Thursday, 26 February 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, Public Service Superannuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004 — Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 4 p.m. There will be a sos from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
We will deal with Committee Stage of the Public Service Superannuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004 today. We are scheduled to deal with Report and Final Stages of this Bill between 12 noon and 2 p.m. tomorrow. Will the Leader examine the feasibility of taking Report Stage after a short sos this afternoon? Judging by the number of Committee Stage amendments, I think it would be feasible to conclude the Bill today.
I welcome the meeting the Taoiseach had with Martin McGuinness and members of Sinn Féin. It appears that a "get tough" policy is being adopted on Sinn Féin and its almost À la carte approach to the Good Friday Agreement. We all applauded the Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998. In the forthcoming local and European Parliament elections, Sinn Féin will be competing for seats all around the country. If the party wants to enter the whole democratic process, it will have to sever its links with the IRA. This is the commitment and belief of everyone within these Houses.
Mr. Tohill, who was involved in the recent kidnapping incident, received 93 stitches arising from the assault by the Provisional IRA. Obviously, he would have been executed but for the intervention of the police force.
The Independent Monitoring Commission was set up by both Governments to investigate incidents of this nature. Yesterday, members of the commission met the leader of the Fine Gael Party, Deputy Kenny, and indicated to him that Sinn Féin would not co-operate with the investigation. This is a further classic example of the À la carte approach of Sinn Féin to the whole issue. We can no longer pander to its whims; a get tough policy must be taken. I welcome the direction of the Taoiseach's statement yesterday and hope it will become the policy of the Government and all parties in the House.
I will be guided by the Cathaoirleach and ignore my notes. I recently raised the question of housing statistics with the Leader. It has been brought to my attention that the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is too busy with other matters to count or keep track of the number of housing starts or completions, and that we largely rely on organisations such as Threshold and ESB data on the number of connections to obtain this information.
As the Cathaoirleach will be aware, planning sections of local authorities must be notified of housing starts and at regular intervals thereafter. Given that these figures are available, all that would be required to collate them would be for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to require each local authority planning department to made a quarterly return. We need to examine this issue given the widespread discussion on housing. The matter is crucial in terms of planning for the future and it is not good enough for Ministers to use figures which cannot be checked in their Departments. I ask that the Minister come before the House to explain the position and the lack of progress on the issue of affordable housing, which is a commitment under partnership. Land for this purpose has been available. When will the starts occur?
I ask the Leader to request that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government come before the House to explain the reason he is spending more than €4.5 million on a public relations campaign on electronic voting when only €160,000 was spent recently on the registration of voters. In a survey carried out by the Central Statistics Office following the previous election, more than 20% of those questioned cited the fact that they were not registered as a reason for not voting. If one extrapolates this figure, it could mean that as many as 250,000 people cannot vote because they are not registered.
I ask the Leader to request that the Minister come to the House to explain why so much money was spent on a PR campaign on electronic voting when so little is being spent on the important issue of registering voters. The Minister's priorities are wrong.
I also ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the important issue of AIDS and the massive impact of the epidemic on Africa. Although the matter may have been raised earlier in the week, I ask that the Leader give it priority in light of the comments made at the world conference on AIDS in Dublin this week that countries in Africa are effectively dying on their feet due to poverty and cannot afford to pay for drugs which are keeping people in the west alive. We should debate the responsibility and role of the western world in changing world policy with regard to this disaster.
I agree with Senator Finucane's comments. It would be useful to debate the situation in Northern Ireland and the peace process in general. I am aware a similar call was made earlier in the week. I heard a Sinn Féin spokesperson state on radio this morning that the party is committed to the Good Friday Agreement. Has Sinn Féin ever read the document because it has things to say about weapons and so forth? An unacceptable degree of spinning occurs.
We also have the position of Sinn Féin stating it cannot be responsible for the actions of the IRA but when the IRA makes a gesture towards the peace process, as it has in the past, Sinn Féin seems to be able to take credit for it. The party cannot have it both ways.
Last night when asked on radio if he had ever killed anybody, a Sinn Féin Deputy replied that he could not say because one could not be sure in an ambush. That statement links Sinn Féin to the Provisional IRA. Certain issues need to be debated honestly and openly because terrorism persists in this country and needs to be rooted out. Sinn Féin must decide once and for all whether it wants to pursue democratic politics.
Will the Leader ascertain the current position of the discussion document on regional boundaries for new health boards currently before the interim health services executive? Will she arrange for a debate on the issue in the coming weeks?
Ba mhaith liom cúpla focal a rá faoin díospóireacht ar an Ghaeilge san Eoraip. As the Cathaoirleach will be aware, the ongoing debate on the status of the Irish language in the European Union was initiated in the Seanad by Senator Ó Murchú and others. If I recall correctly, the Leader made a commitment to pursue the matter. Not a day passes without the newspapers referring to the debate which is also taking place in the other House.
Those who oppose making the Irish language an official language of the European Union on the basis that it would not be practical should be aware that even now — the Cathaoirleach may be aware of this as a result of his participation in the Council of Europe — there is no practical barrier or objection to the Irish language being translated because a translator is not required during proceedings for each language. After accession, for example, 25 translators will not be required during proceedings. I understand the position to be that one interpreter interprets and his or her text is then copied by all the other interpreters. Those arguing that making Irish an official language would add to the burden of bureaucracy are not correct. There is no practical problem and I am now even more convinced that we should have the right to identify Gaeilge as an official language of the European Union.
I support Senator Mooney's request for a debate on this issue. Exciting possibilities are opening up. I received a letter yesterday from a group called the Decentralisation to Brussels Unit, Cúpla Focal Limited, which indicated it is in possession of a language used only in officially sanctioned documents and now available under licence. Anything published in the language, it stated, will never be read by anybody and confidentiality is thus guaranteed. It continued:
The licence holder will benefit from a Language Support Organisation, with staff employed by the Government of Ireland on a permanent and pensionable basis, and whose numbers have been greatly expanded. This highly professional organisation lays claim to eighty years' experience in the use of government language, without any leakage of the official language into the surrounding community.
Governments can, therefore, be assured of confidentiality. This is clearly from someone with a strong entrepreneurial streak who, like Senator Mooney, believes there will be a use for the Irish language in the future as, I hope, there will be a use for Temple Bar.
I note a report has just been published on the future of Temple Bar. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on Temple Bar, which is now experiencing the problems some of us prophesied some time ago. I can definitely make that claim because I took a lease in the area in 1978 when we established the Hirschfeld Centre. We were the only group not to receive funding and we were ruthlessly extirpated, while money was poured into pubs and cheap plastic public sculpture. The atmosphere created in the area was described on radio this morning as "Pints, puke and paintings."
We need to examine how Temple Bar will be handled by Government in future. We should also have a debate on the future of the Abbey Theatre. Last night the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Mr. O'Donoghue, indicated there would be very severe difficulties in developing on the Abbey site. That is a great pity historically, but if it is to be moved, it must be moved to some place on the north side of the city. It should not travel southwards, and the development of the Carlton site should be examined. It would be a superb jewel in the crown of O'Connell Street if we had our historic national theatre right in the centre of a revitalised O'Connell Street plaza.
Some months ago Members became quite exercised over the impending war in Iraq. There was a great deal of discussion on the primacy of the United Nations in this regard. Given the information which has now come to hand, that the Secretary General's telephone was being tapped, which obviously raises very serious questions, it would behove this House to have a general debate on how world order is regulated and the respect there must be for institutions whose primary function is to assist in trying to ensure that world order is properly maintained. The situation that has arisen now gives rise to serious questions in that regard. It would be a useful exercise if we addressed those issues in a debate. I therefore ask the Leader of the House to arrange for such a debate at an early stage.
I support the request of Senator Finucane to take Report Stage of the Public Service Superannuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004 this evening following a short sos in view of the small number of amendments so far proposed. Will the Leader indicate when the electronic voting Bill, the Civil Liability and Courts Bill and the Garda Síochána Bill will be brought before this House?
In recent times in Britain there has been a proposal for random drug testing of school children. The reason is that figures in Britain suggest that 40% of children between the ages of 14 and 18 years of age take illegal drugs. The question of whether or not it is a good thing to have random drug testing in schools is currently being debated very strongly and seriously in Britain. I suggest it is something we should debate in this House. We owe it to young people to be aware of the problems of drugs and to protect them from the abuse of drugs. Perhaps the way to do that is with random drug testing in schools. If it is, we should be debating it ahead of time.
In view of the fact that the committee charged with implementing the decentralisation policy to Roscrea has been recently informed that a section of the Equality Authority that was to move there will not now be going because nobody wants to move and they have refused to do so, I ask the Leader to invite the Minister concerned, the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon — even though the Minister for Finance might say he has nothing to do with it — to come into the House and explain progress on decentralisation to date. I hope this is not the beginning of the unravelling of that policy. It is very important that this House debate the issue and support the decentralisation policy. Given that the Equality Authority is not being decentralised to Roscrea, will the Leader of the House ask the Minister to consider decentralising the Garda Complaints Board or the proposed new Garda Ombudsman Commission to Roscrea to make up for that loss?
A few weeks ago I raised the question of appalling conditions in some puppy farms throughout the country. Yesterday we learned of another find in County Wexford where seven dogs had to be put down and another 30 were found in appalling conditions. When is it intended to introduce legislation governing animal welfare, given that the current legislation dates back to 1911? It is time we had regulations laying down proper conditions for animal welfare.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism to the House for a debate on the future role of the regional tourism boards which have, I believe, outlived their usefulness. Throughout the country counties are setting up county committees because they have lost confidence in the boards. A new structure needs to be put in place to focus on regions with a product to sell, for example, the Shannon region, the garden county of Wicklow, the Slieve Bloom region, the ring of Kerry and so on. There should be more focus on the identity of regions, as happens on the Continent.
It also concerns me greatly that none of the tourism boards here have guides with foreign languages. If we depend on people from Europe and further afield to visit here, guides with foreign languages are necessary. That is something we lack compared to mainland Europe. There is much to be examined regarding the development of tourism.
I support Senator Quinn's call for a debate on the issue of random drug testing in schools. Drug abuse in schools is quite a serious issue according to all reliable sources. I am aware, as others are, that both at primary and secondary level teaching staff have had ongoing discussions on formulating policy to deal with this issue and they are reporting back to the Minister. I understand that most of these reports should be on the Minister's desk by now. It would be an appropriate time for us to have a debate so we can ask the Minister to account for what has been happening in the debates in staff rooms throughout the country and to indicate what proposals he has to enable teachers to move forward in dealing effectively with this issue.
Senator Finucane, the acting leader of the Opposition, asked me to consider taking Report Stage of the pensions Bill following a sos this afternoon. That sounds sensible and in principle I agree. However, I must speak to the other leaders and perhaps we could have a brief meeting outside following the Order of Business. I thank the Senator for raising the matter. It is a sensible suggestion and if possible we will go along with it.
The Senator also raised the matter of the Taoiseach's meeting yesterday with Mr. Martin McGuinness and the tough stance he adopted during but certainly after that meeting. Everyone wants the Good Friday Agreement to stick and the peace process to move forward and, generally speaking, that has been happening. As we listen to debates and to other speakers it is often difficult to be definitive in what one says. It may well be that the Taoiseach's stance, remarks that have been made here in this House regarding the apportionment of blame and other matters have made these issues sink home. I hope that will happen.
Senator O'Toole raised the matter of housing statistics and the seemingly random way in which housing Ministers obtain information. We are hoping to fit in debates on that issue and on the drugs issue in the next two weeks.
Senator O'Meara raised the issue of electronic voting, about which the Cathaoirleach has spoken. The Senator was concerned about the small amount of money being spent on the process of registering would-be voters. There is huge movement in Ireland now, not just from estate to estate but from county to county and from electoral area to electoral area. It seems there should be a sustained campaign, not just in the run-up to elections, but constantly on such matters.
Senator McCarthy and others raised the issue of AIDS yesterday. It is hoped to have a debate on that issue also as soon as possible.
Senator Dardis agreed with Senator Finucane's comments and referred to a particular Sinn Féin Deputy who spoke on radio last night about armed combat in the past. In answer to Senator Browne's question on the delineation of the boundaries of regional health boards, there has not been a debate on health in the House for some time and it would be useful to have one.
Senator Mooney spoke on the status of the Irish language and explained what would be needed in Europe. I believe there is a definite movement to block this happening and it does not emanate from Government circles. I note so-called learned articles and informative pieces in various newspapers and periodicals on the subject. There is no doubt that there is a definite move to undermine the movement to enhance the status of the Irish language. There has been a debate on the matter in the other House and in my view, the Dáil copied the Seanad because we were the first to hold one. There was all-party agreement.
There is now a real opportunity for conferring great status on the Irish language, not in a snobbish sense but in the belief that it deserves its rightful place. I am equally aware there are many so-called sophisticates who do not want this to happen and who are putting forward all kinds of perceived insurmountable obstacles to the achievement of that status. We will review the situation after the debate this week on the Private Members' motion in the other House.
Senator Norris also asked a question about the Irish language and requested a debate on Temple Bar. He also asked for a debate on the future of the Irish theatre——
I saw a marvellous performance of the Druid production of "The Playboy of the Western World" last night in the Gaiety Theatre. It proves there is a great future for Irish theatre and it will last forever when it produces masterpieces such as that production. There were many overseas visitors in the audience. The Senator made the argument for the Abbey Theatre to remain on the northside of the city. I would think the Taoiseach has a plan close to his heart. I have no idea what it might be but it is my impression that he would have one——
That is good. Senator Jim Walsh asked for a debate on the regulation of the world order. I watched a television programme last night about the woman in the UK who blew the whistle on the situation in Iraq. She was not penalised nor was there any condemnatory statement or action taken, because it is believed that she could blow another whistle or two and that would cause more trouble.
In answer to Senator Coghlan, we will meet to decide on the timing for Report Stage of the Public Service Superannuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004. The Garda Síochána Bill will be before the House next week. It is a big Bill and it is hoped to commence Second Stage on Tuesday next. The House will also deal with the Aer Lingus Bill.
I do not know about that. The Senator asked about the Garda Síochána Bill.
Senator Quinn asked for a debate on whether there should be random drug testing of school children. This testing is being carried out in the UK on secondary level students. Senator Fitzgerald also spoke on that subject. I suggest a combined debate on AIDS and drug abuse. Senator Quinn asked if random drug testing of school children would be effective in this country. Perhaps it would be.
Senator Coonan asked for a debate on decentralisation. I was not aware that a section of the Equality Authority did not wish to be decentralised. I understand that union conferences are being held today and at the weekend on the subject of decentralisation. Decentralisation will take some time to bring to fruition. The House debated a Private Members' motion on the matter last week. The Government is very much in favour of decentralisation and I presume the Senator is also in favour because he has asked if another body, such as the Garda Complaints Board, could be decentralised to Roscrea. It will take time to co-ordinate and progress decentralisation. I have no doubt that the energy and commitment of the Government, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and the Minister of State of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, will cause it to find favour.
Senator Cummins asked a question about puppy farms, particularly in County Wexford. That is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Cullen, to outline his plans in that regard.
I agree with the point made by Senator Bannon about the regional tourism boards. They are very large and are not centred on the identifiable attractions of an area which are what attract people to a region, not a vague mid-west or mid-east description. I know that in Clonmacnoise there are guides who are proficient in German and French as well as English. Senator Mansergh has informed me that the Rock of Cashel guides are also proficient in those languages. This is necessary because we cannot expect everyone else to speak English just because we do.
A Chathaoirligh, I wish to speak to the party leaders for a few moments. Thank you.