Thursday, 9 December 2004
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is No. 1, Garda Síochána Bill 2004 — Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business until 2 p.m.; and No. 2, Road Traffic Bill 2004 — Second Stage, to be taken at 3 p.m. and to conclude no later than 5.30 p.m., the contribution of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes each and all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes each. The Minister shall be called on to reply no later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage. There will be a sos from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
In a 30-year period, 3,636 people have died in the conflict in the North of Ireland. Yesterday, we all envisaged that we were poised on an historic agreement. However, this seemed to have failed for one specific reason regarding photographic evidence. The blame game is now very much in place between Sinn Féin and the DUP. Yesterday, in the Lower House, the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, claimed it was not necessarily photographic evidence alone that was the cause of the breakdown in the talks. I am at sea as to the other reasons. However, these should not concern us because the Taoiseach is still optimistic that a resolution will be reached before Christmas. We wish him well in his endeavours.
Had a resolution been achieved yesterday, it would have been an historic agreement and a successful climax to all the talks that have taken place over the years. Members have spoken and written eloquent newspaper articles on the situation in the North. As we face the Christmas recess next week, it would be helpful if the Taoiseach or the Minister for Foreign Affairs could attend the House to specifically debate this agreement. If there are minor issues preventing a successful agreement being reached, I hope they will be ironed out in the near future and a political logjam, with a sense of instability creeping into the situation, will be avoided. I ask the Leader to invite a member of the Government to debate this issue.
I support Senator Finucane's viewpoint as the House could have a useful debate on this issue. Will the Leader convey, on behalf of the House, our congratulations to the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach for the extraordinary openness they displayed in dealing with yesterday's press conference?
While people might not have liked what they heard, every question was answered and there was no attempt to hide. When I spoke here three days ago, I said I hoped that whatever happened, we would not end up in a cloud of ignorance. We know how matters stand and can measure what progress has been made. While the increment may not be the extra mile we wanted, it is important to us all that we have had full publication of what was agreed. The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister were available to answer every question. I would like to see that process continued in the House. If the Taoiseach is not available, the Minister for Foreign Affairs should come to the House to answer questions. We have had questions and answers previously. It would be useful if questions such as those asked by Senator Finucane a minute ago could be put and answered in our presence. I sense the media is trying to catch someone out in the negotiations with questions about photographs. It does not work that way. We are where we are and I would like to ask questions here about the future and how we can make the process work. I want the size of the problem we face to be quantified.
There was a perfect example of the "Yes, Minister" style at its worst on "Morning Ireland" recently. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government told the world unashamedly that while he was in favour of incineration, he was opposed to it in his own constituency. He felt that was an appropriate approach for a Minister to take as we should all remember that as well as being Ministers, Cabinet members are also constituency representatives. What they have to do for their constituencies may be different from what they have to do as Ministers. I am completely confused. It would be very helpful if the Minister came to the House to explain his views on incineration. It is a very tricky issue on which I do not pretend to know the answers. I tend to be in favour of incineration to an extent, but am not sure what we should do.
I would also like the Minister to attend to explain to the House where we stand on the Kyoto Agreement, especially in light of the comment by a member of President Bush's cabinet that it is not environmentally friendly and should not be supported. I want to know what we have done in the context of the protocol and, in particular, what the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is doing to support people who take environmentally friendly house building decisions on rain water management, solar panels and underground heating systems. Are we encouraging people with tax breaks or grants?
More than most people here, I tend to be impatient with progress on Northern Ireland. I share fully, however, the views Senator O'Toole has just expressed. The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister have devoted themselves effectively, efficiently and constructively to the process. The Taoiseach deserves to have that recognised. The House of the Oireachtas which has had a succession of citizens of Northern Ireland as Members during my time as a Senator should have an opportunity to hear formally from the Taoiseach or Minister for Foreign Affairs and hold a long, open-ended and serious debate on the matter. I have never accepted the idea that matters are too delicate to be discussed in a democratic forum. The House has plenty of evidence of people's capacity to deal with sensitive and serious issues sensitively and seriously. It is high time serious debate on events in Northern Ireland took place in both Houses.
In light of how forthcoming the Taoiseach and Prime Minister were at their press conference and of the accessibility of the two major political parties, it should be remembered that there is a participant in the process which is never cross-examined, never meets the press and issues sanctimonious press releases in the name of an organisation called Óglaigh na hÉireann. I recognise only one Óglaigh na hÉireann. I do not say this to point the finger, but to highlight the fact that there is one exception to everything we have said here which remains in secret. I share Senator Finucane's view. We must ask if a great deal more failed to be done and if it is true that the IRA was not prepared to quantify what it had in its possession. A succession of questions has arisen. I am inclined to accept the Tánaiste's view that photographs were not the only problem. The best thing we could hear now would be an explicit statement from the Government detailing what precisely is the problem.
It would be very useful to have a debate on incineration. There is a Minister from the constituency in which I reside who is opposed to incineration there. A Minister of State from the same constituency who is responsible for environmental protection is also opposed to incineration in the area. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government are also opposed to incineration in their constituencies. The Minister for Defence is opposed to incineration in the vicinity of a naval base, not on a constituency basis as it is far outside his, but in defence of the Naval Service. Whatever the merits and demerits of incineration, on which my views are available to be checked in the Official Report, we need to know the Government's position on waste management. The Government must adopt a position which applies everywhere rather than simply in places other than where a Minister happens to be.
I join previous speakers in congratulating the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and their officials who represented the Oireachtas and the Irish people in the recent negotiations. While it is very easy for those of us who are not involved to be critical, the time has come for us to offer them our congratulations on bringing us so far. I join Senator O'Toole in congratulating the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach on yesterday's press conference. It was a step in the right direction in terms of how business should be done.
I am very conscious of the need to avoid recriminations and of the words of Senator Maurice Hayes, to whom I listened very carefully because of his experience in this context. However, while there is a lull in the process, there is a need for everyone to reflect. In reflecting, it should be considered that no one has a monopoly on humiliation. While neither side in Northern Ireland deserves to be humiliated, nor do the Irish Government, the State, law-abiding citizens, gardaí or Ann McCabe. We must reflect on that to move the process forward constructively while respecting diverse opinions on all sides. I would welcome a debate on Northern Ireland and join previous speakers in the hope that time will be provided for one next week.
I support Senator Finucane in his call for a debate on Northern Ireland. The call was also aired briefly yesterday. As all speakers have indicated, it would be timely if the Leader could arrange it for next week. Despite the failure to sign off on an agreement yesterday, a great deal was achieved and everyone involved deserves our congratulations. It would be wonderful if we could hear more from the Taoiseach. There are wise heads in the House, including Senator Maurice Hayes whose comments we have been reading and who is very sound on this issue.
I record my agreement with what some would call the stern advice of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, to the hotel industry to watch prices. As he said, the worsening price situation must not be ignored. He is rightly concerned about our traditional tourism markets in Britain, France and Germany. While price is not the only issue, as he said we ignore it at our peril. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, to come before the House early in the new year for a debate on the immediate future of our tourism industry and the important issues surrounding it.
I support the call for a debate on Northern Ireland. In recent weeks we all agreed it may not be the most appropriate time for such a debate but it would be appropriate now because as Senator O'Toole mentioned, there is a wealth of information that we did not have at our disposal previously. That demonstrates once again the extraordinary commitment of the two sovereign Governments to this peace process.
Many people would have walked away from the process a long time ago but the two Governments have stayed with it. When we consider the information now available, it is clear that major progress has been made. When the current effort was not derailed by what I regard as the outburst from Dr. Paisley in Ballymena recently on the need to humiliate republicans, I believe that effort will remain intact. I agree it is time for reflection and perhaps we should all work towards harmonising Christian principles with political activity. That is what we need at this time.
One major result that has come out of all the difficulties, and it may be ironic in an historic sense, is the fact that this process has brought Britain and Ireland closer together——
——and that is part of the total equation. Obviously, we have great admiration for the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and all the other people involved in the process but my admiration for Tony Blair increases each time I listen to him. When I look back on the history of Ireland and the history of the North of Ireland, we were always worried what Margaret Thatcher or somebody like that would say to cause further problems. When I listen to Tony Blair, however, I hear a very reasonable, humane and pragmatic person. I agree with other speakers. We do not want recrimination. It is possible that in a matter of days something could happen, although I have my doubts. We should not ignore the fact that the looming United Kingdom general election has a bearing on this issue but I remain confident that the breakthrough could come at the very time we least expect it.
Does the Leader share my concern at the statement by Colin Powell that we should look beyond Iraq? It suggests to me that Mr. Powell, in a form of queasy hypocrisy which one has come to expect from the Goering of the Bush regime, wants us to overlook what has been happening in Baghdad, Falluja and Abu Ghraib.
I would like the Leader to draw to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs the reports in The Irish Times today where it is clear that the torture in Abu Ghraib consisted of using electric shock instruments and included the squeezing of the genitals of male prisoners by female operatives, which is very shocking, particularly to Islamic people. There were also prisoners with burns on their backs and prisoners with damaged kidneys. This is not a laughing matter. I am very surprised that some of the Senators on the opposite side of the House can smile about it.
This torture continued after the revelation of the abuse. In light of that fact, we should also ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to require from the occupying forces a statement on what is happening in Falluja, where there is no monitoring whatsoever. The silence there is very worrying.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform why the Garda authorities in Limerick and Shannon, despite a complaint indicating prima facie evidence of criminal activity involving the aeroplane that has been named, have taken no action? We need to know about that.
I want to record my pleasure, and I am sure other Members feel the same, at the closure of a pub in Marlborough Street for three days because somebody was found drunk to the point of complete incapacity and a danger to himself and the public. I am very glad that the legislation passed through this House has now been seen to be effective in this regard. The legislation should be extended to include off-licences. Perhaps they are covered by the legislation but I am not sure.
Last night, coincidentally, I witnessed a man and a woman who were almost insensible with drink purchasing alcohol from an off-licence in Parnell Street. That is not good enough. The personnel in these shops are not entirely responsible because, very often, they are not Irish nationals, their command of English is not very good and I doubt if they know the law. However, this practice should be stamped out.
I join with other Senators in calling for a debate on Northern Ireland. I agree with Senator Ó Murchú who talked about the example of good neighbours working together. That was clear from the positive press conference yesterday, despite the disappointing outcome.
On another issue about good neighbours, I understand the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will sign a deal with the British ambassador tomorrow on access to the Sellafield nuclear plant. This is the first time such access has been agreed. I understand there will be access also to the security arrangements there, which is very welcome. I am sure we all want the total closure of the Sellafield plant because if there was a terrorist attack or a failure at Sellafield, the consequences for this country would be horrific. I agree with the call for a debate on waste management, the Kyoto Protocol and other issues, which are relevant at the present time.
I agree with the call from some of my colleagues for a debate on Northern Ireland, which would be helpful because it would allow us the opportunity to ventilate to some degree the significant progress that has been made. We must recognise that over the course of the past ten years or so there has been transformation beyond description in the politics and the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. It appears now that another deadline has come and gone but that should not be a cause for any long-term disappointment. The significant political progress which has been made between the parties will inevitably result in a solution with which every side can live. It is most unhelpful to go down the route of defining humiliation and trying to cast blame. We must recognise that attitudes have changed greatly and that allows everybody the opportunity to move forward.
The second issue I want to raise, as I did a month or six weeks ago, is the ongoing crisis in Sudan. Over the past few months, hundreds of thousands of people in that unfortunate country have either been killed, died from famine or have been displaced. It is the greatest international tragedy yet it is not the subject of the same type of debate as happens on other regions of the world currently under the spotlight. A debate in this House on Sudan would be helpful.
I join with Senator O'Toole in calling for a debate on incineration, an issue about which there has been much misinformation and confusion over the past few years. We would benefit from a balanced debate, with all of the facts, in which we can explore the many positive aspects that are associated with incineration, and the negative ones, and form an opinion on it going forward.
In asking the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come before the House we could finally deal with the issue of the review of local government funding, which has been ongoing. While I welcome the increased allocation to the local government fund, it should be reviewed if needed because serious reform is necessary so local government can be financed in a more sustainable and fair manner.
I join in the praise of the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister for their patience in dealing with the parties in Northern Ireland. I visited the North this week and witnessed the incredible changes. It would be dreadful if the process went backwards and a debate on the issues would be useful.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the House to address the lack of facilities for children who come before the courts? This is a serious problem and various judges have tried to illustrate the difficulties in arranging a safe place for children who appear before the courts on criminal charges. Today's newspapers report on a case where the staff of a centre pleaded with the judge not to send a girl to them but he said he had to because there was no other place to send the girl who was on remand. Many Members will recall the effort Judge Hubert Wine put into bringing to the attention of the Department of Justice the dreadful lack of such facilities. The Minister should come to the House to outline the current position and explain why there is such a scarcity of suitable places after all these years.
I compliment the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair on a wonderful presentation yesterday. We have come so far that both Prime Ministers are equal. Their body language at the press conference was a credit to all concerned. Perhaps we can look forward to the First Minister of Northern Ireland addressing the House next year. I hope there will be a peaceful Christmas in the North and that there will be a successful outcome to the talks.
Christmas is both a happy and sad time for many people. Approximately 10,000 undocumented Irish people live in the United States. When we return next year, will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the House to debate this issue? Next year should be used to lobby the American Government to provide visas for our undocumented citizens so they can return home. I received a telephone call recently from a young man in Boston, who is lonely and sad. He typifies many Irish people in America. He could not return home for Christmas last year and cannot do so this year. Hopefully, he will be able to do so next year because if all parties put in an effort and work together on this issue, great results could be achieved. The St. Patrick's Day festivities could be used as the highlight in a push by the Government to ensure the undocumented in the US are recognised.
I am disappointed the two parties have failed to reach agreement on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Much has been done and a measure of consensus has been achieved. I seek a debate on Northern Ireland in the new year. I pay tribute to both Governments for their tolerance and I renew my call on the DUP and Sinn Féin to curb the choreography and histrionics, which are not helpful to the peace process. I wish the Government well and I hope negotiations are resumed at the earliest opportunity.
It is a no-brainer when, unfortunately, Dr. Paisley used emotive language when he referred to people going around in sackcloth and ashes. My uncle is a founder of the SDLP and when I spoke to him earlier, he said Dr. Paisley should withdraw that statement. It was not an outburst and it caused difficulty. It is important to remember that people on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland were manipulated into violence by both sides.
At a time when there is difficulty getting two sides to agree, I support Senator Kitt's comments about the agreement on access to Sellafield which will be signed tomorrow. I seek a debate on this issue early in the next session to ensure our attention continues to be focused on Sellafield. It is a dramatically dangerous situation. Pressure should be applied and we should let everybody know that we will not relax that pressure. I call on the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the House for a debate so we can stress the importance of this issue.
It is interesting what one learns when a strike occurs. The strike at Irish Ferries meant that we did not have envelopes yesterday because they are bought abroad. While Ireland is in the EU and has obligations in this regard, the envelopes used in Leinster House are no longer produced in Ireland. Under EU regulations, it is correct to do that but I am surprised that such products are no longer made in Ireland.
Notwithstanding the events of the past 24 hours, it is inevitable that repeated calls would be made for a debate on Northern Ireland but similar calls were made yesterday on the Order of Business and the Leader responded positively. I endorse the comments that have been made. Members who disgracefully accused the Taoiseach of not being trusted in recent weeks might reflect on the events of the past 24 hours because trust was central to all that took place. The underlying reason for the remarkable relationship between Britain and Ireland, exemplified by Senator Ó Murchú's remarks, was the establishment of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body in the early 1990s when, for the first time since partition, British and Irish politicians broke down the walls of prejudice, indifference and ignorance to the point where there is now a harmonious relationship between both countries. Hopefully, the last piece of the jigsaw will be fitted into place in 2005.
In light of the reply of the Minister to the matter of UN reform which I raised on the Adjournment last night, will the Leader consider a debate on the reform proposals by the panel of experts because of the importance of the UN in Ireland's foreign policy, in which we place great store? I do not wish to engage in oratorical flourishes or disagreements with Senator Norris but, notwithstanding his justifiable remarks about human rights, we should continue to raise the outrageous murders of Irish citizens such as Margaret Hassan and Kenneth Bigley. Is it not amazing how quickly they are forgotten?
I support the call for a debate on Northern Ireland with the Taoiseach as soon as possible. Will the Leader ask the Taoiseach to bring the SDLP centre stage once more? The party is the moderate voice of Nationalists in Northern Ireland and it has been central to the peace process from the beginning. It is important that its voice is heard again as we approach the final step. The Taoiseach should bring it back centre stage from the sidelines where it has been for the past 12 months or so.
Senator Finucane raised the issue of Northern Ireland and the need for a debate. We have put that proposal forward and it is now a matter of the availability of the Taoiseach or the Minister for Foreign Affairs and of time. If we can reach agreement on it we will see if we have time for it. There is an excellent two page supplement in The Irish Times today which goes through every point of the proposed agreement and the discussion. If we are to have a debate on the issue, this would be necessary reading homework for all of us. I thank the Senator for raising the matter. We hope to have that debate.
Senator O'Toole supports Senator Finucane's call for debate. He mentioned the extraordinary manner in which the matter was handled yesterday. I was struck by that also. The two Prime Ministers stood in front of the bank of reporters and journalists with their microphones and probing questions and took the questions calmly one by one. The obvious camaraderie between the two of them was enlightening and spelled openness. It showed a significant development in the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The Senator also raised the matter of the views of the Minister of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on incineration. I heard him speak on the issue on radio. He spoke about the need for a full debate on the subject. He said that people only get the scare headlines and not the full facts. It would be useful to invite him here to discuss that matter and the Kyoto Agreement. We could also discuss appropriate structures to support builders who take environmentally friendly measures such as the use of solar panels or wind energy.
Senator Ryan commended the openness of the Northern process. He wants an open-ended debate on Northern Ireland that would continue at periodic intervals. That would be useful. The only person we do not hear from in an open way is P. O'Neill.
The Senator also wants a Government position on incineration because recent statements bear out that there will be no incineration wherever any Minister lives. Some of the proper facts on incineration have not come out. How can it be good to continue putting refuse into landfill sites? That is not the proper way to deal with the issue.
Senator Minihan felt congratulations were due all around on Northern Ireland and that no recrimination was needed. He made the salient point that nobody has a monopoly on humiliation.
Senator Coghlan supported the call for a debate on Northern Ireland. He also agreed with his Kerry colleague's recent statement on hotel prices. He would like a debate on that.
No matter what, he is very faithful to Kerry. Senator Ó Murchú feels we should harmonise Christian principles with political activity. He praised the great relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom. This improved relationship is a welcome step. I regard what happened yesterday as a staging post and not the end. Much has been achieved and we have greater knowledge of what has been done to achieve it.
Senator Norris asked about the statement of US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, with regard to forgetting what has happened in Iraq and reaching out. The former Taoiseach, John Bruton, begins his new job next week. He will play a strong role in this area in Washington and his work will be of great interest to us. I read in the newspapers that incorrect treatment of prisoners continued in Abu Ghraib after the issue was made public. The Senator asked whether the human rights situation there could be addressed. He also asked why gardaí in Limerick, Ennis and Shannon have taken no action with regard to the criminal damage to an aeroplane.
Senator Norris also raised the matter of whether the legislation on intoxication also applied to off-licences. I presume a person does not consume on the premises of an off-licence, but only purchases drink there. I smiled wryly when I heard a three-day embargo was imposed on the pub in question. The closure is not being imposed until January, so perhaps people will have taken a new year's resolution to give up drink then.
The judgment shows the legislation is working. Senator Kitt supported the call for a debate on Northern Ireland. He also drew attention to the issue of Sellafield. The radiological protection institute now has open access to the premises and workers and can ask questions and get full information. This new accord between the United Kingdom and Ireland is a significant development and was not given much attention until today. There was a time when we dreaded confrontation. I remember when a previous Taoiseach and Prime Minister had an open spat resulting in mayhem and confusion.
Senator Bradford called for debate on Northern Ireland and the Sudan. Senator MacSharry called for a debate on incineration and a review of local government funding. I am tired of hearing about reviews of local government funding as we seem to get no result from them. We get no more money, whatever about the review. It seems we review it but never implement it.
Senator Henry praised the patience of the Prime Minister and Taoiseach. We can only imagine all the back-breaking visits, readings, files, deputations and listening involved. It is amazing. She also asked if the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform could come to the House to tell us about facilities for young people in trouble. She wants to know what is available, the difficulties emerging in different centres.
Senator Leyden raised the issue of the undocumented Irish people in the United States. He wants us to make this a cause for 2005.
Senator Ulick Burke asked that we bring the SDLP centre stage. It was always centre stage until the electoral mandate shifted the pawns on the chess board. The current situation is a result of how the votes turned out. The Taoiseach has always made a definite effort to meet Mark Durkan and invite him to his office. The role the SDLP has played is significant and cannot be underestimated.
With the permission of the Cathaoirleach, I wish to make some general points about next week's arrangements for the Seanad. Besides carrying over some Bills, we will have two new Bills to deal with next week, the Social Welfare Bill and a short Bill which deals with the selling on of social housing and proposes to close a loophole in the current system where people sell their social housing in a lucrative manner.
Today is our third day working on Committee Stage of the Garda Síochána Bill and we are endeavouring to arrange another day for this next week, not envisaged initially. This important Bill is very detailed and it is only right that we give it comprehensive debate. At the same time, we cannot stay on one Bill forever. However, we hope to have a fourth day for Committee Stage next week.
We thought we would not have to sit on Friday next, but this looks increasingly likely. It will require co-operation from other parties if we are to finish on Thursday night so as to make a Friday sitting unnecessary. We are working on it but co-operation is required.