Seanad debates

Thursday, 5 May 2005

British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2005: Second and Subsequent Stages.


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

1:00 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to the House.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Is Bille gearr teicniúil é seo, an Bille Um Chomhaontú na Breataine-na hÉireann (Leasú) 2005, a dhéanfaidh soiléiriú ar an gcosaint atá ann go bhfaighidh na Stáit dílse sna Comhlachtaí Foirfheidhmithe Thuaidh-Theas.

This is basically a technical Bill. The purpose is to protect State property vested in the North-South implementation bodies. As the House is aware, the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999 established the six North-South implementation bodies: the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission; InterTrade Ireland; An Foras Teanga; SafeFood; the Special European Union Programmes Body; and Waterways Ireland. Two of the bodies are under the aegis of my Department, co-sponsored with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in the North. These are An Foras Teanga and Waterways Ireland.

The purpose of the Bill to remedy a possible technical defect in section 53(b) of the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999, which gives the North-South implementation bodies protection as State authorities under landlord and tenant, ground rents, legislation. The effect of such protection is that a lessee does not acquire the right to buy out the fee simple of a property on State land in respect of which a ground rent is paid. However, the reference in section 53(b) is to section 70 of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1980. This is, in effect, a subsequent amending provision. The original provision which shields State authorities is section 4 of the Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) (No. 2) Act 1978.

The issue mainly arises for Waterways Ireland in view of its extensive property portfolio, but the Bill covers the other North-South bodies also. The issue only arises in the South. There are no implications for the operations of the bodies in the North because this is Irish legislation.

The overall effect of the 1978 Act is to give a lessee of certain categories of property the right to acquire the fee simple, subject to conditions and exemptions detailed in that Act. Section 4 provides that this right does not apply in the case of properties leased from a Minister of the Government, the Commissioners of Public Works or the Land Commission. Section 70 of the 1980 Act is a subsequent provision, which modifies that general exemption by creating a right to buy out the fee simple in the case of dwellinghouses erected on land owned by a State authority, subject to the right of a State authority to prevent alienation of an individual property where it considers that the public interest so requires.

This Bill removes any doubt that a North-South implementation body is not bound by the Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) (No. 2) Act 1978 and directly incorporates the exemption in respect of that protection for dwellinghouses contained in the Landlord and Tenant Act 1980 in the same terms as set out in that Act. The legislation does not apply to any notice of intention or any application made in relation to the acquisition of the fee simple before the passing of the Bill or any arbitration or appeal to the Circuit Court in respect of such a notice or application. Any such notice or application — I am informed by Waterways Ireland that it currently has 12 cases on its hands — and any subsequent developments, whether by way of arbitration or Circuit Court hearing, will continue as if this Bill had not been enacted.

I stress that this legislation seeks to deal with a potential technical defect in the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999. The intention of the Oireachtas at that time is abundantly clear from section 53 of the Act. The intention was to put Waterways Ireland and the other North-South implementation bodies in the same position vis-À-vis ground rent legislation as are the Office of Public Works or a Minister acting as State authorities. This means that the relevant sections of the 1978 (No. 2) Act and the Landlord and Tenant Act 1980 I referred to earlier would apply. It will be a matter as appropriate for the courts to interpret the current legislation and make decisions on any cases that come before them. Nothing I say today should be construed as a comment on any case that might end up in such a position, or a statement that there is solid ground for any such notice to be served or any case that might be taken.

The Bill is being introduced today with a view to its passage through both Houses in one day and signature by the President later today. It has already been passed by Dáil Éireann. This is considered advisable in the interests of clarity with regard to this area of the law.

The Bill is a short one and contains four sections. Sections 1 and 4 are technical. Section 2 refers to section 53(a) of the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999, which provides that a body is a State authority for the purposes of the Statue of Limitations 1957, and creates a new section 53(A) in the 1999 Act to expand and clarify the existing provision in section 53(b) of that Act. The new section clarifies that a North-South implementation body is not bound by the Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) (No. 2) Act 1978 and repeats the exemption in respect of dwelling houses contained in the Landlord and Tenant Act 1980 in the same terms as set out in that Act. Section 3 provides the appropriate savers in respect of any application made prior to the enactment of the Bill under the ground rents legislation or any appeal before the courts.

Senators will have appreciated by now that the Bill is designed to put into legislative form the clear, unequivocal original intention of the Oireachtas to provide the North-South implementation bodies with the necessary legislative protection for the State property vested in them for the benefit of all. This is the kernel of the matter. Sometimes people deal with State assets as belonging to some distant body rather than as the property of the people. Assets vested in the State are held in trust by the State for the people. The Oireachtas is a trustee and it must ensure that it protects the people's assets from any possible unintended defect or loophole in the law. Tá súil agam anois go dtuigfear gur rud beag teicniúil atá i gceist anseo. Tá sé ciallmhar an leasú seo a thabhairt isteach gan fanacht go dtí go mbeidh fadhb ann. I gcomhthéacs eile le gairid bhí muid ag plé le tábhacht má tá dlíthiúil ar bith ann, ba cheart an t-amhras sin a leigheas trí reachtaíocht. Tá súil agam go nglacfadh an Teach seo leis an reachtaíocht.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. Fine Gael will support this Bill because it is technical in nature. I thank civil servants for bringing it to our attention yesterday and briefing us in anticipation of today's debate. The real issue here is rushed legislation. I do not have the experience to decide whether rushed or unrushed legislation is better but history shows that rushed legislation is bad. Due to the Minister's back being against the wall and the possibility of court cases there was a need to rush this matter. However, it is important that this House does not set a precedent for rushed legislation. We have learned a hard lesson from the Health (Amendment)(No. 2) Bill 2004, which will cost the State €2 billion. It is obvious that rushing that piece of legislation was not in the best interest of the State.

The public, upon being asked, does not know what Senators do or that the Seanad exists. The public perception of our role is not positive. It might be time that the Seanad, as a reflective Chamber, began to sell its wares. I was involved with the Minister on the recent Irish language Bill, on which we deliberated for a long time. The time spent by the Minister on that Bill was appreciated. He accepted some amendments and rejected others and we at least had an opportunity to debate. It is important that this House is used as a reflective forum for discussion.

A precedent should not be set for rushed legislation. Passing legislation overnight is not fair to our electorate, the Civil Service and others who want to have an input. It undermines the entire democratic process. The Seanad should not be a rubber stamping facility. Many people have opinions which carry weight.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Fáiltím roimh an Aire. Reachtaíocht teicniúil é seo agus leag sé amach na fíricí agus tá sé soiléir ón méid a dúirt an Seanadóir McHugh go bhfuil muid ar aon aigne faoi.

The Minister has outlined the reason for this piece of legislation. I compliment him and his officials on bringing it to our attention promptly and, as Senator McHugh remarked, for giving us a briefing which prepared us for today's debate. Nobody would disagree with the sentiments expressed by Senator McHugh. Members of the Oireachtas generally do not like rushed legislation. The Senator accepts that we are dealing with a technicality. I thank him for setting the tone of the debate.

The Minister made the important point that when we talk about State property, we refer to the property of the people. This legislation reflects that the rights of the people are in question. It is important that no time is wasted. While it is possible that there will be no difficulties in the future, the Minister is right to be prudent. Sometimes legislative difficulties were not resolved promptly. There was a tendency to wait until the event happened. It is being demonstrated in this case that, once attention is drawn to matters, it is better to respond quickly. There seems to be unanimity on this matter and hopefully the earlier signature motion will also come before the House today.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Fáiltím roimh an Aire agus aontaím leis an méid a dúirt na Seanadóirí eile. Má tá an Bille seo de dhíth, caithfimid tacaíocht a thabhairt dó.

Conas a d'éirigh an t-amhras faoi? Tá sé mínithe go soiléir ag an Aire ach tá an chontúirt ann nuair a théann duine siar go dtí an chéad Acht. Cén tionchar ansin atá ag alt 70 den chéad Acht? Bhí Acht ann agus leasaíodh é. Rinne an Bille i 1999 tagairt don Acht leasaithe. Tá muid ansin ag cur leasuithe eile isteach agus ag cur an tagartha siar don chéad Bille.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Níl muid ag déanamh sin.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Shíl mise go raibh muid ag dul don taobh eile den scéal agus ag féachaint ar an Acht leasaithe. An bhfuil muid ag féachaint ar an rud ar fad? Más sin an scéal, níl deacracht ag baint leis. Tá sé tábhachtach sin a chur ar fáil.

Ba mhaith liom díospóireacht ar an tionchar atá ag an fhoras teanga ar chúrsaí an gné Thoir-Thiar den Chomhaontú— an gaol idir an Ghaeilge agus Breatnais agus Gaeilge na hAlban. Tá sé áisiúil agus tábhachtach go mbeadh díospóireacht faoina teangacha Ceilteacha sa dá oileáin agus an dul chun cinn. An bhfuil neartú ar na gaolta idir na teanga? Tá an-seans againn an teanga a chothú le tuilleadh ceangail eadrainn uilig.

Tá mé sásta tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille má tá gá leis.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome this Bill. In some ways it is reasonably remarkable that a Bill of this type has being brought forward in the current political circumstances. Despite all the difficulties it is a source of satisfaction that the North-South implementation bodies continue to operate, albeit on a care and maintenance basis. That is not entirely satisfactory in that it limits new initiatives. The most obvious one being the case of Waterways Ireland undertaking any serious work on the restoration of the Ulster Canal.

There was great fear of institutionalised North-South co-operation right up to the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement but, apart from the question of ministerial attendance in the North, that has been the least of the problems since the signing of the Agreement. Despite the interdependence of the institutions there is general consent on all sides for the implementation bodies to continue their work. Obviously, a stop-start situation would be totally unsatisfactory and it would be very difficult to get people to work for them on that basis. Given the work they are doing and perhaps the more valuable work they could do in the future, it is important to get the Good Friday Agreement working again. I am glad to say that both Governments are committed to doing that. I accept there is a slight question mark over one of those Governments today given that voting is taking place but the opposition in Britain is also committed to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Minister did not make it clear in introducing the Bill whether there was any particular circumstance or specific concern that prompted the swift passage of this legislation or whether a flaw in legislation was identified. Under the precautionary principle, once a flaw has been identified it must be corrected as quickly as possible.

I do not share the concern of Senator McHugh about the so-called rushing through of this legislation. This Bill deals with one specific technical point. It is not complex legislation being rammed through in a couple of hours. It is not comparable to that type of situation. It is correct that State property should not be alienated except where the State consciously and specifically decides it should do so.

In the wider context of the stability of and the prospects for restoring the Agreement, I would like to make two brief points. I hope that when people analyse the results in Northern Ireland, whatever they may be, in the next few days and when people moan and perhaps wring their hands about polarisation, etc., we should be absolutely clear that one of the main contributory causes is the first past the post system. Bipolarity is built into that system, which The Economist last week described as brutal. There is no doubt about it. John Hume has argued this for a long time. That voting system is totally unsuited to a divided community in Northern Ireland. Whatever the outcome of the prospects of, say, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, it is highly unlikely that either party will fall below, or even necessarily anywhere near, 10% of the vote. However, the effects of the first past the post system may be to leave such parties with little or no representation at Westminster.

I have spoken about this to the Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, in the context of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body and I would like to think the British would do something about this system. It almost totally discourages cross-community voting which one would have thought one would wish to encourage in Northern Ireland on the basis that people would not harm their own community by expressing a lower preference on the other side. I have no illusions that this will happen because the interests of the two big parties in Britain is a bipolarity that squeezes all middle parties. People should not blame the Agreement, the Governments, various parties or the leaderships concerned, rather it is the system that contributes to the polarisation in Westminster elections.

In the context of the stability of the Agreement, restoring it and so on, I wish some of our commentators would be a little more careful sometimes in the way they use language. I noticed yesterday in the context of coverage of those unhappy events in Cork where a couple was kidnapped, one of the people taken in for questioning was described as a "die hard republican". Without prejudice to the question of whether the person was involved and whatever about the word "die hard", I do not recognise that there was any republicanism involved in that type of kidnapping which was done presumably for money-raising purposes. It was suggested that the individual concerned had been expelled from a main paramilitary organisation a number of years ago. There were no principles of republicanism involved. It would be hard to believe that anyone involved in such actions had any understanding or conception of the needs of republicanism. I will finish on that point. I support the Bill.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim leis na Seanadóirí ar fad a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht.

I agree with Senator McHugh on the principle of not favouring rushed legislation in general. There is an issue in that respect to be dealt with in the broader scope of how we organise the affairs of the two Houses. The most important Stage of a Bill is Committee Stage, which I am sure the Senator appreciates. The languages Bill was debated in this House in a timely fashion. The Senator may recall that I agreed to recommit the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill to facilitate a full debate on it and no time limit was applied to that debate. That was appropriate as this is the House where issues can be teased out.

Senator McHugh also mentioned the Health (Amendment) Bill. The difficulty in that instance was not with the Bill. The Supreme Court struck down that Bill but if we had been debating it for a year and a day, it would have been on more or less the same principle and it would have been struck down on the same principle. The problem with that Bill was that nobody rushed legislation through these Houses 20 years earlier to close a possible loophole. That is the reason we have been caught with the issue of the back payment.

We are acting on the principle of prudence in regard to this Bill by saying that we do not know if there is a problem but there might be. Where there is doubt, it should be addressed and the possible loophole closed. This Bill deals with a minor technical point in regard to landlords, tenants and builders. That area is complex. I am not a lawyer and, therefore, I have to believe the experts when they advise me there is doubt in regard to an issue such as this one. When it comes to an experts' issue, my view is to take expert advice, but when it comes to a political issue, one should follow one's star and listen to the ordinary people. This is very much an experts' issue and that is why we have brought forward this legislation. The idea behind it is to ensure a problem does not arise in this area in the future and to ensure that State assets are not alienated.

Luaigh an Seanadóir O'Toole teangacha. Aontaím gur cheart dúinn gaol níos láidir a chothú eadrainn féin agus muintir na Breataine Bige agus na hAlban faoi chúrsaí teanga. Tá cuid den obair sin déanta. Bhí mé féin agus an tAireWilson an-ghníomhach i mbunú Iomairt Cholm Cille. Tá obair mhaith déanta ach ó d'éirigh Brian Wilson as an aireacht níl an teagmháil céanna agus tá mé ag breathnú ar Iomairt Cholm Cille le feiceáil cén chaoi is féidir dlús a chur le leibhéal na polaitíochta. Tá sé ag obair ar an talamh ach bhí pointe ann nuair a bhí Brian Wilson anonn agus anall chugainn an t-am ar fad, rud an-dearfach.

Bhí cruinniú anuraidh freisin den British Irish Council sa Bhreatain Bheag agus tá an spéis ag muintir na Breataine Bige i gcúrsaí teanga agus bhí cúrsaí teanga lárnach don chruinniú sin. Chuir mise roinnt tuairimí i láthair faoi cén chaoi a bhféadfadh ollscolaíocht i múineadh na dteangacha Ceilteacha a chur ar aghaidh taobh amuigh de na hoileáin seo ar fud an domhain. De bharr na cúinsí polaitíochta, níor éirigh linn an oiread dul chun cinn a dhéanamh agus ar mhaith liom.

Ba mhaith liom tuilleadh oibre a dhéanamh faoi sin ar bhonn Éireannach agus fágfaidh mé an doras oscailte go dtiocfaidh daoine eile chugainn agus go ndéanfaimid chomh-mhaoiniú. Is mó saoirse maoinithe atá againn anois nó mar atá ag daoine eile.

Co-operation at all levels between Ireland and Britain and between Ireland and the devolved legislative assemblies in Britain should be encouraged. I am always interested in working to find common ground. It is interesting that we recently had experts from Scotland who gave us positive advice on our island experience. However, they also examined what we are doing for the islands. They were interested in how we tackle problems. We had much to learn from them, but they also felt they could learn something from our approach. Sharing knowledge and co-operating costs no one anything.

In regard to the Ulster Canal, what is happening is frustrating. We are sitting on a jewel in terms of Waterways Ireland.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The Unionist community has a particular interest in the waterways in Northern Ireland. The two jurisdictions have pooled a fantastic physical resource in a common interest. The Erne-Shannon Waterway has revitalised a whole region. The lift this has given the Leitrim and Enniskillen region is incredible. I would like to be the Minister who would initiate the process of restoring the Ulster Canal. However, that will not be possible until there is devolution in Northern Ireland.

We are 11 years on from the ceasefire, and for the first time in our history Britain has made it absolutely clear that as long as we sort out our problems among ourselves, it will be happy. This is a unique situation but for some historic reason, which in my view is not compatible with true republicanism or the whole theory of Wolfe Tone, equality and sharing, people cannot reach out and make the final gesture that would set the process in motion. This breaks my heart. Whatever problems the Unionist community has in co-operating with the rest of the island, I agree with Senator Mansergh that this has reduced dramatically in recent years. We saw some evidence of this in the recent election debate in Northern Ireland.

Utilising our waterways is one issue on which the communities in Northern Ireland and in the South agree. It would be marvellous to get into a boat either in Dublin or Limerick, travel through the canals, into the Shannon, up to Lough Neagh and out to the sea. It would be a real sign of North-South co-operation. We should examine the rejuvenation of the Ballyconnell Canal, which is now the Shannon-Erne Waterway. We are always talking about the damage the Border did to the Border counties, but this is one project that would totally rejuvenate these areas. Please God, following today's election, whatever the results, we can get back to the serious business of politics, which is about bringing together the people of the two parts of Ireland and exploiting the huge potential in the Good Friday Agreement for the benefit of all the people of Ireland, particularly those who live around the Border counties, North and South. Democracy is about the people speaking and then accepting and working with the result. None of us has a right to say that the people were wrong. Democracy is about accepting the result of any election.

I commend the Bill to the House. I am pleased there appears to be agreement on the taking of Second Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Agreed to take remaining Stages today.

Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.