Friday, 17 December 2004
Order of Business.
It has been suggested to me that Christmas wishes be conveyed with the Order of Business, rather than having everyone getting up twice or three times. I am very pleased to echo the Cathaoirleach's felicitations for Christmas and for 2005. I wish every Member of the House a very happy Christmas, and particularly time to be with their families and enjoy one another. We all look forward very much to that. I pay tribute to the Cathaoirleach. It is not always easy to keep an even temper in a House of varied contributions and characters, different as we all are. He keeps great order as well as maintaining friendship with everybody, which can be difficult.
I thank particularly the staff, led by Deirdre Lane. I doubt there is a legislative chamber in Europe or the world which is run in such an efficient but also friendly manner. We wander in and out of the offices and one wonders where else one would be allowed to do that. When we all go home tonight, laden with our parcels and presents in our cars and so on, the mopping-up operation after a busy term must be done in those offices. The term was especially busy in the past three to four weeks dealing with a significant intensity of legislation. Each one of the staff in the offices is friendly, approachable and professional. They make us all feel very welcome when we wander freely in and out of their offices, which is due to the influence exerted by Deirdre Lane and Jody. We are very happy Jody is back with us in good health.
I wish everybody a happy Christmas. We have had a busy term and there is an even busier one to come. Legislation awaits our return. I am grateful for the even tenor of business we have maintained here. There are spats from time to time but that is what our business is about. We are here because we come from different political parties so spats are par for the course. However, they do not interfere with how we run and order our business. I very much welcome the friendship, co-operation and comradeship between the leaders —"representatives" is the right word — of the groups in the House. I wish them all a happy time with their families.
The Order of Business today is Nos. 1, 2 and 3. No. 1, the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2004 — Second Stage, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude no later than 2 p.m. Spokespersons have 12 minutes and other speakers have eight. Members may share time. The Minister is to be called on to reply no later than five minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage. Committee and Remaining Stages are to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2 or at 4 p.m. and to conclude at 6 p.m.; No. 2, motion for earlier signature of the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2004, if passed by this House, is to be taken immediately on the conclusion of Committee and Remaining Stages of the Bill; and No. 3, the Garda Síochána Bill 2004 — Report and Final Stages, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude no later than 4 p.m.
On behalf of Fine Gael, I wish the Cathaoirleach, the Clerk, the Assistant Clerk and all their staff in the House a very happy Christmas. I thank them very much for all their hard work, particularly over the last three weeks, which have been difficult, since we have had to work very hard four days a week with late hours. All the amendments and papers must be produced by a very small staff under the leadership of the Clerk and the Cathaoirleach. I wish them a happy Christmas. I also wish the Leader, the other group leaders and Senators a happy Christmas.
From time to time there is some tension in the House, which is not a bad thing if it is creative. I appreciate the co-operation from the Government side to ensure that all voices in the House are heard and views recorded. In particular, I extend my best wishes to the Leader and Eamonn McCormack, who does a great amount of work behind the scenes to ensure the House operates in smooth manner. This is recognised by all parties. It is important at this time of the year that people spend time at home with their families and I wish everyone a very peaceful and happy Christmas and a good break in the Christmas spirit so that when we return in January we are ready for the next spat and beyond.
We are grateful that the Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill is not to be guillotined as it was in the other House yesterday. Deputies did not have the chance to deal with any of the amendments tabled. We are also grateful that Second Stage is to be taken separately from Committee Stage to ensure the Minister hears our views.
I must make one political point, however. We were told that the former Minister for Health and Children did not know about the potential problems that had arisen as a result of the overcharging fiasco from the Health Insurance (Amendment) Act 2001. Now we have documentary evidence that this time last year the then Minister for Health and Children met Ministers of State to discuss the issue. With a staff of 400 in the Department, one might have thought that the matter would have been raised. In fairness to the Tánaiste, she at least responded when the leader of my party, Deputy Kenny, raised the matter in the other House two months ago. However, the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, has been politically negligent in the way in which he has dealt with this issue.
I join with the tributes paid to the Cathaoirleach and the other officers of the House. I am very grateful to my colleague, the senior Independent Member, Senator Ross, for paying our tribute to Paddy Behan. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the kindness, forbearance and, on occasion, flexibility he has shown us.
I thank the Leader in particular for the style and panache with which she has conducted the affairs of the House. It is quite unusual that, although she is plainly a party person — more power to her — she has defended the interests of the House when necessary, something that we welcome on all sides. Where would we be without Deirdre Lane and Jody Blake, who we are delighted to have back with us and restored to health? The final person I would like to mention is the apparently sole surviving representative of the media in the Press Gallery, Jimmy Walsh. The rest of the print media seems to have abandoned us, although we do appear in "Oireachtas Report".
I wish to raise the question of the so-called "Colombia three". There are concerns about the judicial process in Colombia. In particular, although I have nothing in common with those people, Ms Sheila Maguire of the Irish embassy in Mexico said that there was evidence, including very significant testimony from Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, that gave one of their number, Mr. Connolly, a clear alibi. However, I was astonished to hear the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, say not once but several times last night that the defendants had been absolutely exonerated in their first trial. That is not true, since they were found guilty of travelling on false passports, and the shrill voices of people such as Caitríona Ruane instructing the Irish Government of what it must do are no help.
No, this is a trailer. They were in an area controlled by very dangerous people and gave the apparently flippant excuse that they were bird-watching. I wonder whether we might have a little more information. Were they members of the Irish Wild Bird Conservancy before they left this country? We know that one of the men has a serious conviction for bombing. We must be careful and need not interfere directly in the justice system of another country or claim that people have been absolutely exonerated when they have not. We must keep the shrill voices that I mentioned from piping up.
I wish everyone a happy Christmas.
I join the other Members in wishing the Cathaoirleach and his staff a happy Christmas and a good new year. It has been an interesting session in some ways. The Leader has been extremely successful in streamlining the processes of the House. We have managed to separate the Second Stage from the Committee and Remaining Stages of Bills, something that did not always happen previously and does not always happen in the other House. That must be good for the quality of debate here. The Leader has also been very successful in procuring the regular attendance of senior Ministers, who seem to spend a little longer in the House than they might have done in the past. It is all to the good and contributes to the standing of the House. Like other Senators, I pay tribute to the Cathaoirleach, Jody Blake, Deirdre Lane and EamonnMcCormack. We should also include Jimmy Walsh, who is out there somewhere in the ether.
I will not detain the House unduly on the issue that Senator Norris raised. However, it is important, and we should not ignore it this morning. I have nothing in common with those men in Colombia. I do not believe that they were there to go bird-watching and have no doubt that they were there for less than reputable reasons. However, it is important that people such as I, who have nothing in common with them politically, say this. There is a serious onus on the Colombian authorities to prove that they were guilty of the charges made against them. I do not believe that they have discharged that. That, ultimately, is the test of democracy and the test of the legal system. The men had an open trial before a judge, of which many of us were sceptical, conducted under the glare of the international media, as a result of which they were found guilty on one charge and not guilty on others. However, that has been superseded by a process which has been largely secret and not open in any way to public scrutiny. Since these people are our citizens, we have to say that is not acceptable.
I wish the Cathaoirleach, the Leas-Chathaoirleach and everybody in the House a very happy Christmas. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the way he has conducted the proceedings during the term. He has always been good humoured and even-handed and we appreciate that.
I also join in the tributes to the Leader for the manner in which she has led the House and brought the business before us. I link Eamonn McCormack to that tribute because he plays a critical role in all of that.
I wish the usher staff under Paddy and the Captain and Superintendent and their staffs all the best for this season.
One group of people missed in these tributes who do a valuable job comprises the Editor of Debates and her staff. Some of us can recall a time when it might have taken a week for the proceedings to be printed but now we have them almost instantly. There has been a huge improvement in that area, for which they deserve our congratulations.
I join in the thanks extended to the Clerk, the Assistant Clerk and everybody in the office. I wish to make a point which I have made on other occasions, namely, that the workload seems to be increasing all the time, particularly that of the Clerk who is involved in several commissions, committees and so on. Something needs to be considered in terms of back-up support. It is unreasonable to expect the staff to deal with amendments into the middle of the night and early the following morning. They should be given the necessary resources to ease that burden somewhat. Perhaps the other body on which the Clerk of the Dáil serves might examine that aspect.
I wish everybody a very happy, peaceful and enjoyable Christmas and hope we come back refreshed for the battle in the new year.
With regard to the issue raised by Senators Norris and McDowell, one has to ask why people would go to a very dangerous country, travelling on false passports. It is reasonable to wonder what brought these people to that country. In those — or in any — circumstances it is a long-standing and good practice that countries do not interfere with the judicial processes in other countries, however, much we might feel they are defective. In countries where there is imminent danger to the state, judicial procedures have been adopted, as they were in this State, to protect the state. It is only when one sees that there is a commitment to democracy that those judicial procedures, or the burden of them, are lessened. There are some aspects of that which we need to consider. If people were to expect intervention and clemency, one would expect they would give themselves up to the authorities. These are matters that could be debated. Perhaps Senator Norris and I can go to some hostelry locally next Tuesday morning and debate these issues more fully.
I would like to be associated with the tributes to the Cathaoirleach, Deirdre Lane, all the staff and to Paddy Behan who is something of a guardian angel, as has been said.
I agree with Senator Brian Hayes' comments about when the former Minister had knowledge of the overcharging fiasco.
In regard to the Colombia three, it is not up to us to ask questions post the events. It was a matter to be proven and established in court. None of us, based on our system, believes anything was proven other than the passports issue. Naturally, as citizens of this country, we must have a concern for those involved and about the judicial system in that country. However, that is a matter for the Government and Ministers to deal with.
We only heard this morning that the IDA had its most successful year ever, which we are all delighted to note, and also that next year will possibly be an even better year for it. In light of that, I call for a debate early in the new session to discuss in particular how it will address the blackspots in the country.
I was surprised at the Leader's use of the term "spats" because I do not believe I have ever had a spat with anybody in here and I am sure Members would agree that I never had a spat with the Leader.
I can understand the surprise and the concern which has been expressed by many commentators on the plight of the three Irish citizens in Colombia. I have come to the conclusion that what we are currently witnessing is a legal fiasco, masquerading as justice. It is a political circus. There are agendas operating here which have nothing to do with the court case. The political tentacles of this case extend far outside Colombia. One has only to listen to the views of Mr. Paisley junior last night and again today to realise the significance of what is happening. I welcome the views of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. What is important for us now in Ireland is not to be distracted by peripheral issues but to consider the central issue, namely, the right of our citizens any place in the world to expect the protection of the State. Nobody can ague against that.
I support the views expressed by Senator Ó Murchú, which I will not repeat. I was disappointed to read in at least one of the national newspapers that in the saga of overcharging by the banks another new chapter has been added. The charge applicable to transactions at convenience ATMs in the department stores and supermarkets is five or six times the charge normally applicable to those at standard ATMs. This is another clear example of the way the financial institutions here are thumbing their noses at the citizens of this country. I ask our spokesperson on finance, Senator Mansergh, and the Leader, to exhort the Minister responsible to come to the House to outline proposals on what he will do to address this outrageous new development in banking circles.
I wish to be associated with the good wishes extended to the staff of the Houses and in particular to Mr. Paddy Behan who is retiring. I thank him for the courtesy he extended to me in my short time here, especially in arranging visits by school groups etc. He was always calm especially when I brought in a group on very busy day. That was much appreciated. I wish him and his family every success on his retirement.
I also have some concerns in regard to the so-called Colombia three. That their whereabouts are not even known yet is a cause of grave concern. It is important that justice is seen to be done correctly. Perhaps it would be opportune for all concerned to have a debate on this issue in January.
I thank the Leader for having arranged a debate on Northern Ireland at such short notice and for having arranged for the Taoiseach to come to the House. I hope we might have a longer debate on that subject in the new year.
I call for a debate on the telecommunications industry in the new year. It is important that we examine all the telephone charges and so on. I say this in light of the success of myself and Senator McHugh in getting O2 to reduce its running charges and we hope that Vodafone will follow suit. It is bad enough to get a message on one's telephone that one is still in the United Kingdom but to be charged double for it is not very nice.
I wish Paddy Behan all the best. One of the reasons he is such a fine person is because his mother came from Glenfinn.
In many parts of the world today, it is no longer politically correct to wish somebody a happy Christmas. At this time of year, we need to remind ourselves that we are celebrating the birth of our saviour. In that spirit, I wish each and every one here a happy and a holy Christmas.
I agree with Senator Lydon on the need for a debate on the broader telecommunications issue. One of the aspects I would like addressed is that of mobile telephone charges. By European or international standards the Irish consumer is paying a high premium rate for mobile telephone use and the matter needs investigation.
In a similar vein, I raised some weeks ago the issue of the subtitling of television programmes and asked the Leader to bring this to the attention of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. My point was that people who suffer hearing loss are able to enjoy television with the benefit of subtitling but, unfortunately, the quality of subtitling on news and current affairs programmes on our public service broadcaster, RTE, is inadequate. I appreciate that the service costs money but those who are hard of hearing should not be treated as second class citizens. The Leader should use her influence to push for increased funding to improve the level of subtitling.
I am glad to have the opportunity to raise an issue I have raised several times, that of the serious crisis involving great human suffering in Darfur, Sudan. It is an international crisis which is not getting the attention it deserves. The rate of killing and displacement of people and the misery in that country would make the situation in Iraq look like a picnic. However, because of the different politics involved, it is not getting the necessary attention in the Oireachtas or the broader political field. An international response is required. The efforts of the United Nations to date have been insufficient and the scale of suffering is deeply worrying and profound. It is important we would ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to maintain pressure on this issue.
I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for the courtesy you have extended over the past year and also thank the staff of the Houses. I extend good wishes to all.
When matters are clearer and the dust has settled on events in Colombia, and people have had the opportunity to read whatever judgement might have been handed down, it would be appropriate if the Leader could arrange for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to House, perhaps early in the new year. Like other Members, I remain entirely unconvinced regarding the reasons these men gave for their presence in Colombia. However, that should not blind us to the fact that, as Senator Ó Murchú stated, where Irish citizens are involved, there is a certain responsibility for seeing that standards of law are maintained.
It seems the men were convicted of a relatively minor offence and on appeal have been given a sentence which was entirely disproportionate. We would object if under Irish law people were sentenced for the graver offence which could not be proved rather than sentenced for the lesser offence which could be proved. There is an issue to be considered and we should do this at calmer time, when events unfold.
I call on the Leader to schedule early in the new year the promised debate on the promotion of the Irish language. We can consider this matter and also how we can promote Irish culture in general. On that note, all Members will join with me in wishing my native city, Cork, all the best when it kicks off its European capital of culture term in January.
I agree with Senator Maurice Hayes that we should not get too exercised over the issue of the Supreme Court decision in Colombia because I have a deep suspicion it will be an academic exercise. However, we await developments and if there is a need for a debate in the new year, we can have it then.
We should have a debate early in the new session on the issue of toll roads, particularly the M50. A very bad deal was struck with NTR by the Government and the State. The toll contract is a cash cow and the consumer is not getting a good deal. While we know of the 20% increases, the issue is not so much the direct cost but the latent cost of transport being significantly delayed on the M50 because the toll booth is almost like putting a gate across a main artery. It is fineto place toll booths on long, perhaps 50 km, stretches of motorway. However, to place them on a short stretch around the city is wrong. We are making a similar mistake with the bypass in Waterford. This policy will turn out to be counterproductive to the objective of investing millions of euro in road networks.
I am prompted to raise a further issue by Joe Duffy's radio show yesterday when heinterviewed the granddaughter of ThomasMacDonagh. It caused me to reflect on the manner in which his family feel disenchanted that the State does not give due recognition to the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. This arises in the context of the demolition of the tower blocks at Ballymun, which commemorated the names of the seven signatories of the proclamation. The Leader might arrange a debate in the new year during which we could discuss this issue and make appropriate suggestions as to what might be done to remedy this lack of recognition. For any self-respecting republic to turn its back on its founding fathers would be a sad development.
We need to address this. The 75th anniversary of 1916 was a poor show and it is important we do not allow this to recur for the centenary. Some may object to this on the grounds that it offends certain sensitivities among the Unionist population. However, as we mature in politics on the island, it is up to us to have respect for Unionist traditions and for the more enlightened members of the Unionist community to also have respect for ours.
I join in the justified tributes to Paddy Behan. I have always found him an absolute gentleman, as have other speakers. I join with you, a Chathaoirligh, in wishing the compliments of the season to everybody.
It is hard to mix good wishes with business but I thank all Members for their kind words. Senator Brian Hayes, Leader of the Opposition, raised an issue which was worth airing, and I am sure the Senator will do as he says. Senator Coghlan called for a debate on the IDA, particularly industrial blackspots.
Senators Norris, Dardis, McDowell and others raised the matter of the Colombia three, on which Members have different points of view. The severity of the sentence was a great surprise, as was the dichotomy between what happened and what is now happening. Senator Ó Murchú spoke on the legal fiasco which is the outcome of the case. The three men are Irish citizens and everybody wishes to see proper justice done. What we do not want is the taking up of the case in a purely partisan manner by different political groupings, which is wrong. Such groups are seizing the opportunity to bend the facts to suit their own agendas, and Members have grave reservations about this.
Senator Glynn referred to a new saga of overcharging in regard to ATMs. IFSRA is charged with investigating such matters and I will bring it to its attention, although I am sure it knows of the issue. Senator Browne expressed his good wishes. Senator Lydon called for a debate on the telecommunications issue. Senator Bradford raised the matters of mobile telephone charges and the subtitling of television programmes. We have already put something in train on that matter but I do not know what will be the outcome. Senator Bradford also raised the question of what is happening in Darfur, Sudan. He is very involved in dealing with such issues as a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Senator Maurice Hayes referred to the Colombia Three, while Senator Minihan sought a debate on the Irish language in the New Year. Senator Jim Walsh referred to toll roads. Senator Bohan raised this matter previously in the House and other Members took it up subsequently. I have received a plethora of e-mails about it. The M50 is a road of misery. Nobody would mind the charges if they could just pay the money and continue driving but the delays are unacceptable. The road was described vividly in an e-mail I received this morning as a road of misery. People depend on the M50 to get to work, yet they are delayed morning and evening by queues at toll booths. Back in 1987, a very bad arrangement was made at the beginning. There was no money around for anything at that time but the M50 is now a cash cow which shows no sign of drying up. It is time the Government took up this matter.
While I did not hear Joe Duffy's "Liveline" radio programme yesterday, another issue was raised on the show which was cut off with great alacrity. I will not go into that because it was most inappropriate. There was also an interview with the granddaughter of Thomas MacDonagh who discussed how we should finally remember the founding fathers and their contribution to the State. It would be an interesting idea to have such a debate in the House if we could manage it. I will inquire as to how best such a debate could be arranged.
When I thanked everyone earlier, I omitted Mr. Jimmy Walsh who is ever present. Mr. Walsh is very industrious in reporting Seanad debates. I also wish to thank RTE for broadcasting "Oireachtas Report."