Wednesday, 22 October 2003
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 1, motion re non-contractual obligations, on which the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights has completed its deliberations, to be taken without debate; No. 2, motion re Simpson's Hospital (Amendment) Order 2003, on which the Joint Committee on Health and Children has completed its deliberations, to be taken without debate; No. 3, motion of referral, whereby the subject matter of No. 12 on the Order Paper is being referred to the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, which concerns the application of the Freedom of Information Act to the performance verification groups established under Sustaining Progress, to be taken without debate; No. 4, statements on the Report of the National Task Force on Medical Staffing, the Hanly report, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 2 p.m, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Members may share time and the Minister to reply not later than ten minutes before the conclusion of statements; No. 5, Criminal Justice (Temporary Release of Prisoners) Bill 2001 – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude not later than 3 p.m.; No. 6, statements on the European Convention/ Intergovernmental Conference to be taken at 4 p.m. and to conclude not later than 6 p.m, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes, Members may share time and the Minister to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of statements; and No. 7, Irish Nationality and Citizenship and Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2003 – Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, to be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. There will be a sos from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.
We agree to the Order of Business as proposed. If ever one wanted to know what Armageddon will be like, all one would need to do is travel through the traffic in Dublin this morning. I apologise for being slightly late.
Despite the setback in the Northern talks yesterday, much was achieved and a great deal has been achieved in recent weeks, particularly in terms of the new agreement that appears to be close to conclusion between the Sinn Féin Party and the Ulster Unionist Party. Both Governments deserve our praise for their efforts in the past few weeks. I am seeking a debate on Northern Ireland, not immediately but at some stage in the coming weeks, in order that these matters can be teased out in greater detail. One thing is clear, namely, that the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic look to the Good Friday Agreement and the full implementation thereof to bring about peace and reconciliation between green and orange in this country. We thought we were close to achieving that yesterday. We can come closer to it in the coming days to ensure public confidence in the process is restored within Northern Ireland and throughout this island and that all those party to the Agreement do their best to ensure success and the agreement is bedded down. I wish the parties well. At this time I encourage all Members of the Oireachtas to temper their remarks in view of the ongoing discussions that need to take place. In that regard, I wish the Governments well.
The Irish Nationality and Citizenship and Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2003 is an excellent Bill proposed by Senator Quinn. Will the Leader indicate if the Government is in a position to accept this Bill on Second Stage? The Fine Gael group in this House looks forward to the Government supporting the Bill on Second Stage and letting it move to Committee Stage. It deals with the rather murky area of passports and the granting of naturalisation. I encourage the Government to accept the Bill.
I support everything Senator Brian Hayes has said about Northern Ireland. I agree to the Order of Business. We will soon have a debate on the Hanly report. I commend the content of the order concerning Simpson's Hospital to other small hospitals around the country. It is good to see the board of a hospital deciding to change the modus under which it operates if change if required. Many hospitals could look at this motion and see the changes Simpson's Hospital proposes to make in the way in which it operates. As Members know, it has operated under the same charter for nearly 200 years.
Will the Leader provide for a debate on agriculture? The Minister for Agriculture and Food has decided to introduce complete decoupling of the payment arrangements within his Department. While I agree with this, I am sure many Members are anxious to have a debate on the issue.
I sympathise with Senator Brian Hayes's travails in the traffic. I note the NRA met with a committee of the Oireachtas yesterday and said, yet again, it could not impose performance criteria on the West Link bridges because of the way the contract was written. In light of what we have heard here about the demands for performance appraisal from public servants and the demand that their contracts be effectively rewritten to ensure performance appraisal, I invite the Government to seek the best legal advice on whether it can impose performance criteria in this regard. That bridge is a disgrace. Figures were produced yesterday highlighting the inadequacy of the number of toll-booths. Despite having a traffic volume of more than five times that of the M1, there are less toll-booths. This is disgraceful and it is time this body was told it cannot abuse a State granted monopoly in the way it does.
Regarding a number of items on the Order of Business, it is a good idea in principle that matters are referred to an appropriate committee. However, both Houses should receive a report to ensure these are dealt with to the satisfaction of the committees and conclusions are drawn. Otherwise, we could have things bouncing between the Houses and the committees without any certainty that they were properly reflected on. I am not casting aspersions on any committee. However, there ought to be a simple process by which we would at least know where to find information to show a particular decision was taken.
I fully agree with what Senator Brian Hayes said and that we all must temper our language on Northern Ireland. I agree with one thing SDLP leader Mark Durkan said last night, that one of the problems was that there were only two parties to the agreement and as no one else was there they could not verify precisely what was agreed. We have two conflicting versions of what was agreed and that is part of the risk of only having two bodies involved. It was a decision taken by the two Governments to facilitate negotiations between two parties but one of the problems is that nobody was there to verify what was agreed. One of the fantastic roles of the SDLP for the last 20 to 30 years has been that of bridge-builder and if other parties had been present in these negotiations there would have been considerably less room for confusion. There is a lesson to be learned from that about how to handle this in future. I do not wish to say anything beyond that because we could jeopardise what we hope will be considerable progress.
I would not like the day to pass without referring briefly to the situation in Northern Ireland. I acknowledge and respect the views expressed by Senator Brian Hayes and I wish both Governments well as they try to overcome the current impasse. I also welcome the commitment to holding elections in Northern Ireland in November and I hope we will see an Executive coming out of those elections. I also hope that those parties which have always held the line of reason will be acknowledged in any such Executive and will form part of it. Apart from that I concur with previous speakers, as the less said the better. I hope we can overcome this impasse and take a major leap forward to bring peace to the island.
Will the Leader consider extending the time for the discussion of the Hanly report? Two and three quarter hours are scheduled for that debate but that may not be sufficient, as many Senators will want to express their views on the impact of the report on the health services all over the country and not just in the pilot areas.
As a matter of urgency I ask the Leader to contact the Minister for Transport in relation to the horrific accident in Clare over the weekend, where two lives were tragically lost and others were seriously injured. I extend our sympathies to the families of all involved on their tragic loss. The significant issue is the ease with which young people can purchase cars of that kind for very little money. Those young people travelled from Galway to Clare and crashed, probably at high speed, causing this tragedy. It is important the Minister explains to the Seanad the opportunities he has had to revise current legislation or to introduce new or emergency legislation to make it impossible for such accidents to occur again. This was not a unique situation; it happened before but thankfully the gardaí intercepted the car before a tragedy like last weekend's could occur. The Leader should treat this as an urgent matter to ensure another accident cannot happen.
I endorse Senator Brian Hayes's comments on Northern Ireland. The Leader should impress on the Government the importance of restoring the profile of the SDLP, which has been involved in this process at all times. It is important the SDLP takes its rightful place in the negotiations and gets due credit for the heroic work it has done down the years. It is sad that party has been more or less excluded at this point.
I commend the Minister for Agriculture and Food on his decision on decoupling having engaged in extensive consultations. Accordingly, I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister to come into the House so we can have a debate on the matter in the next week or two before all the i's are dotted and t's crossed.
It is important that we have a debate on the North of Ireland. I had expected up until mid-afternoon yesterday that this would be a triumphant day and that we would all be heaping praise on people and saying how well things had gone. This obviously does not seem to have happened, but some significant things did. It is worthwhile putting them on record, particularly the speech of Gerry Adams, which was quite an astonishing move forward. I very much welcome it. It is important the way in which the Unionists have given a welcome to this very important speech. The problem was that General de Chastlelain is a soldier; he is not a politician. He was not up to the spin. There was too much spin and too much hype. We were led up to this announcement and people were talking about choreography. They had better get a new choreographer because it did not work.
I agree with people who said it was a shame the SDLP was excluded. That was very damaging in my opinion for practical reasons that have been put on record but also from the point of view of choreography. Why did they not have Mark Durkan at No. 10 Downing Street and, if necessary, tell him to sit in the corner and read The Irish Times for half an hour, after which the negotiators would come out wearing big smiles and saying everything was on track? That is the kind of political management we need. It is a pity this has happened. The people in the North of Ireland are tough enough to listen to a few words from the Seanad. I do not think we need to be so mealy mouthed about it; they are practical, realistic politicians. I hope and believe they will get this back on track.
I may be the only person in this House to take a dissenting view of Mother Teresa, and I say that with respect. I take a different view of the political impact of her work. I want to express my concern, and ask that it be transmitted to the appropriate quarters, that the Minister for Defence, Deputy Smith, attended as a representative of the Government of the people of Ireland at the beatification of Mother Teresa in the light of the fact that the miraculous cure attributed to her has been challenged significantly by the two doctors who treated the woman concerned. They said that she did not have cancer and that she was responding, as anticipated, to treatment for a tubercular cyst, which disappeared as they had anticipated. It is a pity the Government is involved in a hoax.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes and the other speakers who wish both Governments, the Taoiseach, Deputy Ahern, and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, well. I place on record my congratulations to both Governments and all others in Ireland, England, America and Northern Ireland involved in the talks and in the Good Friday Agreement for the wonderful work they have done in recent years and weeks. This is a week to remember in this country and particularly in Northern Ireland. I congratulate all concerned on the wonderful achievement so far. It is sad that yesterday evening another little stumbling block came in the way of what would have been a wonderful day for Ireland. I wish all parties and all others concerned in the talks well over the coming days and weeks. I hope that all will be well in a day or so, that the problem that has arisen will be overcome and that we will see the full benefits of the Good Friday Agreement and lasting peace in Northern Ireland.
I would like the Leader to raise two issues with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. One concerns the inequality that exists in one of our major banks, and probably in other banks, in relation to women reaching positions of higher management. Some 79% of the staff is female, yet very few of these women reach the top positions. I am shocked to hear they do not have an equality policy in that bank. That is something which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, should take up and ensure that these large institutions have an equality policy in place in order to be fair to all of their staff.
The Minister might attend this House to outline how he proposes to monitor the regulations he has set down for people who drink in pubs whether they are under age or over age, as well as the regulation banning free drink promotions in public houses. That practice continues. If the Minister is going to introduce such laws, he should put in place a system for ensuring they are upheld.
The hands of the courts appear to be tied in the sense that justice and appropriate penalties seem to be restricted, even where it is plain to lay people that the punishment is not appropriate for the crime. Could the Leader find out if there is any way Senators or the Law Reform Commission could assess, investigate and hopefully improve legislation when it comes to dealing with the problems outlined by Senator Burke? He spoke about the transport element while I am talking of the legal element. We all read in our newspapers this morning of a case in Dublin yesterday involving a boy of 14 being fined €5 and banned from driving for one year. I am not questioning the judgment in this case, but the process and restrictions resulting in that judgment.
I ask the Leader of the House to see if there is any way in which we could look at present legislation in relation to juveniles and improve or change it in order to make it more hard hitting. It is time to take such action in order that fatalities similar to those we saw at the weekend do not happen.
I support my colleagues in their call for a full debate on the decoupling of direct payments to farmers and on the steps the Minister might take to reduce the bureaucracy and red tape in farming because the present system is very complicated. We must also examine what the future holds for the development and promotional agencies such as Teagasc and Bord Bia, because there will be repercussions following the decision on direct payments. I would also like to know when the single payments for farmers will be determined.
I agree with my colleagues regarding the shabby manner in which the SDLP has been treated in the Northern Ireland talks. We must get things right in this area. Over the years I have greatly admired John Hume and his successor Mark Durkan. The SDLP has always been a pro peace party, a fact recognised worldwide, and it is important to have that party involved at all levels of the negotiations.
I join with Senator Burke in expressing my sympathy to the families of the victims of the horrendous tragedy in my constituency of Clare over the weekend. Not wanting to prejudice any investigation that might be under way, I agree it is time to urgently look at the trade in unroadworthy cars. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, has indicated he is prepared to do so. All Members of the House would no doubt like to see something done. This situation has developed over a number of years as a result of higher car standards being put in place by means of the NCT. The net result is that there are now more cars at the lower end of the market which can still be driven but are not roadworthy. A trade has developed in that area, with cars sold cheaply, in effect allowing children to buy them. We need to address this issue.
I support the views outlined by Senator Brian Hayes and others on the situation in the North. So much has been achieved that we must not allow the hope justifiably built in both communities to be diminished. The current situation is a slight, faltering step which will be, as other speakers said, corrected in a matter of days. We must be patient a little longer. We should leave the timing of such a debate, which will shortly be appropriate, to the Leader.
I agree with Senator Ulick Burke on the matter he raised. A number of questions arise from this terrible tragedy. Is a person purchasing a car asked if he or she has a full driving licence or insurance? I do not believe that is the case. A mechanically propelled vehicle in the hands of an incompetent person is a lethal weapon. Many questions need to be answered. I strongly support the call for a debate on this matter. There is a huge gap in the legislation which needs to be addressed. If provision exists in current legislation to deal with this issue but the law is not being implemented, then those not enforcing it should pay the penalty.
I support the sentiments expressed by Senator Brian Hayes and others on Northern Ireland. The vast majority of people on this island await, in eager anticipation, a final resolution of this problem. Everyone wishes it could be resolved.
Will the Leader take up with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the issue of banks and so-called respectable lending institutions employing hardened criminals to repossess goods on which people are defaulting? I have experience of this. These people knock on the door at the most opportune time, perhaps when a person is alone, and demand the keys of one's car and drive it away. Are such people covered by insurance? This gives credence to the fact that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. A more eminent person than I has stated that the rich govern the laws and the laws govern the poor.
The virtual unanimity in the Chamber this morning regarding Northern Ireland is an indication of the great progress which has been made to bring a lasting and just peace to this island. Most of us were hoping a final solution to this particular phase would have been reached yesterday. What we are now dealing with is a cosmetic issue. We should all temper our views because, as Senator Brian Hayes said, the next 48 hours could be particularly important.
Everybody in public life admires people who do good for those vulnerable in society. We are glad to extol the virtues of such people. Mother Teresa is one such person. Lest our silence might suggest in some way that we accept there was fraudulent activity involved in our admiration for her, it is important to put on the record that most people are glad to see what she has done being recognised.
I, too, express thanks to both Governments for their work on the Northern Ireland issue. Reference has been made to John de Chastelain but he is only operating under the conditions laid down for his position. It is correct and fitting that both Governments should examine ways and means to clarify the issues raised. That would go a long way towards full implementation of the Agreement.
I support Senator Ó Murchú's comments regarding Mother Teresa. We are all proud of the Minister for Defence who represented the Government at the ceremony last Sunday.
I welcome the tone set by Senator Brian Hayes in his comments on Northern Ireland. There is a need for a debate but I must take account of what is happening and I will then judge when a debate is appropriate. I congratulate all those involved and our hearts are full of hope that the negotiations will continue and full agreement will be reached shortly.
The Senator also asked what the Government's position is on Senator Quinn's Bill. I was away yesterday and, therefore, I was not in touch with Government representatives. However, I will be shortly and I will relay our position then. There are many good provisions in the legislation.
Senator Henry praised the motion regarding Simpson's hospital and stated other hospitals could take a lead from what the hospital is doing in terms of changing their charters and the way they conduct their business. She also called for a debate on agriculture, which was supported by other Senators.
According to Senator Ryan, the NRA stated it is unable to operate performance parameters but it should be obliged to do so like everybody else.
I always feel a sense of futility when I say motions are to be taken without debate. However, they are usually coming back from or being sent to joint committees, of which Senators are members. I suggested to Senator O'Toole some time ago that if a report is requested on a motion, it should be sought with notice and a debate held subsequently. That is a good idea. While we trust Senators on joint committees, it would be nice to have a debate on committee reports and I will establish whether that can be done.
Senator Ryan also commented on the North in a most open fashion. We await developments with hope.
Senator Ulick Burke called for additional time to debate the Hanly report. The arrangements for today's business have been made. I do not know whether the Minister will be available and the House is taking Report Stage of a Bill following the debate on the report. However, it is good that the House is having an early debate on the report given that the Dáil will not debate it until mid-November. I thank the Minister for his generosity and I hope he feels the same way having heard what Members have to say. The debate will last two and three quarter hours and I hope it will be good.
Senator O'Brien wished the Government well and congratulated both Governments on the work that has been done so far.
Senator Terry raised two issues of justice. She mentioned the inequality in a major finance house, but I do not know to which bank she refers. I am sure she has checked the matter. Apparently the bank in question does not have an equality statement. She also mentioned the drink promotion regulations, which have outlawed certain practices that are still happening. We will bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Senator Feeney spoke about improving legislation. She said loopholes in legislation restrict the meting of proper justice. It is a separate matter in which the Oireachtas is not involved. The operation of the law by judges is a matter for the Judiciary. The Senator was careful not to get into that area, but she pointed out the loopholes that exist.
Senator Dooley discussed cars that are unworthy of being on the road. He pointed out that the Minister has mentioned that he will examine this area and I agree with that decision. I cannot understand how children were allowed to buy a car in a garage. It was a terrible thing to happen. They were careering on the road for many miles. Sympathy must be expressed to the families of the young people who lost their lives in the incident.
Senator Coonan agreed with the comments that had been made about the North. He spoke about "hardened criminals" knocking on people's doors, but I do not know about that. I have not heard of such practices. He also spoke about finance houses being involved in repossession. I do not understand the reference he made to "hardened criminals".
Senator Ó Murchú's request for Senators to temper their views on the North was in line with comments made by other speakers. We have been very careful in that regard. Senators could have said other things, but I thank them for engaging in such a responsible mini-debate. The Senator praised Mother Teresa and argued that we should not adjudicate on miracles. I hope that we will not become involved in such decisions.
Senator Brennan spoke about General John de Chastelain. It struck me as I listened to the general yesterday evening that he is used to military matters, rather than political issues. He is a very fine person. All sides agreed that he should be the adjudicator in respect of such matters. I know he will be part of what we hope will be the true resolution of all such matters.
Order of Business agreed to.