Thursday, 10 April 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 16, motion No. 32 re the kidnapping and detention of Ms Ingrid Betancourt. It is proposed to take this item at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than one hour from the conclusion of the Order of Business. Senators may speak for seven minutes and may share time, with agreement of the House.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Finance to address this House twice a year on the state of the economy? Since March 2007, an extra 2,000 people in County Wexford are on the dole, which is a large figure. This is the human side of what is going wrong in the economy and it is being replicated throughout the country.
Will the Leader invite the Minister for Health and Children before the House to discuss the issue raised by Senator Fidelma Healy Eames regarding the prevention of cervical cancer? The national cervical cancer screening programme plans to use laboratories abroad rather than invest in laboratories in this country, even though those laboratories abroad could misdiagnose up to 10% of patients. In other words, they could tell 10% more of our patients than our own laboratories that they have cancer when they do not have it and that they do not have cancer when they do. This is a major concern. The Rebecca O'Malley case and what happened in Limerick showed us that we cannot allow this type of situation to develop.
With regard to the Lisbon treaty, when the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Roche, returns to the House I would like him to discuss a particular issue I feel is important. We know the EU treaties have been good from the point of view of business. However, when it comes to civil rights, concerns are raised that the European treaties may not serve people as well. In the Watts judgment, the European Court of Justice stated that an EU patient is entitled to treatment abroad if he or she must wait too long for treatment in his or her home country. My reading of the Lisbon treaty is that this right will now be denied to Irish citizens. It is an extremely important issue if we are introducing a treaty which would deny people their civil rights to some degree. It must be clarified by the Minister of State. If I am misreading it I apologise, but I have a feeling this is exactly what is happening.
The following is an issue which we must discuss in the House. The Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction first sat seven years ago and none of its major recommendations has been implemented. I received a letter sent to a number of GPs throughout the country. It draws attention to a new one-stop service which is described as a quick and efficient one-day service. This is a one-stop service for abortion. The leaflet includes details on the cost of an abortion in the UK. This is perfectly legal. However, we have no legislation to protect any of my patients who want to go for IVF treatment. If any of my patients suffer from a rare genetic disorder and would like to get pre-implantation genetic testing so they can have a normal baby — I am not talking about choosing blue eyes or blonde hair — this is not available. However, I can legally hand out this leaflet offering a one-stop service for abortion in the UK. That is an issue we need to discuss seriously as well as what is going on with the Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction.
I thank the Leader for facilitating a brief debate on Ingrid Betancourt. It is much appreciated and is the way we need to conduct our business more often.
Over the past two days comments have been made about China, the Olympic Games, Tibet and so on. People have strong views and we need to have a debate. I could make a very strong case about a country in which people cannot practice their religion or politics, cannot be a member of a religious group and so on. I could say that sport and politics are not tied together and that we should not have anything to do with it. At the same time I understand the point of view of people such as Senator Quinn and others who have said we should negotiate. We should use the threat of not participating as a lever to negotiate. However, we can do that best in a debate in which people can put their views on the record.
I do not claim to have all the knowledge and wisdom on this issue but I have strong views on it. However, that does not mean other people should not have strong views as well. We need to put our cards on the table on this issue and make it clear that none of us called for a boycott of the Olympic Games. We were discussing the opening ceremony. I would like the Leader to consider such a debate.
On a number of occasions le dhá bhliain anuas, we have raised the issue of na deacrachtaí a bhaineann le hainm An Daingean, Daingean Uí Chúis nó Dingle. Bhíomar den tuaraim go raibh an Aire Comhshaoil, Oidhreachta agus Rialtais Áitiúil, an Teachta Gormley, chun rud éigin a dhéanamh mar gheall ar an tábhar. We need an update on that. I know the Minister is working on it and has been very open to discussion on it. However, we need to know where it is going and a timeframe. People are getting very anxious about the issue.
I attended the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs yesterday at which I co-sponsored with Senator Norris a motion on Tibet calling for dialogue and on which there was unanimous agreement. However, when it came to the issue of a boycott of the Olympic opening ceremony, there was no firm agreement. Some members felt politicians should boycott the ceremony while others called for athletes to be encouraged to boycott it.
I heard the British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown, will not attend the opening ceremony and that the French President, Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, has intimated that he too might not attend. I heard Pat Hickey of the Olympic Council of Ireland on the radio this morning. He is a man for whom I have a great amount of respect and he is vehemently opposed to a boycott by athletes.
People often say this House is not relevant but we need to have a debate on this issue, as the previous speaker said. This issue is very relevant to the people of Ireland and of the world. Will the Leader arrange a debate next week, if possible, on a boycott of the opening ceremony?
This week's The Economist contains a report by the International Monetary Fund on house prices. It states that of all the countries at which it looked, Ireland's houses are the most overvalued by 30%. Many commentators have forecasted that this may lead to a market correction. The number of people getting into difficulty repaying their mortgages is on the increase. One in six people with the mortgage company Start are at least two months in arrears.
I was in London in the 1990s at the time of the property crash there. I saw cases of people having to hand back the keys of their houses because they could not afford the debt in which they found themselves. Will the Leader impress on the Minister that it is vital there is adequate information on debt and restructuring so that if people get into difficulty with their mortgage repayments, they have adequate information?
Today is a wonderful day for this island. It marks the tenth anniversary of peace which was achieved only through the hard work and sacrifice of many people. I read the Taoiseach's article in this morning's newspaper in which he outlined some of the many benefits that have arisen from that peace. It certainly has improved the quality of life of people throughout this island. We now have real power sharing in operation, cross-Border institutions in place and a police force which has the support of everyone in the North. There have been real economic benefits for the people of the North. For instance, in Newry at the height of the Troubles, one in three people did not have a job whereas today 49 out of 50 people are in work. Peace has brought real benefits.
I pay tribute to people such as the Taoiseach for their work in achieving that. At the time, Tony Blair said he felt the hand of history on his shoulder. He was wrong about many things but he was right about that.
On the tenth anniversary of peace in the North, I congratulate the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, on his wonderful work and I also congratulate the previous leaders. We are now reaping the benefits of a united Ireland at peace with itself. We, in this part of the country, played an important part in that. The Taoiseach negotiated that on our behalf and we will be eternally grateful to him in that regard.
Thank you. I congratulate the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Cowen, who has done an outstanding job in the Department of Finance and in the various other Ministries in which he distinguished himself. I thank him for running the country and its finances and for putting us in a strong position to meet any downturn in the economy. I look forward to a debate on the economy as it would be timely. Certain world events affect our economy and it is important we take corrective measures to deal with any issues we may face. We are, however, quite limited in terms of what we can do in regard to interest rates and economic decisions.
Senator Alex White said yesterday that 40% of people hold most of the wealth in this country and he suggested that they be taxed more heavily. Is that a policy of the Labour Party? We have proved that the low taxation system we have encourages people to come here and encourages work. We had a high taxation system which did not work and which we got rid of. The Labour Party would be well-advised to revise its policy on high taxation.
We must take steps to correct the increase in unemployment. Job creation is an important part of this Government's programme. The partnership process has done an outstanding job. The new leader of Fianna Fáil mentioned patriotism in his speech yesterday. We should build on that also. I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to speak on the Order of Business. I do not speak that often in this House and I do not expect to be interrupted by people from the opposite side when I do.
Senator Joe O'Reilly and others called yesterday for a debate on the World Trade Organisation and asked that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food be invited to this House to explain what precisely is going on, what control the Council has over Commissioner Mandelson and implementation of the mandate given to him in the WTO negotiations.
I join in the call for a debate on the economy, which must be an honest debate. It is evident from what Senator Butler had to say that Fianna Fáil and the Government is in denial about the state of the economy just as it is in denial about corruption in Irish politics and corrupt Fianna Fáil Taoisigh.
In the 1980s, former Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, reduced inflation.
That is fine. I use that term because using political office to secure moneys for personal use is, in any western democracy, corruption. I challenge anyone to deny that.
The Government is in denial about the economy. The remarks made this morning prove this. Former Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald reduced inflation during the years 1981 to 1987 from 20.4% to 3.1%.
This was followed by the Tallaght strategy introduced by former Deputy Alan Dukes. We then had, from 1994 to 1997, a Government led by former Deputy John Bruton with Deputy Ruairí Quinn as Minister for Finance. These are facts Fianna Fáil and the Government do not want to face up to. We had growth rates of 8%, on average——
I take the Cathaoirleach's point. I am entitled to establish the basis upon which the debate is needed. Currently, we have a growth rate of 1.8%, the lowest since the 1980s, inflation is at 4.8%, unemployment levels are at their highest in a decade and we have a current account deficit of €10 billion, the highest in the history of the State. We can blame international factors for much of our——
I wish the Taoiseach designate, Deputy Brian Cowen, well in tackling this economic mess as the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, leaves office. It is a mess that contrasts so sharply with the state of the economy when former Taoisigh Dr. Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton left office.
The man referred to by Senator Regan is our Taoiseach and leader of the Fianna Fáil Party. He is the man most responsible for bringing about the Good Friday Agreement. Ten years ago history was made on this island. Now, people from all strands of society can unite in the North of Ireland. Today is a momentous day. People such as John Hume, Senator George Mitchell, General John de Chastelain, the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and young people from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United States of America join together in Belfast today to celebrate the great work done during the past ten years. This and not the nonsense we heard earlier is what we should be speaking about today.
This is a matter for the Order of Business. This House should recognise this major achievement that rightly should be celebrated today and is being celebrated north of the Border. The Taoiseach stated earlier today: "I hope and pray that everyone on this island will forever live in the light that was illuminated on this day ten years ago." Those words are very true and are reflective of the work carried out by the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, during his tenure of office.
I want now to speak about the Olympic Games and the ongoing debate in respect of the protests that have occurred over recent days and weeks. This matter has been referred to by a number of Senators in recent days and rightly so. I did not have an opportunity to speak on the matter yesterday.
I agree with the sentiments expressed by all Senators in recent days. It is regrettable the Olympic rings are being used in this manner. Irish athletes have trained hard and sweated tears and blood over recent years to achieve qualification for the Olympic Games in Beijing. They are entitled to represent their country at the games. No one should ask them not to travel to Beijing and compete for their country.
I agree with the sentiments of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, that we should look at this situation as we do the situation in Northern Ireland. If athletes boycott the opening ceremony, that is a different issue. It is, perhaps, an issue that should be explored by the different Olympic councils.
The International Olympic Council meets tomorrow to examine the matter. I agree with the sentiments of the president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, Mr. Pat Hickey, who stated that Irish athletes will not boycott the games. They have trained hard to achieve the qualifying standard and should represent their country at the games.
I know everyone in this House will echo those words. I strongly disagree with the protestors in calling for athletes not to partake in the games. That is wrong and it is undemocratic.
I begin by rightfully paying tribute to all those involved in the achievement of lasting peace in our country. I include in that remark the current Taoiseach and all former Taoisigh. I remind Members opposite that it was not the Fine Gael Party, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, that went off to Washington ballyragging this country. My party has never played politics with Northern Ireland. It is right this morning we pay tribute to all involved. In particular, we should remember those who died and their families. We all want lasting peace.
I join other Senators in calling for an urgent debate on the Olympic Games. I spoke on this matter in the House earlier in the week. I fundamentally disagree with a boycott of the Olympics. It would be inappropriate for our Ministers, in particular the Minister for Foreign Affairs or the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, to attend them. We must send a strong message to China that we do not agree with its actions, that we are in favour of the protection of human rights and that what has happened to the people of Tibet is wrong but that equally it would be wrong to implicate and threaten our athletes who participate in sport and who, as Senator Ó Domhnaill said, have achieved qualifying times. We should send that message through diplomatic channels.
Senator O'Toole spoke about a Lusmagh revolution on yesterday's Order of Business. This morning I ask the Leader if we would have a Lusmagh revolution in this House by using Standing Orders to invite Professor Drumm of the HSE to appear before it. We need accountability in the management of our health service, which we are not getting. This morning we heard of renewed recruitment freezes, a ban on the use of agency workers and locums and the temporary closures of some of our hospital wards.
I am calling not only for a debate but I am requesting that, under Standing Orders, we invite Professor Drumm to come to the House to take questions and to be held accountable for his actions and those of his board in the operation of the health service.
On the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement we are celebrating the achievement of the impossible. I would not like to think it was a replay of the syndrome as to who was in the GPO in 1916. That is the wrong way to approach this. Senator Butler made a comment regarding a united Ireland. My honest belief is that the people on this island are now united. That was evident when the Reverend Ian Paisley met the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and we all rejoiced in that. It did not matter to which political party one belongs; we are all Irish people, all part of the Irish nation. I believe that in years to come we will mark the Good Friday Agreement, celebrate and commemorate it in exactly the same way as we would have done any other glorious episode in Irish history. That is as it should be.
This House played a major role in the peace process. Every Member contributed. We had an opportunity, in a balanced and democratic way, to express diverse views to ensure there would be a confluence of ideas. That was the idea of the dialogue. It happened in this House, in the North and internationally.
It is vital we realise that the part we played should not in any way be sullied. I hope that after today we will move forward as one people, regardless of our persuasion in terms of religion or political affiliation, because if we do not and if the wheel comes around as it is currently, it will be impossible to reverse attitudes. We have a chance to go forward and if we truly want to salute all the people who are part of that process, the only way we can do it is with magnanimity and generosity.
On the issue of the Olympic Games, I salute what Senators O'Toole and Hannigan said. They gave a new tone to this debate, namely, that there are two points of view. By starting from that base, we have an opportunity to proceed. My view at all times has been that one can be pro-Tibet without being perceived to be anti-China. I salute Senator Norris in this regard. He was a lone voice on Tibet in this House for several years when nobody else spoke on it.
In fairness to Senator Norris, I recall he was consistent and persistent on that issue.
Last night I had the opportunity to host the Chinese ambassador at a function and I had the opportunity to discuss this issue. It struck me that this is what dialogue is about, namely, meeting representatives of the Chinese Republic. I do not regard myself as a major player or figure in Irish politics but when I can meet a representative of China in those circumstances and have a discussion, one can imagine what is happening further up the line. If we in any way detract or distract from that, we will weaken our position and power and we will not help Tibet in the long run.
I agree we should have a balanced and reasoned debate here, at which the Minister for Foreign Affairs should be present. I do not believe that using the Olympic Games is the road to go in terms of boycotting the official opening, official launch or the games. That would be a retrograde step. While it might be an emotional knee-jerk reaction, it would not help Tibet, nor would it help China in what it is currently trying to do in terms of opening up to the rest of world and bringing to bear democracy and full human rights within its country.
Those of us who have been calling for a debate on the Olympic Games have been calling for a debate on whether there should be a political boycott of the opening ceremony, not a boycott of the games or a boycott by athletes.
I renew my request to the Leader to ask the Minister for the Health and Children to come to the House for a debate on alcohol advertising, the issue of the football shirts from premiership clubs and the fact that replica jerseys with alcohol brands displayed across the front of them are still on sale in Irish shops. I raised this issue previously when Liverpool FC was not as much in the headlines as it is this week. I have since been assured by the Irish drinks industry that it operates a voluntary ban here on any alcohol branding on children's jerseys or children's merchandise. That is welcome but unfortunately it does not extend to products manufactured in the UK. I was informed only this week that Celtic and Rangers have stated they will withdraw their alcohol company sponsor from their children's replica kits. This means we should put pressure on the Minister for Health and children to explain why there is not a similar ban in place here. If the industry here will not extend its ban to cover products manufactured in the UK, there should be a legislative remedy. I would like the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to explain to us why that has not yet been done.
I also ask the Leader to arrange for a debate on the issue of childhood vaccinations, which a number of us raised here two days ago. I raise not only the issue of the take-up of the MMR vaccine and the concern many of us have about a measles epidemic, but that a pressing issue for many parents of very young children is the availability of the BCG vaccine. This vaccine protects against tuberculosis, a disease that is on the increase. The vaccination is normally given to babies or infants just after birth in maternity hospitals. There is a problem with the supply of the BCG vaccine with the result that newborn babies are not being inoculated in hospitals. I have been informed that the HSE is doing all it can to ensure every child is getting this vaccination but there is a backlog. The Minister for Health and Children should come to the House to allay the concerns of many parents about the availability of the vaccine and to reassure us that all children will be vaccinated.
The coming days will see the imminent publication of a Green Paper on local government reform and this House should take the first available opportunity to discuss the contents of that document. We should be aware that the need for local government reform is accepted across the political system. The existence of tribunals of inquiry come about in the main because of the existence of corruption in local government, which had been perpetrated by representatives of several political parties. The need to bring about reform in local government is an issue this House must take seriously. I hope such a debate would accept admissions from people involved in several political parties on the chronic planning that has come about as a result of that actual corruption and that it would also address the need to bring about real reform in our local government system.
I join in the acknowledgement today of the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland are vastly different places because of it. In discussing the institutions that sprung from the Agreement, we must accept that it is still a work in progress and that there is still enmity between communities, particularly in the northern part of the island towards which we should be working to bring a solution.
I support the call for a wider debate on the need for, and possibility of, a boycott of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. The awarding of the hosting of the Olympics is an intensely political act. It is given to a host government to show that government and its country in the best possible light. We have had experiences in the past such as the notorious 1936 Olympic Games with Adolph Hitler, and how its opening ceremony was used. We have seen how boycotts have been used for political purposes in the past, when President Jimmy Carter in the United States, seeking to be re-elected, decided not to send American athletes to the Olympics in Moscow in 1980 — and how the Russians replied in kind in 1984. There is a need to look at the Olympic Games in Beijing in a proportionate way to see how international disdain for the activities of the Chinese Government, particularly as regards Tibet, may be best expressed. I call for a debate in this House about appropriate measures such as looking at how the opening ceremony is broadcast and whether we should be encouraging Irish people to participate in it. That would be a good use of the House's time.
I very much share the concern expressed this morning by Senator Twomey regarding the planned outsourcing of cervical smear tests to a laboratory in the United States, when we have three laboratories in particular in this country that have recorded an accuracy rating in this regard of 95%. I am told that this source in the US will not provide greater than 85% accuracy. This is not just a dubious initiative, but nonsensical. At a time of economic downturn here at home, more than 100 highly skilled jobs will be displaced, which are badly needed in Ireland. I look forward to the Leader addressing this and arranging a debate on it, if he can, or providing a satisfactory answer.
With regard to the Daingean Úi Chúis question raised by my colleague, Senator Joe O'Toole, I very much accept that the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Gormley, is a highly considerate man. I know he is paying attention to this but sadly, there is ongoing doubt and confusion because of the many signposts that just say, "An Daingean". The Cathaoirleach's county is at present very much in the news and Daingean in Offaly will become much better known. However, signs in my part of the country that simply mention Daingean or An Daingean are not complete. Dingle is an internationally known brand name——
I, too, want to acknowledge the Taoiseach's role in the peace process on the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Without him we would not have reached this stage of peace. We have talked about many of the stakeholders who were involved in the peace process, but there is no question that without the Taoiseach and his facilitating skills, it would not have happened. It is shameful that people, with no stripes whatsoever, should seek to undermine the Taoiseach's role.
I also support the call for a debate on the Tibet situation. At a meeting yesterday of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs I said that politics and sport should not mix. To boycott the Olympic Games is not the road to go down. It is important to have the Minister here so that a proper debate can take place. We understand that the Dalai Lama is due to visit England, and we have asked that he should visit our Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. It might be a golden opportunity, too, for the Seanad to have a discussion with him, if that were possible.
It is very important we discuss this matter because there are different views. Different views may be held with integrity, but there is no factual question that the Olympic Games and the events surrounding it are intensely political. That is why political leaders from all over the world, who would not know the difference between ju-jitsu and an egg and spoon race, are attending. They will be doing side deals. The Chinese are driving the torch through Tibet. That is rubbing the nose of the oppressed in the dust and grinding it by imperialist aggression.
What we have requested is a boycott by the athletes. We have not demanded, but requested. They should consider, as a matter of conscience, absenting themselves from the formal aspect of the opening ceremony, while going on to compete, of course. We want them to be there to honour us, to compete in this wonderful event. The Dalai Lama has issued a statement this morning in which he says that it is appropriate and right that the Olympic Games should go to Beijing. The Chinese people, whom he honours and respects, deserve this, he says. Protests should be peaceful, he emphasises, but he also says the reason for them is the extinction of freedom of speech in Tibet.
Those who attended the meeting yesterday of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, such as Senators Ormonde and Hannigan, were intensely moved by the story of a young woman, three generations of whose family in Tibet had been tortured and murdered. It is a small thing to ask, a symbolic gesture. I quoted James Joyce who said that sometimes absence is the highest form of presence. By absenting themselves physically a moral point will be made.
Those of a strong nationalist persuasion should be aware that historically, Ireland was the first country to boycott the Olympic Games. In London in 1908 the athletes refused to compete in order to show their horror at the fact that our imperial overlords refused to grant the limited measure, even, of Home Rule. For those reasons we should consider this. A Fianna Fáil Member at yesterday's meeting made a very interesting comparison. He said that putting the torch through Tibet was like Orange bands parading provocatively through Catholic and nationalist areas, and we should remember this.
Senator Ormonde is right in saying that an invitation has been formally extended by the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs to His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. It is something that may be considered. I have certain proposals, which I have communicated to Senator O'Toole, who is our representative on the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. However, I do not want to gazzump the matter. It would be inappropriate to raise particular proposals here before they have passed before the committee.
I want to echo Senator Dan Boyle's comments on the publication of the Green Paper on local government reform, as it is timely for this to happen. In many respects local government has not been given its full potential. Many Governments over the years have added to the role of local government in various items of legislation. However, the time has come for a complete overview of local government and how it addresses the needs of the people it serves, especially with regard to the role of locally elected members. I am excited at the prospect that new town councils will possibly be created. There is a glaring need for this and I very much look forward to it.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the Taoiseach's role in the Good Friday Agreement because I was a Member of this House when it was signed. I recall speaking to the Taoiseach then — it was at the time his mother died. Nevertheless, he was there as the great facilitator and peacemaker, forever active in trying to find the middle ground, as indeed he did. Senator Butler is correct in saying the people of this island are united in their wish for peace.
One of the exciting aspects to being a Member of this House is the variety of professions and walks of life represented here. The composition of the Seanad under the Constitution provides for that.
One very noble profession for which I have a lot of time is the legal profession. It is a profession that ensures due process is afforded to all——
I will not take as long as others and have just one more point to make.
It is a pity a profession that sets itself up as the champion of due process does not wish it to take place. It is a great pity that Senator Regan has used parliamentary privilege as a bunker from which to accuse, in a cowardly way, a person on which the Mahon tribunal or any other tribunal has made no conclusion. He has not the guts to wait until the results of the Mahon tribunal are issued and, in that regard, he has completely sullied the profession he represents.
I reiterate the call for the Minister for Health and Children to be invited to the House to debate the very important matter of organ donation. I am being contacted constantly by one or two people in my county of Westmeath who have first-hand knowledge of what it is like to lose a loved one who could have been saved had there been a different system of organ donation. This is a matter of urgency and I would welcome a debate on it.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to facilitate the consideration of No. 11 on the Order Paper, First Stage of the Consumer Protection (Amendment) Bill 2008. Will the Leader allow for this to enable us to proceed to Second Stage? I would appreciate a response from him on this matter.
I support those seeking dialogue with China, in respect of which we have a very clear template based on the events in eastern Europe. On foot of supporting internal changes in the Soviet Union, the walls eventually came crumbling down and freedom spread throughout eastern Europe and into Russia itself. We should continue to use this template and engage in dialogue to address the many issues that pertain to China, not just in respect of events in Tibet but also Tiananmen Square, and those countries in which China has an influence, including Burma and Sudan. In the south of Sudan, there has been a genocide of the indigenous population. In the east of Sudan, troops are killing their own people. China has significant influence in this region and therefore, through dialogue, we can take great steps forward.
Senator Joe O'Reilly made a very good point on the WTO negotiations involving Commissioner Mandelson. Some aid agencies cannot afford to allocate the same amount of food as last year because of the increasing cost of the commodities involved. The European Union could find itself in disrepute if it starts to decrease production at a time when it needs to increase it significantly. On a nightly basis, we hear country after country is blocking exports of rice and other commodities. The position is becoming quite serious. We are in a position to increase production significantly given that we recently asked the farming community to reduce production. This matter should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
I support Senator Hanafin's remarks on the WTO round of talks, which matter was raised yesterday by Senator O'Reilly. It is very important that we debate this at the earliest date possible. The end is almost nigh in respect of the negotiations and, if we are to proceed as planned by Commissioner Mandelson, Irish agriculture will be wiped out over night. The proposed measures are that serious and draconian and therefore a debate should be held urgently.
I join my colleagues in commending the role played by the Taoiseach in making progress in Northern Ireland. I welcome the fact that we can celebrate the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It is regrettable that the agreement was not reached earlier. The Taoiseach's main skill in respect of Northern Ireland was his ability to bring his own colleagues on side and change the mindset of his own political party and other nationalists on this island such that they would adopt the view that progress could be made only through consent. One should bear in mind what was on offer in 1974 in Sunningdale and recall Seamus Mallon's view that the Good Friday Agreement was "Sunningdale for slow learners". More was on offer in 1974 than was on offer in the Good Friday Agreement. It is a tragedy that 3,000 to 4,000 people died in the interim, thus proving that the political leaders of 1974 were correct.
We must reflect on the progress made in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. The Taoiseach has had outstanding achievements, which I acknowledge fully, but I do not believe one can be in any way proud of his or his party's role in opposing the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In politics we all do things of which we are ashamed, and the Taoiseach, on reflection, must not be pleased with his role and that of his party in 1985.
Debates are requested regularly on the health service, in respect of which Senator Buttimer asked whether it would be possible under Standing Orders to invite Professor Drumm to the House to make his case. When we invite the Minister for Health and Children, she arrives and advises us that health services are a matter for the HSE.
There is grave concern about the future of the hospital in Mallow. While the HSE claims it has increased the budget by 15%, there is now no surgical cover available at the weekend. The very future of the hospital is under threat. These are the substantive matters that we need to discuss, be it with the Minister for Health and Children or Professor Drumm. The buck is being shoved between one and the other and this is very disappointing. Perhaps we could consider Standing Orders to determine whether it is possible to hear a presentation by the person who appears to be making the decisions, namely Professor Drumm.
In deference to the Cathaoirleach's wish that we be brief, I rise only to formally second Senator Ryan's proposition that we consider the Consumer Protection (Amendment) Bill 2008 today.
I welcome the cross-party support for a very urgent and full debate on the most pressing crisis confronting our country at present, the WTO talks.
Again, in deference to the Cathaoirleach, I will focus on just one point, that is, the economy and the current rate of inflation, as referred to by Senator Regan. We find ourselves in a unique position in that the value of goods and services entering our economy is declining because of changes in the exchange rate, yet the inflation rate is increasing. This will set the background for the very difficult environment into which we will all move. While I accept there are many international forces that are not the responsibility of the Government, I believe certain domestic developments that are the responsibility of the Government are contributing to the increase in the rate of inflation. I refer to the performance of certain sectors of our economy. In whatever debate the Leader organises, I ask him to have it focus on this matter. There are measures we can adopt and a new Minister for Finance and Taoiseach should take responsibility in this regard.
I, too, will be brief. I was in Belfast yesterday and it was a joy to walk down streets on which one felt there was a sense of normality. This is a great credit to all the parties involved as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
I welcome the remarks of Senator Bradford that we should acknowledge that no side is always right or wrong. By and large, people have been generous and correct in paying tribute to the Taoiseach on his very important role in Northern Ireland. Everybody in this House has acknowledged this and I have not heard any sniping. I was disappointed to hear a former Member of the House question the undoubtedly heroic contribution of the Taoiseach at the time of his mother's death. An unfortunate remark was made on the airwaves to the effect that the Taoiseach's contribution might have been therapeutic. This remark lacked generosity. Undoubtedly the Taoiseach's contribution at the time in question really demonstrated his statesmanship in this matter.
Briefly, on the subject of the Olympics, it is very important we have this debate. I am disappointed at the comments of the President of the Olympic Council, Mr. Pat Hickey. He got his language wrong. Accusing politicians of hypocrisy ignores the fact that there is a serious issue here. It is right to say sport can transcend conflict but that generally happens when the sport is taking place on neutral ground. It does not easily happen in a country such as China that imprisons people for their religious and political beliefs. As we speak, members of Falun Gong are persecuted and Catholic bishops are missing. This issue must be raised. I do not think it is a matter of boycotting the Olympics but there must be a serious debate about whether the mere presence of our athletes would send out a message of consent.
I remarked before Easter that we might be putting trade considerations ahead of everything — fumbling in a greasy till, as it were. We might do the same thing by engaging in sporting activity in a blasé way without offering any protest. This is an important and complex debate in which there must be respect for different points of view. The issue of concern for human rights must take precedence in our deliberations.
My responses will be short because Ministers are waiting to come into the House. I appreciate the effort they have made at very short notice as the matter was placed on the Order Paper only yesterday morning.
Senators Twomey, Butler, Regan and Donohoe called for the Minister for Finance to give the House an up-to-date report on the economy and the challenges that face it. In addition to peace in Northern Ireland, the success of the present Government has been the economy. Ireland has been transformed in the past ten years. We must recognise the facts. The reason that former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and his party did not get a vote of confidence from the people right up to the present was because their policies were opposite to those of today's Government. Income tax of 65%, a 2% health levy and another 1% on something else meant that we were paying 68% on incomes during that period. Facts are appreciated by everyone. Members who state statistics to the House should offer the entire body of statistics. I have great pleasure in allocating a half-day of debate on the economy, examining where we have come from and where the Minister sees our direction to be.
I take any matter that Senator Twomey has requested of me since I became Leader of this House. We have worked closely together in the Dáil. I will be guided by the leaders of the House and will discuss with them at the weekly meeting on Tuesday whether we should wait for the new Minister for Finance to come in three weeks' time or whether we should take a report from the Tánaiste and existing Minister for Finance.
Senators Twomey, Buttimer, Bacik, Coghlan, Ormonde, Glynn and Bradford raised various issues concerning the Health Service Executive and the health services. I am pleased to inform the House, as I did yesterday, that the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, will be in the House on Tuesday, 22 April. All issues regarding health and the HSE may be taken on that day.
Senators O'Reilly, Regan, Hanafin, Bradford and, most particularly, Senator Carty, who has been discussing the matter with me weekly, called for an urgent debate about the proposals of the World Trade Organisation, WTO, and every other matter concerning Commissioner Peter Mandelson. I am pleased to inform the House that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Mary Coughlan, will be in the House next week to deal with this issue.
Senators O'Toole, Norris, Ó Murchú, Ormonde, Boyle and Mullen asked for an urgent debate on Tibet. I have no difficulty with this issue and will try to make an appointment with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, at the earliest possible time.
Senator O'Toole and Senator Coghlan called on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, to give an up-to-date clarification on the naming issue of Dingle-Daingean Uí Chúis. I know Senator Coghlan has been closely allied with Deputy Healy Rae on this matter. I notice great interest among Deputies and Senators from Kerry in this regard, even those now living elsewhere. We all want to see the issue addressed. I will try to have this done at the earliest time possible.
Senators Hannigan, Ó Domhnaill, Ó Murchú, Boyle and many others expressed their concerns about the situation in China. I will take the debate on Tibet which will address those requests.
Senator Hannigan raised the matter of house prices. These have been substantially reduced offering much relief to the first-time house buyer. I sympathise with such buyers. We were all in that category at one time. It is a serious challenge for a person to part with in excess of 30% of his or her weekly disposable income to pay for a home. The Irish have been excellent in this regard.
Prices are now nearing the bottom end. Recently I quoted a house price from the midlands, offering a brand new, semi-detached, three-bedroomed house with everything in place for €195,000. I can now recount to the House that in many larger towns such as Mullingar, Athlone or Tullamore, it is possible to get a four-bedroomed, semi-detached house with fitted kitchen for €260,000. Now is the right time to buy.
We have a duty to tell first-time house buyers, young couples with no previous experience, that there is unbelievable value in the marketplace today. It will not last forever. It is never the wrong time to do the right thing. I offer the House the benefit of my experience and my opinion which is all any Member can do. I will remind the House, perhaps in 12 or 18 months, when prices have again increased by 25% or 30%, that they were told this by the Leader of the House on this historic day, the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Senators Hannigan, Ó Domhnaill, Buttimer, Ó Murchú, Butler, Boyle, Ormonde, Bradford, Mullen and indeed all Senators present this morning wish to congratulate everyone who has brought this date into being. Every party played a part and we all acknowledge that. Every person on this island has brought the situation to where it stands today. The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Senator George Mitchell, President Bill Clinton and the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, made a magnificent effort to bring us to where we are now.
I am really proud of the Taoiseach's achievements. As Senator Ormonde remarked, there are few people who would have worked in the morning on Holy Thursday, come down south for their mother's funeral, gone back and worked through the night. According to the Taoiseach's account, a 22-part shopping list arrived on the table at 5 a.m. on Good Friday morning. When the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam, became disappointed at that late stage the Taoiseach said that the items on the list must be addressed. They sat down and three and a half hours later they were addressed. That determination and ability must be recognised. It was done by one of our own. Let us give credit where it is due.
I can tell the House that when we examine our family trees, we know who was who when the call was made. It is not necessary to go back as far as the grandparents to find out who was on the right side or the wrong side. We were all on the same side.
Senators Boyle and Glynn called for a debate on local government reform. I agree with this. There will be time allocated for it. The new town councils are long overdue for towns like Mullingar with a population of 23,000 or 24,000. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The Chairman of the Green Party is a Member of this House and its Deputy Leader. I wish him well this weekend at his party's Ard-Fheis and look forward to taking this matter in the House at the earliest possible opportunity.
Senator Glynn called for a debate on the legal profession. Many of us here would like to participate in that and acknowledge the great contribution the legal profession has made down through the years since the setting up of the State in 1921. We have strong views on certain matters in this regard, but it has made an immeasurable contribution and I put that on the record of the House.
Senator Glynn also called again for a debate on organ donation. I already made a commitment on this yesterday and have no difficulty in allowing time for it.
Senator Ryan proposed an amendment to the Order of Business. I am prepared to accept this amendment and to allow it to proceed.