Thursday, 5 February 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business today is No. 1, a new Standing Order dealing with interventions in debate, a copy of which was circulated to all Members following a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges yesterday afternoon; and No. 2, statements on the proposed stadium at Lansdowne Road, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and Members may share time.
The Leader will be aware that a decision was taken yesterday by the Member for the Foyle constituency in the British Parliament, John Hume, not to contest this year's European elections and the next British general election. It would be fitting to record the enormous contribution of John Hume, MP and MEP, to politics on these islands. He has made a major contribution to the peace process, stood absolutely firm against violence, intimidation and paramilitarism for the past 35 years and has been the voice of reason and confidence for the middle ground in Northern Ireland. It is wise and appropriate that we should recognise his contribution.
On a second issue, yesterday during Prime Minister's question time in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Blair stated that the British Government is considering changing the welfare and labour entitlements offered to the citizens of the new accession states from May of this year. I do not raise this issue in an alarmist way; I am being utterly reasonable about it. An issue arises, however, in that if the British take a position whereby the citizens from the accession states are prohibited from May of this year from working and obtaining benefits in Britain, it could have an impact here in terms of an overflow.
In many respects, when it comes to common travel areas, the Schengen Agreement and other matters, we have taken a joint position with the British. We may have to take a joint position with them on this issue. As the Leader is aware, when the treaty was being negotiated, all states had a right to a concession from 2002 to 2006; after that time it will require agreement from Brussels. We should probably harmonise our position with the British on this issue to ensure that for that two year period there is a sensible flow of new workers into this country from the accession states. I do not raise this issue in an alarmist fashion, but it is a practical issue that both Governments should work on together rather than one working unilaterally.
I can assure Senator Ross he has been an NUI voter for many years. I also support what Senator Hayes said about his absolute courage at all times. I remember meeting him here in 1988-89 during the talks with Gerry Adams, which had begun at that stage. I asked him if he was very busy meeting many people and he said none of the party leaders, including those of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour, wanted to talk to him because he was in discussions with Sinn Féin. He is a man who has shown courage all the way through and I support very much what Senator Brian Hayes said about him.
Does the Leader feel she has been put in the extraordinary position of misleading this House by the misinformation which was given to her by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which insisted the Immigration Bill would have to be passed by last Friday? We now find it will not come back to this House earlier than the middle of next week. This is absolutely appalling. The Leader has been put in an awkward position. She and the Deputy Leader have discharged their position admirably despite all the circumstances, but it is unacceptable. Some points were made here last week that what was written down was absolutely immutable, and we said to the Department it would not last a week and were proved right, something we will say when the Bill returns to the House. However, there is a bigger issue. We are simply being kicked around at the mercy of the Department, which does not care about embarrassing Leaders, Deputies or Ministers. They will give them any kind of script to get them through. It is appalling and we should all agree that they be forced to give an explanation for those kinds of wrong advice and misinformation — I could use stronger words, but I do not want to embarrass the Cathaoirleach by doing so, though in the future I may have to do so. That Department badly needs to be shaken up, told who is in charge and that those who work there are servants of the State.
On a far more serious note, I agree with Senator O'Toole. My experience of that particular Department concerns two successive years in the 1980s when an educational tour to Ireland by a secondary school in Britain was almost disrupted because two of the 15 year old pupils were refused visitors' visas to come here by the Department of Justice. They were 15 year old Asians who were coming here with their school. On two successive years I was approached, on one occasion by three members of the House of Commons who asked what sort of a country it was that would stop kids coming with their school on an educational tour. To put it gently that Department is peculiar. It needs to be looked at seriously and to have explained to it that the order of governance is that the Oireachtas picks the Government and the Government runs the Department, not that the Department runs the Government which in turns runs the Oireachtas, which seems to be the illusion under which the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform operates. It severely needs to remember its place which is that it is there to serve others, not to be served by others.
I would like a clear statement from the Government about, not the assurances of the Minister for Transport who never comes into this House, but the future of publicly owned airports in the light of this week's decision by the European Commission. It was interesting that last week's edition of The Economist, before this decision was made, suggested there was a simple solution to the Ryanair-Charleroi problem, namely to privatise all the publicly owned airports. Given the clear agenda of the Minister for Transport, it immediately raises the question of whether he believes the solution to all these problems is to privatise the airports because his current policy is a step in that direction. What is the Government's position on the publicly owned airports, particularly those outside Dublin?
I know it is unusual but I am sure I will be allowed some latitude to acknowledge the debt this country owes to John Hume and to acknowledge the contribution he has made to peace on this island. He has been a champion of democratic politics at a time when it was extremely difficult to be one. He was quite single-minded about that and in ensuring peace would be brought to this island. He is a Nobel laureate in acknowledgement of that fact. I met him just before the Sunningdale Agreement. At that time one could understand the emotional toll such things took on him. To sustain that over such an extended period was remarkable. It is important that the House acknowledges the debt owed to him by everyone on this island and in the wider world.
I ask the Leader to make time available as a matter of urgency for a debate on the EPA report on drinking water and the quality of water in our lakes, rivers and estuaries, published today. The most frightening aspect of the report is that many local authorities use seven times the permitted level of aluminium in the treatment. That aluminium has links with the increased rate of Alzheimer's disease. It is a damning indictment of the Minister that a quarter of waste water from sewerage is released untreated into the lakes, rivers and estuaries. Only last week in the House, I raised the issue of the town of Kinvara which is releasing raw sewerage into Galway Bay and causing serious damage to the oyster beds which are unique and commercially important to the west. If we are ever to reach compliance with the EU water directives, it is important that the Minister provides funding to local authorities to ensure they do not continue to allow the release of untreated sewerage into our rivers and likes. Other industries and farming have been blamed. We want to place the blame exactly where it should be, in the Minister's hands.
I accept your ruling that I cannot raise the issue of Kiltormer post office. There is a commitment to review the automated office in Kiltormer in six months' time and I hope that my raising the issue yesterday played some part in that.
I agree with Senator Ulick Burke on the issue of the EPA report. I raised in the House last week the amount of voluntary commitment that goes into these schemes. I said then and I say it today that we need to help the smaller group water schemes. There is a low level of water monitoring and there are small schemes in need of assistance. I hope we can have a debate on this and on other environmental issues as soon as possible.
I support the comments of Senator Ulick Burke about the EPA report. I would like the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come before the House to debate this issue. There have been statements by the Taoiseach and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, on rural housing. It has been identified in the report that much of the pollution in group water schemes results from septic tanks and other types of effluent. How can both be reconciled in respect of the plans for expanding rural housing?
I have raised with the Leader on many occasions the question of the Minister coming before the House to speak on the prisons issue. The Minister made a statement yesterday about the closure of Mountjoy and the building of a new prison which is very laudable. Some €100 million has been expended on Mountjoy in recent years. One of the units remains unopen, while another unit is open only from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. I would like to know what is happening because there is much confusion regarding prison policy, much of which is happening against the backdrop of the dispute concerning overtime vis-À-vis the Prison Officers Association. I am concerned the good progress made in the prison service will go in a different direction as a result of what is happening. If the Minister would come into the House and at least answer questions on the matter we would have a better understanding of what is happening.
I too believe that John Hume has earned a special place not only in Irish history but in the hearts of people of all traditions on this island. Not only did he display courage at an horrific time but the vision and confidence he displayed kept hope alive in the hearts of the people that a resolution to our problems could be found.
I ask the Leader to invite to the House the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, to discuss the decision of the Government to improve local and community development programmes, which would also give us a particular opportunity to discuss issues regarding rural Ireland. Many issues, such as decentralisation and planning, impact on the programmes which are now to be implemented. We have touched on some of them before but we need an integrated discussion on the issues regarding rural Ireland. Anybody living in urban areas, particularly Dublin city, will realise that we have over-saturated some areas with amenities and industry and need to consider how we can help rural Ireland.
I endorse what Senators Ryan and O'Toole have just said regarding the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is important that a message goes out from this House that we are not an instrument of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform but that it is an instrument of this House. It has been known for many years that the Department has a Kremlinesque attitude to disseminating information, is a fortress in terms of its own empire and regards democracy as something of a nuisance in the promotion of its objectives. We ought to send out that message and, if the Leader of the House is being abused in this way by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, we should say that we will not put up with it.
On a more specific level, some months ago in this House Senator O'Toole and I had a motion agreed by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, which agreed to set up a review of auctioneering. I will not speak on the substantive issue but point out that the review has not taken place. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has simply ignored what it agreed to in this House. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister or Minster of State at the Department to report back to this House about what is happening in regard to that review.
I am sure the House will agree that we rise to the occasion when we debate foreign affairs, as was evidenced by the level of debate last evening in regard to the Independent motion. The Leader might consider that we would have this as a normal part of our business on a more regular basis, although I appreciate that it is the procedure that this comes from one of the groupings or by way of Government business. I am specifically interested not only in our ongoing monitoring of events in the Middle East but in the Iraq situation, which is constantly evolving. I ask the Leader that Government time might perhaps be given for that during one of the Wednesday debates. As spokesperson on foreign affairs, I would be happy to liaise with the Leader on the text.
I also support the important point made by Senator Ó Murchú. There is a need to invite the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, to the House to bring together the various strands regarding his Department, to present Government policy in a cohesive fashion and to allow Members, particularly those from rural areas but also those from urban areas, to make a contribution to a debate which is obviously significant due to the changing nature of Irish society. That might be an issue the Leader could consider in the context of rural development.
Considering media reports last week regarding the possible privatisation of the universities, does the Leader think this will have an impact on the proposals of the Sub-committee on Seanad Reform and that, at a stroke, we may abolish the Seanad votes of university Senators?
Last October or November, I called for a debate regarding the publication of the BMW mid-term evaluation report as I was extremely concerned with the slow uptake of funding with regard to the protection of the environment. Today, with the publication of the Environmental Protection Agency water quality report, I have serious concerns as to why funding was not taken up at the time. Smaller group water scheme committees in the west and midlands were very concerned with the level of bureaucracy involved in drawing down funding to upgrade their schemes.
Today's report suggests that nearly 40% of our lakes and rivers have phosphorous levels exceeding EU limits. We are told that we must comply with EU regulations in this regard by 2007 but, given today's report, this would seem virtually impossible. We need an urgent debate on the three published reports and I support my colleagues in calling for a debate as soon as possible.
I join with other Senators in paying tribute to John Hume who for 35 years was at the centre of practically every creative initiative to bring peace to Northern Ireland. We need to give him and his colleagues credit for averting or at least mitigating disaster.
While on the subject of the peace process, there are at least a couple of people in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform who played a quite outstanding role in that process. While we are discussing what happened last week, I point out that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform took full personal responsibility for the arrangements. We should not go down the track of criticising civil servants for what are and ought to be political decisions.
While I sympathise with the position taken by Senator Mansergh, if we have difficulty with the attitude of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and I share the reservations of my colleagues on this side of the House, we have the remedy in our own hands. Theoretically, this House directs and orders its own business but what happened last week exposed the cosmetic nature of this perception as it simply is not true. We are directed by outside forces at various times. If we really want to reclaim democracy, we could buck the system by ordering our own business independently in this House. However, for political reasons it is unlikely that this will happen.
I echo the compliments paid to John Hume. One of the most significant points about Mr. Hume was his way of expressing a complex political view with simplicity and clarity in a completely lapidary manner. Although, towards the end of his regime one became a little used to them, certain phrases, such as that about the significant border being in the hearts and minds of the people and not on a map, went to the heart of the matter.
I wish to raise a particular matter regarding violence against women which we discussed in the past week or so. Subsequently, there was a report in the newspapers regarding two young women living quietly on the outskirts of Dublin. They were lesbians and did not make a fuss about it, but some locals discovered this and teenagers and people in their early twenties besieged the house on a regular basis and caused the women annoyance. Eventually, they made so much of a nuisance of themselves that one of the women went out to ask them to keep the noise down. She was viciously attacked, a bottle was broken on her head and she subsequently received a number of stitches.
The case went to court where the young woman assailant was fined €500 and, on the basis that she would eventually manage to pay that sum, she was to be let off with the probation Act so that she would not have a criminal record. This is extraordinary.
I ask the Leader to make representations regarding this matter in the appropriate quarter, which I presume is that of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to ensure monitoring of this type of attack. The report concluded that the matter was now resolved as the two women had relocated. It is not appropriate in this day and age that two young people living together peacefully should be driven out of their home, and that the community is happy they have relocated as this solves the problem.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to this House, as requested on a number of occasions in the past two weeks, to present his proposals for the reform and restructuring of both the prison service and the prisons? In light of the decision made by the Government yesterday to replace Mountjoy Prison with a new prison somewhere in Dublin, it is important that the Minister should keep us informed of changes he is making. Spike Island and the Curragh prisons are now closed and he has not come to this House to discuss any of these issues. The prison service is currently in a very serious state with one man dead and others injured in recent disturbances in prisons. It is imperative that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform himself should come to this House to present his proposals so that we can debate them.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has continued to lecture us that electronic voting is tamper-proof and idiot-proof. He has asked us to put our faith in this new voting system. We all know that the contract for publicity for this electronic voting system has been awarded to a company with strong links to the Fianna Fáil Party. I would like the Minister to come to this House and confirm or deny this company has a deliberate agenda to influence the public by way of its explanatory leaflets which clearly indicate a voter casting a vote for the Fianna Fáil candidate. Second, and more worrying, it excluded Fine Gael as there is no Fine Gael logo or candidate in the European elections. This is blatant discrimination.
I agree with Senator Brennan that we should invite John Hume to this House. Perhaps we could also invite his wife, Pat, who was the engine room behind John Hume's success down through the years. It would be appropriate to invite both of them.
Six months ago, the Leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Ahern, announced there would be a major drive to make it easier to build one-off housing in the countryside. Two weeks after the announcement, RTE's Brian Dobson travelled to Galway to interview the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Éamon Ó Cuív, who said the system would be changed to make it easier for local people to build one-off housing in the countryside. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, made a front page announcement in one of the broadsheets over Christmas that it would be easier for local people to build one-off housing in the countryside. Six months later, there is no mechanism on how this will be done, what it is all about or when it will be implemented. It is empty rhetoric.
I thank Senator Brian Hayes for raising the issue of the retirement of John Hume. There is no doubt it is the issue of the day in political terms. The Cathaoirleach allowed extensive laudatory remarks on John Hume, which was correct, because he is a person apart. He is a very special person. Courage is one of his biggest qualities, to which Senator O'Toole referred. At one time if one took part in a radio programme with other parties the fact that John Hume met with Sinn Féin would be condemned. I recall him being battered on a programme, so to speak, because he had met with Sinn Féin, which was not the flavour of the day. I applaud his courage and thank Senator Hayes for raising the matter.
It appears the UK is limiting in some fashion, whether by not providing benefits or otherwise, the numbers entering the country from the accession countries. Ireland and the UK were the two countries who did not intend putting a stay of any kind on the numbers coming from accession countries. It now appears that the UK will put a stay on the numbers coming to the country, but it is not clear what vehicle it will use. I will raise the issue with the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Given that we have expressed an open welcome to these countries, we should stick to it. A change of policy in the UK would leave us in a particular situation. I will ask the Minister to clarify the matter.
I echo Senator O'Toole's thoughts on the courage of John Hume.
I want to clarify the issue of the Immigration Bill. The Deputy Leader and I conveyed by telephone and directly to the Minister on several occasions that we wished to have a gap between the Second and Committee Stage debate. It was based on my clear belief that the Bill would not get through the Dáil in one day. I knew it would not, nor should it. For us to deal with the Bill on Tuesday and Friday appeared a more realistic way to do business. I knew the Bill could not be railroaded through the Dáil, which was the point the Deputy Leader and I made. Be that as it may, what happened last Friday happened. I understand many amendments are being tabled in the Dáil, which is correct. Many of the points raised in this House on Second Stage have found their way into amendments which have been accepted. There was a role, limited though it may be, for the Second Stage debate in this House which has found an echo in amendments. It is intended to finish the Bill tonight in the Dáil after which it will be reshaped, with the inclusion of many amendments. The business for next week will be taken over two days because there is not sufficient business for three days. I suggested that we would deal with the Bill on Wednesday, which was accepted.
This is a very strong lesson to Departments. We are not opposed to dealing with emergency legislation which is sometimes required urgently. As a Bill of this kind will shape the lives of many people for years to come, it is important that it is treated in an even-handed manner and within a broad timeframe. Rushed legislation is bad legislation. Each day we are confronted with the need for new or updated legislation. Senators made a stand last Thursday and Friday and I understand their point of view.
I feel that a greater understanding now exists in various Departments on how we approach our business.
On Senator Ryan's point, civil servants in the main agree they are employed to serve others. That is why they enter the service. The Senator asked that the Minister for Transport be invited to the House to explain his position on airports. We will request that and I will bite my tongue.
Senator Dardis expressed very clearly how highly he and his party regard John Hume.
Senator Burke raised the issue of group schemes. Those of us in rural areas seem to have spent much of our lives labouring on group schemes, getting the money, getting the groups together, paying subventions and gathering the rest of the money. Only 25% of the 8% of drinking water in question is now deemed to be of bad quality, but we had a significant debate on the recent Water Services Bill. It passed through this House and I remember listening to many of——
We will see. In any event, there were very some very positive findings in the report issued. I will ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to the House to discuss the report and various environmental matters.
Senator Kitt certainly had an effect if the Kiltormer issue is under review. He, too, called for a debate on water supplies. Senator Finucane called for a debate on rural housing. His points were echoed by others. Everybody is receiving plaudits for being in favour of rural housing, but services must be supplied individually to each house. Problems may arise in obtaining planning permission because services are the main matters that bring themselves to bear on this. However, it is time to draw the threads together regarding what seems a laudable policy and to put a shape on it. I will ask the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to come to the House to discuss the issue.
Senator Finucane also raised the issue of Mountjoy and prison policy, on which he called for a debate. It is time for such a debate because the matter is rolling ahead.
I agree with Senator Ó Murchú that John Hume has earned a special place not only in Irish history but in the hearts of Irish people of all traditions on this island. He also asked that the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, be invited to the House to discuss, in an integrated way, the various grants and schemes that are available for rural living.
Senator Ross stated the House is not an instrument of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I have asked for the review of auctioneers because the Department in charge promised it. We should invite the Minister to the House to discuss this.
Senator Mooney referred to the debate on the Independent Senators' motion last night. Again, I thank Senator Norris and his colleagues because it was a really excellent debate. I thank everyone who contributed, including the Minister and Minister of State. It was a worthwhile occasion and I look forward to a debate on Iraq, perhaps on an all-party basis.
Senator Mooney wondered if the privatisation of the universities might be the death knell of our esteemed university Senators. I do not believe it will.
Senator Bannon called for a debate on the BMW mid-term evaluation report and the EU regulations on phosphorous limits in water supplies. I will endeavour to facilitate him. We try to process the various requests for debates in some kind of chronological order, but we will certainly highlight the issue raised by the Senator.
Senator Mansergh paid tribute to John Hume. The Senator, above all others, should know about the work of John Hume because of all his dealings with him and all the labyrinths through which they trod together. His words were so well chosen. He also spoke of ministerial responsibility, on which his comments were correct.
Senator Norris stressed the need for us to order our business independently. We cannot do so because we have to await legislation. We cannot decide in any give week that we would like a particular Bill. There is a conduit through which Bills come to the House. However, we try to be as independent as we can and to have our own agenda. It would not be possible to operate in a limbo in which we would decide each week to consider a certain Bill. I note the Senator's sentiments on John Hume and on violence against women. On the latter point, the fact that the couple in question had to relocate meant they had to run from their home, which was disgraceful.
I am delighted that Senator Brennan took up and ran with the good idea of having John Hume in the House. I was going to request this myself. I ask the Cathaoirleach, as Chairman of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, if we could have a short meeting next week just to deal with an invitation from the House to John Hume. It would be brilliant if he could come and it would be very worthwhile.
Senator Terry called for a debate on prison policy, a topic on which we have already sought a debate. We hope to have it when the Immigration Bill is dealt with.
It was stated that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform does not come to this House. He was here last night to address matters on the Adjournment raised by Senators Quinn and Finucane. I was talking to him outside myself. He is accessible and he does come to the House.
Senator Feighan called for a debate on electronic voting. I do not mean to deliberately misunderstand him but I did not understand what he said about Fianna Fáil. He cannot speak across the floor to me but I hope he might enlighten me afterwards because I have missed the point of what he was saying.
I noticed a picture in the Irish Independent today showing Nora Owen——
Senator McHugh spoke about having John Hume in the House. He would have a strong perspective on this given that Mr. Hume has a summer house in Donegal. The Senator also suggested that we invite his wife Pat to the House. We will certainly invite both of them to Dublin but I hope it will be John Hume that will come into the Chamber.
Senator McHugh also stressed the need for a coherent policy on one-off housing. The threads pertaining to this matter should be drawn together.
On a point of clarification, the Leader was correct as regards inviting Mr. John Hume to the House. Standing Order 52A states: "With the approval of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and by leave of the Cathaoirleach, a member of the European Parliament for a constituency specified for the time being in the European Parliament Election Acts, may attend and be heard in the Seanad." Therefore, we will have a meeting next week.