Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on the rural development programme 2007 — 2013. It is proposed to take No. 1 at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 5.45 p.m., if not previously concluded. Spokespersons may speak for 12 minutes and all other Senators may speak for seven minutes, and Senators may share time by agreement of the House.
There is none this week. Much legislation has been promised — I will refer to some of it in a moment — but why are Ministers not producing it this term? Last week we also asked for debates on the economy, equality and the decision to abolish Combat Poverty. I am very disappointed none of those is on the Seanad programme this week.
I express condolences to the family and fiancée of Shane Geoghegan, who was brutally murdered in Limerick. It is horrific that a young man walking home from watching a rugby match in his friend's house had his life ended in such a tragic and cruel way. I express the sympathy of this side of the House to his family and his fiancée.
There have been 127 gangland murders in 11 years, with just 14 convictions. It seems there is little deterrent to gangland crime in this country. Why can other countries manage gangland crime but we cannot do so? When I hear the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform say there are enough resources and the Garda has assured him of this, I must ask why there are no convictions and where is the plan from Government. Such a plan is needed. I urge the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come to the House to explain why the new anti-gangland legislation under the Criminal Justice Act 2006 is still not being enforced. Why is it that no one has been charged with directing gangland activity? What is going on? This House needs explanations as to why there is the feeling and belief — and the evidence to prove it — that these gangs are out of control. The ordinary citizen feels there is no plan to tackle what is happening. That is a dreadful feeling for any citizen, especially the people of Limerick. We are planning for the regeneration of Limerick but on the other hand we have this appalling violence, which has to be tackled. I urge the Leader to arrange a debate in this House. We have spoken about it previously and very strong views were expressed. There is a consensus that tough action needs to be taken. Let us have a debate on the subject and see what people have to say.
It is extremely discouraging, disappointing and saddening for women and their families to see the withdrawal of the cervical cancer vaccine, which we know would save at least 100 lives in the near future. I urge the Government to re-examine the finances in the Department of Health and Children to see if €10 million can be found to save lives. I referred to the need for a plan to tackle crime but we know that if we introduce this vaccine we will save 100 lives. I urge the Minister to reconsider the decision she has made to withdraw the vaccine.
I reiterate what Senator Fitzgerald said and not just on the substantive issues which she addressed. I do not know what has happened to that very old fashioned idea that the Houses of the Oireachtas are here to introduce legislation. We deserve an explanation for the fact that today, tomorrow and Thursday we are simply going to produce statements on issues that have been picked out of the ground. I do not understand why there is no legislation because Senator Regan has proposed two Bills and the Independents have virtually a Bill each. Senator Bacik has been inquiring about her Bill on climate change. Senator Ryan from the Labour Party has a Bill also. I do not understand why we cannot discuss those Bills if the Government has nothing to offer. The Independents and the Opposition have more legislation on the Order Paper than the Government. That is a terrible indictment of a lack of ideas or initiative. Everything is not right with the country and there has to be legislation. We deserve an explanation for why it is not being entered into the House.
A pretty big industrial relations crisis is about to break in Aer Lingus. Before the Leader of the House says that is a private company and it is not for discussion in this House, I remind him that the Government holds a 25% stake in Aer Lingus, so the matter is relevant to us all. An extraordinary contradiction exists on top of that, which must beg the question of whether the Government should sell its stake in Aer Lingus. In the budget the Government put a €10 charge on people leaving the country and that has a very bad effect on airline companies. One might ask who cares, but the Government is conflicted in this area because that is devaluing its 25% asset at the same time. What we should debate is whether the Government has any business being in the airline industry any more when it is taking measures to damage that industry.
I do not see anything specifically relevant on today's Order Paper, or any particular reason why we should be meeting, apart from blowing hot air at issues that will go away after we have blown the air. If we want to be relevant why do we not discuss a vital issue that was addressed in the Sunday Independent and other newspapers at the weekend? Apparently the IDA has issued a survey showing that 50% of the multinationals in Ireland believe they would not locate here if they were to decide on doing so again. They regret their decisions. This is a sword of Damocles hanging over the economy. If those multinationals withdraw, or if others do not come in, the economy we have at present will look like a paradise in ten years.
I, too, express my sympathy to the family of Shane Geoghegan following his really shocking murder in Limerick at the weekend.
I support what has been said on the extraordinary absence of Government legislation in the House. Senator Ross is correct about this. We have debates on efficiency and relevance in respect of the public service and apparently the debate is bubbling away. Members have asked whether we should spend time considering efficiency in the public service but it may not be long before eyes start looking at this wing of the public service and deciding whether it is up to scratch in terms of its contribution. It is really extraordinary that, week in, week out, not a single Bill is brought forward. This draws attention to the debate on the efficiency and relevance of this House. We are to have statements on a number of issues this week but we do not have any opportunity to debate the issues that Members on this side of the House have been raising and on which they have been asking for a debate.
The Leader told us we were to have a rolling debate on the economy. When will it start rolling? It has not happened yet. There is a very considerable debate taking place outside the Houses on whether the banks require capitalisation. It is taking place everywhere except in the Parliament of the people. Why can we not have scrutiny in the House and debate the various arguments for and against capitalisation? It seems the banking policy rests entirely on the guarantee that was given. The remainder of the policy is a matter of keeping one's head down and hoping for the best. This is a fair definition of our national policy on the crisis that everybody else in the world recognises. We appear to believe it does not exist.
In the interest of being relevant, let me repeat Senator Fitzgerald's remarks on the importance of inviting the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House to justify the rationale behind the reduction in the budgets for the Equality Authority of Ireland and the Irish Human Rights Commission. The Senator also referred to the Combat Poverty Agency and I support her in this regard. Although we are told there is an economic crisis up to which everybody must face, and that the reason for the cuts in the agencies is the financial circumstances, I wonder, in light of today's report in The Irish Times by Carol Coulter, whether the real reason for the cuts has less to do with the need to make savings, necessary as they may be in the eyes of the Government, than with the fact that a great majority of the cases being brought forward by the Equality Authority of Ireland by various third parties are against State agencies. Will the Leader ask the Minister to state whether Ms Coulter is correct in concluding that the activity on the part of the Equality Authority has been an irritant to civil servants, and the opportunity afforded by the Budget was grasped by the Government to achieve something it might otherwise have wished to achieve anyway.
It is fine to have a debate with the Minister on the Criminal Assets Bureau, which is a vitally important body, but the report is on the record. The Minister might regard developments in this regard as good news and an achievement, which they are in many ways, but he does not seem to be willing to discuss issues within his remit that may be more controversial, such as the considerable reduction in the budgets for these vital agencies.
Will the Leader state whether the first meeting of Dáil Éireann, which took place on 21 January 1919 in the Mansion House, will be commemorated? It was a most important meeting and the Irish declaration of independence was made on that day.
This week, a great ceremony took place to commemorate the end of the First World War, the war to end all wars, but our forefathers had to fight on for another few years to gain freedom and our right to govern ourselves. I believe some ceremony should take place to commemorate the courage and vision of the Members of the first Dáil because without them we would probably not be sitting here today.
I add my words of support to the remarks of Senator Fitzgerald, especially in regard to the brutal and horrific slaying of the innocent Shane Geoghegan in Limerick. Will the Leader report to this House on the decisions and actions decided upon as a result of the meeting today between the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and the Garda Commissioner in respect of the matter?
As we all sadly witness, gangland crime is growing rather than shrinking in this country. These criminals are known. How is it that they have such ready access to guns and other weapons of destruction? If we cannot intern them, even though they are known, there should at least be very strict monitoring. I wish to hear from the Leader on this. Can we not avail of electronic surveillance or necessary wiretaps? We have asked these questions before but in the light of this most horrific murder we are forced to ask them again. I wish to hear urgently from the Leader.
There is to be a significant programme of regeneration in Limerick and I know the city needs it badly. However, we hear that some of the crime families there are insisting on certain matters in regard to this and are being widely consulted. I do not say that citizens and groups should not be consulted but there is something rotten here when, sadly, despite all the resources so far put in, the emergency response unit and other sections of the Garda——
I appreciate that but my request is that the Leader address the House on this matter because he is the conduit between the Seanad and the Government. The House deserves to hear from the Leader on the up-to-date information that I presume he has.
I strongly support what Senator Fitzgerald said concerning the shooting in Limerick. Sometimes it seems that the city's great anthem, "Alone It Stands", applies to that city. This is not only Limerick's problem but is Dublin's and Cork's problem too. I was very impressed yesterday by the powerful performance of Deputy Michael Noonan who put his finger on the central problem. He said that it was not now a matter of getting convictions after crime but of getting people before the crime is committed.
That means a significant shift in our criminal jurisprudence system. I would like to get through one debate without having people talk about knee-jerk reactions. There is nothing knee-jerk about what has been going on among the public since Veronica Guerin was shot dead. That amounts to almost 20 years of cold fury on the part of the people and still these gangs do their dirty work.
I am not one who advocates wholesale internment but I advocate that we look at the criminal jurisprudence system. It was set up, rightly, by jurors and lawyers who wished to protect citizens from despotism and tyrants. However, this is a social democratic state. No tyrants and despots oppress us other than these gangs. Now the citizens need protection from these gangs and there must be a shift in criminal jurisprudence. The most important point is that the courts seem unwilling to take the word of a superintendent of the police. That voice is the most effective weapon to use to put them away because it treats them as the IRA was treated. If that is done, we should then move legally, using lawyers, and appoint prosecuting magistrates as the French and Italians do. They should be properly trained lawyers armed with the considerable powers that are now on the Statute Book, who would go in and take these gangs out. The courts might then at least have respect for the word of the police superintendent. If a prosecuting magistrate, a trained lawyer, states to a judge that he or she believes a person habitually hangs around with members of gangs and men who have murdered people, the person in question should be selectively interned. We may not like to use the word "interned" but such persons should be taken off the streets indefinitely or for as long as it takes for them to learn their lesson. This would cut out the cat and mouse act. The message the Houses of the Oireachtas should send today is that the murder of Mr. Geoghegan is not just one more crime. We must signal to his unfortunate family and the people of Limerick that alone they do not stand.
I concur with colleagues who pointed out that the House will deal only with statements this week. However, the situation is even worse than we imagined because we did exactly the same thing last week. On Tuesday, 4 November, the only business in the House was statements on broadcasting standards. On Wednesday, 5 November, we had statements on medical cards for those aged over 70 years and HIQA, while on Thursday, 6 November, we managed to discuss a little scrap of legislation which lasted until close to lunch time. That was the week's business in the House. This week, the House will have statements on rural development today, statements on the fishing industry and the Criminal Assets Bureau tomorrow and statements on radon protection measures on Thursday. If this continues, I will be forced to join the ranks of those who call for the abolition of Seanad Éireann because it is an utter waste of time. It is idiotic for the House to have disputes about whether we can have time on the Order of Business when the House is doing nothing else. Surely we should extend the Order of Business and deal with a few issues of relevance to people.
I am glad that one of my colleagues made a glancing reference to the fact that today marks the 90th anniversary of the armistice in the First World War. I pay tribute to this Government for at last starting to face up to the reality of what took place and the large number of Irish people who were involved in the war. Some 58,000 Irish people died in the First World War, more than the number of casualties suffered by the United States of America, but we refused to countenance this and allowed the memorial at Islandbridge to sink into decrepitude. I have just spoken to the former Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, Reverend Victor Griffin, who told me that he received death threats in the 1970s and he and his wife were given police protection because he permitted a service of commemoration to be held in the cathedral. The walls of the cathedral and deanery were also daubed with the slogan, "Brits Out". I welcome the fact that the situation has moved on and that the House played a role in rectifying the true injustice perpetrated against those unfortunate people, of whom a proportionately greater number were Irish, who, suffering shell shock, were shot at dawn.
I agree with Senator Alex White's comments regarding the Equality Authority and Human Rights Commission. For several weeks, I have been raising this astonishing issue, which has been taken up by Carl O'Brien in The Irish Times. In a magisterial article published in the same newspaper today Carol Coulter makes perfectly clear that these two bodies are being specifically targeted in a vicious manner by the Government. As is perfectly clear from the figures, this is being done to muzzle them precisely because they spoke out. For example, funding for the Human Rights Commission has been reduced by 24%, while the budget of the Equality Authority has been cut by 43%. Why?
We are entitled to know the facts. I ask for an immediate debate on this issue. According to Ms Coulter's report, Departments, State agencies, local authorities and educational institutions made up 54% of the case files under the Equal Status Acts in 2005, 60% in 2006 and 69% in 2007. The Equality Authority is the only body within the remit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform which is listed for decentralisation. This will result in a massive loss of professional expertise because, to put the best complexion on the matter, we will have 30 people in Roscrea, none of whom will have expertise in the equality area, and a handful of others left stranded in Dublin.
We are also neutering and spancilling the Human Rights Commission, which was established on a statutory basis as part of the Good Friday Agreement, under which it should be of equal strength to its counterpart in the North. It is quite clear why this is so and one good reason is that they came out with a report on rendition and the use of Shannon Airport.
I join my colleagues who condemned the appalling cold-blooded murder of Mr. Shane Geoghegan in Limerick. I know other Senators have spoken passionately, but as regards gangland crime I have no problem with the reintroduction of the Special Criminal Court. I know it is a serious step but it appears that a certain element involved in the drugs trade has no respect for jurors. Most people who serve on juries are afraid of their lives in carrying out their functions as jurors, which is a civic duty. Witnesses are being intimidated and this is an ongoing situation that requires desperate measures to be taken. We need a debate on this, but we should look seriously at the reintroduction of the Special Criminal Court in this regard on a two-year or three-year trial basis, however drastic it may be. I remind the House that when the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Michael McDowell introduced strong legislation in this regard in the previous Dáil, the Official Report shows that some Deputies had serious reservations. I am concerned that people start crying out when these things happen.
I pay tribute to those involved in the significant drugs haul that occurred last week in my neck of the woods, Castletownbere. This is the second huge haul within 18 months. I accept that in the first case in Dunlough Bay, it was probably more through accident than design that the haul of drugs was intercepted. I have said repeatedly during my time in the Oireachtas and before that as a councillor that drug importation using coastlines such as west Cork is an ongoing scenario. These drug barons are so daring that they are prepared to bring tonnes of cocaine 3,000 or 4,000 miles across the Atlantic to land on our coastline because up to now we did not have the resources to deal with the problem.
I must compliment the people involved in this instance, where lives were put at risk. The Garda, the Naval Service and Customs and Excise were working with this new group in Lisbon in an effort to stymie the importation of drugs, which were most likely destined for the British and European markets. Fair play to all concerned. It was a major initiative and by now the message may have gone out internationally to the effect that the people in Ireland along the coastline are no longer asleep. Congratulations to all concerned. I have often criticised the Naval Service and the Garda but in this instance a superb job has been done. I hope it sends a message to the international drug lords in South America and elsewhere that we are not putting up with this situation any longer.
This could be the beginning because the situation in Limerick, with due respect to the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Fitzgerald, is related to drugs. We must acknowledge the success of the Garda and all those concerned in the magnificent haul at Castletownbere, which occurred in most difficult sea conditions where the swell was as high as the roof of this Chamber, to give the House some idea what the Naval Service and those who went out on ribs to board the drug-laden yacht had to contend with. One of the ribs was severely damaged. They risked their lives to stop the importation of drugs and this House must respect and acknowledge that.
I join in the condemnation of the killing of an innocent man, Mr. Shane Geoghegan, in Limerick. The reality is that it is only when someone innocent is killed as a result of gangland criminality that there is an expression of outrage and demands for action. The reality is——
I join Senators Fitzgerald, Harris and others in condemning the killing of Mr. Shane Geoghegan in Limerick, who was an innocent man. There is an attitude of "Good riddance" when people are killed who are involved in inter-gang warfare, and it has not been taken as seriously by the police, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or successive Ministers. Deputy Willie O'Dea referred to a need for new legislation on the right to silence; this matter has nothing to do with such an issue. Deputy Michael Noonan, as Senator Harris stated, put his finger on it when he said, "It is an issue of detection and prosecution", and that is where the Government has failed in tackling gangland crime.
One problem in prosecution and conviction is intimidation, and that is where the question of non-jury trials must be considered. We should have a debate on this specific issue. There was a debate and a resolution from this side of the House last year on the matter of tackling gangland crime, and we were told by the then Minister that everything was in place and action was being taken. In the light of this killing, the Minister should come into the House and outline the strategy he is purportedly following to tackle this scourge. Regarding the visit of President Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic — which is welcomed by everyone in Ireland — there is an article in The Irish Times today about whether he breached protocol in meeting Mr. Declan Ganley, but we are not raising any issues in that regard. Open and transparent discussion is necessary on these issues. When he says the Taoiseach is in no hurry to find a solution on the Lisbon treaty, I am not sure he is correct or that I would formulate it in that way. On the issue of the Lisbon treaty, there is no doubt the Taoiseach and Government are playing for time, as they are with the economy, the public finances, reform of the public sector and the recapitalisation of Irish banks. The reality is that time is running out on all of these issues, and there is a time for decisions and a time for leadership.
Senator Ross mentioned a survey of multinationals in this country. Whatever decisions they took in the past, what is really important is the decisions they take today, and unless there is clear leadership from the Government on the fundamental economic issues and on the Lisbon treaty, I would be fearful of the type of decision the multinationals based in Ireland might make in the future.
I refer to the comments made by a number of Senators on the Equality Authority and the Human Right's Commission, and I agree with Senator Norris that we could have a useful debate on this matter. I hold a contrary view to his but, nonetheless, it would be equally valid. We have built up and industry, not just in Ireland but internationally, around the question of human rights and equality. Unfortunately, many of those organisations have been taken over by sectional interests to pursue their own agenda. I was alarmed to learn of some of the salaries paid to people involved in these organisations in this country, and it was definitely time to cry halt in that regard. It is those in these Houses who should articulate and be the champions of human rights and equality. This is where it should be done. We should not pay significant amounts of taxpayers' money to bodies that are not accountable to the State.
I join those Senators who sympathised with the family of Shane Geoghegan. His murder was an appalling and horrific crime but, unfortunately, it is only another in a catalogue of such crimes, going back many decades. I spoke about this issue in the House previously, when I spoke after the murder of Brian Fitzgerald in Limerick, who put his personal safety at risk to protect a premises where he was employed from being invaded by drug pushers. He paid with his life as a consequence, a young man with a family. Similarly, the late Shane Geoghegan had his whole life to look forward to, but that life has been snubbed out while he was still in the prime of life. This is unacceptable.
I recall debates we had in this House following previous murders, when many people were more concerned about the human rights of the perpetrators of the crime and of similar type crimes than of the victims and their families. The time has come for a clear review of where we stand on these issues. The time has come too, as Senator O'Donovan proposed, for us to consider having non-jury courts, like the Special Criminal Court used in the past to deal with situations felt to be a threat to the State. It is time to take the issue in hand and pursue such measures for a period of two or three years, as suggested by Senator O'Donovan. We should monitor closely how such courts work to ensure the innocent do not suffer. We need to take strong action on these horrific crimes, particularly those against innocent people. Human life is inviolate. I would like a debate in the House along those lines.
I join other Senators in deploring the recent murder in Limerick. It demonstrates that when we can only achieve a conviction in one out of every six murder cases, the current approach does not work. While I would not go as far as some other Senators have suggested, I wonder whether it is time to introduce a witness protection Bill and to put a witness protection scheme on a statutory footing. The Garda introduced a programme ten years ago, but although it is well intentioned, it clearly does not do the job. This is the view of the Court of Criminal Appeal and the Supreme Court has concerns about the programme.
America introduced a witness protection programme in 1970. Since then, 10,000 people have been convicted of crimes. A witness protection programme could work, therefore, if introduced. When we tried to introduce a witness protection Bill last year in this House, the Minister at the time said he and the Garda Commissioner felt it was not appropriate then. Will the Leader ask the Minister to speak to the Garda Commissioner to ascertain if it would be appropriate now?
Will the Leader indicate whether it would be possible to have a debate on the national spatial strategy? I am interested in particular in the gateway innovation fund, which was announced some years ago. I know that in this time of scarcity it is not possible to proceed at the pace initially planned or foreseen. However, in the context of the nine gateways and the planning that went into applying for funding under that fund, it would be prudent for the various Departments to indicate the projects that will be acceptable under the gateway innovation fund and the level of commitment that may be given over a period of years as resources become more freely available.
The budget for the undergraduate nursing education programme nationally is administered by the HSE. In that context, we need an urgent debate on the HSE. Recently, as part of its savings and adjustments, it has decided to reduce by 310 the number of nursing places around the country. To my extreme disappointment, it seems the north west is to suffer the most discrimination. St. Angela's College, which is the only constituent colleague of the National University of Ireland north of the line between Dublin and Galway, will suffer a 30% reduction in nursing places, whereas Trinity College Dublin's courses will be reduced by a mere 6.4%. The reduction in TCD's numbers will have an insignificant impact given the overall number of students at the college but the impact will be much more severe at St. Angela's. I am informed that people working within the Health Service Executive made the determination on where savings would be made and which colleges would be most affected.
As the Leader will be aware, I have a particular problem when it comes to discrimination against the people of the north-west region and, in line with my commitment las week and previous weeks, I ask him for a formal response to the failure of the national cancer screening service to roll out services in the north west. I remind the Leader of the contempt shown by the chief executive of the service in the comments he made to the Joint Committee on Health and Children. I ask the Leader to come back with a formal response in that regard and, while it is not my intention to bore my colleagues, I make no apologies for representing the people of the north west to the best of my ability.
Unlike previous speakers, I blame the Government rather than this House for the lack of legislation before us. It is the Government's job to bring forward legislation. I ask the Leader whether the Government plans to amend the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924 in light of the Green Party's targeting of civil servants.
I join others in condemning the killing of innocent Shane Geoghegan in Limerick. I support Senator Harris in calling for a debate on our penal system because prison must mean prison. We can no longer allow criminal warlords to organise their troops from inside jails. According to media reports, mobile telephones, Internet scams, bazookas and all sorts of things are being ordered or arranged from within prisons. It is time that we held a proper debate on what prison means in this country and we have to send a strong message to thugs whose only interest is self-preservation. They do not care about ordinary human beings who do not deal in drugs or intimidate witnesses and jurors. We have to get serious. We have had 11 years of successive Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. When are we going to see reforms that stand on the side of ordinary people by ensuring violence and murder bring life imprisonment without parole? Today in Limerick, a young family is bereaved. This is not a statistic. Have we become immune to this? I call for a debate on civil liberties because I want this House to send a message to the thugs that their time is up and we are going to get them. I do not care if it is unparliamentary or not politically correct to say this but the murders have to be stopped.
The Irish Foster Care Association held its conference recently. I have great admiration for this organisation, which comprises generous people and families who give good homes and an atmosphere of love and caring to children who would not otherwise have happy childhoods. I ask the Leader whether time could be put aside for a debate on this important issue.
During my time as spokesperson for health and children, I raised ad nauseam the issue of diabetes types I and II. We must take our hats off to the Diabetes Federation of Ireland, which is making major efforts to heighten public awareness of diabetic suffering. Regrettably, I cannot be at Bloomfield House Hotel, Mullingar, tonight but an information seminar will take place. It is not concentrated in Mullingar. From time to time the federation moves these seminars around the country. We must take our hats off and offer sincere thanks to the federation.
Regarding the murder of Shane Geoghegan, it is time we told the do-gooders to keep quiet and the silent majority to speak up for the Shane Geoghegans of this world. He was taken away from his family at a young age. It is time we got tough with the rough.
I am grateful for the time. Like every Member who has spoken today, I condemn the dreadful murder of Shane Geoghegan in Limerick and extend sympathies to his bereaved family. It is time we had a debate on how best to deal with gangland murder. The focus on sanctions and trial processes is not the most effective response for the victims of this appalling crime. We would be better placed examining investigation, detection and how best to reassure potential witnesses. In catching people and ensuring they are convicted of crimes, it is crucial that evidence can be gathered. Before any case goes to court, it is important that the Garda Síochána has the ability to gather evidence. Chief among the tasks of the Garda Síochána is to reassure potential witnesses that they will not be intimidated and will be protected if they come forward and give the evidence necessary to prosecute and convict people.
The Special Criminal Court is used for organised crime. It can be used because the Director of Public Prosecutions has the power to refer all sorts of crimes for trial before that non-jury court. We already have extensive severe penalties. We brought in such penalties, mandatory minimum sentences, in 2006 in respect of firearms offences. We must examine witness protection programmes and reassurance for potential witnesses. These are the key areas in terms of effective prevention of this sort of appalling crime.
I seek a debate on the Climate Protection Bill, which I have sought a number of times. I renew my call given the absence of other legislation in the House.
I add my voice to the voices of others, calling for an urgent debate on the future of the Equality Authority. I do not agree that this authority is part of some human rights industry. One can examine the very human cases the authority has supported, such as the Christian Brother in his 70s, who last week won his claim of age discrimination against a car hire company, thereby changing policies on car hire for older people. We see the real people who are being helped by the Equality Authority and who will miss the authority in its watered down form.
There is a question as to why it has been singled out in this way. That must be answered. We need a debate in the House and the Minister should answer us why he is watering down the protections offered to ordinary people by the authority in this way.
The sheer revulsion expressed by Members at the hideous and horrible murder of Shane Geoghegan demands an appropriate response from this House, and that it comes speedily. I sense a degree of consensus, although people have articulated viewpoints from different sides of the debate. The consensus I see is that there is intimidation at play, with regard to witnesses and trials and in terms of whole communities in this country. While that exists, the onus is on us as public representatives to articulate different ways we can overcome these problems. In the political debate and in the context of economic crises throughout the world, this is an issue we should give particular attention to and, in that regard, I will not dignify other petty, party political points that have been raised on the Order of Business.
I join the expressions of sympathy to the Geoghegan family on the shocking tragedy that has befallen them. For many parents, such a tragedy is their worst nightmare. They stay awake at night fearing such a tragedy might befall their youngster on his or her way home.
While Shane Geoghegan's death is a shocking and dreadful incident, tragically there is a level of anarchy on our streets that must be dealt with. There is a consistent underlying level of anarchy on our streets at night. I agree with the view that membership of a criminal gang should become an indictable offence. I support Senator Harris's view that we must review our legislation and jurisprudence in the light of what we are dealing with here.
As a first measure, membership of a gang must be made an indictable offence. We must also introduce witness protection legislation and witness protection procedures. Such crime dictates — a point touched on by Senator Bacik among others — the need for intervention at childhood level. It dictates a reversal of the Government's reduction and under-investment in child care and in preschool education. If we invest in child care, preschool and primary education and have the right level of class sizes, we will deal with many of these problems at source.
The provision of drop-in cafés in our cities and towns for our youth is critical. I have been saying that for a long time.
I want the Leader to specifically take up the following point, which could be examined as an immediate practical response. Gardaí should be responsible for separate streets and districts in ours towns and cities. In other words, a garda would be responsible for street X——
——and he or she would report back on that area and get to know intimately the residents of that street, and they would get to know the garda. I advise the Leader that we need dramatic immediate responses. CAB, which was established as a response——
I will be brief. In one of today's newspapers there is a report on the incidence of elder abuse. It is indicated by the HSE that 600 people reported alleged elder abuse in the first six months of this year. Some 93% of the older people who were abused said it happened in their own homes. Some 40% of them said it was their sons or daughters who abused them.
We in Ireland overlook the issue of older people and do not address it as it is addressed in other countries, particularly in the UK. In my document, A New Approach to Ageing & Ageism, I highlight the issue and the statement from the National Council on Ageing and Older People that at any one time in this country between 12,000 and 20,000 older people could be suffering from some form of abuse. There are 26 recommendations in my document on providing for older people. One of them is the urgent implementation of the elder abuse report. That has not happened. We are brilliant at preparing reports but very poor on their implementation.
Senators Fitzgerald, Ross, Alex White, Coghlan, Harris, Norris, O'Donovan, Regan, Walsh, Hannigan, Buttimer, Glynn, Bacik, O'Reilly and Boyle expressed their deepest sympathy to the family of Shane Geoghegan who was so tragically murdered in Limerick at the weekend. I express our strong condemnation of that murder on behalf of all Members of Seanad Éireann and particularly on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party, of which I am Leader in this House.
This morning the Taoiseach met the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda Commissioner to discuss criminal justice issues generally and the ongoing investigation into the brutal killing of Shane Geoghegan. This tragic death of a well respected young man going about his business is a despicable crime. An intensive Garda investigation is now under way in Limerick. I understand the Garda Commissioner is travelling to Limerick this afternoon to meet the investigation team on the ground. The Commissioner has stated that the full resources of the Garda Síochána are available to the investigation team and that no effort will be spared in bringing those responsible to justice.
In the past year alone there has been a 12% increase in the Garda numbers in Limerick city and a 40% increase since 2003. Divisional 24-hour armed patrols supported by emergency response units and a regional support unit supplementing the regular patrols by plain-clothes armed gardaí are in place. To date in 2008 there have been five murders in the Limerick area, including that of Mr. Shane Geoghegan. Persons have been charged in respect of two of these. Two of the murders have been with firearms and a person has been charged in respect of one of these. There were 18 murders involving firearms in 2007 compared with 27 in 2002, a reduction of 33%. There have been 19 deaths by shooting so far this year. This year homicide offences have dropped by more than 56% in the third quarter and by almost half, 44.9%, year on year.
These statistics were supplied to me by the Department of the Taoiseach prior to the Order of Business. I knew Senators would make their strong views known to the House on the Order of Business. I want to assure the House that the Taoiseach, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Garda Commissioner are giving this matter top priority. The challenge has been laid down to the State and it must face it head on. Of course I will arrange a debate in which colleagues can make statements to the House with a Minister present as a matter of urgency after the Order of Business today.
Comments were made about the amount of legislation coming through the House. The Harbours (Amendment) Bill is on Committee Stage and has been taken on three different days. We have now reached amendment No. 7. All Stages of the Charities Bill have been completed in the Dáil and we will be taking Second Stage of that Bill. The Coroners Bill has reached Committee Stage in the House. Committee Stage of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 will be taken in the House. These are Bills due in the House and many more Bills are to come to the House. As we all know we will have the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. We will have the Appropriation Bill and the Finance Bill. These are all due to be taken in the House before the Christmas recess.
I have responded, as I have always done, to the requests of colleagues on the Order of Business to have debates and statements on urgent issues. I will continue to do that when convenient bearing in mind legislation and Ministers' diaries. We have responded at all times to leaders' requests and those of other Senators who have made such requests of me on the Order of Business. I look forward to this evening's debate on rural development. As we all know, Ireland does not stop at the Dublin border; it stops on the sea. We are representative of all parts of our country and not just one part. I look forward to colleagues on all sides of the House contributing to a meaningful debate on rural development.
I have no difficulty in allowing time for a debate on the Equality Authority and the Human Rights Commission. Regarding cervical cancer immunisation, the Government has invested €30 million on screening for females which started in September. We must not lose sight of the fact that €30 million has been invested in very tight economic times. We will do all we can, on all sides of the House, to ask the Minister to initiate the programme at the earliest possible time so that 12 year old girls and those who urgently need it can be vaccinated. I understand the cost of the programme is more than €10 million and may cost €14 million or €15 million. However, if finance is available, it should be done as a matter of urgency. I agree with the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Fitzgerald, in her call for that to be done. I do not want to let go unnoticed the €30 million that has been invested already for a programme in this area that commenced in September.
Senator Ross called for an urgent debate on Aer Lingus. I would have no difficulty in this taking place. It is timely that it should take place. He expressed his views on IDA Ireland, on which his favourite Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Independent, had an article last Sunday. I know the challenges faced by IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland which work hard to create vast numbers of jobs in this country.
I thank colleagues who attended the special meeting that took place after the Order of Business on Thursday morning on energy costs. At that meeting I gave my word to colleagues on all sides of the House that we should all go back to our parliamentary party meetings to debate that matter this week. It is down for debate in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting this evening. I hope colleagues on the other side of the House have it down for their parliamentary party debates.
It was alarming to watch television last night and hear the serious views being expressed at the energy forum yesterday. The ESB and Bord Gáis have sought another increase having only got an increase a few weeks ago. It is unacceptable and unsustainable. We on all sides of the House must unite in our fight. To maintain jobs is the priority of the Government and Opposition in both Houses of the Oireachtas. We should send that message out loud and clear to any body seeking an increase in the next two years. They must simply forget about it as far as I am concerned, and I am speaking personally here. If they do not, we will see unprecedented increases in the levels of unemployment. I am talking from vast experience of this area. We made insurance the priority in the previous Government. This Seanad must lead the way in stating that enough is enough and there should be no more increases for anything that will interfere with the keeping people in the jobs they have at present.
Regardless of any grandiose ideas that new Senators or old Senators, new chief executives or old chief executives from State or non-State bodies might have, they must recognise there is a global downturn and everyone must act responsibly. I call on everyone to forget about any long-term plans they have. The short-term challenge is to keep people in work.
I intend to invite the Tánaiste to the House at the earliest possible time — I am talking about the next few sitting days — to discuss the challenges she has as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and how we can assist her in these areas. In response to Senator Quinn, as I have often said if the captains of industry can do it for themselves, imagine what they can do when they have the resources of the nation behind them with their ideas. Even though people have done it for themselves down through the years, everybody needs assistance at present.
I join all those celebrating the 90th anniversary of the ending of the First World War. I had a granduncle who fought in that war and, thankfully, survived. I congratulate everyone associated with it.
Senator Carty made a proposal to celebrate on 21 January 2009 the 90th anniversary of the First Dáil. Why not? What a wonderful idea. Let us see how we can progress this. With your permission, a Chathaoirligh, I will take the proposal to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges under your stewardship to see how we can progress it with your colleague, the Ceann Comhairle.
Senator O'Donovan congratulated those involved in the significant drugs haul off the coast of west Cork over the weekend. He congratulated the Garda, the Naval Service and Customs and Excise personnel who risked their lives. I wish to be associated with and offer the congratulations of all Members of the House to the Garda, the Naval Service and Customs and Excise for this magnificent achievement.
Senator Regan commented on the State visit of the President of the Czech Republic to Ireland. He is very welcome and I had the pleasure and honour of representing the Seanad, along with the Deputy Leader, Senator Boyle, at a lunch yesterday hosted by the Taoiseach for the Czech President. I was honoured to have met him and spoken to him for a few moments.
Senator MacSharry called for a debate on the national spatial strategy and the innovation fund in particular. He called on various Departments to indicate the up-to-date position and this can be taken with the debate on the economy. As I have stated in the House — some colleagues may have been in committee or otherwise engaged last week — we should leave such a debate until after the Finance Bill is published on 3 December. It would be possible to have the debate on the week after.
Senator MacSharry made his strong views known to the House regarding the Health Service Executive in the north west and the reduction in nurses' training. I understand the problem is in getting staff and I will come back to the House when I have a further update. There is a difficulty in recruitment in the area and I will have the matter checked further before coming back to the House, perhaps tomorrow, on the matter.
The Senator also had serious concerns regarding cancer screening in the north east. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, was in the House last week and gave a very comprehensive commentary on all aspects of the HSE. She even extended her question and answer session by 30 minutes, which was very generous. I mentioned this on the Order of Business last Thursday, and we never have any difficulty finding out the up-to-date position on that Minister's portfolio.
Senator Buttimer expressed his concern, views and support for the Fine Gael, Green Party and Fianna Fáil draws going on currently.
Senator Glynn made a very strong point regarding the Irish Foster Care Association and the good work being done by foster parents. He called for a debate and I certainly can leave time aside for this. There was also mention of diabetes and the dangers of the disease and everything associated with it. I know this evening in Mullingar is a big one in this regard and I have no difficulty in allocating time for the matter.
Senator Bacik asked for an update on the Climate Protection Bill, which is being taken in the next session in the spring, as I informed the Senator. It will be early next year. Senator Mary M. White called for a debate on abuse of the elderly and I have no difficulty allocating time for this also.