Tuesday, 13 July 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, State Airports Bill 2004 — Second Stage to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business with all Senators having 15 minutes to contribute and the Minister to be called upon to reply no later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage. While we had provided that the debate would take place from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., it is now proposed that Second Stage conclude when all those wishing to make a contribution have done so.
I thank the Leader for ensuring all those wishing to contribute are allowed to do so.
I understand from one of the newspapers that a defect identified in the State Airports Bill 2004 requires amendment. Does the Leader have information from the erstwhile Minister for Transport on whether he intends to introduce the amendment in this House tomorrow or if he will wait to deal with the matter until the Bill returns to the Dáil in the autumn? What is the Government's intention in terms of resolving the defect outlined in yesterday's newspapers?
Yesterday was a relatively peaceful 12 July despite the very ugly and violent scenes in the Ardoyne in north Belfast last night. This relatively peaceful marching season should augur well in terms of the ongoing discussions between the Northern Ireland parties and both Governments. Perhaps during the summer, if some calmness and common sense are brought to bear, the final lap of progress in those discussions can be made. I offer the Government the full support of Members on this side of the House in the discussions. I understand efforts will be made throughout September and October to breathe some life into the faltering peace process. In the event of no progress being made — it is the unfortunate scenario we must consider — what plans has the Government put in place to deal with that new situation? The British Prime Minister stated that the Assembly cannot go on indefinitely as long as the parties do not co-operate and try to make it work. Attention must be paid to this situation over the summer. Perhaps the Leader will provide time in the first week of the new session for a briefing from the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Taoiseach on the matter. This is crucial because it is now ten years since the first ceasefire and at least five or six years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. All of us in this House and in other parliaments have a responsibility to ensure that the peace process is put back on track and that all the commitments entered into by all the parties and Governments are adhered to and fully implemented in the months ahead. This is the only sustainable way forward and we must send out that message of peace from the House today.
I support what Senator Brian Hayes said on the North of Ireland. What happened was lamentable when there has been a reasonably quiet period over the marching season. As someone who has been critical of Sinn Féin and the IRA, I was very impressed by the way people like Gerry Kelly dealt with the crowd and pleaded with them not to engage in aggressive behaviour. Similar activities occurred on the loyalist side. It is astonishing in a period of peace that citizens are not allowed to walk along the public highway, which is what they were doing. The pictures in the newspapers show people armed with baseball bats and we know the application to which they put these instruments against their own communities. Trees were uprooted and these people showed complete contempt for their own communities, which was lamentable. However, community leaders on both sides behaved well.
Will the Leader provide an opportunity tomorrow for statements on the Middle East? We did not anticipate meeting tomorrow and we do not need the Minister to be here. We should be allowed to make statements in the absence of a Minister. This would be useful in light of the two catastrophic reports on the intelligence services in the United States and Britain, and the disgraceful use which was made of these by the leaders of these two countries. Such a debate would also allow us to debate the judgment of the international court and the Israeli Supreme Court on the issue of the wall, which is a wall and not a security fence. It would allow us to comment on Israel's reply that it will take no notice of this judgment. This is clearly evidence of the Sharon Government aping the attitude of the Bush regime, which behaves in a completely cavalier way towards all international institutions. A debate would allow people like myself, who have identified with Israel and the suffering of the Jewish people over many years, to put on record our disassociation from the comments of Mr. Netanyahu, who attempted to use the Holocaust as a justification for the barbarous treatment of the Palestinian people. It is shameful to exploit the unparalleled suffering of the Jews of Europe to legitimise oppression of other people. It is time people like Mr. Netanyahu and the current Israeli Government were reminded that the Holocaust is not their personal possession, and they should not be allowed to abuse it. Other groups such as gay people, gypsies and the mentally handicapped were also liquidated by that regime.
We are here to deal with just one item of legislation and it has become increasingly clear over the weekend that we are, in effect, wasting our time. It has now emerged that there are drafting and technical errors in the Bill so it is clear that even if we pass this legislation over the next two days the Dáil will have to reconsider it in the autumn.
The question once again arises: why are we here? The Leader herself pointed out publicly over the weekend that this is a rushed Bill and her description of it has proved to be true. It is also premature and there are serious difficulties with it. I put it to the Leader and the House: this exercise is nothing but a rubber stamp. We are wasting our time. It is bad for this Legislature to be forced to pass this legislation against the will of so many Senators.
There is a growing crisis in the health sector which the Government seems determined to ignore, although by so doing it is making it worse. The latest problem is the difficulties with junior hospital doctors and the failure to reach agreement on their working hours. I ask the Leader to let us know what the Government intends to do to ensure that patients' health is not put at risk and the current disastrous state of the health service is not made even worse by the Government's inaction.
I too would like to join previous speakers, particularly Senator Norris, in seeking a debate on the Middle East. If this cannot be facilitated tomorrow perhaps it could be facilitated early in the next session. Given the lengthy debate we have had in the House on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wall being built by the Israelis, the recent judgment of the International Court of Justice is to be welcomed. I hope we can have a debate in the near future to address the issues arising as a result.
I also wish to raise with the Leader the case of Gráinne Dillon, who was murdered in Limerick last year by a Portuguese national who was subsequently imprisoned. However, it now transpires that negotiations have taken place about repatriating the perpetrator to Portugal to serve his sentence. It is unacceptable that the family of Ms Dillon should learn from the media that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has sought a transcript of the trial proceedings to help in making a decision. I ask the Leader to raise this issue with the Minister. Victims do not cease to become victims overnight; they remain victims. If decisions are being made about the perpetrator of this crime the family should be kept informed so they do not learn of developments through the media.
I rise to support Senator O'Meara. This Government has spoken a lot about regional development. Shannon Free Airport Development Company has acted as a catalyst for regional development over the years. This legislation provides that the entire industrial estate is to be handed over to the new airport company. Enterprise Ireland is moving to Shannon and the entire housing stock under the control of SFADCo is being handed back to Clare County Council. The Government has ended regional development in the area and this will mean the end of SFADCo, which is very sad.
Let us stop the hypocrisy of candidates saying they want regional development, decentralisation and activity in rural areas when we are actually proceeding in the other direction. This is rushed legislation. Senator O'Meara is right: if the Minister is to return to this in the autumn I cannot understand why there is such haste. I heard the Leader's interview over the weekend and I appreciate her honesty and forthrightness about this legislation.
Yesterday I attended the launch of the annual report of the Central Bank for 2003. The Governor of the Central Bank, Mr. Hurley, said he was worried about our increasing growth. Our credit debt is 25% higher than any other country in the euro zone. In the autumn we should call in the Minister for Finance to find out what can be done about this. The governor warned that if the rate of increase of house prices — currently running at 12% to 13% — and in borrowing is maintained, there could be a collapse or a correction. This should be a priority for the Minister for Finance in the autumn. Irrespective of the increase in housing supply, growth in prices is still 12% or 13% and the tragedy is that first-time house buyers are paying the price. Senator Ross has regularly stated in his newspaper column that auctioneers' guide prices mean nothing. Many houses are sold at auction at 100% above the guide price. We should listen closely to what the Governor of the Central Bank said yesterday. I seek a serious debate on the issue to discuss what the Minister for Finance can do to stop the spiralling increase in house prices and help first-time house buyers.
How appropriate. I thought Senator White was going to address the subject of what happened yesterday, on which I would disagree with her. I am glad she raised this subject as I was going to do so. We have an opportunity to raise the issue with the Minister for Finance who comes here on various occasions. However, would the Leader consider asking the Governor of the Central Bank to come to the House to reply to questions on the matter? The Minister for Finance is welcome and willing to come to the House, however, the Governor of the Central Bank does not get the same opportunity. We have had less distinguished people here to address us on subjects of less relevance recently——
It would be useful for this House to hear the Governor of the Central Bank issue a serious warning — I had intended raising this subject before Senator White so rightly raised it. Nobody can predict a property crash because nobody knows when one will occur, however, there is a real possibility that something nasty will happen in the area. Something nasty has already happened in that house prices, as Senator White said, have gone beyond the reach of first-time buyers and some second-time buyers. There is a case for Government intervention.
The principal problem appears to be that young people are being lent far too much money by the banks. It is not a problem currently but it will be a problem if interest rates rise. This House will then have to call in more than the Governor of the Central Bank to explain the situation. If there is a house price crash of that sort, we will have a negative equity situation and young people will not be able to repay their loans. This is the reason I feel the governor should be invited to the House.
As Senator Brian Hayes said, the early autumn talks will be important if there is to be an early restoration of the institutions. The common sense of purpose within this House on the subject is deeply appreciated. It is encouraging from the point of view of participants that we have on the one hand a constructive speech by Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson and on the other efforts by Mr. Gerry Kelly to restrain his side.
I must disagree with Senator Norris; it is not just a matter of walking down a public highway. If marchers go near other communities, it should be done with their agreement and consent. All experience shows that. Regarding paramilitary displays or the burning of other people's national flags, if we, for any so-called cultural purpose, burned Union Jacks, there would be much comment. These displays do not reflect any credit ——
Will the Leader respond to the issue raised by Senators Brian Hayes and O'Meara on the State Airports Bill? It is conceded that there is a drafting error with the Bill and that it must be returned to the Lower House. Will the Leader clarify this matter? Will the Leader also clarify how the Aer Rianta debt problem and a proposed court action by one of its directors may impinge on the Bill?
——whatever about chords struck on the other side. I am slightly confused and I ask the Leader for clarification. I appreciate and expected that was the Leader's view from answers she previously gave on the subject. However, I thought she put on the record following a meeting with the Taoiseach that she was happy the Bill had to be taken now. Will the Leader clarify in her own inimitable style that confusion?
Like Senators Norris and Brennan, I too call for a debate on the Middle East. It is an important topic that should be debated at regular intervals, particularly in light of the recent judgment by the International Court of Justice regarding the West Bank wall. There may not be enough time in tomorrow's proceedings, but I and I am sure other Senators would be more than willing to sit on Thursday morning to debate this important issue.
Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar an Aire Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta maidir le deacrachtaí a luaigh nuachtán inniu i gcomhthéacs doiciméidí oifigiúla a aistriú ó Bhéarla go Gaeilge. We should consider this because we have had a week of serious road deaths. The Department of Transport's road safety strategy for 2004 to 2006 has been ready for publication since February. Those Members who are enthusiasts for the Irish language and voted in favour of the Official Languages Act, which ensures all State papers are published in both languages, are concerned at this delay. It would be a shame if the report has been delayed because of translation issues, and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs should explain whether this is part of the reason for the delay.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes's comments on restraint in Northern Ireland. It is right to commend those who show restraint in the face of provocation. It is also good to remind those who actively provoke by burning flags that it is unacceptable.
I request a debate on the property market. Irish banks are securing their loan asset base abroad because they have reached the maximum for lending purposes in this State. They remain within lending constraints so long as the "haircut", or the percentage they can borrow on the securitisation, stands at 60%. However, we must continue to remain within constraints because a property crash would be serious for business and homeowners who could end up with negative equity.
I support the calls for decentralisation and would welcome a debate on the issue. Ireland is too centralised. In France only one quarter of civil servants work in the Paris area while two thirds of Irish civil servants are based in Dublin. The essence of decentralisation must be decision-making which should be central to the debate.
I agree with Senator White's remarks about house prices and the general level of indebtedness in the economy. I also agree with Senator Ross's suggestion that the Governor of the Central Bank be invited into the House. While it is a matter for another body, it is worth considering. It is, however, ironic that the Government is bellyaching about first-time buyers when its actions and those of the previous Government have continually disimproved the first time buyers' situation in the past six or seven years.
I compliment the Leader on her comments over the weekend on the State Airports Bill.
I read in one of today's newspapers about the conditions in which the State pathologist operates. According to the article, her accommodation is a pre-fabricated building in south County Dublin. It is time that accommodation is improved for someone who holds such an onerous and important position and deals with over 230 suspicious deaths every year.
Senator Quinn is quite correct to comment on road deaths. Over the past weekend there was a significant number of deaths. Continual attempts are made to tackle road safety by high level promotional gimmicks, such as advertising on television and other media yet there seems to be very little emphasis on the standard of driving. I urge the Leader, as a former Minister for Public Enterprise, encompassing transport, to speak to her esteemed successor, with a view to overhauling the driving test, about which he has spoken on several occasions. Will she also discuss with him the possibility of updating the system whereby driving instructors are registered? There are many registered instructors but there are also many cowboys in the business who give the other instructors a bad name. It is time, in light of the increased road deaths, that we seriously consider driver education.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources here to explain why the cost of electricity has increased by approximately 13%? The ESB cites oil prices as the reason for this but it pays for oil in dollars. The euro and the dollar were almost on par up to a year or so ago. The ESB has saved over 20% on the purchase of oil because it is paying in dollars. Nobody has questioned the ESB on this and now it seeks a 13% increase which affects every family in the country. Industry too will be hard hit. I do not see the reason for this increase and it would be interesting to know why the ESB has not passed on the saving it has enjoyed for some time.
A couple of Senators have called for a debate on the Middle East. I disagree with Senator Norris that it would be useful to have the debate in the absence of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I am as critical as anyone else of Israeli policy but I do not agree that it is wrong for Mr. Netanyahu to mention the Holocaust because it is uniquely tied to Israel's existence and need for security. We must keep that in mind while asking that the state of Israel act, and particularly that it implement its own Supreme Court decision on the wall. The focus has moved away from conflicts in other parts of the world which are equally, if not more important. One such conflict is in Sudan where wide scale ethnic cleansing is taking place and considerable numbers of young men and boys have been killed. That is one issue we should prioritise in terms of having a debate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs early in the next term.
I concur with the comments about the general peaceful way in which the marching season has begun in the North with the exception of the Ardoyne last night. If the Parades Commission recommendation had been observed and taken on board by the PSNI, last night's events would not have occurred. It is regrettable that, at a time when efforts have been made to build confidence in policing in the North, the recommendation was not taken on board. I am sure the Government will take up the matter to ensure that in future there is greater adherence to the recommendations of that body.
Although I accept we will not have time before the end of this session, perhaps the Leader would provide time for a debate early in the next session to assist and commend the Minister for Finance in his efforts to reduce the ridiculously high legal fees paid to tribunal lawyers. There is a need to go further than that. People in privileged positions such as those in the legal profession are considerably overcharging for services and that should be tackled. I hope we will have the support of all sides of the House to ensure that people in such positions are taken to task and that much more reasonable and fair figures will apply in future.
It is easy for Members to make political points when commenting but there has been a need to tackle the issue of junior doctors. Their working hours were well in excess of what was prudent from a safety point of view and also contravene what is allowed by the EU directive. There is a need for all of us to be much more responsible in the way we approach these issues both inside and outside the House.
I support the call for a further debate on decentralisation, a matter we have raised in the House on several occasions. Everybody agrees with the necessity for decentralisation and that it is socially and economically desirable but, as of now, the Government policy on decentralisation needs to be saved from Government politics on decentralisation. The plan and programme is in a mess as we saw from the figures last week. The scheme as currently envisaged will not happen. We need to debate the matter in a calm fashion, restate the benefit of decentralisation and urge the Government to think anew and get a proper scheme up and running.
Stemming from the request for debate on the Middle East, which I support, is a human rights issue, namely the situation in Tibet which has been raised on a number of occasions. As of now, we have to recognise that the Chinese authorities are making a deliberate effort to crush the people of Tibet——
——and their religious tradition and culture. It is a gross violation of international human rights. We are very selective in the human rights causes we champion and I hope we will send a strong message of condemnation to the Chinese authorities over its efforts to wipe the Tibetan people off the map.
I share the view of Senator Mansergh about the desecration of the national flag in the North in recent days, especially in light of the remarks I made in the House last week which would have had the agreement of all sides of the House. It shows the depth of hatred there is in one section of the community. We are used to watching the flags of other countries — usually superpowers — being burned in some far off place and it is neither acceptable nor desirable behaviour to see the desecration of our flag on this island. I hope the British authorities will take steps to address the matter. The infamous Flags and Emblems Act prevented the flying of the tricolour in the Six Counties for many decades. I would like to see some change in that regard.
I endorse everything said by Senator Tuffy when she called for a debate on the Middle East. There is absolutely no doubt that the focus has shifted, primarily driven by the United States following the events of 11 September 2001. The war on terror, as it is called by Americans, is focused on what they perceive as their enemies. The US has easily and conveniently side-tracked what should be the main focus in the Middle East. I refer to what is probably the single largest political problem facing the world today. Everything — the hatred of Muslims for the West and western culture — springs from American bias and prejudice. The first reaction of the Israeli authorities following last week's decision of the International Court of Justice was to go straight to their American allies to plead with them to veto any attempt by the UN Security Council to sanction Israel. I rest my case.
I share the views expressed by all Senators on the North of Ireland and the traumatic situation in the Middle East.
We have discussed the number of road deaths in recent weeks, but I would like to emphasise particularly the age profile of those who have died. We need to ask a fundamental question — why is it happening? The rules, regulations, directives and principles which are laid down are being broken. I ask for a full debate, when the House meets again in October, on how best we can involve society, the community and parents in this area. A debate on the involvement of such groups is needed more than a debate on the Government's role. Young people between the ages of 15 and 18 are being killed every weekend. It is a major issue. I call on parents of people in that age group to help all of us to ensure that this does not continue in the future.
Senator Brian Hayes asked if I could explain the potential impact of the apparent drafting error in the State Airports Bill 2004. When I telephoned the Office of the Attorney General this morning, I was advised that the Department of Transport has taken legal advice from the Attorney General and outside agencies. The Minister will explain the newspaper reports when he comes to the House this afternoon. I did not speak to the Attorney General because I had to attend a party meeting, but his office assured my office that it will be perfectly clear. We will hear what the Minister has to say when he comes to the House. I initially telephoned the Clerk of the Seanad, who advised me that I should contact the Office of the Attorney General.
Senator Brian Hayes mentioned the 12 July celebrations in Northern Ireland. We were all pleased that there was relative calm there, with the exception of the events of late last night. He asked for a discussion on the North when the House meets in September, especially given that there may be a small window for consultation in that month. We will have such a debate.
Senator Norris called for statements on the Middle East in the House in the absence of a Minister. I agree with Senator Tuffy in that regard. I have often said that I do not intend to have debates without a Minister being present in the Chamber. I know Senator Norris made his suggestion in good faith, but I do not think it would be appropriate.
Senator Norris also raised the declaration of the UN International Court of Justice that the West Bank wall is illegal, which was mentioned in the House last week. It seems that no heed is being paid to most of what is coming out of the UN.
I remind Senator O'Meara of my response to Senator Brian Hayes on the drafting of the State Airports Bill. The Minister for Transport will provide an explanation when he comes to the House. I agree the legislation is being rushed — there is no point in saying otherwise. Senators will have an opportunity to speak on the Bill. Senator O'Meara spoke about the growing crisis regarding the European working time directive and her belief that the health system is ill-prepared for the change and will not cope. Members of the medical profession were working approximately 78 hours a week which is beyond all proper standards for working time.
Senators Minihan and Norris raised the conflict in the Middle East. Two days have been set aside for discussion of the State Airports Bill 2004 in this House and I do not want that time to be diluted by the inclusion of other Bills or other debates. We shall discuss the matter of the Middle East when we come back in September. Senator Minihan also spoke of the Portuguese man who is charged with the murder of the young hotel worker, Ms Gráinne Dillon, and is seeking repatriation to his own country. I shall raise this matter with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Senator Finucane asked about the transfer of the Shannon Industrial Estate and its development authority. This is provided for in the State Airports Bill 2004 and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, will be in this House shortly for the debate on that legislation so we do not need to dwell on the matter now.
Senator White spoke about the Central Bank and the state of indebtedness in which the population finds itself. There are EU directives regarding banking but instructions from the Governor of the Central Bank should be heeded by the bank. I do not know how this will affect its lending policy. Senator Ross suggested that the Governor be invited to this House. He regularly attends meetings of the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service but, as the Cathaoirleach observed, it a matter for CPP to decide who should be invited to the House. However, we shall further consider the point Senator Ross has made and, in particular, the problem of young people being granted large loans far too readily.
Regarding the Northern Ireland talks scheduled for autumn, Senator Mansergh observed the constructive speeches by Mr. Geoffrey Donaldson of the UUP and Mr. Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin. They are pointers to what we hope will be a more constructive atmosphere for the September talks.
Senator Lydon proposed that this House should sit on Thursday to accommodate a debate on the situation in the Middle East. I shall make inquiries as to the level of enthusiasm for such a proposal. Senator Lydon himself might have to oversee such a debate.
Senator Quinn commented that the road traffic and strategy document cannot be issued immediately because of the requirement to produce it in both Irish and English. The Minister for Transport can provide information on this matter after the debate on the State Airports Bill 2004.
Senator Hanafin praised the restraint that has been shown in Northern Ireland in recent days and commented that the current lending practices of the banks point to a potential financial crash. Senator Hanafin also spoke about decentralisation, a subject which was debated strongly in this House at the behest of the Opposition. Anybody on that side of the House who did not vote against it left us with our paeans of praised heaped upon ourselves. It would be a good idea to review the progress of the decentralisation programme in the autumn.
Senator John Phelan spoke about the State pathologist and her working accommodation. This comes under the remit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and I will raise the matter with that Department as well as the need to overhaul the system for managing traffic and preventing road deaths.
Regarding the State Airports Bill 2004, I ask Senator Phelan whether he expects that every Bill which comes before this House should be perfect. This Bill is not perfect and I proclaim honestly that I shall vote for the Bill. What would the Opposition have me do?
Senator Phelan also raised the issue of driver education, which we should tackle.
Senator Bohan raised the matter of the 13% rate proposed by the ESB and asked that the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, should come to the House to discuss that matter and the price differential he highlighted, which the ESB has in hand, so to speak, and therefore it should not lead to any higher prices.
Senator Tuffy did not agree with Senator Norris on his call for a debate on the Middle East in the absence of a Minister. I expressed the same view as Senator Tuffy, that such a discussion in the absence of a Minister would be a pointless exercise.
Senator Jim Walsh commented on the relatively peaceful marching season in the North. He also raised the issue of the high legal fees paid to tribunal lawyers. The Taoiseach said this module would not be affected in that respect but that future modules would stand to be addressed with regard to diminution of fees. The Senator also raised the issue of the long hours worked by junior doctors. That will have to be rectified.
Senator Bradford called for a further debate on decentralisation and for a debate on Tibet.
Senator Mooney raised the issues of the marching season in the North, the desecration of the national flag and the Middle East, on which he expressed very proper sentiments.
Senator Ormonde passionately pointed out the age group of most of the fatalities on our roads. There is no doubt that the wearing of seat belts is a factor in that regard.
I wish to advise Senator John Phelan that the Driver Testing and Standards Authority Bill 2004 was published as a Dáil Bill last week and it will address the issues raised by him in regard to standards of driving, regulation of driving schools etc. When it is disposed of in the Dáil the Bill will come to the Seanad.