Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Order of Business.
We agree with the Order of Business as proposed by the Leader. Will the Leader arrange a debate in this House following the results of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections last week? I believe I speak for many people in this country in saying the results are depressing, because those who have tried to wreck the Good Friday Agreement since 1998 are now in the ascendancy and those who have attempted to use the agreement for their own party political gain are also in the ascendancy in the other community. We have to reflect on these matters. I ask the Leader to organise a debate and to arrange for either the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Taoiseach to come to the House. In the current situation Dr. Paisley is entitled to become the First Minister in Northern Ireland and I do not believe he is fit to hold that office. I do not believe he or his party have been a source of good in Northern Ireland politics. In one way or another, both Governments have to confront that situation collectively, with the support of both Parliaments in both jurisdictions.
While there has been criticism of our Government's position, particularly on its decision to exclude the SDLP at a critical stage in the negotiations, it is now ultimately a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to live with the consequences if they select parties which have such a rejectionist tone and are intent on not healing the divide which is evident in Northern Ireland. Governments in Dublin and London can only do so much. Any decision by the Government to advance the process and promote some initiative at this stage will be supported by this side of the House.
As the Cathaoirleach will be aware, I wrote to him this morning requesting him to consider convening a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to consider how, by discussion and agreement, we can proceed with the appointment of the three Members of this House to serve on the new Oireachtas Commission. I ask him to consider that request in the bipartisan, co-operative way in which it has been put. It would be useful to discuss how we can advance this issue and come to agreement on all sides.
I wish to point out to Senator Brian Hayes that, in the absence of any authorisation under section 8(iii)(b) of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003, I do not regard this as an appropriate matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Perhaps the Senator can find another way of raising the matter, perhaps by way of a substantive motion.
There is a joke among politicians that election results would be excellent if one could change the electorate. This is a classic example of such a joke. I am as depressed as anyone else about the outcome of last week's elections, however the people have spoken. It is important that this House debates the election outcome because it will be made clear to Dr. Paisley, and the DUP, that now he has been elected, he has a responsibility and we want to see how he will cope with it. I have seen, in the many stages of my life, how people change when they are given a responsibility to make decisions and how they can compromise. There has not been a year in my life when I have noted where one man's renegotiation is another man's clarification. We have had this many times in Northern Ireland.
There are ways of moving this process forward. I have listened to various discussions with Dr. Paisley on the BBC and other broadcasters over the last number of years. There is nothing that cannot be sorted out if people have a will to sit down together. I agree with Senator Brian Hayes that some people may not have the will, but we must wait and see. Parliament on this part of the island must make it clear to the people of Northern Ireland that it accepts their decision and will work with them for the best for all the people of the island. I would welcome an early debate on the Northern Ireland elections.
I am reluctant to say much on the Northern Ireland elections because everybody has said everything that can be said. My views on Ian Paisley are colourful and I will not express them in the House. However, I am not aware of any member of his party who has been convicted of shooting, bombing or killing anyone. We must not make partial statements about who is culpable for what. Nothing in Northern Ireland was ever that bad that it justified the killing of a single human being. If we are going to talk about who is fit, we will be going into dangerous territory. I do not have a brief for the DUP for reasons to do with the exploitation of sectarianism. However, we must not go into the territory of who said what because many people with a major role to play in Northern Ireland are in grave danger of being accused of worse offences than sectarianism.
It is time we had a debate on education and I ask the Leader to arrange one. Last Sunday, Rupert Murdoch's flagship organ in this country published what it claimed to be a survey of the best secondary schools in Ireland. It was nothing but a travesty of the achievement of schools. The newspaper informed us that going private can pay as Ireland's best schools are mostly fee-paying. I am happy that the schools my children attended, even according to the incorrect figures in The Sunday Times, are in the top 20 of the list, yet neither of them were fee-paying. I have no idea from where The Sunday Times drew the conclusion that the best schools are fee-paying.
As a lecturer in an institute of technology, I profoundly resent the suggestion that somehow going to university is a better achievement than going to an institute of technology. It is wrong and misleading to suggest that drifting into a pass B.Sc. at a university is superior to doing a degree in engineering at an institute of technology. That is an offence to common intelligence. Only people who do not understand education could write such an article. We need a debate on education to rectify public perceptions on what is worthwhile in our education system.
I remember when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. If a person was imprisoned in the Soviet Union following a protest we would have screamed blue murder. However, there is a Cork man in Limerick Prison for two months because he committed the offence of trespassing on Shannon Airport. He was fined €750 and in lieu of non-payment he was given two months in prison. Two months in prison is a serious term of imprisonment—
He chose on principle not to, which is something those on the Government side of the House would not understand. I will watch Fianna Fáil's principles over the community employment scheme. I have never underestimated that party. It will run away from its principles. The issue of proportionality arises here. In normal circumstances somebody like this, a first-time offender in prison for the first time, would end up in the training unit in Glengarriff Parade here in Dublin living in comparative ease, where Deputy Joe Higgins spent his four weeks. Is this man being treated differently because his offence concerned the war in Iraq?
On a lighter note, I often wondered why the Progressive Democrats did not ask me to join its party when I arrived in Cork. I now know this is because it will not accept foreigners.
I am surprised Senator Ryan should have to wonder why he was not invited to join the Progressive Democrats.
I agree that it would be desirable for the House to discuss events in Northern Ireland and the outcome of the election there. I strongly endorse Senator O'Toole's comment that while we might not like the result, it is the democratic right of the people. We accept that right and have to go forward from here. We have known for many years what Dr. Paisley is against; we will now have to find out what he is for. While this is a central issue, on the other side there has to be a desire that the guns and semtex be put permanently out of use in a verifiable way. The Belfast Agreement must stand. While it may be subject to review, it is the template on which everything is based. I hope the democratic parties in the North will recognise this.
I wish to speak about a different matter, the recently released annual competitiveness review. Out of the 15 developed countries, Ireland and Finland are now the most expensive. We are fourth highest in insurance, third highest in electricity cost, third highest in landfill cost and, once the local authority estimates are completed, I would not be surprised if we move to the top in landfill costs.
The vintners' representatives now concede there is a rip-off in soft drinks prices throughout the country. As we approach Christmas and try to encourage drivers to stay away from drink, why are soft drinks now far more expensive than alcohol? It is a disgrace.
I support the call for a debate on education. Perhaps we might include in that debate the problem of dropping out from school and its links with juvenile crime. Many of the barriers to social inclusion and educational attainment lie outside the school gates. Schools are desperately trying to deal with social issues that are profoundly ingrained. It is naïve in the extreme to regard the National Educational Welfare Board as the panacea to all these ills. Its fundamental function is curative rather than preventive.
With regard to the lacuna or otherwise concerning community based organisations, a whole industry of community based organisations promoting social inclusion is receiving massive funding from the taxpayer comprising a plethora of individual empires and disparate groups, voluntary and statutory. On the other hand we have a home school liaison service, which by all accounts is working extremely effectively. Through the Leader I call for an immediate and thorough evaluation of the effectiveness of all these community based organisations in the context of their individual and collective contribution to social inclusion to be followed immediately by fundamental and appropriate amendments to the Education Welfare Act.
I support the call for a debate on Northern Ireland. However, as my colleague, Senator O'Toole has suggested, it is not possible to second-guess the electorate. I am not at all upset by the result of the election; it is probably quite a good thing. These are the two parties causing all the trouble. Let them get into office and face the realities of life. They might be more effective being presented with the realities of Government than being a totally destructive Opposition. It is the price of Dr. Paisley and the Shinners. My attitude is, now they have it, let them get on with it. I wish them well because the people of Northern Ireland have suffered enough.
Will the Leader of the House take a certain action with regard to the meeting of committees? Once again, the meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport, of which both she and I are members, is neatly timed to coincide with the Order of Business. I do not think that is acceptable. We should organise a boycott. Seanad Members should refuse to go to these meetings until the Order of Business is over. Meetings cannot be held without a Member of the Seanad being present, as they will not be quorate. That is a simple and effective way of putting manners on them. This is an important committee and as we are debarred from attending it, we should have a good debate in the House about transport.
We should have a debate on that matter.
Yesterday was international AIDS day. We should have a debate on this subject as many young people have lost contact with the disastrous reality of this disease. Without, I hope, being too offensive, I was very sorry to see the Vatican once again put out a statement yesterday to commemorate it in which it undermined the use of condoms. I find that extremely foolish. Perhaps a little hint could be dropped to the Vatican's ambassador, the Papal Nuncio, to have a moratorium on statements on human sexuality for one year. They should give the rest of us a break—
I also support the request for a debate on Northern Ireland in the wake of the post-election situation. However, I disagree with Senator Brian Hayes. There is a danger in denigrating political parties because one may appear to denigrate the people who elected them. In life one plays the hand one is dealt and if the cards fall that way, then that is the position. The two parties which have appeared as leaders on either side are classic outsiders who have now come inside. The challenge to them is to behave constructively as insiders. My recipe for the Government in the short term would not be feverish activity, but masterly inactivity.
Yes. Now that Ireland has the highest inflation rate in Europe, can we reasonably expect that the Government will not do anything tomorrow to fuel it further?
I would also welcome a debate on Northern Ireland following the elections. It behoves us as democrats – we are all true democrats – that, whatever our private views, we allow for the possibility of change. Once the DUP engages with both Governments, the tune might change. Perhaps Dr. Paisley is a mighty mouse and what he says in north Antrim might not be the same as what he says when he goes to London, or, please God, to Dublin. We have to allow for that possibility. I would welcome a debate on the matter.
I thank Senators for the compliments. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, to the House prior to the Christmas recess to discuss the European working time directive in regard to non-consultant hospital doctors? In his capacity as president of the Council of Health Ministers, Deputy Martin should get a further derogation to allow units at Roscommon, Nenagh, Ennis and elsewhere to employ sufficient staff to maintain crucial 24 hour accident and emergency services. I further ask the Minister to confirm, as he confirmed to me at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting, that he will open the accident and emergency unit in Roscommon after Christmas, that it will operate 24 hours per day and that the Hanly report will not affect it.
The House should note the signing of the Geneva Accord by moderate Israelis and Palestinians. We should support this welcome initiative. Although the act is symbolic, the symbolism is very important to counter the idea that there can be no peace or agreement between Israel and Palestine. That peace is inevitable and vital should be borne in mind, particularly when no progress is being made. Those on both sides recognise the inevitability and necessity of peace and are prepared to put themselves on the line by signing the accord. We have asked the Leader for a debate on this issue several times, but the Minister has yet to come in. As we approach the Presidency, it is extremely important that Ireland contributes to movements towards peace between Israel and Palestine.
I join previous speakers who called for a debate on Northern Ireland. However, I caution against inflammatory remarks. We must respect democracy. Ideology comes easily to those without responsibilities. Now that those who have been peddling ideology for the last number of years—
Inflammatory remarks such as those passed by Opposition Senators earlier do not help the situation in Northern Ireland one bit. I would welcome a debate. I also join calls for a debate on education, a subject we need to discuss in this House.
This House has debated Liberia where the Irish Defence Forces contingent suffered its first casualty late last night. It would be remiss of us to fail to pass on our condolences to the Army Chief of Staff and the family of Sergeant Mooney.
I would like the Leader to invite to the House as soon as possible the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to debate Sellafield. The Irish Sea has recently been used as a dumping ground for nuclear waste and in the last week there was evidence in the form of chunks of pipe washed up in the vicinity of Windscale. This could occur at any point on our coastline. It is important to hold a debate on this matter as soon as possible.
I support the call for a debate on Northern Ireland. It is very important to hold such a debate in a helpful and positive spirit. I discovered recently how closely we in the Republic are watched by politicians on all sides in the North of Ireland. We owe it to the architects of the Good Friday Agreement to be positive.
I appreciate that. To make a final point, I have always felt the Reverend Ian Paisley openly reflected the views of his own people. There are many young members of his party who could make an excellent contribution to this island. That is the spirit in which we should approach the debate.
Its correspondence mentions that there are no forms to fill in and that there are no external credit checks. It is appalling for a semi-State company to send such letters at this time. It is putting vulnerable people at risk by encouraging them to take out loans at Christmas time. People are under enough pressure, especially those in vulnerable areas and sections of society. This matter should be taken up.
I join with those who called for a debate on Northern Ireland. I compliment the people of Northern Ireland on going out to vote and all those who have been elected. In so far as who will participate in what, it is important to remember the old saying—
I join with my colleagues who called for a debate on Northern Ireland. Over the past few months, all of us asked that elections take place. The elections have taken place and the people have spoken. Regardless of our personal views on the result, it is the democratically expressed opinion of the people of Northern Ireland and we can have a constructive debate on it.
Will the Leader arrange an early debate on the recent announcement by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government that there will be no spending limits in next year's local elections? It is strange that there are spending limits for general and European Parliament elections but that spending limits are not imposed in local elections. It is important the issue is addressed as thoroughly and quickly as possible.
I join with Senators who called for a debate on Northern Ireland. Will the Leader arrange a debate on Iraq? As one who believed there were weapons of mass destruction, and a clear and immediate danger, I would like to hear the views of the House on Iraq and on how we move forward. I am conscious that the flag is flying at half mast today in honour of and respect for a soldier who died on UN peacekeeping duties in Liberia. Perhaps as part of the debate on Iraq, we could discuss a UN role for Ireland in Iraq.
Will the Leader convey our good wishes to the Minister for Finance?
Yesterday the Minister for Education and Science launched the National Educational Welfare Board and during his address at the launch he stated that he was amazed by the high drop out rate of 18% from second level and the thousands leaving school at primary level. It is unbelievable that a Minister who has declared his interest in providing greater access for the disadvantaged to education and in retaining them in education has only provided half the resources necessary in the Estimates –€6 million – for the efficient and effective running of that board.
I support the calls for a debate on Northern Ireland. As regards a debate on education, many of the points made today would require several such debates. I would like our debate to focus on the transition from second to third level and on reform of the leaving certificate to facilitate the types of courses available. I compliment the institutes which have come a long way in facilitating the community by providing relevant courses. There have been many calls for debates on various aspects of education. I ask the Leader to arrange several debates so that the Minister can come to the House and discuss the various issues.
I ask the Leader to convey to the Minister for Finance and Ministers that, under the terms of the benchmarking award, Ministers should respond to letters written by Seanad and Dáil Members. It takes up to three months to get a reply from a Minister or a Department. An acknowledgement may be sent within a week or ten days, but a proper reply is not sent for up to six months. They should respond sooner. Under the terms of the benchmarking awards, replies should issue more quickly.
I remind Members that both the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Tony Blair have said that the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 is not renegotiable. People may be surprised by how pragmatic the DUP will be. It is a season of peace and goodwill. We should put the prejudices of the past behind us and send our good wishes. The Seanad should send a message to the parties in Northern Ireland wishing them success and encouraging them to keep on the path to peace.
I find it sad that Monica McWilliams, who is a first cousin of Mr. Charles Haughey, lost her seat. She made—
Senator Brian Hayes called for debate on Northern Ireland. He spoke about the results being depressing and asked for the Taoiseach or the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the House to debate the issue. He also asked about convening a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to deal with the appointment of the Members to serve on the new Oireachtas Commission and the Cathaoirleach replied that it was not appropriate for that committee. I too wish we could have clarity on this issue. If the Cathaoirleach can think of another forum or medium through which we can receive clarification, I would be glad to know of it. We should put our heads together on the matter.
Senator O'Toole said we must accept the decision of the electorate and we must do so. We may cavil at the methods through which it came about, but we cannot cavil at the result. We are all strong exponents of democracy but if we turn about and say we do not like what came out of the ballot box, we are not democrats.
Senator Ryan asked for a debate on Northern Ireland. He also spoke about the report on education in The Sunday Times. I read that report too, which was awful. I was never in favour of benchmarking schools. Should schools turn out a prototype student who will get A, B C, D or E or should they turn out a rounded person? We cannot measure one against the other. Parents want decent results – we wanted them and we understand that – but at the same time many more qualities go to make up the character of a person and these are provided within the school ambience. To coldly name a school as being the top is completely wrong. If we go that way, we will create two-tier education and ghettos in education, which is wrong.
The Senator also talked about trespassing in Shannon and asked why a person was fined. That is a court matter and concerns the person who delivered the fine. We do not engage in court issues here. The Senator said the maxim of proportionality entered into the issue.
Senator Dardis said we should discuss Northern Ireland and I agree. Senator Finucane mentioned the annual competitiveness review, which was published recently. The review found that Ireland and Finland are the European countries with the greatest lack of competitiveness. He also compared the prices of soft drinks and hard liquor. He raised the matter of the "name and shame" campaign. Senator Leyden is to be praised for having started the campaign.
Senator Norris said there is a need for a debate on Northern Ireland. He also mentioned the scheduling of meetings of the Joint Committee on Transport. I cannot attend meetings of the joint committee because they take place at 2.30 p.m., which is quite ridiculous. Perhaps a boycott might work. The Senator also asked us to express our support for international AIDS day. He made some remarks about the church.
Senator Maurice Hayes asked for a debate on Northern Ireland. I agree with his assertion that one must play the hand one is dealt. One must live with the hand one is dealt. I think the two parties will face up to each other to a much greater extent than we thought they would. They are now responsible for doing something rather than complaining about what others are doing. I appreciate the Senator's suggestion that we should have masterly inactivity from the Government, rather than frenetic running around.
Senator Coghlan spoke about Northern Ireland and the rate of inflation in this country. Senator Leyden called on the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to discuss the effect of the EU junior doctors directive on certain hospitals. Senator Tuffy mentioned the Geneva Accord, which goes beyond the road map. She said that it should be debated in the House, but time is limited.
Senator Cummins discussed the financial institutions and referred to the ESB. I know the Senator has raised this matter in a letter. The ESB is offering a certain deal in respect of a certain product. Senator Glynn expressed strong opinions on Northern Ireland, among other issues. Senator Bradford also spoke about Northern Ireland. He also mentioned the need for a spending cap during election campaigns. I agree that there is a need for such curbs.
The purse should not dictate who gets elected.
Senator Hanafin discussed Iraq. Having read an article in The Economist, the Senator felt that the House should send its good wishes to the Minister for Finance. Senators can decide what to send to the Minister after they have seen his budget.
Senator Ulick Burke mentioned the National Educational Welfare board and the drop-out rate of 18% at second level. He said that €6 million was provided rather than the €12 million which is needed, but one must start somewhere. If one gives everybody everything they want, there will not be much else to do. The board's aims are very strong and I am sure it will get its dues in future budgets and Estimates.
Senator Ormonde called for debates on Northern Ireland and education. Senator Paddy Burke wants Ministers to reply to him more quickly. I do not know what role I can play in that regard, other than to pass on the Senator's request. I suggest that he should mention his views when Ministers are present in the House.