Thursday, 12 September 2002
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 5, the Twenty-sixth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2002 – Second Stage, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 20 minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed 15 minutes. Senators may share time. The House will adjourn at 8 p.m. The content of No. 6, a motion regarding information to be issued to voters in connection with the referendum on No. 5, can be discussed in conjunction with Second Stage. I will formally move that motion when the Bill has concluded.
We agree with the Order of Business proposed by the Leader. The Nice treaty debate is an important matter. Many Senators on all sides of the Houses want to contribute to the debate and we support the proposal put by the Leader.
I ask the Leader to consider making time available tomorrow for a short debate concerning the issues that surround the national stadium project. As the Leader will be aware, the matter could not be discussed in the other House earlier this week. The Seanad should move to a progressive position where issues like this can be debated from time to time. I am seeking a concise debate tomorrow where a statement from the relevant Ministers in the House would give the country, the Seanad and the Oireachtas the latest position on this matter.
We agree regarding the need for a two-day debate on the Bill and with the decision to allow Senators to share time. I ask the Leader to take on board an issue which was raised this morning. There is much else happening in the world and it would be wrong of us to ignore the threat to Ireland from the words of the American President and the British Prime Minister regarding a potential war in Iraq. I believe we should discuss that matter. I am not proposing an amendment to the Order of Business. Today and tomorrow we should deal with the Bill, and perhaps other matters such as that suggested by Senator Hayes. If it is appropriate to take that matter tomorrow, I do not have any difficulty doing so.
However, the fact that we will adjourn tomorrow for a number of weeks adds to the cynicism which people feel about politics. It would be appropriate to meet next week to discuss the situation in Iraq, the views of the American President, the involvement of the UN and the views of the British Prime Minister. It is utterly wrong that we, as a elected democratic assembly, should ignore that threat which will impact on us in ways which are beyond our imagination at this point. I do not want to get into the debate now. I am speaking strictly about the need for a debate. I would dearly like to debate the issue next week and I ask the Leader to strongly consider that proposal.
We will not oppose the Order of Business. However, the whole issue of the purpose of Parliament arises from the proposals of my colleagues. The idea of a concise debate on such a monumental mess as the national stadium seems almost a contradiction. It requires a long, thorough and detailed analysis because so many issues are involved.
There are a number of other issues, including the transformed Government view of the world. The rest of us knew what was happening six months ago, but the Government did not notice until 18 May. We also want to debate those issues. We are now back in business. The staff are back and the offices are filled. We should meet every week from now on and there is no reason not to do so. If we meet, a number of issues among those raised by my colleagues, which are of considerable importance, could be adequately and properly discussed.
For example, we need to look at the issue of international law, which underlines what Senator O'Toole was talking about, and to ensure that international law binds everybody. It binds Saddam Hussein, but it also binds those who wish to deal with what they believe to be his excesses. That is a fundamental issue which a House such as this should usefully discuss. I appeal to the Leader, who I know to be a woman with a capacity to make judgments and decisions independent of those who would advise her to be cautious, to start off in the manner in which I hope she proposes to continue by having this House in regular session to do the things which everybody thinks Parliament should be doing. That would be my appeal to her in the form of good wishes to her in her new role.
I share the views of Senator O'Toole regarding a debate on the possibility of a war against Iraq. Listening to people on the street, there is a great deal of concern about this matter. This is a neutral country and it behoves us to look after the rights of our citizens. We all know that the fallout from such a war would not just impact on those directly involved. Virtually every country in the world would suffer from it. There is also the question of justice and of recognising the mandate and the rights of the United Nations. I cannot see any other forum available to us at present to discuss this issue. For that reason, it will be a one-sided debate. Perhaps it will not be possible in the next few days, but we must debate this matter in the near future and I support that request.
This morning we had a succinct but interesting discussion on the need to reform the Seanad. The brief debate was led by the Acting Chairman, Senator Ross. One of the key elements arising from the meeting of the Fianna Fáil Senators which decided to bequeath the Chair to you, a Chathaoirligh, was a determination on the part of the Taoiseach and the Leader of the House to reform the Seanad. We should not confine reform to mere aspiration but should put the process in train immediately. I suggest we establish an all-party committee to do that. Such a committee should represent all interests in this House and not exclude Independents. We should get the process under way and arrive at definitive reforming conclusions within as short a time as possible because although the Government has a huge majority, one never knows the day or the hour.
We cannot whistle past the graveyard any longer on the issue of the economy. There is urgent need for an economic debate in the House. This request was turned down in the other House last week. I support Senator Ryan and urge the Leader, who has stamped out her own independence at times, to invite the Minister for Finance to the House to explain how the huge predicted budget surplus has dwindled to such an extent that it is now considered fortunate if we get away with a slender surplus.
During the summer the Court of Criminal Appeal decided that the conviction of Mr. Frank Shortt, from Quigley's Point in Donegal, was wrong and the decision of the court was overturned. Mr. Shortt spent over three years in jail. The Morris tribunal which is scheduled to deal with alleged Garda irregularities in Donegal in October does not list the Frank Shortt case as one of its terms of reference. It is the only term of reference excluded where a court has actually adjudicated that it was a wrong conviction. I urge that we look at the possibility of amending the terms of reference of this tribunal. I agree that we should recall the House at the earliest date to deal with these urgent issues.
I support colleagues on the need for debates on a number of current issues. I was a member of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution which sat during the last and the previous Oireachtas. One of the issues debated was reform of this House. It was, in a sense, a false debate characterised by Government codology – people supporting reforms in the sure knowledge they were unlikely to see the light of day. One way we can demonstrate that we are serious about reform is to use our time and the power and functions we have to the maximum extent. The Leader can show good example and demonstrate our seriousness by allowing a number of sitting days, between now and the projected return of the Dáil, to debate issues such as the economy, Campus Ireland and the impending war in Iraq. I appeal to her to use this opportunity to make the Seanad relevant within the confines of its current functions.
I support my colleagues' requests for discussions on the issues mentioned. At the start of this new academic year, education is in a state of chaos and crisis. Will the Leader request the Minister for Education and Science to come to the House to explain how he intends to deal with the uncertainty in second level education regarding supervision and substitution? The Minister inherited this legacy from a former inactive Minister who succeeded in destroying the morale of many second level teachers. I ask the Leader to ask the new Minister to come to the House, dispense with the ad hoc manner of the last five years and set in motion a proper system where teachers can be respected and work without other tensions encroaching on them. He should set up a system where students and parents can be satisfied that teachers are allowed to do their work.
We are threatened with the reintroduction of third level fees. We have already seen an increase of 70% in the registration fee and now face more uncertainty. We are sowing seeds for students to again start dropping out. The disadvantaged people we have been trying to encourage to continue in further education—
Will the Leader of the House request the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the House to discuss the situation in which 20 Irish soccer fans found themselves in Russia at a recent international match? They were attacked by a mob of over 100 local people in Moscow. When they turned to the Moscow police, they did nothing for them and looked for money. These fans were in fear of their lives. We should ask the Minister to clarify what precautions the Department of Foreign Affairs took to ensure the safety of Irish fans travelling to this particular match. What steps does he plan to take for subsequent matches and will he speak to the Russian embassy about the issue? Eight of the 20 fans came from my constituency. They were genuinely terrified and feared they would not get home alive.
Will the Leader arrange a debate, when the House resumes, on funding for the BMW region? I sought this debate in the past and I ask the new Leader to provide an early opportunity to bring us up to date on the position of funding for the region.
Will the Leader arrange a debate on the issue of forward and spatial planning? This issue is important to both our rural landscape and urban areas. This request comes at a time when the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, says he endorses one-off housing in rural areas. This serious problem requires debate and serious thought before such opinions are pronounced.
Since the election people's concerns about the health area have dominated the media. I would like a specific aspect of that discussed and the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to answer questions. Many regions, such as the mid-west region, the south-east region and others, do not have radiotherapy facilities. It is a disgrace that people have to travel long distances for five minutes of radium treatment because these facilities do not exist in their area. The mid-west region, with a population of 360,000 people, does not have that facility. A charitable trust is prepared to provide the equipment, yet there are delays in providing the facility. Will the Minister come to the House and instead of hiding behind reports answer pertinent questions regarding the many issues of concern in the health service? The sooner Ministers come into this House to answer questions the better. If we are seen to do what the electorate demand of us, this House will be seen as pertinent and relevant.
I thank all Senators for their contributions on the Order of Business. Senator Brian Hayes, the Leader of the Opposition, asked for a debate on the national stadium. Senator O'Toole asked for a discussion on the dangers of a potential war with Iraq. Senator Brendan Ryan suggested that the House should meet more often – I agree with his proposal. Senator Ó Murchú echoed the comments of Senator O'Toole about the dangers in the likelihood of a war with Iraq.
I note that Senator Jim Higgins is as busy as ever because he asked three questions. He asked for the formation of an all-party committee to deal with the reform of this House. I will refer his request to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. He asked that the Minister for Finance be invited to the House to speak about the economy. He stated the Frank Shortt case is excluded from the terms of reference of the Morris tribunal. I will convey the concerns of the House on the matter immediately to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Senator Derek McDowell said the House should avail of its existing powers and build upon them to bring about reform. Senator Ulick Burke asked that the Minister for Education and Science speak to the House on the subject of fees for third level education and the ongoing difficulties about school supervision. Senator Feargal Browne spoke about the treatment in Russia of some soccer fans from his constituency. Senator Paddy Burke asked for the relevant Minister to speak to the House about funding for the BMW region. Senator Joe McHugh asked for a debate on spatial planning. Senator Michael Finucane spoke about health and the lack of radiotherapy treatment services in the mid-west.
Some Senators said the House should sit next week or as soon as possible in order to deal with these issues. I will request that the relevant Ministers come to the House when it resumes business.
Order of Business agreed to.