Tuesday, 13 May 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 1, Official Languages Bill 2002 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and conclude not later than 5 p.m., and No. 2, statements on health, to be taken at 5p.m.
With your permission, a Chathaoirligh, our party will divide out the time as there seem to be many speakers who wish to contribute. I suggest that instead of giving a stated time, the leaders of each group can work out the time among themselves. We could set a time, but then I would have to change it later.
The Leader is aware that on Thursday the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will present to the House a new Bill, the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill. This is an attempt to clamp down on the scandalous situation on our streets, particularly at weekends and at times when people congregate. The Minister was in the midlands yesterday where he seems to have found his feet. His proposals suggest he is positing himself as a modern day Fr. Mathew. Will there be substantive amendments to the Bill to allow for his proposal to introduce a national identity card scheme for people of 23 years of age and older? When will this legislation be published? The Minister will introduce the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill in the House on Thursday. Why is the provision he announced yesterday excluded from that Bill? The Minister is a great man for thinking aloud. He is not unlike the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Dempsey, in that regard. However, in terms of getting the job done he has produced few Bills, yet he has 14 in the pipeline. When will this Bill, to embody a proposal from our side of the House, be introduced? I welcome the fact that the Minister is accepting Fine Gael policy in this area.
Yes. Many of those courses will be cut this year. Can the Leader find out from the Minister for Education and Science his plans in that regard? Many hundreds of children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds will not be given that opportunity. I understand that 500 students who currently reside in universities have benefited from this programme. It should be excluded from cutbacks. I ask the Leader, given her experience and the influence she can still bring to bear on the Government, to get that cutback reversed.
I want to bring the attention of the House to the fact that we have successfully raised and pressurised the appropriate authorities on the question of Kilbeggan racecourse. I am glad we have forced those people to change their minds. I thank the Leader for her support on that issue which will be well recognised as an important move forward.
We are on a roll here between Connacht rugby and the Kilbeggan racecourse. We will be the saviours of the west.
We have referred on a number of occasions to the Taoiseach's continuing commitment to making some decision about the ability of the State to take ownership of land and to define the use of land which, some would say, requires a constitutional amendment and others say does not. The price of houses is driven by the price of land more than any other aspect. The Taoiseach's views are progressive and should be supported by this side of the House. I want us to be absolutely sure we understand what is being proposed. Will the Leader ask the Taoiseach to consider outlining his views on the issue to this House? He has spoken on a number of occasions about the small cadre of people with options, ownership or deals done on most of the potential development land on the eastern side of the island. This issue, which is crucial to our future, has not been discussed in either House, though the Taoiseach has commented on it. It would be helpful if somebody from the Department of the Taoiseach, preferably the Taoiseach – I am not demanding it be him – could come to the House for a debate.
On Northern Ireland matters, I am not suggesting we open up a new debate but developments over the weekend have raised issues, such as the value of life, on all sides of the table. I do not know where we are on this but the public is completely taken aback by it. Taxi drivers are referring to this country as a James Bond island. Perhaps what we have been living with for the last 30 years has just been brought home to everybody. I am appalled and cannot cope with the information coming out. I support the Government in seeking clarification on the issue and hope we will hear it soon.
I also wish to raise with the Leader the figures on homelessness, house price statistics and the Simon Community report published yesterday. I would like a discussion on the reason the figures regarding homelessness – some counties have a zero rating – were disputed by the Simon Community in terms of its experience and the use of its services in the counties concerned. I support Senator O'Toole's view on the referral of the issue to the all-party committee on the Constitution, of which I am a member. While I have no problem with it discussing the issue, it is basically an excuse for the Government to do nothing about housing, about which it is within its power to do something in terms of the use of land in State ownership, adequately funding local authority housing programmes instead of introducing cutbacks and setting up an overall housing agency to co-ordinate local authority work.
Some time ago I raised the issue of the demolition of an historic 1916 building in Moore Street. I welcome the decision by the city council to ensure its retention and hope it is successful in that regard. There is, however, a broader issue involved. Who is entitled to make a decision that such a building can be demolished? I recall that the then Minister, Deputy de Valera, introduced legislation to ensure this could never happen again following a number of outrageous cases involving the demolition of buildings of historic significance. The point was made on a programme on UTV the other evening that we, in the Republic, were not particularly good at looking after our historic buildings. It would be helpful to debate the issue in this House. It may be necessary to set up a national body to ensure such decisions to demolish, such as the one regarding the building in Moore Street, are not made. That decision generated a great deal of publicity, both nationally and internationally. The Seanad could provide a lead in such a debate.
Will the Leader give the House an assurance that our security and intelligence services were not aware of the activities of Stakeknife and other double agents engaged by the British forces in the North? We have learned from the Stevens report of the extent and type of activities engaged in by the British forces in the North. It is evident such activities are continuing, given the leaking of this story. We should hear from the Leader on the issue as the able representative of the Government in this House.
I ask the Leader to invite to the House the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, to discuss the proposals relating to the withdrawal of the below cost selling order for supermarkets and the lifting of restrictions on the size of supermarkets. There should also be a discussion on the growth of companies such as Lidl and Aldi which are taking a very large share of the Irish market but not selling Irish goods in their stores. We have a deep concern about what is happening in the retail sector. I know the Government is concerned about inflation. I would, however, be more concerned about the removal of the below cost selling order as it relates to the provision of loss leaders by supermarkets in order to bring in customers. We have tremendous knowledge on this topic in the House. Members on all sides would contribute to the debate.
I support Senator Brian Hayes in his call for a debate on the drink laws. If the Minister sees himself as the new Fr. Mathew, I have no problem with it. Fr. Mathew was an excellent man. We certainly need another one in the 21st century. There should be a review of the full range of planning and licensing laws in the debate as they part of the problem. We, as legislators, ought to address the matter. There is also a report recently published on the levels of city centre crime which we should also take into account in the debate.
I support the call for a debate on recent events in the North of Ireland. I am not sure the word "information" was used. There is much disinformation from both sides on the matter. I also deplore the use of the word "execution" by RTE with regard to IRA activities of certain kinds. I do not believe it is in a position to perform executions as this country has abolished capital punishment. Any legitimate execution would be carried out by the State and the State has decided against it. It is not appropriate to use the word "execution" to cover paramilitary murders. It is appalling if the man concerned was involved as a double agent. It is disgraceful and we are entitled to know the full details of the case. I find it astonishing that it is Mr. Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin who has intervened and become spokesman on what is quite clearly and exclusively an IRA matter. It worries me a little that it is that person who should speak in this way.
I absolutely agree with the suggestion of Senator Ó Murchú that there should be a national organisation to look after buildings of historical significance but in that case why did the Government abolish Dúchas, the organisation which could have done it? It seems extraordinary to abolish it, on the one hand, and then look for its return, on the other.
I ask the Leader to provide some time for a debate on No. 29 on the Order Paper which relates to the aftermath of the war in Iraq. I will not withdraw a single word of what I said in the run-up to that dreadful, calamitous war. It is absolutely essential that we require the aggressors to look after the civilian victims, not just Ali, who was photogenic in a horrible way when he lost his arms, but all the children, civilians, old people and women bombed in the war. There is a responsibility on the two Governments involved to provide a medical service for all the victims. We should review the whole situation in Iraq to assess the potential for a major cholera outbreak.
I support Senator O'Toole's call for a review of the constitutional position on property and land. It has been announced that a record number of houses – 57,500 – were built last year. Therefore, to say nothing has been done by the Government is distinctly overstating it. I accept, however, that there is a problem of cost.
It is very important where particular groups in society are given privileges or concessions in the public interest that these are not abused. I was disturbed last week to see a report in the Evening Herald that the heritage home scheme appeared to have been abused, that access had been denied to somebody during advertised visiting times and a sort of human Rottweiler set on them. The problem is that such incidences bring these schemes into discredit. Everyone, however wealthy, whatever their brilliant contribution to society has been, is subject to the same laws so that they are not brought into abuse. The same perhaps applies to taxi licences.
I ask the Leader of the House to invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to this House to debate the Prison Service. I know he will be present on Thursday next for the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2002, but when the Minister was outside these Houses he was a great critic of the Prison Service. He has been in his current position for the past ten months or so and has brought nothing forward in relation to that service.
I am referring to a number of problems which have previously been raised in this Chamber, but the Minister himself has brought up one of these issues, the proposed abolition of prison officers' overtime. While none of us would agree with some of the salaries that some of the prison officers were earning, I would like to have a debate on that matter in this House. We should also debate once again the prison visiting committees, an issue the Minister has done nothing about since our previous debate on the issue in this Chamber. The drugs problem, and incidents relating to racism within the prisons, likewise need to be addressed. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to come to this House and explain why he has not brought forward a Bill relating to the Prison Service, as he said he would.
I ask the Leader for a debate on decentralisation. It has come to light that 17,000 civil servants would be interested in transferring to rural locations. I could think of no finer place for the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, particularly with regard to sport, than my home town of Thurles, which has a wonderful race course for dogs and horses, as well as Semple Stadium, a beautiful golf course, rugby and football pitches and wonderful facilities.
I ask the Leader to request the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to attend the House and declare once and for all his position with regard to the rehabilitation of abandoned mining sites. Jobs are currently very difficult to create, especially in the west, and two companies are on the point of establishing processes and creating jobs at the old mine in Tynagh, County Galway. While the people currently objecting are not objecting to the creation of new jobs in the area, they are seriously concerned about their livelihoods and the contamination caused by any interference with the old mine. The local authority has neither the resources nor the responsibility to rehabilitate the mine. The EPA will take responsibility only for any new processes involved and the way the work is carried out. The only person who has total responsibility is the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, or the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
This is a very serious matter. It is very peculiar that nobody can have access to the conditions of the original mining licence. The granting of this licence was the greatest ever rip-off and robbery of the nation. That is all over and done with, but we cannot find the owners of the mine, who are thought to be in South Africa. At a time when people's livelihoods in the adjoining farms are at risk, and job creation is also threatened, I ask the Leader to request the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to attend this House and establish an inquiry similar to that established at Silvermines in Nenagh. After 25 years of hassle for everybody involved, we might then get a final resolution of this very serious problem.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the House to bring us up to date on the position of the Belfast Agreement? Yesterday I visited Alban Maginness of the SDLP, a member of the Assembly, and Patricia Lewsley. On being asked what message they wanted me to bring back, they said they needed to know a date for the election for the Assembly. We have to put pressure on the British Government to call the election as quickly as possible as it is difficult for them to motivate people on the ground and keep them energised. I draw Members' attention to the fact that neither strand of the Agreement is in existence because of the current debacle; strand one being the Assembly and strand two, the North-South Ministerial Council.
Last week I referred to The Economist magazine which focused on the "dirty war" in Northern Ireland and what the Stevens inquiry had shown up. I advise Members that last June the Government with the British Government appointed Peter Cory, a Canadian Supreme Court judge, to look at collusion in the murders of Pat Finucane, Robert Hamill, Billy Wright, Lord and Lady Gibson and Superintendent Harry Breen. He has completed his investigation of the Finucane, Wright and Hamill cases and, because of the current vacuum, I call on the Minister to publish the results.
On a more serious note, I wish to raise an issue which I have previously raised, one which was also raised by other Senators, the possible reintroduction of third level fees. The Minister for Education and Science has not, as yet, outlined his strategy for the future. I ask that he do so as soon as possible.
Last weekend's newspapers highlighted a report conducted by Professor Malcolm Skilbeck, a world recognised authority in education. He proposed a number of changes, particularly to the structure of institutes of technology. I ask that the Minister for Education and Science come to the House to discuss the future role of institutes of technology, which should be a priority for us.
I was surprised by what the Taoiseach said over the weekend in regard to agriculture. Will the Leader comment on this? It is clear that the Minister and Minister of State in the Department have failed abysmally in their efforts to bring the plight of farmers to the attention of the Taoiseach when he could come out with the remark that those involved full-time in farming earn a good living from it. Will he come into the real world? As somebody involved in agriculture, the Cathaoirleach will appreciate the fact that the industry has never been in a worse position.
I strongly support the comments of Senator Ó Murchú. I am delighted with the situation pertaining to Kilbeggan racecourse, a matter I have raised twice in the House.
In regard to the ongoing problem of stabbings, it is high time that we had another debate in the House which might contribute to a reduction in this terrible practice. We have to look at the possibility of giving additional powers to the Garda to search suspects. Those who carry knives do not do so for paring their fingernails or pencils. They carry them with malicious intent. There should be a mandatory prison sentence for anybody who uses a knife in an attack.
I also wish to refer to a matter I raised last week on which I did not get a response – perhaps the Leader overlooked it. I request a debate on rural development, which is being widely discussed. People drive rural development; it is concerned with people. The manner in which An Taisce is behaving, including its allegations of collusion by locally elected members, certainly needs to be addressed in the context of an early debate.
I join my colleague in calling for a debate on decentralisation. We have spoken of dispersal of people and jobs. There is a serious problem in rural areas which have not benefited from decentralisation. This Government has an opportunity to decentralise jobs to such areas. I want a debate now, not when all the jobs have been divvied up by the Cabinet. I call on the Leader to arrange that debate.
On many occasions, we have referred to the need for the Minister for Transport to come to the House in connection with the Dublin Port tunnel. His decision today to ban super trucks from the capital is astonishing. It is time for him to come to the House to explain where responsibility lies for the fiasco which currently pertains.
I assume many experts and consultants were employed to design the port tunnel. They have designed a tunnel which cannot be used by every vehicle. Incidentally, the difference in height is only one foot, although the Minister has referred to "super trucks", which is quite disingenuous on his part. There is now no viable alternative to freight in the city centre. Having regard to the shambles in relation to rail freight, it is a matter of urgency to invite the Minister to the House to outline his plans with regard to cargo and heavy goods vehicles.
I agree with my colleagues on the need for a debate on decentralisation. Senator Hanafin should be aware that the Government introduced plans for decentralisation in the run-up to the local elections in 1999. Since then, there have been statements, half statements and a great deal of waffle on the issue of decentralisation.
I call on the Minister for Finance to come into the House to debate the criteria which will determine locations for decentralisation. Will the BMW region get priority this time around? Will the recent census of population be taken into account when locations are being decided?
We also need an urgent debate on better crime prevention measures. People are very fearful in their homes and businesses and, indeed, on our streets. There is an urgent need for a crime prevention programme to be put in place. I request that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform come to the House to discuss that issue.
The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, referred to the Bill dealing with matters such as ID cards and the ideas of the Minister for Justice in relation to alcohol abuse and other issues. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2002 will be before the House next Thursday. That will provide an opportunity for Members to raise those issues. Reference was also made to the Minister's visit yesterday to a school, to which there was open access. I regarded it as a good idea that he met young people and laid out his stall to them. I believe he chooses his formats and environments very carefully. Perhaps it rankled that he took the opportunity to speak to young people.
Senator Brian Hayes raised the Access programme to third level education. Perhaps the people concerned were above the normal student age and did not have a chance when they were at school. A one-year foundation course in third level college was my idea. However, it was the Senator who made the comment.
There are hundreds of students completing full term college courses who would not be there if they had not had the opportunity of the foundation course. It would be an interesting matter for the House to consider.
I thank Senator O'Toole for his kind remarks about Kilbeggan racecourse. I have told those responsible that he and Senator Glynn have been most assiduous in raising the issue. Senator O'Toole also requested that an appropriate Minister to come before the House to outline the terms of the all-party committee on the Constitution investigating the use of land. Such a debate would serve us well. The Senator's final point related to the gruesome events of the weekend concerning the double agent codenamed Stakeknife.
Senator Tuffy raised the recently published figures on homelessness. I know that she is a member of the all-party committee on the Constitution charged with considering land ownership. She said that the Government should invest the necessary money now, but it is clear that the withholding of land by particular interests for long periods – thus, delaying its proper development – is one of the major factors that contributes to homelessness. I take the Senator's point, however, that she wants an all-embracing agency to be established to examine all matters relating to housing. We can debate that issue when the relevant Minister comes before the House.
Senator Ó Murchú raised the need to preserve the house in Moore Street, Dublin, to which the 1916 leaders retreated following the evacuation of their forces from the GPO. As I understand it, each local authority has a heritage officer who deals with such matters. Since that avenue seems to have gone awry in this case, however, I will obtain information on the matter for the Senator.
Senator Coghlan raised the question of whether or not our security and intelligence services knew about Stakeknife and other double agents. I agree with him – several other Members raised this issue – as regards how we can know what is happening. How do we know, for example, if there is not somebody – not quite in our midst, but around – who is involved in such issues? When the Minister comes before the House on Thursday we will raise that matter with him.
Senator Leyden referred to the below cost selling order with respect to the Lidl and Aldi retail chains. He asked me to bring the matter to the attention of the Tánaiste. When my party was in Opposition, we discussed this matter but I have found that, ultimately, customers will frequent shops which offer goods at a cheaper price. Senator Leyden's point is good in theory, however, and I am sure the Tánaiste would be keen to come before the House to discuss the below cost selling order.
Senator Mansergh welcomed the review of the ownership of land, but he took up Senator O'Toole's point that special concessions with regard to such measures should not be given away lightly or be misused. He also said that those who benefit from property tax breaks because their homes are worthy of public visits, should not refuse such visits. We all know who is being discussed in this regard, but we are afraid to repeat the person's name.
Senator Terry, as she has done on several occasions, sought a debate on the Prison Service. However, the Minister came before the House recently and referred to that issue. As I understand it, he seemed to think that a review of the prison visiting committees' system was a good idea and, therefore, he may well be working on that matter.
Senator Hanafin wants Thurles to be recognised for purposes of decentralisation. The Senator provided a wonderful description and it is only natural for him to love his town.
Senator Ulick Burke wants the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come before the House to discuss Tynagh mines. I am aware of the position regarding the disused mines there, but the Senator wants to know who is in charge of them, who is responsible for the contamination and who will decontaminate them. The latter term is employed when mines are to be fully decommissioned. I will try to find out which Minister would be the appropriate one to deal with this question.
Senator White wants the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come before the House. She mentioned that Strands One and Two are no longer in existence, but I must point out that the North-South bodies are still operating on a care and maintenance basis. The mechanism necessary to facilitate the latter was passed by the House.
They are operating on a care and maintenance basis. I will ask the Minister about this matter. Given that we had a debate on the North last week, I do not expect that we will have another in the next week or two. Senator White also asked for the review by Judge Corry to be published.
Senator John Paul Phelan referred to third level fees and Professor Malcolm Skilbeck's report about the institutes of technology. The Senator was right to mention that, as an ex-OECD official, the professor is a renowned expert on education. The report made certain comments about the status that should be obtained by some institutes of technology. I will ask the Minister for Education and Science to come before the House to debate a range of issues.
Senator Glynn agreed with Senator Ó Murchú about heritage sites and Kilbeggan racecourse. I think we are all united in that regard. I compliment the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, for moving very smartly on this matter. I have not forgotten that the Senator is seeking a debate on rural development, but he only raised the matter last week. I try to list the various issues that are raised and then to pursue the relevant Ministers in terms of getting them to come before the House for debates on them. We will have a debate on this matter, as it would be useful.
Senator Feighan mentioned decentralisation, an issue to which he and many others have continually referred. I will try to get the Minister for Finance, or the Minister of State from that Department, to come before the House to deal with that matter.
Senator Browne raised the issue of the Dublin Port tunnel. I have read about the plans he mentioned, but I do not understand how material can be removed from one truck and placed on another in the middle of the tunnel. That sounds like a strange notion. The issue can be raised tomorrow night during Private Members' Business, when the House will debate a strong, composite Opposition amendment.