Wednesday, 26 September 2007
Order of Business
The Order of Business for today is Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, and No. 7, motion No. 20. No. 1 will be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business. Nos. 2 to 6, inclusive, will be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 1. Order for Second Stage and Second Stage of the Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Bill 2007 to be taken until 5 p.m. Spokespersons will have 12 minutes, all other Senators will have eight minutes and Senators may share time. No. 7, motion No. 20, to be taken from 5 p.m. and to conclude not later than 7 p.m.
Before I call Senator Fitzgerald, for the benefit of new Members I want to explain some of the procedures that apply to the Order of Business. I will call first the leaders of the groups in sequence. Following that I will call Senators alternating between the two sides of the House. On the Order of Business Members may request clarification of the Leader's proposals for today's business or seek an alteration or amendment of times allocated. A Member may also ask about forthcoming legislation and request the Leader to provide time for a debate on a particular matter or topic. Members do not need to give a detailed reason for requesting such a debate as that information can be part of the debate when it takes place. Contributions should be brief and to the point to enable the Chair, within a reasonable time, to facilitate Senators who wish to ask questions on the Order of Business.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to allow us to have a debate on the issue of Shannon and the Government's refusal to use its shareholding of 25.4% to call an extraordinary general meeting. Fianna Fáil in particular consistently said it would use its interest in the company to protect the State's interest, the strategic importance of the area and the connectivity. As one of the many people standing at the gates of Leinster House today said to me, this is a question of life and death for the business sector and for jobs in the entire region. It has implications also for other airports. I propose this amendment to allow for a debate on this important topic, which is being discussed everywhere outside of this House.
I take the opportunity also to raise the disturbing incident that occurred yesterday when a member of the Garda traffic corps was shot at 9.10 a.m. while going about his duties. I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to attend this House to discuss that incident. I take this opportunity — I am sure on behalf of everyone in the House — to extend our best wishes for the recovery of the Garda Paul Sherlock.
A previous Minister for Justice, commenting on a similar attack more than a year ago, described it as the last sting of a dying wasp. It is clear this is an ongoing issue. Arms were used in another incident in Drimnagh this morning. Given the number of recent incidents involving arms, serious questions arise regarding the need for legislation in this area and the need to help the Garda to deal with this major threat to security and to the everyday lives of people. The public is very concerned about the increasing use of arms, given that criminals are now turning on gardaí going about their day-to-day work.
I note the GRA described this as a callous, cowardly and despicable act, which it certainly is. We should have a debate with the Minister in the House at the earliest opportunity to find out whether he agrees with the views of his predecessor or whether he believes new initiatives are needed to deal with this problem.
I welcomed the intervention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs last night when he exhorted the authorities in Burma not to take action against the people demonstrating there. It is an issue which resonates greatly with people in this country. We saw similar action as far back as the time of O'Connell in the 1820s and in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Gandhi also made it a feature of modern politics in the previous century.
The operation of fighting for civil and human rights through people power is the essence of democracy. We should welcome the call by the Minister for Foreign Affairs but we should also ask him to strengthen that position and support the call from Gordon Brown that there be a special meeting of the UN to impose sanctions, if necessary. We also should be prepared to take on China on this issue because it is the country which is buttressing the appalling regime in Burma. Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to attend the House to debate an issue which is very important in terms of our understanding of how democracy should and does work?
On a related issue, I ask that the House would direct its attention to the fact that what is effectively a black school opened in north Dublin this week. I do not want a long debate about Catholicism, the Roman Catholic Church or the lack of planning. Instead, I would like a debate on the kind of community which it is our aspiration to create in this country, whether that is an intercultural society which will be judged by the engagement between one culture and another, or one subculture and another, or one religious group and another. This is surely what we are trying to achieve rather than trying to give separate space to separate groups in a manner more resonant of apartheid than anything else. I am not accusing anybody of that, and I do not want this to be a blame game, but I would like Members to give their views. If we are disturbed by this or if we find it does not suit us or does not fit our vision, we should say so without having a go at the Government, patrons or management, although such questions must be also addressed. We need to deal with this issue in stages.
With respect, the Cathaoirleach indicated the approach the House will take to the ordering of business and the sequence of speakers. It is necessary for me to record the unhappiness of the Labour Party in regard to the sequence of speakers and groups as it has been outlined. I do not wish to clash with the Chair in this regard today. I realise it is an appropriate matter for the relevant committee and I am happy that it should be dealt with there. However, I thought I should note the matter at this point.
The Labour Party supports the proposal by Senator Fitzgerald on behalf of Fine Gael for a debate on the Shannon Airport issue. There has been a great deal of huffing and puffing on this issue throughout the summer months. Given the House is back in session, a matter of such importance for regional development and the economy ought to be discussed. We warmly support Senator Fitzgerald's call in this regard.
Many issues will preoccupy the House today and in the coming days and weeks but the matter of Burma, which was rightly raised by Senator O'Toole, is of great importance. It is vital we reflect on the great bravery of the people on the streets of Burma, who may well be under attack at this time from the police and military of that country. I have just returned from representing my party at the British Labour Party conference in Bournemouth where this issue was a preoccupation. As Senator O'Toole noted, the British Prime Minister sought to have the matter pursued at the international level, as it should be.
Before the Leader responds to the proposals on the Order of Business, Senators need to be aware of the issues that are of wider consequence and those that can be addressed under other Standing Orders, for example, by means of an Adjournment debate or in Private Members' time. Some of the issues to which Senators have referred fall into the latter category.
I support Senator O'Toole's call, supported by other speakers, for a debate on Burma. It is an issue on which the House can speak with one voice. The trauma of the people of Burma will not be resolved in the next few days. Given that business has been ordered for the coming days, I support holding a debate on the issue in a forthcoming sitting.
I support Senator Frances Fitzgerald in regard to both the items she raised, namely, the callous shooting of a garda in the course of his duty and the plight of Shannon and the entire mid-west region. The second issue will be addressed by another speaker.
What is the status of the proposed designated land (housing development) Bill, which is intended to give powers to planning authorities to act, on a selective basis, to accelerate the development of appropriately zoned land for housing through a "use it or lose it" scheme. The legislation was announced to great fanfare last February by the previous Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in a policy statement entitled "Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities". I presume this document is still Government policy. If that is the case, when will the Bill come before the House?
I concur with Senators O'Toole and Boyle on the plight of the Burmese people. We learned today of the murder of two monks.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his election and assure him of my full support. As Senator Jim Walsh stated when the House last met, the Cathaoirleach is one of life's true gentlemen.
On this, the first formal day of normal business, I ask the Leader to request that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, attend the House for pre-budgetary statements. While I am aware the Seanad does not have a formal function in the preparation of the budget, it would be beneficial if Senators were to have an opportunity to air their views to the Minister for Finance at the early stages of the budget preparations. I am sure the House will welcome the Budget Statement on budget day but Senators would greatly appreciate an opportunity to play a role in the budget process.
It is some years since the national spatial strategy was developed. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to debate the strategy's progress and, in certain contexts, lack thereof in the coming weeks.
The other day a visitor expressed frustration and disbelief to me, having discovered on a drive along the M50 and Red Cow roundabout last Saturday that no work takes place on the route at weekends. I gather that, as a result, the construction job will take three to four years instead of 12 to 18 months. I raise this matter to highlight the short-sighted view of the impact on cost competitiveness of legislation that enabled the planning authorities to stipulate that no work should take place on these vital works on Saturdays and Sundays and after 6 p.m. on week days. I understand how someone in the neighbourhood might say he or she wants peace and quiet and not to be disturbed at night, but we must take a different attitude to the cost to the nation of such steps. An American told me recently that when he was told by his lawyers that he could not do something because the law did not allow it, he said they should change the law. Ireland has a different attitude to costs than it should have. If it took us one year rather than two or three years to do something, admittedly at a higher cost, the benefit to the nation would be different.
Will the Leader arrange for the Minister responsible for this area to attend the House? I am not sure which Minister is responsible because it is a mixture of planning and good management of the road system. If there is a decision on costs, he or she should ensure we take into account the overall cost to the economy instead of the short-sighted view of what might happen in the area in question.
I support the proposal for a debate on the crisis in Burma. It is vital that the House expresses its views and solidarity with the people of Burma who have been oppressed by the regime for so long.
Regarding the near tragedy of the gunning down of Garda Sherlock in Dublin, it is important that people provide information in order that the persons involved can be arrested and brought to trial. There is no doubt Garda Sherlock was unarmed because under no circumstances would a garda have weapons with him or her during traffic corps duty. The Minister should be invited to the House to outline the situation regarding the number of armed gangs and this morning's shootings at a house in Dublin. Our generally unarmed police force has proven successful to date, but this issue must be reviewed in light of what happened to Garda Sherlock and its effect on his family. I express my best wishes to him and his family for a speedy recovery. I commend the force on its wonderful and dedicated service to the people. It is a courageous organisation.
On the amendment to the Order of Business, there should be a debate on the Shannon situation, but not today. The debate in the other House should be allowed to take place. A number of Senators have grave reservations about the proposal by Aer Lingus to withdraw the Heathrow slots next January. There is still time and instead of asking another airline to supply direct routes from Shannon to Heathrow, we should exert maximum pressure on a company in which the State has a 25.4% share. We have a duty and responsibility to the people of the region because this is a crisis for the area.
As a representative of the west and its people, I ask for a debate on the matter and for the Minister to explain to this House the current position on and future plans for Shannon Airport. He should also explain the question of connectivity with Heathrow rather than other European airports, as that connectivity is key for the region.
I extend good wishes to the Cathaoirleach, as I did not have an opportunity to do so on the first day of the new session. The Cathaoirleach will be a fair and even-handed chairman.
I echo the sentiments expressed by previous speakers regarding Garda Sherlock and his brave actions yesterday morning. It is likely that he intervened in the efforts of an armed gang to commit a serious robbery later in the day. In light of the significant increase in such attacks in recent years and Garda Sherlock putting his life on the line, he deserves a great deal of credit. I wish him a full and speedy recovery.
I agree with the views expressed on the state of the economy by Senator MacSharry and I ask that the Minister for Finance attend the House as soon as possible to hold a discussion in the pre-budget atmosphere on Ireland's economic outlook for the next 12 months and further. I hope the Minister will take part in such a discussion at his earliest possible convenience.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to partake in a debate on the outbreaks of several livestock diseases in the neighbouring island. The debate should take place as soon as possible because these diseases could have a potentially devastating impact on our livestock industry. We are familiar with tackling the problems caused by foot and mouth disease and must be vigilant in view of the numerous outbreaks of that disease in the United Kingdom. The latest outbreak of bluetongue disease has the potential to wreak havoc in the agricultural sector. I call for the Minister to outline to the House the Government's strategy in this regard. I have heard only snippets of her comments in recent days. We must prevent the arrival of this disease on our shores.
I echo the sentiments of Senator Fitzgerald in requesting a change to the Order of Business to facilitate a discussion on Shannon Airport. This debate should take place today, if possible. I understand the grave reservations Senator Leyden has expressed. However, the facilitation of such a debate will give him, along with other Government Members, the opportunity to express those concerns and, in concurrence with the Opposition, to ensure the Government uses its existing share-holding in Aer Lingus to retain the Heathrow slots at Shannon Airport.
I wish the Cathaoirleach well in what I am sure will be an excellent term of office.
I call for a debate on the Middle East, particularly in view of events in recent weeks in Lebanon where a Member of Parliament was assassinated. The Israeli Government, moreover, has discovered that Syria is in possession of nuclear material from North Korea. The French President, Mr. Sarkozy, is clear that he will not envisage Iran proceeding with its nuclear ambitions, as it seems hell-bent on doing. These elements create a dangerous cocktail. A debate on this issue should include, as it has not done heretofore, a discussion on the emergency response we might employ to support our neighbouring island should a major terrorist attack occur there. This debate should take place as soon as possible.
Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom cur leis an iarracht a rinneadh chun díospóireacht a eagrú sa Teach maidir leis na fadhbanna atá in Aerfort na Sionna agus sa réigiún sin go hiomlán.
I also call for this House to debate the serious situation that is developing whereby pharmacists are threatening to withdraw all services to medical card schemes from 1 September as a result of the change in payments initiated by the HSE. Several pharmacists in Donegal have told me that rural pharmacies will go out of business before the end of the year because most of their business — in some cases, as much as 90% — is dependent on medical card holders. These pharmacists inform me that the HSE's change will see many of them operating at a loss. The situation is acute in County Donegal and in other rural areas where the social and economic situation means there is a significant dependence on medical cards. There must be immediate Government intervention on this issue. Will the Leader organise a debate to be attended by the Minister for Health and Children?
I join others in congratulating the Cathaoirleach on his appointment. I look forward to working with him, along with the soon to be elected Leas-Chathaoirleach, officials and other Members.
In regard to the situation that prevails in Burma, I ask the Leader, along with the leaders of the other parties, unanimously to support a motion in support of the people of Burma and that this should be passed on to the relevant authorities as quickly as possible. The Minister for Foreign Affairs yesterday called for a rapid response from those in a position to do so. This House should take that approach. I do not want to direct the leaders of the various parties but I ask that they consult, agree and pass the appropriate resolution without delay. In accordance with the Order Paper and whenever we can place it on the agenda for debate, I look forward to inviting the Minister for Foreign Affairs to make statements on the issue or to address it in the most appropriate manner. I ask that the leaders meet so that agreement can be reached and a resolution unanimously passed.
I congratulate members of the Garda Síochána for the speed with which they were able to detect a stolen vehicle after receiving a telephone call on the matter yesterday. I offer my solidarity to Garda Sherlock, who happened to serve in the J district of the city, an area with which I am familiar. I understand him to be a very active garda and we certainly saw that yesterday. I wish him a full and speedy recovery. The House should acknowledge the speed with which the Garda Síochána responded and identified the vehicle concerned, as well as express its regret at the response of the culprits, who were up to no good and may have been after a human life rather than money. As someone who comes from the north city, I commend members of the Garda Síochána on their efforts to find the culprits and would like to think the House would join me in wishing for a successful and speedy conclusion.
If we are to have a debate on the issue of gun culture, we should acknowledge the success of Operation Anvil. However, hardened criminals continue to abuse regulations in other areas. I cannot understand, for example, why a person who commits another crime while on bail is not automatically remanded in custody. Whether they use guns, knives, bottles or other weapons, these hardened criminals are on bail after already being convicted in court. What do they have to lose by continuing along the trail they have followed in the past? I ask that the House would acknowledge the good work being done by the Garda Síochána and would identify the supports gardaí need to combat the crimes that affect each and every community.
I concur with the sentiments expressed by other Members with regard to the speedy recovery of Garda Sherlock, who was gunned down shortly after nine o'clock on a busy Tuesday morning. The matter highlights the dangers that many fine men and women face in their careers as members of the Garda Síochána. It reveals that we are dealing with a hardened criminal sector in Dublin city as well as with the cowardly, psychopathic and thuggish nature of some elements of these gangs. I wish the colleagues of Garda Sherlock well in their pursuit of those responsible for the attack.
I call for a debate on the issue of taxation. Information made available in recent days revealed that the three highest earners in the country are not paying tax. That is neither fair nor equitable. I do not say those who earn significant amounts of money should be penalised because good luck to them if they have the entrepreneurial motivation for success. However it is farcical that people who are just about earning the minimum wage or are living on the breadline must pay taxes when these millionaires do not. I ask that the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance would come to the House to debate these very important matters.
Senator Leyden is a very dedicated, courteous and serious Member of this House and I admire his contribution to debates and the sincerity with which he brings his beliefs to the floor. Nevertheless, I remind Government Members of this House that the role of Opposition is ours. We will hold the Government to account regarding Shannon Airport. A number of years ago, when my party was last in Government, one of our TDs in Dublin North-East voted against the Government, of which he was a member, on the issue of Aer Lingus because he had the courage of his convictions.
Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom aontú leis an méid a dúirt an Seanadóir Alex White ar an gcéad ábhar ar a labhair sé ar Riar na hOibre. I also support the call for a debate on Burma. It is timely that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and others are attempting to mobilise the United Nations and the international community in support of the Burmese people and, in particular, the Buddhist monks who are providing great leadership. A debate on the matter in this House would be appropriate and I am sure there would be unanimous support for a motion such as that outlined by Senator Callely.
I join other speakers in wishing a full and speedy recovery to Garda Sherlock and commend him on the courageous manner in which he carried out his duty. I am not impressed, however, with other events which took place yesterday involving two other gardaí. It is important that the institutions of the State and Members of these Houses stand four square behind members of the Garda Síochána when they put their lives at risk in our interests. What took place yesterday does not fulfil our aspirations in that regard.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his elevation to high office and wish him well. I ask the Leader to facilitate two debates on matters which could be termed old political chestnuts but which are still current problems. During the term of the previous Seanad, the House united on more than one occasion while debating the issue of the undocumented Irish in the United States of America. Unfortunately, that still remains a serious issue for thousands of Irish people in the United States and their families in this country. In the run-up to the US presidential election, the issue of immigration policy will be to the fore in the debates. In that context it is important that the Government take a very strong line in advocating the need to regularise the situation of the undocumented Irish in the United States. It would be appropriate to invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the House to discuss the issue.
I also wish to discuss decentralisation. It is almost four years since the former Minister for Finance and current European Commissioner, Mr. Charlie McCreevy, and his then political side-kick, Mr. Tom Parlon, announced that tens of thousands of civil servants would be decentralised to almost every town and village in the country. That announcement was made in advance of the 2004 local elections. The concept of decentralisation, which I support, is an excellent one but the 2004 proposal was not properly thought out. The issue must be revisited and examined from the point of view of economics, social policy and regional development. Decentralisation must be carried out in a proper manner.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Finance or the Minister of State at that Department to the House to debate the issue again. We must all acknowledge that the programme announced in 2004 is now politically dead. We must be realistic about that but also try to move forward with a new debate on decentralisation which will result in a plan that will work.
I wish the Cathaoirleach well in his term of office. In general I do not agree with us posturing about foreign policy but in the case of Burma we should add our voices to those of other civilised nations in expressing our distress at what is happening to peaceful people, especially to monks dedicated to peaceful change.
Regarding Shannon, I am struck by the fact that those loudest in their proclamations of republicanism are slow to support Aer Lingus's progressive development that seeks to enhance the relationship between Dublin and Belfast. I wish the motorway was extended all the way to Belfast. I note that many of those loudest in their complaints on the Shannon issue are refugees from the pogroms against Northern Ireland Nationalists. Throughout the 1980s they told us how much they suffered up there and this is a good chance for some of them to go home to a more peaceful Northern Ireland. I understand why Deputies with problems in the Shannon region had to keep their mouths shut on the matter but I commend the courage of the Minister for Transport and the Marine, Deputy Noel Dempsey, in taking a tough line. Market forces should be allowed to decide what Aer Lingus does and it should not be trammelled by State interference which has caused trouble in the past.
On a more important matter, I support Senator Hanafin's call for a debate on the Middle East. I have been reading transcripts of debates held in this House and there has been a lot of unchallenged posturing directed against Israel as a force of occupation. I would welcome a debate and the chance to set the record straight.
The matter that should concern us, because it is within our remit, is the attack on Garda Paul Sherlock yesterday. I deplore the removal of capital sanctions for those who kill policemen because all states are founded on force. Those who risk their lives on the front line deserve our full support and I do not only mean policemen. I also mean the Army and firemen, two of whom lost their lives yesterday. Those who put their bodies on the line earn the highest respect in any society.
Even if we remove capital sanctions from those who shoot policemen there should be capital consequences for such actions. In areas where gang culture is now enshrined, such as Dublin, Limerick and parts of Cork, the Garda Commissioner should consider the strategic arming and training of policemen. The days of the unarmed bobby patrolling the streets of this country should be over.
There is a great deal of political correctness in our society's response to violence and it is founded on the delusion of the left wing that all crime is a function of society malfunctioning. If this was the case then every traveller would be a criminal and every graduate of Trinity College and University College Dublin, UCD, would be a saint.
When one examines the record of public embezzlement in this country one sees that this is not the case. Most working class people are law-abiding, as are most travellers. The fact is criminals choose their line of business. Any person carrying weapons should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Along with Senator Walsh, though he did not mention this specifically, I deplore the intervention of the Garda Ombudsman Commission in the Lusk inquiry. This is all part of an effort to send out signals that criminals are somehow victims of society. They are not, they are aggressors against society and society should be able to deal with them consequentially. Accordingly, apart from supporting the sympathy of this House for Garda Sherlock, I believe it is time to protect unarmed members of the Garda Síochána against people who long ago decided to use lethal force if confronted by a garda. We are burying our heads in the sand if we believe that the old rule of law and old responses of old society will be adequate in such circumstances. We can delay change all we like but, sooner or later, armed policemen will be required to confront armed gangs in the major cities of this country.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his election to the position and wish him well for his term. Having worked closely with the Cathaoirleach over the last number of years in his position as Government Whip I do not doubt that he will be impartial and will do an excellent job.
I seek a debate on the new building regulations, relating to energy conservation in houses and so on, proposed by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley. I would like waste disposal and recycling included in that debate. Will the Leader arrange that debate and invite the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to attend the House?
I wish the Cathaoirleach and the incoming Leas-Chathaoirleach the best of luck in their new roles.
The savage shooting of Garda Paul Sherlock took place in my area. I send best wishes to him and his family and wish him a speedy recovery. I offer encouragement to Superintendent Feehan and the other members of Fitzgibbon Street Garda station who will spearhead the attempt to catch the thugs responsible for the evil that occurred on the street at 9.15 a.m. yesterday.
The description of these events should give all here pause for thought. After the shooting a young man was on his hands and knees, crying, while those who were responsible for the harm fled. This savage attack raises the broader question of whether a State can protect itself with an unarmed organisation. I disagree strongly with some of the comments of my colleagues. Although the Garda has deployed armed forces in many urban areas, events such as this continue to occur. I cannot comprehend the great bravery of these unarmed people who protect law and order. Unarmed gardaí have undertaken many successful operations, such as preventing robberies and diving into the Liffey to save people from drowning. I commend their good work.
I add my voice to the call for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to make a statement here on this incident. He must address several matters, including how the Oireachtas can ensure the Garda Síochána can perform its duties safely, that senior members of the Garda have more accurate information to prevent planned criminal activities and that the presence of armed gardaí, where deployed, more effectively deters such activity.
I too congratulate the Cathaoirleach and, prematurely, the Leas-Chathaoirleach, on their appointments.
I support the call for a motion condemning the recent actions by the military junta in Burma. It is appropriate to express our concern about this given that the Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been honoured in this country and elsewhere. This is not empty posturing as Senator Harris suggests. It is not posturing when Senator Harris calls for a debate on foreign policy.
We are all deeply concerned about the savage attack on Garda Sherlock yesterday but it is posturing to call for the return of capital punishment in response. That cannot be an answer. It is something with which the Burmese junta would be happy but it is not a democratic solution to the problem of crime, even armed crime.
I support Senator O'Toole's call for a debate on the management of our primary education system. This is also topical. All Members will have noted the opening this week of Bracken Educate Together school in north Dublin and must be concerned that while it is important the children in that school have all received a school place, it signals a highly dangerous move towards a system of education that may be based upon racial segregation. We already have a system based on religious segregation as a result of the present system of patronage and as Senator O'Toole has stated, this must be examined. Members should seek a debate on restructuring the existing system of primary school education and management to ensure that patronage based on religious denomination will no longer be the basis on which our primary schools are managed and run. It is time to leave religious denomination outside the school door and a national conference on this matter is needed urgently.
I wish to raise an issue that is current and relevant. On the first meeting of the House two weeks ago, Members suggested that were such issues to be discussed, perhaps more interest would be taken in the Seanad's work. I wish to raise the unexplained payments to the most senior political figure in the land, that is, the outcome to date of the Mahon tribunal. I call for a debate on standards in public office because the issues that have arisen at this juncture diminish us all. This affects the standing of all politicians, casts aspersions and creates a general belief to the effect that there is no integrity in politics. All are tarred with the same brush. This has a corrosive effect in that it becomes expected that this is what occurs in politics and among all politicians.
Ireland is a democracy based on the rule of law and is a member state of the European Union, which has been enlarged to encompass eastern Europe. Ireland and the European Union have made all possible efforts to ensure a reduction in political corruption in eastern Europe. We preach to the eastern European countries and have made this a condition of membership.
It is important, however, to reflect on this matter ourselves. I refer to a debate in the Seanad on what constitutes the standards to which we adhere. By our silence, Members can create the impression that there are no standards. It is now established that a sum of €300,000 in unexplained payments to the Taoiseach exists.
The McCracken report regarding the Dunnes payment inquiry established the test that even when no proof of corruption or of a quid pro quo for payments exists, the making of payments of such magnitude to a politician creates a suspicion of corruption and has a corroding effect on the body politic. Ultimately, the courts and the tribunals established by the Oireachtas are the last defence against corruption in politics and there has been a serious attempt to undermine the integrity——
The courts and the tribunals established by the Oireachtas are very important to upholding the rule of law. Notwithstanding the length of time for which the tribunals have been obliged to operate, starting with the McCracken tribunal they have been fundamental in unearthing massive political corruption and unacceptable behaviour and standards in public office.
The Mahon tribunal has carried out its work. It has identified unexplained significant payments to the Taoiseach and the integrity of that tribunal should be upheld by this Chamber.
Two issues have arisen. It is a political dimension to a legal process - the tribunal is effectively a legal process but there is a political dimension. We now know so much more than we did last year when there was a debate in the Oireachtas. We also know more now than we did before the general election. We know now what the tribunal believes are the unexplained payments, and what is regarded as the lack of co-operation by the Taoiseach. For the highest politician of the land to behave in this way is something we should debate in this House. Do we believe there are any standards in public office? I quote one standard cited by the Taoiseach in a public statement in 1997. He said that "the acceptance of large gifts or payments or personal benefits in a surreptitious manner ... by senior serving politicians or members of the Government is deeply damaging to trust in politics, and is a serious breach of it". He was right but he has not lived by those standards. I would ask the Leader to facilitate that debate.
I join my colleagues in extending good wishes to the Cathaoirleach for his term of office and I wish him well in that role. I second the proposal of my colleague, Senator Bradford, that we have a debate as a matter of urgency regarding the position of the undocumented Irish in the United States. It is a serious issue for many individuals and families across this country. Their situation has suffered a congressional setback recently and could go off the radar. For that reason the matter is urgent. Senator Bradford's request for a debate is timely. I second his proposal and ask the Leader to accede to that request.
Similarly, we should have a debate on our response to the Irish emigrant communities and the present position in terms of supporting our emigrants. We need to focus on supports for those who have returned and wish to re-establish themselves in this country, particularly in matters such as housing, which should be prioritised.
My colleague, Senator O'Toole, has made a worthy proposal regarding the dreadful situation in Burma, including the extraordinary suffering of people there and the great leadership of the Buddhist monks. I support the proposal that a unanimous motion, tabled as an emergency item in the House, be put forward in support of the Burmese people as it would be the best outcome. The response should be immediate and today, rather than delayed, because it is of critical importance. Predominantly, I support the proposition of my colleague, Senator Bradford, on the undocumented Irish.
I join my colleagues in wishing the Cathaoirleach well in his term of office. I support colleagues who spoke previously on the need for an urgent debate, if at all possible today, on Shannon. We live on an island. I live in the west. To trivialise the importance of Shannon to the livelihoods, the business and the tourism of the west as a matter of Belfast versus Shannon is not to know the full impact of Shannon in the region. Shannon is of critical importance to connectivity between business and the wider world.
The Shannon Heathrow slots link Shannon and the west of Ireland to 46 cities in the world. In August IBEC surveyed 200 companies in the west and found that 60,000 seats are filled through Heathrow. I have listened to many companies speak about the impact of losing these slots and rather than going on about it in the House today, I call for a full and urgent debate. I urge all my colleagues to consider the fact that Ireland is more than just a section of the country. We need to take care of the west. I remind the House that this issue is of strategic national importance. The chairman and board of Aer Lingus have spoken about those slots being perhaps more suitably placed outside the country. We could be looking at a national airline that is foreign-based. When the airline was privatised, we held a 25.4% shareholding to protect our strategic national interest. Why did we hold it if we are not going to use it?
This is a central point. As someone from Galway who represents the west in the Seanad, I want to see livelihoods and business protected.
I support the call for a broad debate on education and how schools are managed. Senator O'Toole referred to the initiation of a new black school, so to speak. This is a frightening way to describe it but that is exactly what has happened. Generally, schools reflect the type of society in which we live. We are now faced with multiculturalism and immigration and it is time we looked at how our schools set that example. I support the speakers who called for a debate in that regard.
I wish to take advantage of this opportunity to express my sincere condolences to the families of the two firemen who died so tragically this morning in Bray in the course of carrying out their duties. I am sure the rest of the House will join me in this. We have long had debates in the Bray area about the adequacy of our part-time fire service. It has been a live issue given the population growth in the north of the county. I urge the Cathaoirleach to consider holding a debate on the provision of fire services throughout the country.
I hope all Members look forward to my maiden speech.
I support Senator Fitzgerald's call for a discussion of the crisis in Shannon. This matter is something very close to my heart as I am from north Tipperary. I have spent hours upon hours with workers and the Atlantic Connectivity Alliance in recent months campaigning and lobbying on this issue. They have done tremendous work. Many of the people involved are outside the gates of Leinster House today and some of them have been brought into the Houses by me and my colleagues. We spent a number of hours discussing the issues with them. These people are dedicated to ensuring the connectivity to the mid-west through Shannon Airport is maintained. Everyone in the House should acknowledge that and respect the fact that these people are not going to give up, nor should they. If this decision is not reversed soon, we will be facing into a different type of debate because this will probably go into a legal quagmire based on the definitions in the memorandum and articles of association, especially on the terms of disposal. It is imperative the Government acts.
The long-term plan of the chief executive of Aer Lingus, Dermot Mannion, appears to be as follows. He has already outlined that long-haul is the way to go for Aer Lingus. It looks like he intends eventually to use the slots from Heathrow for long-haul and to take out the slots, not just in Shannon but also in Cork. We are well aware of this possibility, which is why it was imperative my colleagues in Cork met both the Atlantic Connectivity Alliance and the workers today.
As a party we have been aware of this possibility for a long time and we have debated the issue. We opposed the privatisation of Aer Lingus, not necessarily on philosophical or ideological grounds but because we believe in a policy of economic externality in certain scenarios where that is necessary for the greater good. In this case the greater good was that Aer Lingus was performing a function for the mid-west and the western seaboard that would not necessarily be the case if market forces alone were allowed to rule the roost.
We are probably understating not just the business impact of this decision but also its tourism impact. Essentially, tourism is also business. I know this area well as I am my party's spokesperson on tourism and I also worked at the coalface of tourism for nine years in Bord Fáilte and Fáilte Ireland. This decision will have a detrimental effect on tourism in the mid-west, in addition to the western seaboard and further afield. The tourism agencies are faced with the challenge of getting certain percentages of people to travel to parts of the country outside Dublin and the greater Dublin area and this will not be achievable if the Government does not intervene and use its 25.4% share to call an extraordinary general meeting and force the airline to reverse its decision.
We are at an important juncture as the decision on this matter will be very much influenced by the slot conference that will take place shortly. Slot conferences are of great importance to airlines as they decide where the slots will be in two six-month cycles. If this decision is not reversed or some action is not taken before the slot conference takes place, we will be faced with a rather more difficult issue.
At the beginning of this crisis the Government said it could not intervene. It is interesting to note the Government's language on this issue has changed. The current position is that it will not intervene. The reality is Government representatives, especially members of Fianna Fáil and other supporters of the Government, namely, the Green Party, the Progressive Democrats and certain Independents, some of whom are close to me in geographic terms, need to examine their consciences. They cannot be on the side of the angels all the time. One cannot be in Opposition and in Government on an issue. I echo the statement of my party colleague, Senator McCarthy. They either stand up, show what they are made of and support the Opposition in its efforts to reverse this decision or else they support what their good colleague, Senator Harris, stated today. I am delighted that what he said is on record because it is probably the true feeling of most people in Fianna Fáil on Aer Lingus, especially the Taoiseach.
Let us look at what is happening in terms of the new Belfast route for which approximately 136 or 146 bookings have been made. That is a reflection of the level of interest in it. In comparison, there are more than 1,000 bookings for Ryanair flights from Belfast to Heathrow. One can ask why there is a difference or why British Airways, a good and profitable airline, pulled out of this same route in 2001. People need to ask these questions to find an answer.
I call on Seanad Éireann to debate this issue. I would appreciate such a debate out of respect for a number of people who were outside the gates of Leinster House today. These people have told me they will be out of a job by next January or February. I would appreciate it if the proposed change to the Order of Business were agreed.
Ba mhaith liom tús a chur leis an cúpla focal seo agus comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an tSeanadóir Moylan as a bheith ceaptha mar Chathaoirleach ar an Teach seo. I sincerely congratulate Senator Moylan on his appointment as Cathaoirleach. I know he will do an excellent job in his new position.
I wish to support two issues. The first one was raised by Senator Bradford on the other side of the House about the undocumented Irish. There are an estimated 50,000 undocumented Irish in the United States of America, many of whom left these shores seeking a better life for themselves and members of their families. It is important we stand with them in the difficulties in which they find themselves. I am delighted with the work which has been done, especially by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, in supporting the undocumented Irish in the United States and in lobbying to have the issue put centre stage there. It is important that during the new term of this House and Dáil Éireann we reinvigorate the campaign by ensuring the presidential campaign, which will hot up shortly, includes the issue of the undocumented, not just the Irish but those of many other countries. It is important to discuss the issue in this House and provide assistance to the people involved. I come from the north west and many families from Donegal have family members in the United States who cannot join them on celebratory occasions or bereavements. The issue divides families so we should pursue it as vigorously as possible on this side of the water.
I support the proposal that the Minister for Finance should come to the House prior to the budget and receiving submissions. All Members of the Oireachtas are being lobbied on submissions to be made to the Department and, in particular, to the Minister. We are lucky to have a Minister of the calibre of Deputy Cowen, who is well aware of the needs of Ireland. As a republican and a member of Fianna Fáil I am delighted that Deputy Cowen is in the job. He is able to listen to the concerns of the general public. If the Minister is to visit this House, however, we should place on the agenda for discussion, in light of the power-sharing Executive in the North of Ireland and the fact that the institutions are now up and running, the issue of economic incentives and reliefs for the Border counties in the upcoming budget. My colleague, Senator Wilson, would probably share my view that we should provide the Border counties such as Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan with some relief after what they have suffered over the past 30 years in the conflict in the North. The issue should be looked at when the Minister visits the House and I hope he does so in the not too distant future.
I wish the Cathaoirleach well in his term in Seanad Éireann.
I will try to quench a fire which has been lit on this side of the House, that we can interfere with every operational decision made by Aer Lingus. Whether we like it or not Aer Lingus was privatised some time ago after a tortuous debate in this and the other House. We cannot allow ourselves to be used by lobby groups left, right and centre for every decision it makes. Will we regard it as a semi-State organisation, over which the State still has ownership, every time it opens or closes routes? Will we let the Cork lobby, the Shannon lobby or the Dublin lobby interfere in the workings of this House over what is a privatised company? It is time we realised that debate is over. Aer Lingus must be allowed to make its own commercial decisions — that is the world in which it now lives and it should be allowed to be relatively free from political interference.
One of the great fears of many of us who were in favour of the privatisation of Aer Lingus was that the retention of the 25% stake, to which many Members have referred today, would be used as some sort of lever to interfere on a daily basis with the workings of Aer Lingus and that is what is happening now. I do not blame the Shannon lobby, first for doing its work and, second, for making politicians speak in this House in its favour, today and at other times. The real debate should be on whether we should continue to hold the 25% stake, because that is a skewer, a hook and a spit on which the Government is now stuck. The sooner we get rid of that stake the less we will face the pressure to interfere with the commercial decisions of Aer Lingus.
Those who refer to Aer Lingus as the national airline are, unfortunately for them and uncomfortably for others, wrong. We no longer have a national airline, following the decision taken. If we have one, as one speaker said, it is based abroad, but it is Ryanair. It is unpalatable for many but that is the biggest airline operator. We should give up the idea that the Dáil and the Seanad have ownership of Aer Lingus and can interfere with it every day.
That was my impression and we will see whether it will change in the next couple of months. Talking about Seanad Éireann keeping its eagle eye on foreign policy regarding Burma and the Middle East is almost as useful as keeping an eagle eye on the Russian Tsar in the early 20th century. We must be realistic about what we can achieve in this House. Whereas I do not necessarily agree with Senator Harris's "hang 'em high" theory, there is a need for robust debate on such matters if we are to be relevant. The same applies whether we are talking about education or justice. In the discussion on Garda Sherlock we must talk about what is actually happening in society, where gardaí are being shot by men who do not want to be caught with a stolen car. There has been a complete breakdown in some parts of our society in respect for law and order. We must articulate the views of people who live in affected communities and who already feel they are living in a place like Burma when such an event happens as they go to work in the morning.
Among debates that will crop up in this House in the near future is one on cancer services. The new Tsar to be appointed to cancer services has decided there will be only eight hospitals with cancer services. How will we talk about those issues?
I hope we will talk more about Shannon. There are differing views in this House but the Government Members must be extremely clear, because it is not just Aer Lingus that has migrated to Northern Ireland — it seems Fianna Fáil is planning on migrating north as well. Maybe they are neglecting the west and they should be quite clear on how they are going to move in that direction.
The Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, said he would like to see a slowdown in the housing market and, according to the Construction Industry Federation, he has got his wish as we now have a significant slowdown which will cause concerns for the economy for the next couple of years. The CEO of the Construction Industry Federation said on a news bulletin this afternoon that three of the pillars of construction were sound enough but he was quite clear that house building had gone. House building has a huge impact on Government revenue and we must be clear about what we say on the economy because there will be serious concerns as a result. If we in this House are to be relevant we should have robust debates in a proper manner. I look forward to the contribution of some of the people who are not politically aligned. They can speak their minds, unlike some of us.
In the next couple of weeks, during debates on Shannon and the health services, I look forward to the Government representatives on the other side telling it as it is. Maybe some of them will explain why Senator Ross is completely wrong in regard to Government policy and that Fianna Fáil really does look after the west, instead of moving to Northern Ireland.
Before I ask the Leader to reply, I will point out that I have allowed a great deal of latitude to speakers today, because this is our first sitting. However, I will not allow that in the future and will call on Members to shorten their contributions. I fully understand that a number of new Senators wanted to make specific points today and I allowed them to do so. That may not happen in the future and I would appreciate the support of Members in this regard.
I will not name all the Senators who made the points because we all know who they are. They are all worthy of consideration for debates in the House but if we allowed time for all the debates requested of me today we would be sitting five or six days. We have Private Members' business, about which we all know, and three matters can be raised on the Adjournment. Perhaps colleagues would assist the Leader in trying to facilitate all the worthwhile calls made to have these debates.
The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Fitzgerald, proposed an amendment to the Order of Business to debate the Shannon issue. As Members know, the Shannon issue will be debated in the other House this evening. I agree with the view of Senator Fitzgerald and many other colleagues that this matter is urgent. A debate would be worthwhile and I will allow time for that. I will meet the leaders after the Order of Business and the election of the Leas-Chathaoirleach to determine if such a debate can take place at the earliest opportune time. The Minister is in the ante-room waiting to come into the House to take the Copyright and Related Rights (Amendment) Bill and I ask colleagues to try to facilitate us to ensure some part of the Bill can be discussed by 5 p.m., which I have already proposed. Otherwise, we can sit very late tonight.
We have no difficulty on this side of the House sitting until 11 p.m. or midnight if necessary. If that is what colleagues wish me to do, I can consider that but I have to ensure a Minister is available. It is pointless having a debate on this serious issue, which will affect so many people from Kerry to Donegal, without a Minister present. My party, Fianna Fáil, can be proud of what we did to put Shannon Airport in place. I remember my late father telling me at the time that a very senior member of the largest party on the Opposition side of the House stated that only rabbits and hares would run on the runways of Shannon. We were creating that airport under Seán Lemass more than 50 years ago.
Also, the Minister of the day was in a hurry with the Taoiseach of the day to rush down to the late Monsignor Horan to try to close down the work that was being done on Knock Airport. We must be realistic about this. It was the Fianna Fáil Party who put the shrines there.
There are some young colleagues who have to have a balanced approach in this House. I note some senior Members did not make a contribution because they knew what was coming down the track. We will meet with the leaders immediately after the election of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, if that is agreeable to them.
Regarding the horrific shooting yesterday morning, Garda Paul Sherlock is a married man with two young children. He was on the call of duty to protect all of us. What is happening in Ireland today is horrific. We should have an all day debate in the House to assist the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Garda Síochána and everyone concerned regarding the change of events that is happening mainly because of the evil of drugs. Drugs are the main cause of much of what we are seeing in terms of crime. The shipments are coming into the country. It is told to us, allegedly, that guns come with the shipments to try to protect them.
Let us have a debate in the House. As the eminent former Deputy and now Senator Twomey has just stated, let us make the Seanad meaningful in this regard and have an all day debate on the changing face of Ireland, society, crime and the challenges facing all of us as public representatives to do something on behalf of the people who elected us to this House. God knows it is an honour and privilege for us all to serve here and to try to assist in doing that. We must leave politics outside the door and do something about this as the Upper House of the Oireachtas. I will meet with the leaders to discuss when the Minister will be available. The Minister will be supportive in coming to the House to lead the way in having that debate.
I agree with all that has been expressed by many eminent colleagues here on the issue of Burma. This House supports our Minister for Foreign Affairs and the many views expressed here on the issue.
Senator O'Toole, along with Senators O'Reilly and Healy Eames, raised the issue of the management of primary education in Ireland. We can allow time for that to take place. I congratulate the Catholic Church for all it has done through the years in terms of giving us the opportunity to gain an education. We all know that without the church, none of us would have had a reasonable education let alone a decent one.
Senator Coghlan asked a question about the housing Bill. I am pleased to inform the Senator that publication is expected in early 2008. The Bill is to provide for a programme of social housing reforms aimed at improving services and their delivery, including strengthening local authority powers to deal with anti-social behaviour, expand the paths to home ownership for social housing tenants and provide for rental accommodation schemes. I understand the Bill is currently with the Parliamentary Counsel and will be published in early 2008.
Senators MacSharry, Phelan and Ó Domhnaill called for a pre-budget debate and statements in the House on matters pertaining to major concerns in all parts of our constituencies. I will endeavour to have the Minister, Deputy Brian Cowen, come to the House to allow that debate take place. Senator MacSharry also called for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come into the House to address the national spatial strategy and concerns about his area. I will endeavour to have that happen.
Calls were made by Senators to have the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food attend in the House regarding the various challenges the Minister and the Department are currently experiencing. This is a matter of urgency also and I will consider when we can have that debate, possibly in the next two weeks.
Senator Quinn raised a worthwhile point regarding the workers on the M50. Those of us who come from the west and the south use the M50 to get to our place of work. I did not know they could not work on Saturdays or Sundays. I am aware it is rigidly enforced in Dublin in particular in that they can only work from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Someone told me that there is €500 million worth of machinery operating on the M50 currently and approximately 700 people working there as well. There is huge investment by everyone concerned and workers being unable to work on Saturdays or late in the evenings is a major concern. I will inquire into that with a view to determining if there is anything the Minister can do in that regard.
Senators Hanafin and Harris called for a debate on the Middle East. I can facilitate that worthwhile request. Senator Doherty called for the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House for a debate. The Minister will be in the House tomorrow and the points about the situation affecting medical card holders in Donegal can be made in his Second Stage contribution. I am aware the problem is of grave concern to everyone in that area. A high percentage of people have medical cards, especially since our Government brought in the measure giving medical cards to those over 70, and this situation is serious.
Senator McCarthy called for a debate on taxation. We can take that with the budget debate which was called for by other Senators. I have no difficulty with that.
Senators Bradford, O'Reilly and Ó Domhnaill called for a debate on the serious situation in which the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America find themselves. I agree to having a debate on that.
Senator Bradford called also for an update on decentralisation and the progress taking place. Those of us on this side of the House will be very pleased to allow that debate take place.
Senator Burke called for a debate on the building regulations and waste management. I can agree to have a debate on that also.
Senator Regan expressed strong views with which I did not agree. We have no problem regarding standards in public office. Fianna Fáil is the most progressive party in terms of all the legislation that has been introduced regarding standards in public office. The record speaks for itself. I will be delighted to allow that debate to take place.
Senator de Búrca referred to the tragic deaths of two firemen in Bray this morning. We express our condolences to their families. Like gardaí, firemen are frontline workers who are there to protect us and to make Ireland a safer place. As the son of a man who served in the fire service and helped to create it in 1946, and having had two brothers serve in the fire service over 30 years, I know the great loss these two families have suffered. I will certainly arrange for a debate to take place on this matter.
Senator Twomey called for a debate on cancer services. This can take place today during Fine Gael's Private Members' time or it would also be timely to discuss the matter when the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, comes to the House tomorrow. I recognise the expertise and professional experience the Senator can bring to this House. We will all listen attentively to his contributions.
I say to the leader of the main Opposition party, Senator Fitzgerald, that it is a joyous day given that we are to appoint the Leas-Chathaoirleach from her party. My party will not oppose this, as has been the tradition for 70 years. Since 1937, Fianna Fáil has always given the position of Leas-Chathaoirleach to the largest Opposition party. I ask the Senator to leave the issue of the current Shannon problem until the leaders meet following the appointment of the Leas-Chathaoirleach so that we can set a date for an urgent debate. As Leader, I will provide time for such a debate if the leaders agree and the Minister is available. The Minister is in the other House later today. I ask Senator Fitzgerald to withdraw the proposed amendment on this joyous occasion of the appointment of the Leas-Chathaoirleach.
I welcome the Shannon Airport staff who are present in the Visitors Gallery, although it is not a custom to acknowledge those in the Visitors Gallery.
It is a joyous occasion and we are delighted that the Government side is supporting Senator Paddy Burke for the position of Leas-Chathaoirleach. However, I cannot withdraw the amendment in view of the importance of the subject and our strong belief that a debate is needed today.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 21 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Pearse Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Alan Kelly, Michael McCarthy, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Eugene Regan, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)
Against the motion: 30 (Dan Boyle, Larry Butler, Peter Callanan, Ivor Callely, Ciarán Cannon, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, John Gerard Hanafin, Eoghan Harris, Tony Kett, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Rónán Mullen, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Kieran Phelan, Feargal Quinn, Shane Ross, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Dominic Hannigan; Níl, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.