Thursday, 11 December 2003
Address by Mr. Seán Ó Neachtáin, MEP.
Tá áthas orm fáilte chroíúil a chur roimh Feisire de Pharlaimint na hEorpa, Seán Ó Neachtáin. Tá clú agus cáil ar Sheán, ní hamháin mar Fheisire san Eorap ach don obair áitiúil atá déanta aige mar pholaiteoir agus ar son na Gaeltachta i ngach cuid den tír.
On behalf of Seanad Éireann I welcome Seán Ó Neachtáin, MEP, to the Seanad. Mr. Ó Neachtáin has represented the constituency of Connacht-Ulster in the European Parliament since July 2002. Prior to that he was well known as a local politician and for his commitment to working on behalf of Gaeltacht areas. From 1979 to 1991 he was a member of Údarás na Gaeltachta and he was chairman of the organisation from 1991 to 1996. Our MEP will address us for 20 minutes and we will then ask a representative from each political grouping to ask questions.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
Is mór an onóir dom glacadh leis an gcuireadh seo labhairt i Seanad Éireann mar Fheisire de Pharlaimint na hEorpa. Tá sé de phribhléid agam ionadaíocht a dhéanamh ar thoghcheantar Chonnacht-Uladh agus tá mé ag dúil go mór le hionadaíocht a dhéanamh ar thoghcheantar i bhfad níos mó, ceantar an Iarthair agus an Tuaiscirt, a chuireann Condae an Chláir isteach le Connacht-Uladh.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
I thank the Members of Seanad Éireann for inviting me to talk about my work in the European Parliament and to discuss the future developments of the European Union from an Irish perspective. One of the ongoing issues of concern to many people is that it is difficult to explain what the institutions of the EU are doing. Inviting Members of the European Parliament to the Seanad to explain our work and our specific roles within the European Parliament is a constructive exercise. I hope this means there will be a greater level of interaction between Members of the European Parliament and Members of the Seanad into the future. This is important because Ireland's future rests politically and economically within an ever-expanding EU. Indeed, these are challenging times for the EU as it seeks to modernise its decision-making structures to accommodate the ten new member countries which are set to join the Union from 1 May next.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
Before speaking in detail about my work in the European Parliament, I have a few comments on the negotiations for the new EU treaty. In 1957 the European Economic Community was founded and decision-making procedures were put in place for a Community of the six founding member states. Now we live in a Community of 15 member states, comprising 375 million people, and in a little less than six months' time we will be living in a Community of nearly 500 million people. If the EU is to remain effective it must modernise its decision-making system.
If there is agreement on a new EU treaty over the coming days another referendum will be held in Ireland. This is a legal requirement that has been in place ever since the Crotty judgment of the mid-1980s. This means we will be voting for the sixth time on a new EU treaty since 1987. This should be seen as an opportunity for a broader debate on the work of the EU's institutions and the role Ireland is playing within this evolving political and economic entity. However, I do not agree with the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, who recently stated that countries which did not support a new European treaty would have problems continuing their membership of the European Union. Mr. Prodi's warning shot to EU Governments and citizens is a highly unwelcome development and should be criticised in its entirety. It does not contribute one iota to the positive role of the debate that is taking place about the future of the EU.
Much progress has been made on the need to ensure that the citizens of Europe fully understand how the Union carries out its business. Governments set up the structure of the EU Convention along the same lines as the National Forum on Europe in order that proposals could be brought to EU Governments about the future operation of the Union. I pay tribute to Senator Maurice Hayes for the important role he has played as chairman of the National Forum on Europe. EU leaders are meeting this week in Brussels to discuss the broader proposals for a new EU treaty. That does not mean that different Governments and people in Europe do not have concerns about certain proposals being discussed. I do not believe that taxation matters, for example, are best left as the preserve of individual member state governments and local authorities. I fully support the retention of the unanimity requirement for taxation decisions to be taken by the EU. It is not in the best interests of the citizens of Europe to allow the EU to take decisions on taxation matters through a majority voting system alone.
We must recall that even now there are more than 50 different areas where the European Parliament has power of co-decision with the governments of the EU concerning a range of economic and social policy issues. The European Parliament has power of co-decision concerning environmental issues, social and employment matters, consumer protection, promotion of public health, allocation of Structural Funds, to name a few. In the context of the future make-up of European institutions, it is important that smaller member states are effectively represented at the top table of the European Commission. There must be equality of representation on the European Commission between smaller and larger member states. The European Commission is a very important institution and manages EU competition policy and many of the practical aspects of the running of the EU Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy.
Within the European Parliament I serve on the fisheries committee and on the industry, external trade, research and energy committee. My membership of the fisheries committee has come at a time of reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, which is critical for the future of the Irish fishing industry and at a time when there is an unprecedented need to protect the interests of Irish fishermen, their families and the coastal communities to which they belong. The Common Fisheries Policy must be geared to keeping alive regions that depend on fishing rather than making it a battlefield between states. Fishermen share common interests. They all need fishery resources to carry on their activity. There are problems with fish stocks at this time. We have an obligation to be serious about fisheries conservation and sustainability of fish stocks. However, recovery plans for fish stocks cannot disregard the social and economic consequences. I regret the current unsatisfactory state of fish stocks and am in favour of conservation. Since day one I have been adamant that highly sensitive areas must be protected. This is particularly true of the fishing area known as the Irish Box. I had the privilege of being appointed rapporteur by the fisheries committee in the European Parliament on this sensitive issue of major importance to Ireland. Time and again I stressed that the area known as the Irish Box was a rich fishing area with a high concentration of juvenile fish and spawning grounds. I stressed it was critical that the EU applied restrictions on fishing efforts within the area and vital that the Irish Box be maintained as the biologically sensitive zone in the interests of sustainability of stocks.
Earlier this year the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted for my amendment, detailing the need to protect the Irish Box, by a massive majority. In so doing it voted to protect the legitimate interests of Irish fishermen. I have insisted continually that fishermen and their representative organisations must be allowed greater participation and involvement in the decision making process of the Common Fisheries Policy.
In the recent reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, the European Commission has finally agreed that fishermen and their organisations must and will be more involved in the future. I welcome the proposal from the European Commission to create regional advisory councils which will include fishermen and their organisations for the first time in the decision making process. The European Parliament has now been formally invited to draw up a report and give its opinion. Once again the fisheries committee has nominated me to draft the report on this important matter. I will consult widely with fishermen and their organisations before drafting my report.
The setting up of the regional advisory councils is a constructive policy issue and must be supported. It can only be successful if it is properly financed and resourced. As a member of the industry, external trade, research and energy committee of the European Parliament I deal with a wide ranging set of policy issues, which are implemented at EU level, concerning the operation of commerce in the European Union. At present the European Parliament together with the European Commission and the EU governments are working strenuously to implement the Lisbon agenda. This agenda aims to make the EU the most competitive region in the world by 2010. To ensure the European Union becomes the most competitive and knowledge-based economy in the world, there must be investment in human capital, innovation, research and development. The advancement of the Lisbon process has also been rightly set out as a key priority for the Irish Government during the forthcoming Presidency of the European Union.
Specific attention must be devoted to the needs of innovative small businesses in peripheral regions. One area of particular interest relates to the future operation of the telecommunications industry in Ireland and in the European Union. We live in a new information society where peripherality need not be a drawback. If the right infrastructure is put in place, notably broadband, and if adequate investment is made in providing skills training, regions such as the west and north-west can compete on a more equal basis with central locations. The benefits of new and evolving technology, such as broadband are more important now than ever to the Government given that the Minister for Finance has announced his plans to decentralise many Government offices. My constituency of Connacht-Ulster is an Objective One region and will continue to be until 2006.
I urge the Government to ensure between now and 2006 that the counties which have Objective One status are guaranteed a package of financial incentives for new industries setting up in these regions. The western and north-western regions of Ireland were accorded Objective One status in an effort to ensure balanced regional development is promoted. If Objective One status is to be successful, we must ensure that a new infrastructure, a modern telecommunication network, is put in place in these areas in order that indigenous and foreign direct investment can locate in the west and north-west.
I also take a particular interest in agricultural issues. The Common Agricultural Policy is still more important to Ireland per capita than any other member state. I have regular contact with farming organisations in Ireland. Recently I have had particularly close contact with farming organisations concerning the latest changes introduced on the future operation of the Common Agricultural Policy. I welcome the Government's decision that all direct payments for cattle and sheep premia be fully decoupled from production as and from 1 January 2005. Decoupling will present a clear opportunity to eliminate red tape which has been too much to the forefront of the practical implementation of the CAP in recent years. Decoupling is a big change for Irish farmers but it is one that will bring much needed stability and economic security to the sector which, in recent years, has experienced much uncertainty. In addition, farmers will be free to focus more sharply on the market and on the demands of the consumer. In turn, this will provide a firmer basis for a competitive food industry. The shift in focus of the EU Common Agricultural Policy towards the needs of the small farmer is a welcome development.
I represented the European Parliament at the WTO talks in Mexico. While, unfortunately, no deal was reached it is important that rules are agreed at a multilateral level for trading operations. The talks are of great significance to us in Ireland. We export 90% of the beef produced here and as a result we have a real interest in ensuring that an orderly set of rules is in place to govern trading relations between different countries.
I stated at the beginning of my contribution that these are challenging times for the European Union. However, it is fair to say they are exciting times as well. We look forward to Ireland assuming the Presidency of the European Union in January, which presents us with a challenge of overseeing the enlargement of the Union. It is a great opportunity for us to market our country on the international stage. Enlargement is an opportunity for us to strengthen our links with the ten new countries joining the European Union. New markets for Irish exports in these countries will guarantee more jobs at home.
Mar fhocal scoir, ba mhaith liom lua go bhfuil tábhacht mhór ag baint le caomhnú ár gcultúir agus ár dteanga. Tá sé soiléir in Eoraip an lae inniu go bhfuil meas ar an éagsúlacht. Go deimhin, tá sé luaite i réamhrá an dréacht-chonartha gurb é tríd an éagsúlacht sin a thiocfas an t-aontas. Ba chóir dhúinn díriú ar an mana sin chun ár dteanga dúchais, an Ghaeilge, a chur ar chomhchéim le teangacha eile na hEorpa. Tá deis iontach againn é sin a dhéanamh agus muid i gceannas Uachtaránacht na hEorpa ón chéad lá den bhliain seo romhainn. Léireoidh sé sin don Eoraip, ach go háirithe do na tíortha atá ag teacht isteach, go bhfuil meas ar an éagsúlacht chultúrtha atá á éileamh acu le fada agus iad tár éis cinntiú go mbeidh a gcuid teangacha féin in úsáid go forleathan san Aontas méadaithe.
I welcome Mr. Ó Neachtáin to the Chamber. It is very clear that since becoming an MEP he has immersed himself in all sections and aspects of the European institutions. He will certainly be an MEP again after the elections at the end of June next year. He talked at length about how he is protecting Irish fishermen and their representative organisations and agricultural policy for the west. I will leave it to my colleagues from that area to ask questions on those aspects.
Will the European institutions be able to cope with the problems posed by the diversity of location, language, culture and economies when the Union enlarges to 25 members? We are doing everything in our power to inform the electorate about the workings of the institutions and we appreciate the role of MEPs and their communication with us. I am grateful to the Leader for organising these visits of MEPs to the Chamber because they give us an insight into the workings and complications of the institutions. It is easy for us to live in another world and not to reach out to the citizens of Europe, but we are reaching out in the National Forum on Europe, chaired by Senator Maurice Hayes, and through the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs. There is no substitute, however, for the presentations here. In preparation for the constitutional treaty referendum this visit is a golden opportunity for us to reach out to the public. I wish Mr. Ó Neachtáin every success in his campaign.
I join in welcoming Mr. Ó Neachtáin. I presume it is his first time addressing the Oireachtas and his contribution has impressed us. He has been a good pupil to learn so much so soon. Politics notwithstanding, we wish him well in the remaining months of his term and hopefully onwards from there.
His constituency, formerly Connacht-Ulster and soon to be Ireland-West, is the most peripheral region of the European Union and has always suffered from various degrees of disadvantage. It has also benefited greatly from Ireland's membership of the Union and there has been a very significant transfer of funds into Mr. Ó Neachtáin's European constituency. He noted that Objective One status remains until 2006 but in the coming years, as we see beginning already, Ireland will go from being a net beneficiary of European aid to being a net contributor. What impact will that have on his constituency? He mentioned the forthcoming constitutional treaty referendum. In recent years we have had several European referenda and, for better or for worse, one of the issues highlighted was that Ireland had benefited so strongly economically from the net influx of funding. Mr. Ó Neachtáin's constituency is home to many people who would be concerned that the impact of the new Europe and the new financial arrangements might disadvantage them further. What type of impact will that have on a forthcoming treaty referendum in his area when people become aware of our new role in Europe and the new financial commitments we must make? Will it be a negative impact?
I commend him on his efforts on behalf of the fisheries industry. I am a rather distant observer of the politics of Connacht-Ulster, but I can see that through his commitment to it he is strongly associated with the industry. Looking back on our entry to Europe in 1973, all sides now concede that to a degree we neglected fisheries. In his work as a rapporteur to the fisheries committee in the European Parliament is he able only to stem the tide or is there any realistic prospect of trying in some way to redress the balance? In other words, is his job a case of preventing a worsening of the situation or is it possible to improve the livelihood of our fishermen and is there any way in which more people can be attracted into the industry?
What is Mr. Ó Neachtáin's view of the Parliament as a political institution? Does he feel that he has a role and that people are listening in such a large forum? Here and across the country we feel very distant from the politics of Europe and from those of the European Parliament. What type of role can he play as an MEP from a small country? Is it an effective role that allows him to make a point and to have that point and argument taken on board by the higher powers in Europe?
I thank Mr. Ó Neachtáin for coming here. At the end of his speech he mentioned his belief in the Irish language as a national identifier, particularly within Europe. This morning we had a small debate on that issue involving three or four members who said that while we recognise it as our national language, in Europe it is not so recognised. The present incumbent in the Chair, Senator Ó Murchú, has spoken to the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, about it. Can Mr. Ó Neachtáin see how this might develop in the future and how we should go about ensuring that the language is given the significance in Europe which we ascribe to it?
I welcome Mr. Ó Neachtáin to the House and thank him for his thoughtful and stimulating address. He follows in a long line of illustrious former Members of the European Parliament who were appointed following the resignation of a Member of the European Parliament. I am thinking of Chris O'Malley who was appointed when Richie Ryan was appointed to the Court of Auditors and Des Geraghty who was appointed when Proinsias De Rossa resigned.
What is Mr. Ó Neachtáin's perception of the way in which we appoint a Member when a Member of the European Parliament resigns? Does he consider the manner of such appointments is a handicap? It clearly is, given that he was not elected in the popular sense of that term. Does he consider that is the way to proceed or that it should be done by way of a by-election, as would happen if a Member of the Dáil was to resign? We have such debates on Europe on a regular basis, but I am interested in Mr. Ó Neachtáin's perception in this regard.
I wish to follow up on a point made by Senator Bradford. Mr. Ó Neachtáin has been a Member of the European Parliament for some months and he is one of 600 such Members. While the two biggest groupings, the Social Democrat grouping, and our grouping, the Christian Democrats, divide the house in terms of their numbers, is it his perception that being a member of a smaller grouping gives him influence as an Irish Member of the European Parliament? Do his colleagues act in a party or a country sense? I have put this question to other Members of the European Parliament. I would be interested to get his perception of that issue. When candidates are elected to the European Parliament there is a view that they simply act in accordance with their broader European party grouping or is it the case that Members very much respond to their national calling? As a member of a minority grouping in the European Parliament, does he believe that within that group he has influence to make an impact on behalf of his constituents?
I join in welcoming Mr. Ó Neachtáin and compliment him on the great work he has done, particularly in the agricultural area and in fisheries. He is an MEP for Connacht-Ulster. I hope the people of Clare will not let him down next year in the newly realigned constituency in which it will be difficult for Members to retain their seats. He will need the physical health he has to represent the people there.
I was delayed at a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment and Local Government and missed the start of Mr. Ó Neachtáin's address. At that meeting we talked about the landslide in Derrybrien in south Galway. As the late Tip O'Neill used to say, all politics is local and I suppose European politics is also local. Members of the Derrybrien group asked me if our MEPs could examine the environmental aspects of the landslide in Derrybrien and take up the matter with the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Ms Margot Wallström. I urge that this be examined. I support windfarms, as do the people of Derrybrien, but they do not want them located on top of slippery mountains. That landslide is a good marker for any other developments that might take place in that area.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin mentioned the Border, midland and western region. We got Objective One status on the basis of information we had regarding the west and monitoring development in that area should be continued.
Tá ceist amháin eile agam faoin teanga. Fáiltím an méid a dúirt Seán Ó Neachtáin mar gheall uirthi. Fuair mé litir ó Chonradh na Gaeilge a dúirt go mbeadh 20 teanga oifigiúil ag an Aontas tar éis Bealtaine an bhliain seo chugainn. Ba mhaith liom fiafraí, cosúil leis an Cheannaire anseo, cén fáth nach mbeidh an Ghaeilge mar theanga oifigiúil an bhliain seo chugainn? Cén fáth nach féidir é sin a dhéanamh? An bhfuil sé praiticiúil é sin a dhéanamh? Sin iad na ceisteanna atá agam. Mo mhíle bhuíochas aríst don Fheisire Eorpach, Seán Ó Neachtáin.
Is mian liom freisin fiorchaoin fáilte a chur roimh an Fheisire inár measc. Is mian liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis as ucht bheith ina Bhall de Phairlimint na hEorpa le bliain go leith anois freisin. Chun an fhírinne a rá, tá clú agus cáil bainte amach aige. Dár leis na tuairiscí, bíonn sé an-ghnóthach sa Pharlaimint ar son na tíre agus ar son mhuintir Chonnachta agus Uladh. Gan dabht, bíonn cúrsaí eacnamaíochta agus sóisialacha san Eoraip ag athrú i gcónaí, go mórmhór le teacht isteach na mballstát nua san Aontas Eorpach. Mar sin, tá cúpla ceist agam.
Maidir leis an mbunreacht nua – ceist a d'ardaigh Baill eile cheana féin – atá á chur le chéile nó á reachtáil i láthair na huaire, cad iad na deacrachtaí, na dúshláin agus na deiseanna is mó don tír seo i gcúrsaí eacnamaíochta, polaitíochta agus sóisialacha taobh amuigh díobh sin atá luaite ag an Fheisire? Mar a dúirt an Ceannaire agus an Seanadóir Kitt, sheas an Feisire an fód i gcónaí ar son na Gaeilge, nó ar son na Gaeltachta, mar a dúirt an Cathaoirleach. Tá díomá in Éirinn nach bhfuil stádas oifigiúil á thabhairt don Ghaeilge sa bhunreacht nua atá le cur le chéile nó á chur le chéile i láthair na huaire. Tá díomá orainne. Cad iad na cúiseanna atá taobh thiar den chinneadh sin, más cinneadh atá ann? Ní dóigh liom go bhfuil sé glactha fós, ach tá sé beagnach ina chinneadh. An féidir an cinneadh sin a athrú roimh chríochnú agus fhoilsiú an bhunreachta, mar a dúirt an Seanadóir Kitt? Munar féidir, cad ina thaobh nach féidir?
Dúirt an Feisire go raibh meas aige ar an éagsúlacht agus gurb é tríd an éagsúlacht a thiocfadh an t-aontas. An measann sé go bhfuil go leor measa againn in Éirinn ar an éagsúlacht? Cad é a thuairim faoi sin? Rinne Ball eile tagairt don chumhacht nó tionchar atá ag an Fheisire mar Bhall de Phairlimint na hEorpa. Is Pairlimint an-mhór í. Cad é tuairim an Fheisire faoin tionchar sin? An bhfuil go leor tionchair aige mar Bhall Eorpach?
Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis an Fheisire aríst. Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom rá go bhfúil súil agam go n-éireoidh go geall leis sa toghchán mór atá os a chomhair amach.
A number of Members are offering and I would like to give everyone an opportunity to speak. Members are aware of the time constraints, although that is no reflection on the previous speaker. I will call on Mr. Ó Neachtáin to respond to the questions and we must conclude this segment at 2 p.m. I call Senator Moylan.
I welcome Mr. Ó Neachtáin and compliment and congratulate him on his work as an MEP. My experience of having served with him on the Committee of the Regions in Europe was that he was committed and dedicated to what was best for this country.
I listened to some MEPs speak here about the raft of legislation with which they are dealing that will affect this country. Does Mr. Ó Neachtáin consider that members of the Committee of the Regions, who are members of local authorities and represent local authority areas, could play a role in regard to legislation and directives, which, when transposed into Irish law, have caused major problems in certain areas? I refer in particular to the wildlife habitats directive, an impact of which was that some areas were designated as NHAs and SACs without sufficient consideration being given to the concerns of the landowners affected. I mention in particular areas where certain farmers had substantial areas of eskers with gravel in them, which were rezoned and which has left them almost useless financially for those concerned. Perhaps Mr. Ó Neachtáin would comment on this as it has been a very serious concern for many people. This was people's pension and the future for their families in terms of financial gain at a later date. With the stroke of a pen in Europe, by means of a directive, that disappeared.
I join my colleagues in welcoming Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP, to the House, particularly as County Clare becomes part of the north-west constituency for the next election. Mr. Ó Neachtáin does not currently have to represent Clare, yet he does so and has spent a considerable length of time in the county over the past few months. He has been very effective there.
The WTO talks have been of considerable concern to farmers in west Clare. Notwithstanding the changes made in the mid-term review, concern continues among farmers as a result of the WTO talks and their collapse in Cancún. Mr. Ó Neachtáin was a delegate at those talks and he might give us his views later on what he thinks the outcome may be. There are clear concerns about who the Commissioner might be and what other elements may arise for discussion.
I wish Mr. Ó Neachtáin well in his endeavours. Considering his understanding and his great ability, I have no doubt he will find it relatively easy to be re-elected. As Senator Moylan pointed out, Mr. Ó Neachtáin has a considerable amount of experience in Europe through his membership of the Committee of the Regions. It has struck many people with whom I have come into contact that during his visits to Clare, Mr. Ó Neachtáin has shown a good grasp and understanding of the issues and is able to deal with them.
I warmly welcome Mr. Ó Neachtáin. I will pose a more political question. The number of Irish MEPs is to be reduced from 15 to 13. It is even more important in those circumstances that we are able to punch above our weight. We are currently fortunate in that one of our MEPs is President of the European Parliament. The group in which our MEPs operate is one of the smaller groups but is part of what one might call a coalition majority and, as we know domestically, smaller groups can exercise just as much influence as larger groups.
Various people in this and other countries will be putting forward Eurosceptic views. They will be opposed to the EU constitution; they probably opposed every previous EU treaty. Every country has battles to fight inside the European Union, but considering those who are prepared to fight battles from within, Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP, might reflect on whether there would be any advantage to Ireland in having more Eurosceptics elected North and South, where they would find themselves and whether it is really easy for people like that who are not committed to the European project to exercise worthwhile influence on behalf of Ireland.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I am pleased to see in the House my colleague, Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP, who comes from what is now being somewhat strangely referred to as "the west". I apologise for not being in the House when Mr. Ó Neachtáin arrived. I was attending a meeting of the National Forum for Europe, which I know Mr. Ó Neachtáin would also have been attending but for his commitment in the Seanad.
I endorse what I heard outside the Chamber and since I entered. I have no doubt that the hard work Mr. Ó Neachtáin has been doing will bring returns. That work is not necessarily exclusively in the public eye, but among potential voters and indeed within the Fianna Fáil party, if I may make that political point following the political point made by my colleague, Senator Mansergh. I have no doubt that Fianna Fáil initially, and then hopefully the wider electorate, will respond positively to the very significant contributions, especially in the fisheries area, made by Mr. Ó Neachtáin since he became an MEP. The fisheries area has no doubt been touched on. It was one where in effect, Mr. Ó Neachtáin singlehandedly fought the Irish case very well. Those of us who know him would not have been surprised at the manner in which he was able to network in that area as a result of his experience as a member of the Committee of the Regions.
I will pose a question which is perhaps in the same family of questions to which Senator Mansergh's query belongs. Within the European Community or among its parliamentarians, does Mr. Ó Neachtáin have any sense that this great European project is stumbling? I will not say faltering, but stumbling. A deep cynicism now exists among the people of Europe. My colleague, Senator Ormonde, has regularly noted in this House and in the National Forum on Europe that – if I have correctly interpreted her remarks – we are moving beyond the people and need to return to them. The Euro-barometer statistics published in the past two days indicated a very deep anti-European Union feeling, if not a Eurosceptic feeling, although Ireland and Luxembourg scored highly in the mid to high seventies in terms of approval for the EU. It is interesting that these are two small countries. That may be significant. As an MEP, is Mr. Ó Neachtáin getting a sense of all this in his dealings with other groupings and EU parliamentarians? I do not know the answer, but it seems there is a separation in that a European intellectual elite operates within the constitutional process, while other people are left outside.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
Go raibh maith agaibh, a chairde, agus gabhaim buíochas do na Seanadóirí ar fad a chuir ceisteanna. I will try to respond to the questions as far as possible.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
Senator Ormonde raised the taxation issue. As I said there should be unanimity on taxation because it is at the core of the scepticism referred to by Senator Mooney. The feeling is that Europe may get ahead of itself in dealing with issues which are not in the broader EU remit, issues best left to individual member states. When the agreement in Laeken put together a convention, it was clearly stated that it should differentiate between the competences best looked after at European level and those best dealt with at national level. As we currently know it, Europe is only in its embryonic stage of development. In a very short time it has managed to arrive at a level appreciated by the people of Europe. It is very important, however, that Europe would not rush ahead into competences that do not belong to it at this stage. With agreement, that may broaden in the future. On taxation and on other issues which are of concern to member states, there must be consensus.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
I have been struck by the effort being made to bring about conciliation and consensus. All legal progress in Europe contains within it the bringing together of different opinions and we are capable of doing it. That format must remain for the foreseeable future. Otherwise we will go too close to the apprehension of the early part of the last century when Europe descended into the turmoil and devastation of two world wars. If Europe has learned anything, it is to be on the side of consensus and conciliation and to move forward on that level. The institutions of the European Union need to be revised and their legal base broadened to cope with enlargement. On a practical level, I believe that will happen.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
Senator Bradford spoke about Connacht-Ulster as a peripheral region and about the future of Objective One status. When the current Objective One agreement concludes in 2006, I hope there will be a transition period, as we now have for the south and east. It would be a mistake to go from a situation of positive support to one of no support. There should be a continuation along current lines. That decision has not been made yet, but I hope it will be a favourable one.
We did not cover ourselves in glory with regard to the fisheries agreement. The fishery spoils were divided in accordance with the stakeholders' ability to fish and we accepted that at the time. Relative stability was accepted and we must live with it. Nevertheless, every time our Minister goes to a fisheries summit in Brussels, he comes back with an enhanced performance. I was encouraged by the recent vote in the European Parliament in Strasbourg which showed that MEPs are on the side of conservation. They realise the danger to sustainability of fish stocks and they want to continue the efforts to improve the fishing industry. The Spanish delegation, of course, tried to block my amendments to maintain the Irish Box as a conservation area.
Senator Brian Hayes asked whether a small group has influence in the Parliament. The Union for Europe of the Nations put forward those amendments and we got support across the political front. Members of the European Parliament do not work primarily as individuals or as members of their groups. All MEPs think in national terms. The Spanish did so when they broke the whips of their respective political groups. That is encouraging. We are not tied to a political group. We can go out and garner support individually. Early in my European parliamentary career I was encouraged by the vote of 3 June 2003. It was an example of what can happen.
The Parliament allows one to make a positive approach. We have the same opportunity as any of the 632 Members. I am encouraged by the willingness to allow for each shade of opinion. We work within our political groups, even within small political groups, and encourage support from other groups. There are many factions within the bigger groups, such as the socialists and the Christian Democrats, and we can find common ground with them at all times. I have been encouraged by the way the Parliament works. It is democratic and I praise it for being so. The political system gives one an opportunity to express one's opinion.
Senator O'Rourke raised the question of the recognition of the Irish language. From the beginning the status accorded to the Irish language was not sufficient. Irish is an official language of the European Union, but not a working language. That was not highlighted until the ten new member countries demanded that each of their languages would be a working language. Malta has requested that Maltese, with a speaking population of 300,000, be a working language. There is no benefit in returning to the mistakes of the past but if we were now entering the European Union, we would certainly demand that our language be a working language of the Union. If our Government demands that status for Irish it will be forthcoming. That is the solution and it will be important for our ethos and for our future aims for Europe. Diversity is the basis of unity in Europe. This is an encouraging aspect of the European project.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
I believe we can. As we are about to assume the Presidency of the European Union, I would encourage it. I have spoken to the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and Minister for Foreign Affairs about this matter. It would be beneficial to us in Europe in the future.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
Senator Brian Hayes referred to the procedure for replacing a Member who resigns. The system works in all places in Europe. The list system is different in other member states but it deals with the appointment of a replacement if a Member resigns. I am happy that it has been statutorily approved.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
I agree with Senator Kitt that all politics is local, even at European level. I visited Derrybrien. The mistakes made there must be acknowledged and I hope they will be.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
I thank Senator Fitzgerald for his words as Gaeilge. I think I have answered the questions on the teanga raised by him and Senator Kitt. I will always support the Committee of the Regions. It is where I got my European political training. I am encouraged by balanced regional development. The Committee of the Regions should be used in matters such as the habitats directive. It is a pity the habitats directive was not discussed publicly before decisions were made.
Mr. Ó Neachtáin, MEP:
When one signs on in Europe, one does not really have a chance to revisit a decision. It is therefore important and forms part of the new treaty that this is discussed at local, regional and national level before it becomes an implemented part of European policy.
Is mian liom ár mbuíochas a chur in iúl don Uasal Ó Neachtáin. Aontóidh gach duine liom gur thug sé cur i láthair an-chumasach. Go raibh rath Dé air amach anseo. I thank Mr. Seán Ó Neachtáin for his attendance and address to the House. I thank him for responding to the questions in such a focused and relevant manner. We are particularly fortunate to have representatives of his calibre in the European Parliament. I wish him well in the forthcoming elections.