtas. It is part of the ongoing need for dialogue between all sides.
We must welcome the fact that an interim authority has been established in Iraq. While it is not perfect, it is the first time that the people of Iraq have had any small semblance of representational government. It is the first of many steps which will have to be taken and I welcome it as a move in the right direction.
Ms O’Meara: As one of the very few Members of this House on the other side of the barriers last Saturday at Dromoland, I must say the protests were dignified and enjoyable. It is important we exercise our freedom of expression and I thought the Garda presence there was unnecessarily high.
Ms O’Meara: Thank you. With regard to the weekend’s events, as others have stated we should be proud of how the Government and the Taoiseach have conducted themselves. However, it was a pity the Government was unable to see that Ms Coleman was simply doing her job.
Mr. Feighan: I join with colleagues in welcoming the transfer of authority to the new interim Iraqi Government. We have often criticised the United States on its excesses and abuses but should today look towards a brighter future for Iraq.
I agree with Senator Ross and most others that the interview with President Bush was carried out in a courteous and professional manner. However, I query that a Government spokesperson stated it showed a lack of respect to the Office of the President of the United States. The Government is at odds with the genuine beliefs of the majority of the Irish people, who believe it was courteous and professional. I have a difficulty with the fact an informal complaint was made to the Irish embassy. What is the difference between an informal complaint and a complaint? This House must protect the free press and interviewers.
Mr. Bannon: There was a great deal of praise in the House last week and today for the Irish handling of the EU Presidency and I do not take from that in the slightest way. However, I and others are disappointed the Government did not avail of the opportunity during its Presidency to enhance the status of the Irish language within the EU. Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, has for years promised it would enhance our culture and heritage yet it has done nothing. Ireland is one of the few EU countries that does not have its language as an official language of the Union. It is important we debate this subject with regard to achieving similar status for the Irish language as other EU languages.
Mr. Browne: I agree with previous speakers that we should have a debate before the recess, while the elections are still fresh in our minds, on No. 18 of the non-Government motions on the Order Paper which refers to registration for elections. I am aware of a couple who were taken off the register without receiving written notification. They were very unimpressed when they went to vote on election day.
I also ask that the Minister for Education and Science come to the House to explain why his Department left it until the eleventh hour to notify schools of the special needs allocation. It had the information for almost a year, but it left it until the day of the holidays to provide it to principals and schools. This should not be tolerated. One would imagine that the Department of Education and Science would be the smartest Department of all, but it certainly is not in this case.
The issue of Travellers was raised. The main difficulty people have is with so-called commercial traders, who arrive in the summer and take over land. They sell couches, for example, at knock-down prices, take away the buyers’ old couches and dump them on the land when they leave, costing the local authority thousands of euro. This should not be tolerated. The Criminal Assets Bureau should have a role in this area.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Brian Hayes, the Leader of the Opposition, asked me to ensure that no legislation would be rushed through in the final two weeks of the session. Last Thursday I listed the Bills we would be taking in the House, which subsequently appeared on the Order Paper. However, I take the Senator’s point. Throughout this term we have tried to put clear lines between Second, Committee and Report Stages, sometimes leading to gaps when there are not enough people present to take Committee or Report Stages. Having provided time for such debate, I would expect there to be plenty of takers. Last week, in answer to Senator Tuffy, who asked me about a certain Bill, I stated that the Bill would not be rushed through the House. I will refer to that Bill shortly because Senator Ross asked a question about it.
I was asked about the delay with the Garda Síochána Bill. I am not sure the mechanism being put in place by the Minister consists of an ombudsman, but I will inquire about the reason for the delay. I will also ask the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism about children in pubs and if there is to be an amendment to the relevant Bill. If so, we have not heard about it. I remain convinced that nobody wants to have a drink in a pub with children running around their legs, but that is another day’s discussion.
Ms O’Rourke: No. The Senator asked for a debate when the motion comes back from committee. He also mentioned the Ark children’s centre in Dublin. This is an innovative project and young people and teachers have taken to it with great gusto. I will ask the Minister for Education and Science about the cutbacks, but perhaps someone could put the matter down for discussion on the Adjournment because it would be a suitable subject.
Senator McCarthy mentioned the protests that took place at the visit of the American President, Mr. Bush, which were peaceful and, it appeared, democratic and happy. He also asked about the register of electors. This matter was mentioned last week by Senator Browne, who raised it again today. Every person in this House has examples of people being taken off the register. When we discussed this before, we took several examples of people who had been removed from the register and traced the process of their removal. There should be a more structured way of dealing with the problem, however. The Senator also mentioned forged signatures. This is a serious matter and should be the subject of further investigation.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú mentioned the tension among Travelling communities and sought to use this Chamber as a reconciliation forum. He cited Travellers’ love for traditional music and mentioned all they have done for it. There is an all-party committee on Travellers, of which I am a member, which is doing very good work. The Senator may join it if he wishes. I take the Senator’s point regarding reconciliation. Senator Michael Finucane raised the issue of large numbers of people driving around the countryside and deciding to go into an area and cause trouble. There are rights all around which must be observed.
Senator Dooley asked for a debate on the motion regarding abattoirs. The Minister for Agriculture and Food has made it mandatory that the country of origin of beef be declared. I am sure the Argentineans have their opinions about their beef but those who eat beef believe beef of Irish origin is better.
Senator Ross agreed with the comments made by Senators McCarthy and Dooley. He raised the matter of the young woman who conducted an interview with the President of the United States. I thought she was stunning and proper and professional. Clearly the man is not used to being asked a question because every time the interviewer asked a question she was knocked back and treated almost as if she were a little girl. I thought she was very professional and stunning in doing her job.
Regarding the Aer Rianta Bill, we cannot deal with it until we get it. I have been asked whether it will be lodged in the doldrums of the Lower House. It is still being debated there. We have been approached about it, but we do not have firm dates. We have a wad of legislation for this week and next week which has already been put to us and to which we have agreed. It is anticipated that the Dáil will adjourn for the summer recess on 8 July and that the Seanad will adjourn on the following day, given that we have kept more or less to the same schedule as the Dáil. I gave an assurance to Senator Tuffy that that Bill, no less than any other Bill, will not be rushed through this House.
Senator White raised the issue of Travellers. She mentioned that she has friends within the Travelling community, which is good. The Senator also congratulated the Taoiseach, Ministers and senior civil servants who conducted their business so well during the visit of President Bush. She mentioned what President Bush was wearing. However, that is President Bush’s own business. I cannot understand why people got upset about it.
Senator Terry referred to the proposals of the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Mary Coughlan, regarding pensions. The Senator has raised the issue on about six occasions. Each week we have asked for the Minister to attend but we have not been able to fit this in. Perhaps we will be able to make time available next week to deal with this. I congratulate the Senator on her initiative within her party regarding forthcoming legislation. I was delighted to read about it last Friday.
Senator Henry wanted to know whether I could ascertain the true meaning of the UN stipulation regarding the transport of untried prisoners through Shannon. She was unclear what the Taoiseach said in answer to a question about that. We will endeavour to find out.
Senator Bradford referred to the tenth anniversary of the 1994 IRA ceasefire and suggested that we should debate the outstanding issues. He also mentioned Iraq. We have done enough giving out on the matter here. We welcome the setting up of an interim government and will be watching it carefully.
Ms O’Rourke: None of us was on the other side. I congratulate the Senator for going. She said she thought the Garda presence was high. However, if something happened we would be saying it was not high enough and asking where were the gardaí and why were they not doing their job. They did very well and it was good-natured. The piquancy of what he was doing at the window in his vest and the interview with Carole Coleman all lent to the whole scene. The Senator congratulated her ex-colleague.
Senator Feighan welcomed the new Iraqi Government but disagreed with an Irish Government spokesperson’s claim that Carole Coleman’s interview showed a lack of respect to the office of the President of the United States. I doubt that happened. We have all been used to trenchant interviews. I cannot understand how the man has got to where he is without doing a decent interview. I will find out if that message was conveyed.
Senator Bannon wants to enhance the status of the Irish language. We signed an all-party motion in this House on that matter, but the Senator wondered what the Government was doing about it. Senator Browne spoke about the register of electors. He has consistently raised that since the election. He has some bones to pick and we feel the same way on this side of the House about names being taken off the register. He asked about special needs teaching. They will be allocated this week when the schools have closed. Principals stay back to do that kind of work, but I know many parents are anxiously awaiting to find out whether their child will get one.
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