Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Seanad Eireann Debate
Senator Donie Cassidy: The Order of Business is No. 1, Communications Regulation (Postal Services) Bill 2010 — Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 2.15 p.m., on which spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and all other Senators for ten minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House, with the Minister to be called upon to reply ten minutes before the conclusion of the debate. There will then be a sos until 4 p.m. when it is proposed to commence an open-ended debate on the National Recovery Plan 2011-2014, on which spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and all other Senators for ten minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I regret that the Leader wants to do away with Private Members’ business today, during which we were to deal with an important motion. We could have discussed that motion today as well as the four-year strategy. While I am sure the Government side is worried about losing that vote, obviously, the most important issue today is the publication of the four-year plan. It is welcome that we will be discussing what is of most relevance to the country. However, it is with a heavy heart that we will read the plan, as we will see the unravelling of 60 years of progress in this country. We are seeing the pain laid bare that will affect every family, every community and the entire country. Not alone is it being laid bare to this country, it is being done in the full glare of international publicity and humiliation. The Government wrapped the State around the banks and when confronted with the PricewaterhouseCoopers report on the banks, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Lenihan, said that the finding did not jump out at him. We can see the consequences today and every man, woman and child will pay thousands of euro every year to cope with the mistakes of this Government. What is most disturbing is that the Government is still in denial and is still not doing the right thing. The Taoiseach is not resigning and he is not bringing forward the budget as we said he should yesterday. He is still refusing to do what is necessary. The Green Party can play a role if it wants to be constructive. That party can ensure the budget and the Finance Bill are brought forward and enacted quickly. That has been requested by every European commentator of note. It is clearly necessary to calm the markets and provide some stability not just to Ireland but also to the eurozone. The Government is still refusing to do what is necessary. I ask that the Taoiseach, his Ministers and the Green Party do what is right and what is necessary for the country, what everyone is saying is necessary. Bring the budget in now, deal with the Finance Bill now, and stop this prevarication in the next few weeks. The situation for the banks is critical and every commentator is saying the delay is costing a fortune. It is making it increasingly difficult to bail out this country, to save the banks and to get the economy working. The Government should do the right thing in respect of the process of this budget.
Senator Joe O’Toole: People say that we should not play the blame game but it must be played to learn from it. The Honohan report on banking outlined the level of responsibility the Government should take. It is not 100% and that balance needs to be reflected in the debate.
Senator Joe O’Toole: Mistakes were made and Professor Honohan has given a view on it. It is quite clear that passing the budget on 7 December is a crucial part of the timeline of the budget and what is required in dealing with the IMF and Europe. The Opposition parties have accepted that aspect of it. It is also important to recognise that the IMF and our European partners do not have exactly the same level of interest in this. The IMF has a vested interest in this country growing and coming out of this, whereas some of our European friends are competitors in the marketplace of taxation. We need to be clear about that and I hope that the debate today, which I welcome, will focus on these issues.
Let us be clear that the budget is a Budget Statement. It is not a Vote, a Bill or legislation. The number of votes that take place on budget night are determined by the Government. Excise issues must be voted on but they will not be an issue. The finance Bill comes two months later and often there are many differences in attitude to the budget. Constitutionally, legally or otherwise, there is no reason we could not pass the budget on 7 December and have a general election before the finance Bill. I am not suggesting we do this but I want people to know there is the option. It has been too easy for parties to hold positions or oppose positions. There are other options. After the Budget Statement is made, people adjust to it and the Government respond to that in the finance Bill. It may be in the interest of the incoming Government to implement the finance Bill in terms of putting shape on the budget. On the other hand, it may be against their interests and may be better for the incoming Government to have the horrible budget, the desperate Finance Bill and the extraordinary social welfare Bill passed by the outgoing Government whose fingerprints are all over them and the new Government can then start over. These are the options and it is not a matter of black and white. There are grey areas. I ask that today’s debate would be positive as well as recognising the depth of the difficulties we are in. There are positive matters in the economy, as Professor John FitzGerald put very well this morning. We should develop these issues.
Senator Michael McCarthy: I begin by acknowledging the mass in the private dining room this morning for the deceased Members of the Oireachtas. It was a special, thoughtful and prayerful tribute to Members of the House who have gone before us, not least those who died during this term. It was a nice way to honour their memories and to start business in the Oireachtas.
I welcome the fact we will debate the four-year plan today and agree with Senator Fitzgerald that the state in which this country finds itself is shameful. We are an absolute disgrace internationally and the manner in which greed and avarice created a property bubble supported by Government tax incentives and initiatives means we now expect the marginalised, vulnerable, those on basic rates of social welfare, students struggling to get third level education, pensioners fearful of a reduction in income and people fighting with banks through the courts to hang on to their homes to pay for the crisis. At the same time, we have a Government in absolute denial. On top of the economic mess, we have political instability, which is the worst thing the country could have at this time.
When this House was formed in 1922, it played a significant and constructive role in a dark historical era of this country. The body politic and, in particular, Seanad Éireann has an important role to play in how we come out of this mess. We will come out of this mess and it is a question of where we will be when we come out of it. This House has a significant contribution to make. There is much cynical and anti-politics comment driven by elements of a very cynical media who want us to say we should give the keys of Leinster House to someone from Ryanair or another company in order that a businessman would run this country. We have a parliamentary democracy for which people gave their lives. As a result of free and fair elections, a Government is formed and administers according to the policies it brought to the people. I hope that will happen sooner rather than later and that the manner in which it is done does not damage the credibility of Ireland further. I find it annoying in the extreme when people bash politics. Only politics can bring us out of this current mess and we all have a role to play in that.
Senator O’Toole made some important points about the budget. Why has the budget not been brought forward? What is the manner in which engagement with the Opposition parties has taken place in respect of the four-year plan, the budget and the legislative effects of the budget such as the finance Bill and the social welfare Bill? We need open and honest Government and, in the dying days of this Administration, I appeal to the Leader to appeal to the Taoiseach to bring some leadership, even at this late stage in the game.
Senator Dan Boyle: Today’s debate on the national recovery plan will be very important and I welcome the fact other Senators have welcomed the holding of the debate. I look forward to a constructive debate. Some of the points mentioned are pertinent. There are technical difficulties with bringing forward the budget. As the tax receipts to the end of November must form part of a Budget Statement, at best, it could be brought forward by a couple of days.
Senator Dan Boyle: I accept the need to bring forward the finance Bill to the earliest opportunity. Perhaps this could be before the Christmas recess, afterwards or we could have co-operation in both Houses to have a shorter Christmas recess to deal with the important issues at hand. It is to be hoped the publication of today’s plan is the start of a process that will reassure international sentiment. I disagree with Senator O’Toole’s point about the Budget Statement and the passing of a finance Bill. The budget is the finance Bill and, until it passes, we cannot consider ourselves out of the woods. The current situation is complicated by many international factors, including the state of other countries’ economies and the fact that the strengths of the economy are being ignored. Today’s debate will be helpful. The comments of the leader of the main Opposition party in the other House yesterday were particularly helpful in this regard. That is the nature of the debate we need to have. It is about making the decisions that have to be made now; we can then turn to the issue of the future governance of the country.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: We learn in today’s newspapers that 10% of young people are waiting for a mental health service in the Health Service Executive west and south areas and that one in seven students are being taught maths and English poorly in primary school, with 20% of teachers unprepared. We need to debate these two issues. These are the young people’s lives that matter. All of this is happening against a background in which there is a hole in the banks that is far bigger than we ever contemplated. Market analysts interviewed on the “Tonight with Vincent Browne” show last night spoke about the figure being somewhere in the region of €250 billion to €300 billion. Where are we going as a country? The sum of €85 billion we are seeking from the IMF and the European is to be used just to keep the banks open. We are in serious difficulty.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: It is estimated that we need €10 billion a year just to service the debt. We simply will not be able to afford it and we cannot. We have reached a critical moment in the negotiations with the IMF, the European Union and the ECB and should not blow it. If the Government does, will it, please, hand over the mantle of responsibility to someone else? It should draw on every piece of advice available from every analyst who can help us to come up with options to get a better deal from the IMF and the European Union. Otherwise, we will not have a hope. The advice is that we should default. I have never recommended this in my life, but this issue is bigger than any of us. We need to get serious advice. The Leader should communicate this to the Minister for Finance, that we need to get the negotiations right on the bailout or the children who have not yet been born will pay for it forever.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: I note the comments this morning of the leaders of the main Opposition parties which were extremely responsible. I very much welcome this. I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on systemic change to our political system which does not cope well in a time of crisis and leads to barracking and pettiness on the part of the Opposition.
Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: It is a time for calm and cool heads. As Senators on the other side said, we are in the final days of the Government and it is important that we do not play politics such that we add to the mess in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves. There is now clarity, but we must look forward. We had enormous difficulties in the 1980s with which our system did not cope. It was because of the generosity of Alan Dukes at the time that we got through that crisis. This is also a time for generosity. The Green Party has called for consensus, but that request was thrown back in our faces. We felt it was the way forward. We could have saved ourselves much anguish if that offer had been taken up. Nevertheless, we need to look at our political system, on which we need a proper debate. We need to have facilities in order that in a time of crisis we can work together for the greater good. That must happen now, although it is not the norm in our system. In Rome, in times of crisis, a dictator was appointed to look after the system because it was considered that was the way to do things.
Senator Rónán Mullen: He said, “The last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” It is very important to bear in mind the need that we retain freedom to choose our attitude in this time of crisis. There is a lot of anger and negativity towards politicians and the political system. We have to lead by example in this House. The way the media communicate is important, as we must not have the degeneration in the quality of public debate that we have seen. We could do with having a moratorium on heckling in this and the other House——
Senator Rónán Mullen: ——in the way the Government parties talk to each other also because, if we are seen to be taking a dignified approach in politics, we will inspire others to adopt a similar approach to the way we deal with our problems.
We are not in concentration camps, but there are people in our world who are concentrated in camps of poverty. We all hear the advertisements for Bóthar and Trócaire. As Helen Keogh of Dóchas said recently, Ireland’s overseas aid programme is an expression of our national identity and that it had established us on the world stage. It is in our national interest not to forget how relatively well off we are compared to many others throughout the world. Senator Hannigan called for a debate on our overseas aid programme and the need to maintain our commitment in that regard. He was told we would have that debate before Christmas. I ask the Leader to ensure we will do something meaningful and have the debate before the budget. In giving priority to this very important issue we will send a message that we can cope with our problems, while not losing sight of the very serious problems of others throughout the world.
Last week and the previous week I called for a debate on the strengths of the country in terms of being able to provide energy supplies for all of Europe because nothing starts or finishes without an energy supply. There is no positivity in the media. I urge them to be a little more balanced in picking up on some of the small snippets of positivity. We must show leadership in this regard. This country is an awful lot better than it was ten years ago in terms of infrastructure and many other aspects. The more we beat ourselves, the more fodder we will give to others with which to beat us. I thank the Leader for arranging a debate on Thursday during which we can highlight many of the issues raised.
I raise another issue I have raised previously. During the summer when we in County Donegal, like everyone else, were enjoying sunshine, there was snow on our television screens. As a result, all of the wonderful news was not being received in many houses in the county. When the analogue service is switched off in 2012, we will switch to digital straightaway. Many people do not receive an analogue service, although they are paying their television licence fee. If they do not receive an analogue service now, they will not receive a digital service following the switchover. I cannot get answers to the questions I am raising as to how we will have free access to services — SAORVIEW — for homes not only in County Donegal but also throughout the country. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and, if necessary, the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources should take up this matter because, whether the news is good or bad or the media are being positive or negative, it is important there is access to this information, especially when people are paying their television licence fee.
Senator Paul Coghlan: I also welcome the debate on the four-year plan. We should bring the budget and the Finance Bill forward, which we stated yesterday. As we know, delay is the enemy. Our currency, the euro, and our banking system are at stake. As Commissioner Rehn stated in the context of the budget, we should get it over with and move on. We must do so. Please God, the Government will be able to outline further details about the €85 billion rescue package, loan, overdraft facility or whatever it is. We must hope that it will prove to be the necessary firepower and that we will not need to draw much of it down. The interest rate will also be important. We are dealing with the health of a currency of which we are a part and that we must be prepared to defend. It is unfortunate that clowns in the banks were left in place. Not all were removed as they should have been. Whatever about mistakes and errors, we are where we are. The minimum we must do is save our banks and currency. Without those, we cannot live and trade.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: In the midst of rhetoric, emotion and negativity, we all seek nuggets of hope and practical intent. Senator McCarthy’s contribution was significant and should be considered. He has made it clear that it is possible to acknowledge our crisis and even to apportion blame fairly, be it internal or external. People will look to legislators to devise policies that will take us from this terrible crisis and return us to a situation, not necessarily akin to the Celtic tiger, in which we could ensure that all people would have a worthwhile quality of life.
I commend Senator Hannigan on his crusade on overseas aid. The connection between these two points is that we should remember that all suffering and pressures are relative and that some people will not benefit from Ireland’s charity and support to the same extent as they did previously. Given that it does not usually fit in with a policy of political expediency, it is good to know that we are looking beyond our own challenges. In the final days of this House, we should use every minute to send out support and hope to the people we claim to represent. We were elected by them, not to cry and moan in the Chamber, but to give the leadership required of every Member. If the words of Senator McCarthy and the crusade of Senator Hannigan received exposure and publicity, we would finally have our foot on the road to recovery.
Senator David Norris: I wish I could agree with Senator Keaveney that the international media were hanging on our every word, as I doubt it. My more modest wish is that the Irish media would occasionally pay a little attention to the House, but that is unlikely as long as we run it like the Ballymagash amateur musical and drama society. As the named officers of the House are responsible for that, I must put the wish to one side.
Three factors should be examined: the markets, hedge funds and ratings agencies. The markets are in turmoil and we are constantly being derated. The attitude is that Dublin will be taken out first, then Madrid. A great deal of attention is paid to freedom of information requests on expenses claims. I have received another request and I am happy with it. Let us have a bit of openness about the bondholders. I want to know who they are. I want to see a list of their names.
Senator David Norris: I have some idea of who is on it. I want to know who are behind the hedge funds. They are gambling against us. I want to know who is operating in the markets. A market is where items are bought and sold. The future of the Irish people is being bought and sold over their heads. It is slavery and nothing else.
Senator David Norris: We should listen to people like David McWilliams. Yesterday, I referred to the solution, namely, a shares for equity swap in the banks. It would wipe out €120 billion. David McWilliams was discussing it again this morning. He was right. We should consider doing this. It is perfectly clear to even a two year old that one does not solve a debt crisis by miring oneself endlessly in further debt.
Senator David Norris: As long as the Government refuses to listen to creative solutions, we will fall further into the mire. It will pinch. I honour and respect my colleagues from all sides of the House who pointed to where this will hurt. It is not an abstract question. It is about people losing jobs and homes.
Yesterday, others and I attended the launch of the White Ribbon Campaign. It is called “The Other Half” and relates to the increasing risk of violence against women. Where there is domestic tension over budgets, paying bills and so on, violence against women will increase. This is the price paid.
The money has not gone away or evaporated. Rather, it is going into certain little pockets and I demand to know to whom they belong. I want to know who is in the hedge funds, who is running them and who is controlling the bond markets.
Senator Ivor Callely: I welcome the publication of the four-year economic plan and support the multi-annual approach of addressing and running the nation’s affairs. As we head into the general election in early 2011 and reflect on party political election promises of previous elections, I suggest that, since the four-year plan is the first attempt to set out our stall, costed and explained to the public, all future party political proposals should be costed and explained and the strategy for their implementation clearly set out. A mechanism should be put in place to allow all proposals to go to the Department of Finance where a senior official, be it an Assistant Secretary General or someone of similar rank, could consider and comment on them. As we all know, political parties in years gone by made promises and did not deliver on them. The public remain somewhat frustrated, having given votes to a particular party on a specific issue on which the party then did not deliver. This is wrong and other countries have implemented a mechanism that works. Will the Leader consider these mechanisms and determine whether we could take this opportunity, particularly in light of the first attempt that is the four-year plan, to set fair procedures in stone?
Senator Jerry Buttimer: A nation holds its breath. The people are about to be given an unpalatable four-year plan. In 13 years, the Fianna Fáil Party has bankrupted Ireland with its friends. This is its legacy. I want a debate on how to put the situation right. It does not start with the four-year plan. It starts with the Government, led by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance attending the House and telling the truth. This is despite what the Green Party did last Monday in adding to the uncertainty and instability. We all have an obligation as legislators to put the people of Ireland first. That is our first duty. I speak for the ordinary person, the man and woman who are struggling and who will be hammered by the Government today. I understand that the blame game is over because Fianna Fáil is indicted by the people. I canvass and meet people up to seven days a week and they are tired and fed up of this Government and want it out, as we do.
I ask the Leader to consider Senator Fitzgerald’s request that he should go to the Taoiseach and the Cabinet to ask that the budget be brought forward in order that we can have a streamlined slimmed down finance Bill to facilitate a general election, give the people a say and reinvigorate them, renew hope and give us a new start. The people I taught in school, my nephews and nieces and the sons and daughters of Members here want a new beginning and to live in an Ireland where they can dream of a better future, not of cuts but of opportunity. A nation that has given the world playwrights, scholars, musicians, sports people and artists deserves a better tomorrow. It can only start with a general election and a change of government.
Senator Larry Butler: I welcome some of the comments from the other side of the House. Senator Healy Eames put her finger on the pulse. We have to negotiate a much better deal with the ECB and the IMF. We now have to get tough, hang in there and say, in effect, “We owe you a lot of money, but you’re not doing your job”. The ECB certainly has done nothing in terms of helping any of the countries in Europe in the last few years. There was no plan, and it is important that we bear this in mind. If one looks at America or China, one sees that they are printing money, devaluing their currencies and in this manner facilitating competitiveness as regards selling their products on world markets. The big problem with Europe is that the euro is still strong. However, major contagion will arise from the Irish problem. That will extend to Italy, Portugal and Spain and then the ECB will begin to act. We should not pay a cent more than 2% in interest for the money that is coming to us. It is vitally important, or we will put the country in penury for the next 20 years if we overpay for this particular loan. Senator Healy Eames is totally right and I support her argument, because it is vitally important. Even at this late stage we should ensure we send in a crack team to negotiate what our interest payments should be in the next 20 years.
Senator Eoghan Harris: I find the comments from most of the parties surreal. There is a consensus in this House to ignore two important factors. Very soon Fine Gael and the Labour Party will be in government. They will have to face, as Senators Healy Eames and Butler have pointed out, not a dig-out, but a loan, a bank overdraft that has to be paid for. If it is paid at 5% and the full facility is drawn down we shall have to find up to €6 billion a year to pay it off.
In spite of this knowledge all the political parties in the House conspire to agree that no matter what pain and misery is inflicted on the poor, the welfare class and everybody else, the public sector remains unaffected. Like the dreary steeples of Tyrone and Fermanagh, the judges will still get their €9,000 for the studies and the Ministers will get these incredible pensions that sometimes would take up to €35,000 a week to finance in the private sector. Still the gap between public and private sector pay remains at around 30% and 70 cent in every euro the State spends is on public sector pay and pensions. We are not all in it together, and we are not going to get out of it together. No matter what happens all parties agree that a golden circle is to be drawn around the public sector.
The media are the same way and are terrified of the public sector too. Its members are paper buyers and have powerful unions. The political class is afraid of them and nobody will speak the truth. By the way, I never saw the IMF wimp out in any country except Ireland. It went to Latvia, Argentina and all over the world. The first thing it did was to cut into public sector pay and pensions, but not in Ireland. It is wimping around Ireland because it has been seduced, hypnotised and told, in effect, by a nod and a wink from all the political parties to do anything it wants, but not to touch the public sector.
Senator John Hanafin: I ask the Leader for a debate on the media. I am very conscious that there is a misrepresentation in certain sections of the media as regards the severity of the situation in this country. I am thinking in particular of Vincent Browne’s programme last night, referred to earlier in the House, where a debt of €300 billion plus was suggested for the banks. There were extreme statements by people referring to bonds that were raised and assets backed by mortgages, when the reality is that 97% of mortgages are being repaid and members of the public in general are adamant that these mortgages must be repaid if people are to have a roof over their head.
To put some realism into the argument, there is a severe difficulty, but yet we need people to be responsible. In asking the media to be responsible, it is not unfair to expect them to measure and give a realistic assessment of the situation, that they may be known for the realism of their content rather than its extremity. While the situation is serious, the four-year plan should see us through. The reality is that many positive things are happening in the economy. Exports are up, we have access to a 500 million market and Ireland is part of a single currency. We have support from Europe, but sensational stories about a €350 billion shortfall in our banks will not help anybody. In fact it is counter-productive. I understand that the media, like all of us, will have their particular preferences. Unfortunately, I noticed that the Oireachtas report on three occasions in the last week only gave the Opposition viewpoint, with a contribution from one Member from the Green Party. While I concede that the Opposition has much to say, perhaps there are others on this side of the House too who have a contribution to make. On Tuesday, Thursday and last night only one Green Party Member was shown on the Government side and all other coverage was confined to the Opposition. I am certain the Opposition would like to see fairness in this area and I ask RTE to measure what it puts out in the Oireachtas report on the public airways.
Senator Ciaran Cannon: We are debating the four-year plan this evening and I advise Members beforehand to go back to their offices and watch the Vincent Browne show from last night on TV3. The debate to date on the bailout issue has been clouded in obfuscation and deceit, and for once over 45 minutes last night that cloud was lifted and we saw the first honesty and clarity from commentators who have been remarkable prescient and uncannily accurate in every prediction they have made to date on the Irish economic crisis. Ireland, as country of 4 million people, simply cannot sustain the debt that is going to be loaded on to us, our children and grandchildren. Senator O'Toole spoke earlier of the positive aspects of economy, both the indigenous economy and the moneys accruing from foreign direct investment. That is very true, but it will rapidly come to a halt if we saddle our country with a debt that requires us to pay, conservatively, €8 billion to €10 billion per year in interest repayments.
We need to acknowledge very quickly, however, that we are in a remarkable position of power in these negotiations. The very future of the euro as a project is at stake and we need to realise honestly that the banking debt, which is not of our making, should not be our problem. Pouring cash into that black hole is simply theft from the Irish taxpayer and cannot and should not be sustained. We are now in a position of power, and we should capitalise on this.
Senator Jim Walsh: When the history of this era is written, many people who are now screaming and pointing the finger at others may in fact be in the dock. I subscribe to much of what Senator Hanafin had to say and fully to what Senator Harris said. The House will later debate the four-year plan, at which point Members will be able to expand further on these issues. However, Senator Harris is correct in saying that of the order of 40% of our expenditure, 40% of which is borrowed, goes towards public service pay. While I acknowledge that salaries will not be interfered with under the four-year plan maintaining salaries in the public service at the level at which they are at is unsustainable and will make us uncompetitive. Public service pay will have to be addressed regardless of the Croke Park agreement. More important, natural wastage must not be the main focus in terms of reducing numbers in the public service as this will in time only lead to an erosion of extremely capable people, as has happened in the past.
Senator Jim Walsh: We will, as a consequence, be left with people who are not performing. Rationalisation of the public service must take into account non-performance and the people concerned should be removed from the payroll. Otherwise, we will end up with a dysfunctional public service, which to some degree is what has been happening during the past 20 plus years. Our problems are in part a consequence of a lack of calibre in that regard. I point Members who do not accept this to a Committee of Public Accounts report in regard to three highly paid senior public servants who appeared before that committee to explain the profligacy of moneys on tribunals. Having read that report I was so uninspired I concluded that if I had a company I would not employ any of those three people, who are among our most highly paid senior public servants. We need to address this issue, which should be a priority of the outgoing and incoming Government.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: Some colleagues have called for a debate on the future of the Legislature and the need for change in that regard. There is a deeper force at play here which is beginning to manifest itself. The people to whom I have spoken believe that it does not matter for whom they vote in the next election because the Government will not be running the country. There is a growing volatility and a growing tendency for people to say that the only vote they want to cast is a protest vote, a vote against what is going on as opposed to a vote for a better future.
I am concerned that the change we are about to go through, some of which will be crystalised this afternoon, will unleash in this country forces of political extremism that will be on a par with those with which we had to deal in terms of our challenges and difficulties in regard to Northern Ireland. We must all face up to the possibility of this happening. Those of us who are in the centre now have a responsibility at least to speak responsibly and honestly. I want to pick up on two comments made in the House today, in regard to which I believe honesty was lacking. The question was asked as to the ECB is doing for us. The ECB is largely financing NAMA, regardless of whether people want it. It is probably the only bank that is buying Irish Government debt. Few others in the private market are doing so. It was inferred earlier that Ireland should consider defaulting. The example of Russia and Argentina as countries which have done so successfully was given. I ask those who make that argument to quote one example of a tiny highly globalised economy, utterly dependent on outside investment, that has ever successfully done so and lived to tell the tale.
Ireland cannot be at the vanguard of some experiment in which its destiny and security is at risk. If we are asking for the centre to hold — I believe the pressures on us in this regard will never be greater — then there is a responsibility on people at least to recognise the facts and not to give credence to people on the extremes.
Senator Marc MacSharry: Senator Donohoe must not have watched “Tonight with Vincent Browne” last night. I agree wholeheartedly with his analysis. I will not take my lead from the celebrity economists who vie for positions on such shows. The tragedy of the Houses of the Oireachtas during the eight years I have been a Member has been that for far too long the agenda has been set by the media. It was set by the media because of a void in the Houses. What I would like to hear in this afternoon's debate is not the views constituted on the airwaves but the views of Members as raised by their constituents, which is what I propose to do. I agree wholeheartedly with my colleagues Senators Walsh and Harris that with all of the sorrow and regret at the events of this week comes that which in my opinion we have yearned for for three years, namely, the point of inflection from which we can correct the structures that have failed us over many years. There is no question but that endemic in that must be the payment structure which presides over a €22,000 per month salary for a person in the Department of Education and Skills and the €10,000 and €15,000 per month paid to many others. Senator Walsh spoke about the disgrace that is the tribunals situation and the pay that has been presided over for many years in this regard. We cannot afford to pay ourselves. Salaries of €66,000 for Members of Seanad Éireann and €100,000 for Members of Dáil Éireann are too much. Everybody above that threshold must take less. I do not need the IMF to tell me that. We have been saying this for weeks in this House. Let us do it now as part of the four-year plan and ensure provision in this regard is made in the budget, difficult as that may be.
Forget politics and the future of Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, we are speaking now about the future of the people. I do not care about the future of anything else. People need to be paid less. That is a fact and this needs to happen immediately. We must now focus on the four-year plan and the budget, which for technical reasons cannot be brought forward. As quickly as is possible after that, we should deal with the social welfare Bill, the finance Bill and the appropriation Bill. We can then get on with the political consensus that is needed and let come what may. In the meantime, let us begin to correct the structures that have failed us. Top of that list is the public sector pay regime that is absolutely unsustainable.
Senator Paul Bradford: For a generation, our political system has been one of delusion and cute hoorism which is what has brought us to where we are, namely, a broken society, a broken country and an economy on the verge of total bankruptcy. We need to replace that system with politics of responsibility and courage. I am glad that much of what has been said here today has been clear, concise and full of commonsense. To put into two words the politics, project and priorities which lie ahead of us, those two words are “saving Ireland”. Whatever we do in this and the other House during the course of the next few crucial weeks must be about saving Ireland. No greater task could be placed upon our shoulders. We will have to work together.
I welcome the intervention of my party leader, Deputy Kenny, yesterday afternoon when in an act of political courage and in the national interest he appealed to the Government to bring forward the budget and finance Bill and to begin laying the foundation of recovery. I appreciate the Taoiseach’s comment that there may be technical issues arising from Deputy Kenny’s suggestion. However, the proposal is worth reflecting upon. If we do not fill the void with political debate on the four year plan, budget, finance Bill and so on, the fears, as expressed by Senator Donohoe, will come to pass, namely, wilder forces will take over. Politics must take charge and that politics must be responsible and courageous, such as is being demonstrated in this House. I appeal to all colleagues to recognise the need to save this country.
Senator Mark Dearey: I would like to expand on some of the remarks ventilated in the past few minutes in regard, in particular, to the role of politics. The rush to appoint a business leader to sort us out reflects a yearning for two things — decisiveness and expertise — but should there ever be such a move, we would be throwing the baby out with the bath water because not only do we need decisiveness and expertise, we also need political acumen, judgment and skill to work our way through this crisis. I think back, for instance, to interventions made by businessmen during the Lisbon treaty debate which, at times, were painfully crude. I wonder how successful they would be and whether they have the skills set to do what is needed.
We have to find a way to inject greater expertise into the political system. The balance between the public service and politicians should be examined. Politicians are elected by the people and are almost, by definition, generalists; they need a Civil Service crammed with expertise in Departments. However, the expertise that ought to counterbalance the general representative role of politicians is not available, in particular to the Department of Finance at this critical time. It is welcome that we have in the front row Messrs Honohan, Elderfield and Corrigan who bring expertise to the ongoing negotiations. I dread to think what might have happened without that set of recent appointments.
Another way to address this issue is through the list system, whereby the electorate would vote for parties which would then appoint experts in particular disciplines to the Houses of the Oireachtas, not individuals. It is time to give consideration to the introduction of a list system in how we make our political choices.
Senator Feargal Quinn: There is an onus on all of us in the House to act in the best interests of the State because there is a danger we could talk ourselves into bigger problems. I spoke to people who were making a television programme recently for a continental station. They had visited a working men’s club in Dublin and then interviewed some students. They sent the package to the Continent only for it be sent back because it was not negative enough. The station wanted the report to be more negative. Instead of a man saying, “Yes, we can get out of this,” the producers were asked if they could get him to look at a shop window and say, “We will not have enough food for Christmas,” because that is the story the media want. It may well be that they are explaining to their citizens why they are giving money to Ireland and they want to paint an even worse picture.
There is an onus on us to be realistic but also to be optimistic. We have experienced problems previously. In 1987 we had a much larger debt and greater problems, yet we were able to get out of them quickly because we began to believe in ourselves. Let us make sure we recognise our opportunities. Ireland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It is the second largest exporter in Europe. Other countries ran into similar problems, for example, Finland in 1991 and Latvia two years ago. They took tough medicine. When one is ill, one takes tough medicine. It is not pleasant, but one can get over problems quickly if one manages to recognise one has the solution in one’s own hands. To a large extent, it has been taken out of our hands, but we can solve our problems. Let us make sure we do not hand them over to those who have solutions other than the democratic solution for which we have responsibility.
Senator Paschal Mooney: Senator Quinn has encapsulated what I like to think is the hope of the majority around the country, if not in the House. It is a message of hope rather than the politics of despair. I appreciate that there will be charge and counter charge in the House because that is the nature of politics, but, as Senator Quinn said, this is still a wealthy country and we have a great deal going for us. In the past ten years we enjoyed unprecedented prosperity which cannot be written from the record. It is interesting that none of the issues we are discussing featured during the election campaign in 2007. There was no discussion of a banking crisis or about us getting out of an economic crisis. All of the political parties attempted to present a positive message to the electorate. In some instances, parties which will be in power in the next few months were insisting that more money should be spent and there was never a question about what would happen between 2007 and 2010. To try to airbrush from history what this and previous Administrations did from 1997 is both incorrect and dangerous to the public psyche because it creates the impression that everything is so bad that there is no longer any hope.
I acknowledge the comments made by Senator Donohoe and echo those made by Senators Harris, MacSharry and Walsh. All of us will have to make a contribution. Unlike many Members, I have a family of five and, irrespective of other things I might do, rely almost totally on my Seanad income, but I accept that we are paid more than many, while others have no money because they have no jobs. According to the statistics, some 40% of public expenditure is on one category and it is unrealistic that it can be left untouched.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: This is an important, special and outstanding debate and I compliment speakers on all sides of the House on the sober tone of their contributions. There is a national crisis and I always believe Irish politicians on all sides will always put the national interest first when it comes to the crunch. I have always respected the opinions of the Opposition parties, even though I might not necessarily agree with them, just as in fairness they should also accept that the Taoiseach and the Cabinet are working night and day to do all they can in the best interests of the nation. We need consensus and everybody to pull together. I nearly always agree with everything Senator Harris writes, but his comments on the public sector again today are slightly out of line with the general feeling in the House.
Senator Ned O’Sullivan: Last week an eminent commentator expressed admiration for the workforce in that they had stayed calm and shown reasonableness at a difficult time. This relates to our union leaders. One can compare this with what is happening in trade unions across the world. In a particular instance people are going bananas that they will not be able to draw down their pension until they are 63 years old.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I acknowledge the comments of Senators McCarthy, Walsh and Keaveney who played a major role in the mass for deceased Members. We have lost five Members in the lifetime of this Dáil and Seanad — the late Deputies Seamus Brennan and Tony Gregory and three colleagues in this House, Tony Kett, Peter Callanan and Kieran Phelan. I congratulate all those who brought us together this morning. It was lovely to be present at the mass to remember those who had made such a great contribution and had been dear colleagues of ours.
Senators Fitzgerald, O’Toole, McCarthy, Boyle, Healy Eames, Mullen, Coghlan, Keaveney, Ó Murchú, Harris, Buttimer, Butler, Norris, O’Sullivan, Hanafin, Cannon, Walsh, O’Donovan, MacSharry, Bradford, Dearey, Quinn and Mooney welcomed the opportunity we will have from 4 p.m to debate the national recovery plan which will be published at 2.30 p.m. It will cover the period 2011 to 2014 and the debate will be open-ended. It will continue for as long as Members are offering to speak and I invite every Member to make a contribution on this most important plan.
It is 12 days to the budget. It is a very short period of time. We will know the exact Exchequer returns for November, which are crucial. I am sure the Opposition will agree that accuracy regarding the figures, regardless of how bad they may be, is of huge importance, particularly at this time. I look forward to having that debate in the House.
In response to Senators Keaveney, Norris and Butler, if I had a choice to become a Minister right now it would have to be Minister for energy. In terms of the future of Ireland, if we look back over the past 50 years, the free transport——
Senator Donie Cassidy: Senator Burke is a shoe-in the next time. I am very happy for him. There is the opportunity to save €60 billion on an oil bill in the next ten years because of our geographical location on the map of the world. I was in the Isle of Man for two days with the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and they, too, are at an advanced stage in trying to advance the technologies in wave and wind power.
Senator Donie Cassidy: I am speaking about now. Fifty years ago we had the wonderful decision by Donogh O’Malley in regard to education. Twenty years ago we had the decision on the 12.5% corporation tax, but where are we going for the future? Where do the parties who will be in government after the next election go to give us the wealth to pay back the loans we are getting now?
Senator Donie Cassidy: ——whether they are in opposition or in government, agree. I invite and encourage every Senator who is available to do so to make a contribution to tomorrow’s debate in regard to the great opportunity available to us to do something of a positive nature.
Senator Cannon mentioned the interest on our repayments. That issue is crucial to the negotiators representing us in the Department. We have some of the finest people who could represent any country negotiating for us. I understand that no matter what is negotiated in the Department Members of both Houses will have an opportunity to have a say on the final outcome in terms of whether we accept or reject the proposals from the negotiators. I could stand corrected but if we have not such a say, we should have it. As has been said by many colleagues in the House in recent days, the issue is too serious.
Senator McCarthy spoke about participation in parliamentary democracy and the major role for both Houses. I fully agree that this House has an important role to play, on behalf of the taxpayer, in regard to holding everyone accountable. Whether they are in Departments or in the Dáil, this is the House that has a role in holding them all accountable. I welcome for the second time the Senator’s positive comments on the future of Seanad Éireann.
Senator Healy Eames called for a debate on education and other issues. I invite the Senator to reiterate those this afternoon when we debate the recovery plan in the House. A great deal of legislation will come before the House before Christmas which, along with the recovery plan and all the other issues, must be discussed.
Senators Mullen and Ó Murchú, and also Senator Ormonde, raised the issue of overseas aid. Ireland was never found wanting in regard to overseas aid and what we have done, and how generous the Irish people have been on very many occasions is exemplary. I know the Government will not be found wanting in that regard and that it will do its level best to give as much as it possibly can give, even in the difficult times in which we find ourselves.
Senator Keaveney spoke about TV signalling, digital services and all of that technology in her native county of Donegal. I will examine that issue for Private Members’ time with a view to seeing what we can do to help the Senator in highlighting that issue even further.
Senator Callely spoke about all-party proposals being costed by departmental officials and for them to make their views and concerns known regarding all of those proposals before final decisions are taken. That is a worthwhile proposal and I will pass it on to the Minister. The Senator also raised issues concerning mental health. We fully support his call in that regard. The Minister of State, Deputy Moloney, has never been found wanting in coming to this House to help us in debates on mental health during his time in charge of that portfolio.
Senator Hanafin called again for a debate on the media and raised serious concerns regarding the various issues that have been highlighted, particularly in regard to mortgage default. As he said, a 97% success rate in that regard in these very difficult times is an achievement. He also spoke about the media being responsible in general. I agreed some weeks ago that we will have a further debate on the media, and I will have no difficulty in having it at the earliest possible time.
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