Thursday, 6 December 2007
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Asset Recovery Offices, back from committee, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, statements on the merits of farmers' markets, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, to conclude not later than 1.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed seven minutes, on which Members may share time, and the Minister to be called upon ten minutes from the end of the debate for closing comments and to respond to questions from spokespersons; and No. 3, statements on plans to improve water quality under the rural water programme, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, to conclude not later than 3.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes, on which Members may share time, and the Minister to be called upon ten minutes from the end of the debate for closing comments and to respond to questions from spokespersons.
I welcome the initiative by the Leader in response to a discussion we had at a leaders' meeting about Ministers taking questions following statements. This is a very good innovation and I am pleased the Leader has been able to bring this to the proceedings and that Ministers have agreed to do it. I hope we can develop and extend this initiative.
I wish to return to an issue raised yesterday by Senator O'Toole, which was initially raised in the House by Senator Bacik and on which many Senators have spoken. I refer to the position of Ãngrid Betancourt. The article by Lara Marlowe in The Irish Times is truly shocking, as a Senator stated yesterday. We have had our own experience in this country with hostage taking and captivity with Brian Keenan. I would like to think the Seanad could be effective in this area and that we can agree a strong all-party motion. Perhaps we can suggest to the DÃ¡il that a cross-party motion would be tabled in that House as well. We should agree a motion, have it passed in both Houses and ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to raise it at the next EU Ministers meeting as a priority issue. It is truly shocking to read the plight of the female Colombian politician who has been held for five years in the most appalling conditions. If there is anything we can do, and small actions can make a difference sometimes, we should try to do it.
While much has been said about yesterday's budget it fails a number of people, especially the vulnerable in our society. For example, there was no change in the means test for carers, many of whom work full-time in the home and are not eligible for this aid.
I return to a topic discussed in the House some time ago, namely, child care. The budget did not address the serious concerns arising from the changes in child care subvention. I attended a meeting on the matter last week with many child care providers. Will the Leader raise this matter with the Minister for Health and Children? I had hoped the budget would address the child care supplement issue given the costs of child care for parents in this country which are among the highest in Europe, but it did not, nor did it address the changes being brought about by the early child care supplement. The increases in that would only pay for five weeks of child care approximately and, therefore, many parents are left struggling with the cost.
The budget failed to address the issue of families struggling to meet child care costs and with no changes in the medical card scheme and minor changes in the qualified child allowance and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance, consistent poverty among children has increased in the past year. We must invite the Minister back to the House to discuss the range of issues affecting children and families.
I support the point made by Senator Fitzgerald. I welcome that the Minister will take questions at the end of the debate on food and the merits of farmers' markets. That is a welcome development and we should show we can use it usefully without abusing it.
On the issue I raised yesterday and which Senator Fitzgerald raised earlier, namely, the question of Ãngrid Betancourt, we should take this matter further. I discussed the matter with some Members of the other House last night. There was another occasion when parliamentarians were adept and ready to go to Colombia to plead the case for various people. I believe there is a strong case for people from this Parliament to go to Colombia and not at taxpayers' expense. I would like to have the representatives of FARC in front of me. I would like to make the case for Ãngrid Betancourt and to hear the answers. This woman has been imprisoned for one reason only, namely, she was brave enough to oppose terrorism publicly and all that goes with it. We have no vested interest in this matter and it is something we should consider.
Members of both Houses received by post recently a book called Best of Irish Poetry 2007, from the Munster Literature Centre. I draw Members' attention to that because accompanying it was the startling information that literature is the only aspect of the arts which does not have a permanent home in Dublin city. There is one in Cork, in fairness to Cork County Council or Cork City Council, whichever it is, but whereas the visual arts have theatres, galleries, houses, etc., there is no permanently owned, rent-free or secure home for places such as the Irish Writers Centre or the Dublin Writers Museum. We should ask the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism to discuss that issue with us to allow us plead a case in that regard. It is an issue we should raise.
I agree with the comments made by colleagues regarding Ãngrid Betancourt and the Labour Party would support anything we can do in these Houses to make our position known.
To return to the issue of the budget, I hear shouts from the other side of the House to the effect that it was a great budgetââ
ââbut there is complacency regarding the issues Senator Fitzgerald mentioned earlier. What should be the benchmark in terms of the budget, and is it a subject for debate in this House? How do we decide whether it is or is not a great budget? I heard people say on a radio programme this morning that there was a warm welcome for the stamp duty changes, but when I listened further it was explained that they were welcomed by banks, the construction industry and estate agents. Why would those sectors not welcome the changes in stamp duty? I am not saying those changes do not have some merit but if they are good enough to introduce now, they were good enough to have been introduced when they were needed six months ago. Instead, they are being introduced now as a panic measure at the tail end of the construction boom.
We talk about a green crusade or other views or objectives of people, but the only objective we should have in terms of budgetary, economic and social policy after ten or 15 years of plenty is a full frontal attack on poverty and social injustice. Why was the budget not a social justice or poverty budget? We are told about a green budget. Let us have a budget that will address child poverty once and for all. We are supposed to be a beacon to the world in terms of our economic development. Why can we not be a beacon to the world in terms of having equity, equality and social justice in society? That is what a budget should be about and, regrettably, this one is not.
I welcome the budget. We had a worthwhile debate yesterday on the drugs problem in this country. The budget has gone some way towards ensuring we will be able to tackle the drugs culture in the coming year. I welcomed the sentiments expressed in the House. All Members are trying to come up with solutions, which is the only way forward, and not criticise each other in the House.
There was a social aspect to the budget. For the first time, a couple received a â¬41 increase. We have never seen such an increase in social welfare and pensions and it is to be welcomed.
I welcome also the changes in the housing area. I have the pleasure of being spokesman on housing and look forward to a full debate in the House on the way we can alleviate the problems in housing. A total of 46,000 people do not have a houseââ
The Minister has given an extra â¬1.7 billion to deal with the housing problem. While I want to be fair to Fine Gael and Labour representatives in the councils, it is taking far too long for local authorities to get schemes up and running. It takes six months to bring a Part 8 application to the council where it remains for another three months. My colleague, Senator Regan, will agree that many schemes came to the council in an 18-month to two-year period but they did not deliver any housing in that time. This is a problem. We must have a full debate on this and I ask the Leader to allocate time for it.
The budget also addressed green issues. These are serious issues.
The Green Party has put forward some good proposals in the budget. I am delighted about that because it is time we tackled the problems we face in that regard. Perhaps the Leader would allocate time for debates on the basic issues of drugs and housing.
I wish to raise the primary care unit in Athlone. I am disgusted and disappointed with the procrastination of the Minister for Health and Children and the HSE. This project was first mooted in the 1990s. A site was purchased in 2002 for â¬1.2 million and in 2006 a capital allocation of â¬13.7 million was made. However, there is still no primary care centre. The proposal was to progress through the planning and construction stage in April 2007 and a cost-benefit analysis was to be carried out. This has been completed and the project does represent value for money. Everybody is anxious that there is value for money in the health service.
I am not asking that the Minister come to the Seanad on this matter because she has already told me that Athlone has the best figures in Ireland for attendance at accident and emergency departments. The reason is that there is no accident and emergency department in Athlone. It does not have a primary care unit or services. I do not want the Minister to come to the Seanad and I do not need to hear a reply from her, but I ask the Leader to intervene and find out the building start date for the primary care unit in Athlone.
Before raising the issue that concerns me, I wish to comment briefly on the remarks of Senator Fitzgerald and Senator Alex White on caring for the less well off in society. Next year the Government will spend â¬17 billion on social welfare. Fr. Sean Healy of CORI described the social welfare increases in last year's budget as historic. Senator Alex White asserted that there is less equality in this country. The most scientifically based measurement of equality is the Gini coefficient. It is accepted among all economists as the most worthwhile method of assessing equity.
It is because Ireland is a country of opportunity for those who are willing to work hard to provide for themselves. If Senator Alex White wishes to go to Poland or Lithuania, he is most welcome to do so. That is where he will find the most equal economies in the EU.
The issue that concerns me is the recent decision by the NRA not to develop the vast majority of the rest areas along the motorway network. This is a seriously retrograde decision. I call on the Minister for Transport to intervene immediately. The former Minister, Deputy Cullen, intervened in 2005 to get the NRA to provide a plan for fully serviced rest areas with restaurants, petrol stations and so forth along the motorways. There were also plans to provide resting areas for drivers but these have now been abandoned.
France has over 50 years' experience in providing motorways and has the longest motorway network in the world per capita of population. It has a mandatory requirement that a rest area is provided every ten kilometres. The French are aware that driver fatigue causes deaths on their motorways. I urge the Minister to intervene and direct the NRA to rescind its decision and reinstate its plans to provide rest areas along our motorways.
There appears to be cross-party support for a motion calling for the release of Ãngrid Betancourt. I am delighted Senator Fitzgerald and others have raised the issue again. Yesterday, I asked the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House for a debate on prison reform. A sum of â¬14 million has been allocated in the budget for the expansion of the prison building programme, a mere â¬5 million is allocated for social inclusion measures under the remit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and there is no increase in funding for the probation service, which is already hopelessly under-funded as everybody working in the criminal courts knows. It would be useful to have a debate on the purpose served by the prison building programme and additional prison places.
The Leader said yesterday, in the context of the drugs debate, that there is unanimity about the need for tougher measures and mandatory sentences. I do not believe there is. I do not believe mandatory sentences for drug and other offences serve a purpose in terms of rehabilitation. The three young mothers, whose cases were reported yesterday, were sentenced two days ago to long terms of five, four and three years respectively. Had mandatory sentences been imposed they would have been sentenced to ten years each. What purpose does this serve? These are mere couriers; they are low down in the chain. The people at the top of the chain, the drug barons, are not being caught.
We must take a rational approach in any debate on crime, prisons and drugs. Knee-jerk reactions and measures simply do not work. It is not enough to say to people that they must say "No" to drugs. It is similar to asking people to abstain from sex to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. We should look to harm reduction programmes and more measured and rational responses. Senator Boyle said yesterday that the war on drugs in the US is not working. We must have a rational debate on the issue here, particularly in the context of this huge increase in funding for prisons, which is most regrettable.
With regard to the Colombian politician, Inter-Parliamentary Union, IPU, meetings regularly discuss politicians in difficulty in various countries. Some of them, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, are well known but there are other less well known situations. When I was a Deputy I put down a number of parliamentary questions about them on a number of occasions. Would the Leader seek a report on the politicians mentioned at the last IPU meeting to ensure that we add our voice to those of others expressing concern? Sometimes we can do little about some of these situations but we should, as an honest broker, convey our dissatisfaction with ongoing problems in a number of countries, particularly with regard to the politicians. The case being discussed today involves a female politician but across the board there are a number of issues which should be updated and addressed.
Over Christmas many people will spend a great deal of concentrated time in each other's presence. It is a festive occasion and everybody is supposed to be in a happy, festive mood. There will also probably be plenty of alcohol consumed in every house. I wish to raise the issue of domestic violence. On festive occasions, when people are supposedly having a good time, there is a greater opportunity for the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of partners or other family members to occur. I commend the radio advertisements being run at present. They are very sad and poignant. We should continue to debate the issue of how to encourage people to report abuse, how to minimise domestic violence and how to support those who are dealing with its fallout.
I wish to raise an issue that might seem silly but which I believe it is important. Could we have a debate on how we can make Christmas and the long winter nights less lonely for older people? It is a cross-departmental issue but some people appear to fall between the departmental stools. There are many good voluntary workers who operate with Government grants but for the people who are most in need nothing can beat a little human touch from the community. As I said on the Adjournment last night, it might consist of someone lifting the telephone to talk to them once a week. Perhaps we could have a discussion on the loneliness of many people â not only in rural areas but elsewhere, as one can be very lonely in a crowd â and how we can, as individuals, reach out this Christmas to people in our community.
It is timely, after yesterday's budget, for me to renew my plea to the Leader on behalf of non-contributory old-age pensioners and those who will shortly apply for this pension. I propose that we remove the means test for this pension. The bulk of pensioners in this country are on a contributory pension, have a State pension or have private pension schemes. We are talking about approximately 40,000 people. Many people on non-contributory pensions are women who had to leave work owing to the marriage bar, small farmers at subsistence levelââ
ââwho did not come above the radar on tax and PRSI, and people who were duped in the workplace and did not have their cards stamped, to use the old colloquialism, or in other words people whose employers did not pay their PRSI contribution. The majority of people who apply and receive non-contributory old-age pensions are deserving. The cost of administering the means test must at least equal, if not exceed, the amount of money saved. It causes great hardship and pain and is inequitable and unfair. We should salute these older people and remove the means test as a goodwill gesture.
I again issue my plea to the Leader to use his good offices to achieve this. He promised me he would come back with a report on this. I would like to see the up-to-date position. It is a critical issue for many families and many people are involved. This ties in with the remarks of Senator Keaveney, which I second, about lonely and isolated people this Christmas. Many of these are the people I am talking about.
As a member of the Council of Europe, I intend to raise this next week at a meeting of the human rights section. It would be worthwhile to consider sending a delegation from this House to Colombia to meet officials there. We should bear in mind also that this discussion is being broadcast around the world on the Internet. It is possible that someone in the FARC guerilla movement may be listening and may have enough humanity to release this innocent victim.
I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on telecommunications. From the end of February next year the Eircom telemessage service will be discontinued. The operator service has already been discontinued. There has been a reduction in services from Eircom since it was privatised and without consultation with stakeholders or company directors. The telemessage service took over from the old telegram system, which was an excellent service provided to this country over the years, bringing both sad and good news. The telemessage service is quite useful and has often been used by Members of the House. There is now a reliance on Internet services, but many people still require this urgent form of communication. The removal of this service from 29 February next year is a retrograde step.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the services provided by Eircom. Since privatisation there has been a reduction in the roll-out of broadband. In my home in Castlecoote, for example, I cannot get the service most Senators have in their homes and offices. I have broadband in my office in Roscommon town, but in my home in Castlecoote, which is just six miles out, I do not have it.
I am glad my colleague Senator O'Toole raised the matter of the Munster Literature Centre. I, too, received that fine book of poetry and the accompanying letter, which I immediately sent on to the director of the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. The James Joyce Centre is internationally known. We restored the entire building by raising â¬1.5 million through voluntary efforts and we are in negotiations now with Government. A consultants' report has been commissioned, although it is perfectly obvious that what needs to be done is to separate the cost of maintaining the building, which should be a State cost, from the propagation and celebration of the works of James Joyce, for which we are quite capable of raising the money. The support of Senator O'Toole and, I am sure, many other Senators for a proper international literature centre dedicated principally to Joyce, for example, is welcome. I will be send the remarks of Senator O'Toole to Government and to the director of the James Joyce Centre.
I am sorry to have to raise a sad matter but I must inform the House that the young Nigerian woman, Adijat Okusanya, whose case I raised a few days ago, was sent back to Nigeria without any support and with no family. She is 19 years old and arrived in this country at the age of 15. She was halfway through her degree. She arrived back yesterday from Mountjoy police station. She was so traumatised she was taken to hospital. This is something of which we can be thoroughly ashamed if we really believe in human rights.
I also wish to raise the issue of Tallaght Hospital. I believe in centres of excellence and in an efficient service, but I have always allowed certain caveats. One is the efficient delivery of a transport service for people who travel long distances. In addition, certain services should not be closed down until their replacements, which may be more efficient, are in place.
I am concerned at the recent release by the Health Service Executive of a report on the urgent care centre at Tallaght Hospital, which is to replace the existing centre. This is on foot of a report by RKW. However, these consultants were precluded from considering the possibility of two centres, one in Tallaght and one in the Mater Hospital. The report refers to this on numerous occasions. It is obviously something they were concerned about, and they were briefed on this by the paediatric accident and emergency consultants. It is obvious the scope and the terms of reference were narrowed to get the result that was required. The department of geography in Trinity College also suggested that this was the safest method. Therefore, we have a number of expert professional bodies involved with this.
The Government's position is that there will be a service, but it is described as a clinic to deal with coughs, colds, bumps and bruises, and a day-case surgical unit to deal with grommets and other such minor procedures. There is also question of the Tallaght charterââ
I will take up that. When I do, I will emphasise the fact that the Tallaght Hospital charter has been violated. There was a requirement to maintain the training of nurses, but this is not going to happen. There will be a hospital entrance but no hospital behind it.
Will the Leader raise with Government the extraordinary interference by an agent of the Canadian Government in political discourse in this country? I refer to the attempt by an agent of the Canadian Government â whose name I have, but I will not put it on the record as I understand this is improper â to close down the website of GM-Free Ireland. This has been raised in the House of Commons in an early day motion signed by Michael Meacher and 17 other MPs deploring the efforts of this person to shut down websites using the threat of action for defamation, which is interesting given we were dealing with defamation yesterday.
The website referred to the fact that the research of this person was fraudulent, as it was. The fraud consisted of the following. The research group monitored the buying habits of consumers in a supermarket in Canada in their choice of sweetcorn and determined that a certain type of sweetcorn was more popular. It was later found, however, that one type of sweetcorn was sold next to a sign referring to quality sweetcorn while the other was next to a sign that read: "Would you eat wormy sweetcorn?" That is not exactly a level playing field. It was a complete abnegation of all scientific standards. This man is now trying to close down Irish networks that tell the truth about GM food, with interventions by large companies such as Monsanto to deface clear scientific research.
I thank Senators for raising the issue of Ãngrid Betancourt, the leader of the Colombian Green Party. I support the calls made today and by Senator O'Toole informally after yesterday's intervention for an all-party motion on the issue. There is no need to reiterate that her captivity is unacceptable. Its manner and the stance she has taken in Colombia have resonance for our country's experiences.
I welcome Senator O'Toole's contribution regarding the representation by the Munster Literature Centre in respect of the lack of a permanent national literature centre. The MLC is a neighbour of mine on Douglas Street in Cork and I used to work for it. I was glad to receive the letter because it was not a supplication on behalf of the organisation. Rather, it was a call for a national cultural literature infrastructure. As Cork people and institutions tend to do, it pointed out that Cork has taken the cultural lead in this matter.
I welcome yesterday's statements on the budget and the fact that the House was able to have such a debate within one hour of the Minister for Finance sitting down in DÃ¡il Ãireann. It was a valuable exercise and an attempt was made to extend the debate today, although I am surprised by some of the arguments. The budget involves an additional â¬1.7 billion in current expenditure, â¬900 million of which went directly into increased social welfare benefits. The remaining â¬800 million went to the Departments of Health and Children and Education and Science and towards increasing social housing.
Senator Fitzgerald has mentioned two issues of concern for the vulnerable people this budget has failed. Many Senators have discussed how many people struggle due to the failures and shortfalls in the child care subvention scheme. The second issue is people's entitlements to medical cards. Given recent performance, we should have been able to expand medical card eligibility in a proper and meaningful way. Everyone in the medical world has clamoured for it. Through the Leader, I plead with the Government to give the matter further consideration. It can be addressed in the finance Bill.
I agree with Senators' comments on the plight of the Colombian Green Party politician, Ãngrid Betancourt. Before people rush off to Colombia, arrangements should be made for the proposed all-party motion. The Seanad can take the lead and the Lower House will follow. The Minister for Foreign Affairs should pursue the matter with his colleagues at European level in order that we can have a united approach.
The Leader did not mean to mislead the House, as he is concerned about accuracyââ
It is a slight patter. I plead for the Cathaoirleach's indulgence. Perhaps it was inadvertent that the Leader, in his response to my comments on the stagnant housing market, stated that our growth rate is 4.7%. The Government's publication has listed the rate as being 3%.
They say that politics is a cruel trade, and I wish to pay tribute to a former Senator whose work touched on many of the issues raised this morning. I refer to former Senator John Minihan, one of the first people to draw attention to the fact that, by any objective standards, FARC is a fascist organisation.
Some of its remnants are deluded about this, but it is a drug-driven criminal organisation and an enemy of democracy. John Minihan was to the fore in making this clear because FARC was linked to the Provisional IRA's bomb-making technocrats and, in turn, to a journalist with stars in his or her eyes and journalists involved in the Daily Mail's despicable campaign against the Taoiseach.
John Minihan pioneered the campaign for the reform of stamp duty. I congratulate the TÃ¡naiste, Deputy Cowen, on a thoughtful budget. While nothing is perfect, I welcome that he changed his mind. Lord Birkenhead said of Michael Collins that it was great he was loyal to the facts. It has taken the TÃ¡naiste and Minister for Finance some time to come around on the question, but he has been assisted by a number of parties. In particular, much of the Labour Party's policy on stamp duty was visible in the TÃ¡naiste's reforms, as was Fine Gael's input. It is difficult for anyone to change his or her mind. The TÃ¡naiste had set his face against the reform of stamp duty and it took a great deal of guts to be loyal to the economic facts to make the necessary changes in an inequitable tax.
Like myself, the former Senator was no bleeding heart on law and order, but he would support me in supporting Senator Bacik's call for mercy to be shown in the run-up to Christmas to the three unfortunate women picked up recently on drugs charges. She reminded the House of the dangers of hysteria surrounding drug-taking. Speaking as someone who, from time to time, attends AA meetings, I know about substance abuse. There always has been a substance abuse problem in Europe, particularly in Ireland. Recently, I finished reading a long essay on poitÃn distillation and alcoholism in mid-19th century Ireland. It was a widespread problem, not just among the labouring and peasant classes, but also among the bourgeoisie of Dublin. Ether drinking was so widespread among the North's Protestant population that young ladies in every town used to carry rubber devices to breathe it in. There was morphine and opium abuse in late Victorian England.
There has not been a time without substance abuse in Ireland and there is no point in DJs or others getting hysterical about a current upsurge in apparent drug-taking because it has been publicised by the media. It is like the old canard of long ago, that the Swedes committed suicide unlike the Catholic Irish when the former were actually reporting on suicide unlike the latter. We are reporting more on substance abuse.
I appeal to the relevant authorities, the Government and the Opposition to join with the spirit of Senator Bacik's call and to give the unfortunate women a decent Christmas and some class of mercy or compassion. They are only part of a general problem in society, the foot soldiers in a complex matter. Like FARC, the Provisional IRA played a prominent part in the drug culture. Had it not called off its campaign, it would have degenerated like FARC. Remnants of the degeneracy are visible in the recent murder of Paul Quinn.
I join Senator Fitzgerald in her comments on the budget's provisions regarding the less well off. I am disappointed that my learned colleague, Senator Boyle, has taken the Fianna FÃ¡il line hook, line and sinker when he was singing from a different hymn sheet a number of months ago.
I ask the Leader for a debate on the role of the national broadcaster in its public service commitment. I raise this in the context of Cumann LÃºthchleas Gael and its decision to change the schedule of GAA games for the 2008 season. I am concerned that our national sporting organisation is embarking on a route of pay-to-watch television for its matches. I understand it has the right to its self-determination when raising revenue and so on. However, it would be wrong for an abdication of coverage of our Gaelic games.
I support Senator Keaveney's comments on the isolation of the elderly in the community. There are many elderly people in long-stay institutions who are never visited by their relatives, a major contributing factor to institutionalisation. I ruffled feathers when I raised this in the context of long-stay charges. The truth does hurt.
I support Senator Cannon on the proposed decision of the National Roads Authority not to provide rest areas on motorways. We are all aware of the advertisement telling us that if we feel tired when driving we should take a rest. Where? Due to the proposed decision of the NRA one would need to be able to levitate. Perhaps the NRA will provide skyhooks as an aide to levitation. I have never seen a more stupid, ill-thought out concept. This undermines the concept of road safety which has been raised ad nauseam in the House. To have miles of motorway with no rest areas is ludicrous. I ask the Leader to communicate with the Minister for Transport to have this stupid decision reversed.
Senator Alex White could be in trouble for some of what I may say in the Seanad. Will all Members use my first name when referring to me and the same for Senator Alex White? I am not going to say it again and I presume all Members will do what they are told.
I would fully support a motion being tabled on the case of Ãngrid Betancourt.
However, I deeply resent the vested interest reference made about me by Senator O'Toole. I was asked by the President, Mary McAleese, to chair the Gaisce, the President's Award, and get it into the North. I spent three years doing that and I achieved it for the President. She said no one else would have achieved it but me. This was for the peace process. She wanted her award to be available to nationalists and republicans in the North.
When the case of the three Irishmen in Colombia came up, the families of the men asked me to go. I asked the most senior civil servant in the North for his opinion on this. He said, "Mary, for the peace process here it would be good if you went".
It is about my reputation, a Chathaoirligh. I have listened to other Members getting plenty of time.
I went to Colombia seven times at my own expense to look after the human rights of three Irish citizens, their safety in prison and that they would get a fair trail. RTE, reporters from The Irish Times, the late Niall Andrews and David Andrews also went to Colombia.
I am getting passionate about this matter because of being accused of having a vested interest. When I returned from Colombia, many people in Leinster House turned away from me. One of the kindest people to me was the then Senator, Deputy Michael P. Kitt, who put his hand on my shoulder and welcomed me back. I was unpopular in this House but I know I did the right thing for the three Irish citizens.
I twice visited the jockey, Christy McGrath, in prison in the UK at my own expense. I spent over â¬20,000 of my money going to Colombia.
Many Members will not know that when Mary Robinson was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the lack of human rights in Colombia was the highest item on her agenda. The Colombian Government was described to me by the UN in Bogota as bordering on a neo-totalitarian regime. It is as guilty as FARC in its lack of human rights. Colombia has been at civil war for the past 40 years; one side is bad, the other is worse.
If my two colleagues on the other side felt as strongly about Ãngrid Betancourt as I did about the other case, they would go tomorrow and meet the Colombian vice president, Mr. Santos. I met him five times to plead the case for the three Irishmen in prison in Colombia.
The three Irishmen were found guilty in the public trial of helping the FARC. I was at the seven court sessions which lasted over a year and a half. They were found innocent of training the FARC as there was no evidence. The judge who led the caseââ
I wish to respond to some comments made by Members on the other side of the House on yesterday's Budget Statement. Most reasonable people will accept that in the difficult economic circumstances in which we find ourselves, the social welfare provisions were satisfactory. Senator Alex White's comment was dismissive about the green crusade.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government with responsibility for housing, urban renewal and developing areas, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to address the House on sheltered housing for older persons. The National Council on Ageing and Older Persons is holding a conference today in Croke Park. It recently published a report, The Role and Future Development of Supportive Housing for Older Persons in Ireland, making the point that the current provision of sheltered housing for the elderly is insufficient. With the current rate of provision, it estimates only 23 units will be available per 1,000 elderly persons. As a result, many elderly people will remain in long-term care, even though they may not need the high level of care provided by nursing homes. They speak of a need to provide a range of accommodation options for elderly people in rural areas where there is a serious undersupply of accommodation. Will the Leader invite the Minister of State to the House to tell us how he will tackle this issue?
Two more Senators indicated some time ago that they wanted to speak, although the Order of Business has run long over time. There is a Minister of State waiting to come into the House. Against my better judgment, however, I will call the two Senators.
I compliment Senators Frances Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Bacik and others on bringing to our notice the case of Ãngrid Betancourt to which many of us were oblivious. It is worrying to know that the case has existed for five years because there was a brave person who was prepared to speak out against terrorism â as we should all do at all times. Senator Fitzgerald said that often a small act by parliamentarians can achieve major results. No doubt that we have made an impact on, and contributed to, the successful outcome of many of the human rights issues on which we have spoken here in the past ten years.
It is important not to distinguish between the human rights of one person and another. Many of us are hostages both to history and to political expediency. All the great powers have a pecking order for human rights versus national security, issues which are often difficult to reconcile.
When Senator Mary White went to Colombia I praised her as a remarkable lady because she demonstrated courage, independence and generosity of heart by funding that cause out of her own pocket. She monitored the case of the three Irish people held in questionable captivity there and was transparent and open at all times. At the time I compared her with Jimmy Carter who was also prepared to put his head above the parapet. I salute Senator Mary White and urge her to continue, although a human rights activist is always misrepresented.
On the wall of the Listowel Arms Hotel are photographs of a host of great writers, Bryan MacMahon, John B. Keane, Brendan Kennelly and others. I cannot think of any area that has a greater claim to be the literary capital of Ireland than Listowel.
It is a hallmark of democracy to give human rights to those who may not have given them to others. We should stand up for their human rights because it is important for people to have fair trials. People who have been given a nameplate are not always innocent. In many cases they are, but even when they have done something very wrong we must stand up for their human rights.
I support the call for a debate on genetically modified foods. The significant reduction in the amount of food reserves worldwide raises the question of whether the amount of land set aside should continue to be so. Not all genetically modified food is Frankenfood. We need a logical, rational debate on this issue. Producers have used animal husbandry, breeding and seeds and other materials in the natural course of events to improve stock and crops. Genetic modification may be another way of doing this.
It was interesting to see the Opposition nitpicking points in the fine budget then asking what we are doing about local authority housing, given that it controls most local authorities. What is it doing about the problem? Where did it put the money it got?
Many Members asked for an all-party motion on the difficulties of a Green Party leader in Colombia which I fully support and hope to have on the agenda for the leaders' meeting next Tuesday.
I welcome the budget, of which 29% is being spent on health and 31% on social welfare, making 60% on the two areas, on behalf of the underprivileged, senior citizens and those on the margins. For a senior citizen â¬14 is a large sum of money. We on this side of the House never reduced a social welfare payment in our time in government since 1932. I am proud to be the leader of the Fianna FÃ¡il group here, apart from being Leader of the House. By contrast, the parties pontificating here this morning reduced the old age pension from five shillings to four shillings and social welfare recipientsââ
That is where we start from. If one does not know where one comes from one will certainly not know where one is going. That is why the Opposition has been there for 20 years. It is 25 years since Fine Gael had a mandate, of its five leaders in that time, only one got a mandate. We will never forget Garret FitzGerald, between 1983 and 1987.
If the new young Opposition leaders are factual and constructive they will be pushing an open door with me.
Many Senators called for a debate on housing which would be worthwhile. There will be a major housing initiative in February and we will invite the Minister of State with responsibility for this area, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, to the House.
I thank Senator McFadden for raising the issue of the primary care unit in Athlone. I will intervene and do whatever I can about it when I talk to the Minister for Health and Children this afternoon.
There should be an international centre for literature in Dublin. There would be no better place than the north city centre where Senator Norris has spent his life fundraising for the Joyce centre, on which he is to be complimented. I would like to see a centre in the north inner city, on North Great Georges Street or more particularly on Parnell Square if possible, which people can access freely from O'Connell Street. Dublin City Council is involved in a major initiative in the Parnell Square area which I applaud and I look forward to the announcement of it soon.
Senators Cannon and Glynn expressed strong views on the National Roads Authority. It is essential for drivers to be able to avail of rest areas on dual carriageways and motorways. I will pass the Senators' views to the Minister for Transport.
Senators Bacik, Harris and Ã MurchÃº expressed their sentiments about prison reform and substance abuse. Now I know why the song "Come Down from the Mountain Katie Daly" was so popular in the 1960s since hearing Senator Harris speak of the various parts of Ireland in which mountain dew was brewed. I can organise time for a debate on this subject.
Senators Keaveney and Glynn referred to domestic violence, particularly in long-stay institutions, an area in which Senator Glynn has much experience. I will arrange a debate on this matter.
Senator O'Reilly wanted clarification on old age pensions and I am pleased to inform the House that his point was covered in yesterday's budget when an increase of â¬27 in the qualifying adult rate, bringing the level to â¬200 per week, or 94% of the target, has now been reached. This measure will benefit all qualified adults aged 66 and over and will be of special benefit to women who do not have an entitlement to the contributory pension because of home responsibilities, as the Senator has pointed out to the House on many occasions. The Minister went on to add that, when combined with the increase in the personal pension rate, the impact of this measure will be that over 42,000 pensioner couples will see their household incomes increase by up to â¬41 per week, or almost by 11%. The Senator also referred to women under 66 years of age, and I will endeavour to use my influence in that regard, but the news is good regarding part of the Senator's inquiry, on which he has strong views.
Senator Leyden called for an urgent debate on telecommunications, the reduction in services from 29 February 2008 and the roll-out of broadband. I have already committed to a debate in this regard early in the new year.
Senator Norris referred to the report on Tallaght Hospital and I suggest this debate could be held before Christmas if the Independent benches take the matter during Private Members' business next Wednesday. Senators Norris and Hanafin also referred to genetically modified food and I can pass their strong views on to the Minister in that regard.
Senator Coghlan referred to housing with regard to yesterday's budget. The figure given for growth in this sector last year of 4.7% was correct. Projected growth for next year is conservatively estimated at 3%.
This is what parts 1 and 2 of the Celtic tiger achieved in the past ten years and long may it continue. Yesterday's budget was an honest attempt to address the difficult areas of housing the Senator has correctly highlighted to the House. Some houses were overpriced, the market had to level and the Government could not get involved, so this could be the right time to do the right thing, as I always say.
Senator Buttimer called for the roll-out of public services for the national broadcaster of our national games. I hope the day never arrives when the viewer of amateur Irish sports will be asked to pay to watch. We all support the ethos of the Gaelic Athletic Association and believe players should not be paid to play, though they should be given expenses. They deserve the highest quality resources to help keep fit because the greatest gift one can give one's body is fitness. Viewers, those who attend games and those who make these sports want to ensure players have these resources but this House should send a strong message to the GAA that we will not get involved in its affairs. We are all Gaels and want games to be televised on channels that do not charge for viewing.