Thursday, 29 January 2009
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2008, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and adjourn no later than 1.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, with spokespersons having 15 minutes, other Senators ten, and on which Senators may share time.
Today's edition of The Irish Times contains a copy of the Government's framework document on economic renewal. It has been raised several times in the Dáil and the Seanad that when they returned, they both had a general debate on the future of the economy without the Government outlining any of its plans, policies or details. Very little thought was given to the role of the Dáil and the Seanad in handling this crisis. This week it is clearer than ever that social partnership has replaced democracy. It does not have to be one or the other; it can be both. The Government will have to give some thought to the role of the Dáil, the Seanad and our democracy, alongside the role of social partnership, because what happened this week was not good enough.
It was not good enough to have the general debate we had this week. Yesterday's display by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and other Ministers, in dealing with the debate in the Dáil was appalling. They did not come with any detailed plans from their Departments or detail how they intended to handle the crisis. They did not speak on priorities or cutbacks and where they would take place. No details were given to either the Dáil or the Seanad in the debates on the economy.
The lack of accountability to the Dáil and the Seanad was extraordinary. It marked a turning point, one which must be taken seriously. The Government must examine the matter in detail and put democracy and accountability back into the process. Accountability has been missing from the public finances over the past ten years and that is why there has been so much waste. If we are to use this crisis as an opportunity, the least we must do is learn the lessons of the past and change the way we prepare our budgets and give account to the Oireachtas. This week's events gave us a bird's eye view of arrogance and lack of accountability and I suggest the Green Party and Fianna Fáil should examine how they dealt with the return of these Houses because their approach is not acceptable in any country that calls itself a democracy.
I support the calls which were made yesterday by several Senators on the Government side for a debate on child protection. A number of cases were reported in today's newspapers which involved inconsistency and, indeed, mistakes in sentencing. It is clear that debate is needed in this House on these matters. We are awaiting a new report from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which received an extension to its deadline, on historic abuse over the past five decades. However, while we thought abuse was an historic issue, we can see from recent cases that our society still has a lot to learn about child protection and putting in place services that ensure we are fully protecting children. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on these issues at the earliest opportunity.
It would be useful if this House held a debate on the Eames-Bradley report, which forces us to confront certain issues. It is easy to understand why it was met with an extraordinary degree of emotion in the North. However, being able to understand the reaction of all the parties concerned does not necessarily mean one would agree with them. It behoves us to examine the report and to determine our views on it. If somebody dies, his or her family probably suffers the same sense of loss regardless of whether he or she was Ireland's worst terrorist or most innocent victim or an upholder of law and order. That has to be considered. It is not a question of equating one with the other. I do not want to debate the issues now but the point I want to make is that we would be forced to address issues we have not previously raised in terms of how the community and family lives have been affected.
Wearing my hat as chair of the North-South co-operation Ireland group in Leinster House, which recently visited a number of places in the North and held a meeting with the North-South Ministerial Council, I became aware for the first time of certain issues. Senator Boyle, who was also part of the group, can confirm that the work of the North-South Ministerial Council continues between meetings even though we hear nothing about this. We regularly ask what is happening in regard to the Good Friday Agreement but Ministers and junior ministers meet weekly or fortnightly on various issues. At the end of each meeting, the Northern Minister reports to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It would be useful if that practice were followed here. The Seanad would be an appropriate forum to discuss reports of ministerial meetings and I ask the Leader to consider my suggestion and raise it with the Department of the Taoiseach or the Department of Foreign Affairs, both of which deal with these matters.
Senator Fitzgerald is correct about the current round of social partnership talks. As one with many years of experience in social partnership, I can see the matter from both sides. I can see how these Houses are being excluded from discussions. We need to consider the matter very carefully because it should not be a question of our being part of the negotiations or of democracy being undermined in Government Buildings. I concur with Senator Fitzgerald that we can have it both ways. The public sector unions are meeting at present with their employer, that is, the Government, and the private sector unions are meeting with representatives of their employers, IBEC and others. It is the only place discussions of this nature can take place but, in terms of keeping people up to date, this should be done by reporting to the Houses. That is the missing element from the effort to ensure everyone gets behind the process. I would like to receive a report in this House. We are not going to read the details in The Irish Times because a basic rule of negotiation is that nothing is agreed publicly before it is agreed in private. I did not even read the report in today's edition of The Irish Times because I know there is nothing in it. If I was in charge of negotiations I would ensure that such reports contained only the vaguest of details. That does not mean, however, that responsible Members of the Opposition should not be informed and that is where we are lacking at present.
The document to which Senator O'Toole referred is the one which the Leader told us yesterday we had been discussing on Tuesday. It was published in The Irish Times yesterday and we manifestly could not have discussed it the previous day because we did not have it in our possession. I ask the Leader to acknowledge that, unless he was confusing it with the other frameworks that are knocking around, including one from before Christmas. We asked for the most recent document to be made available to assist and inform us in our debate on the economy. It was not made available and while I do not infer that the Leader was trying to mislead Members, it was simply wrong and inaccurate of him to state in his closing comments yesterday that we had debated it the previous day. How could we have debated something we had not seen? I ask for the matter to be corrected on the record.
Senator Fitzgerald is correct that a serious democratic deficit, to coin a phrase, must be addressed. I take the view that the Government has not the slightest intention of involving these Houses in this debate at a serious level, despite what Senator Boyle believes should happen. I give him credit for some of the statements he has made in this House but, if he is pushing that position, he has not got far with his colleagues in Government because they are excluding these Houses entirely. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, gave the game away on "Morning Ireland" this morning. I am interested in words and what they mean. I am not a subscriber to the Humpty Dumpty approach of words meaning what people want them to mean. The Minister said this morning that negotiations would proceed and that the Government would seek the agreement of the social partners and the support of the Oireachtas. That is the Government's position. It regards the Houses of the Oireachtas as cheerleaders for an agreement reached elsewhere. I entirely agree with Senator Fitzgerald. This is a serious issue and it is not good enough in any democracy for the Taoiseach and his Ministers to have fits of pique and storm away like schoolboys when asked for a debate in these Houses.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate with the Minister for Transport on the cuts in Dublin Bus. Again on the issue of language, Senator Boyle sought to persuade us last night that these were not cuts even though his colleague, Deputy Cuffe, has described them in print as service cutbacks. The company has made 290 staff redundant and 120 buses have been taken off the streets. If these are not cuts, what are they? Surely, they will impact on service. Bus lanes in the north and south of the city have been set aside for buses which are being taken off the streets. This is coming from a Government party which proclaimed prior to the general election that it favoured public over private transport. It is ludicrous. We need to hold a debate on the question of public transport and I ask the Leader to facilitate this.
On the issue of child protection and the proposal for a referendum on the rights of children, I was the Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Constitution when it was asked by the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, to examine the issue of children's welfare. The committee unanimously agreed that the current constitutional protections of the rights of the child within the family was inadequate and proposed that a referendum should be held to protect and enhance the rights of the child as opposed to the family. I am somewhat disappointed this has been delayed given that we were told in some of our discussions that the Kilkenny incest case was a unique event that would never be repeated. I support the calls made in this regard. However, it is a very delicate issue. The majority of submissions felt the child was adequately protected among family. If the wording of such a referendum is not completely right, it could have an adverse effect and we might see a result that was never envisaged. In principle, I support the idea of a constitutional referendum, although the right wording will be difficult to achieve. We found it extremely difficult to agree on the wording; we failed to do so. It must be correct or else, like the abortion referendum, there may be a result that was never intended.
I ask the Leader to have a debate on aquaculture, mariculture and seafood. We have a fantastic coastline but the industry has been neglected and we are over-regulated. There is an ongoing debate on AZA toxins which affect mussels, oysters and other seafood. It is a shame that the economy is contracting and the construction industry is in disarray, yet we have the potential to create jobs along our coastline in fish farming. The biggest abalone factory in the northern hemisphere is on the Beara peninsula. There is much potential for the mussel industry.
On the one hand, Bord Iascaigh Mhara is promoting these products but on the other, there is over-regulation. I see much potential for job creation. The plan for the mussel industry in the mid-1990s proposed an increase in output to 30,000 tonnes but we have stagnated at 10,000 tonnes. As an example, the Chileans started with zero tonnage in 1990 and their fish farming, especially with salmon, employs 40,000 people in the remote southern part of Chile. Their mussel industry has increased to approximately 400,000 tonnes. The French, Spanish and our UK partners are laughing at us because they have progressed and we have not. There are jobs to be created along the coastline.
I had a meeting with the Irish Shellfish Association, and its representatives are deeply concerned that a lack of licensing, over-regulation and all these special areas of conservation——
I wish to address the talks between the Government and the social partners. These talks began as discussions on expenditure cuts and pay. Issues of taxation were left to the Commission on Taxation, which would report later in the year. The Minister for Finance had indicated there was no scope for further increases in taxation in 2009. In a concession in those talks, the emphasis has shifted and the Government has conceded that taxation issues will be part of whatever agreement is arrived at. There are intimations of increases in the different levels of taxation.
It seems that increased taxes are the easy option, which avoids the real decisions that need to be made on the curtailment of public expenditure. There is a serious risk that under this Government we will return to a high taxation economy, when we know a low taxation regime contributed to the growth we have enjoyed over the past ten years.
This exemplifies how the social partnership process is providing a straitjacket for Government decision making. Although the social partnership process has been very beneficial in its initial phases, it has provided political cover for the worst ten years of economic management of this economy, which has contributed to the problems we have today. In particular, IBEC bears much responsibility for indulging in and providing in that period the political cover for the waste introduced, either through benchmarking, decentralisation or not calling a halt and raising concerns about the way the housing market was managed.
This is a fundamental problem, which we can see from the Draft Framework for a Pact for Stabilisation, Social Solidarity and Economic Renewal. The document is so all-embracing, inclusive and wordy as to be meaningless. The recommendations include building on strengths in the agriculture, fisheries and food sector, supporting the manufacturing sector, encouraging entrepreneurship and business start-ups. What is new? Resolutions of the United Nations are more specific and meaningful than this type of document. I am concerned that even if we reach agreement, it will not be what the Government initially set out to achieve, namely, cutbacks in public expenditure. I ask the Leader to comment on the implications for the tax regime in 2009 with regard to these discussions.
Unlike my colleagues on the opposite side of the House, I welcome the collective agreement of our political leadership and social partners to commence what one will appreciate will be very difficult negotiations. It is an unprecedented approach to address the country's current challenges for economic renewal. When we are borrowing €50 million a day, with an annual shortfall of €18 billion or thereabout, there is a great need to prioritise the stabilisation of our public finances. I am delighted that all parties have signed in to address this without delay and I wish them well in the very difficult negotiations likely to take place in the coming days and weeks.
From this side of the House I wish those involved in the discussions every success and let them know clearly that many ordinary working class people are deeply concerned about the position we are in and would like to see agreement to rectify the problem and bring about economic recovery as quickly as possible.
I welcome the Health Service Executive report on progress to reduce the spread of MRSI infection in our hospitals. The progress should be noted as the targets set will be met, and it is not every day of the week that we can stand up and applaud the HSE in some of its endeavours in this regard. The improved hygiene and cleanliness is very noticeable in hospitals in my own region, such as the Mater, Beaumont, St. Joseph's and the Incorporated Orthopaedic Hospital of Ireland, and I congratulate all involved because we know it is a difficult task.
Will the Leader raise with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the case of the serious and repeated paedophilia case before the Court of Criminal Appeal yesterday? I am appalled that a ten-page judgment has been issued that is critical of the trial judge, indicating he made an error in principle. The judge has a great reputation and I have great personal admiration for him.
Having said that, we must deal with the fact that a person whom the Court of Criminal Appeal agreed was a threat to society has had a life sentence reduced to 12 and a half years. He is likely to be on the streets before that period is up. It is a serious case that warrants the Leader taking the matter up with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I would appreciate a full and detailed brief on the prevailing position in this case.
I ask the Leader for a debate on what can be done in the aftermath of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza. In the general doom and gloom of the news over Christmas and the early part of this month, the worst news of all was undoubtedly of the carnage inflicted upon the people of Gaza by Israel.
I know others have raised the matter in this House. I ask that we take some time in this House in the next week or so to debate what can be done to ensure Israel is held accountable for the undoubted war crimes that it committed in inflicting such appalling onslaughts and attacks on the people of Gaza. We saw 1,300 Palestinians killed, with a third of them children, there were an enormous number of injuries, and homes and infrastructure were destroyed. We must ask what can now be done. It appears the worst is over but Israel is continuing to perpetrate attacks and kill innocent Palestinians.
Everyone welcomes President Obama's appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy. That is certainly a development about which we can be optimistic. However, Members must ask what action the Seanad can take in the context of seeing to it that pressure continues to be applied at EU level to ensure Israel is held accountable. The Government has been extremely strong in respect of this matter. However, the Seanad could play an important role in supporting the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign's call that the favourable position Israel currently holds in the context of trading with the EU should no longer apply. We could also support the campaign's call for a consumer boycott of Israeli goods and services. When Ministers are calling on us, as Irish citizens, to do our patriotic duty by not shopping in Northern Ireland——
I was among those who called for an end to diplomatic relations with Israel at the height of the appalling carnage that occurred. That was an appropriate call to make at the time. The Seanad could take a strong role — I am aware that there is cross-party support for this — in the context of trying to hold Israel accountable in respect of what was done.
I also wish to request a debate on female genital mutilation, especially in the wake of the recent judgment in the case of Pamela Izevbekhai case. A number of Senators have raised this matter in recent months. I am of the view that there might be support in the House for a cross-party motion calling on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to allow Ms Izevbekhai to remain in this country on humanitarian grounds. The House previously passed an all-party motion expressing solidarity with Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian detainee. It would be appropriate for us to draw up a motion relating to Ms Izevbekhai's case, particularly in light of the appalling circumstances of female genital mutilation. Everyone recognises that in any civilised country the latter must be seen as torture. I ask the Leader to accede to my call in respect of this matter. I would be happy to assist in drafting a wording that might garner cross-party support.
I echo Senator O'Toole's comments regarding the Eames-Bradley report on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The two gentlemen involved in compiling this report played a central role in finding a resolution to the Troubles. Archbishop Eames in particular never received the credit he deserved for the role he played. When the Troubles were at their height, he came forward and spoke with a moderate voice. It must have taken great courage to do so. In my opinion, his action was vital at a particular juncture during the Troubles. The position as regards Mr. Bradley is similar.
It is a pity that people had to wait until a press conference was held before they had an opportunity to express their grief, anger and other emotions. Would it be possible to request the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP, to consider allowing the Seanad to play a consultative role in respect of the Eames Bradley report? When we were trying to find a way forward in the context of arriving at a solution to the Troubles, people were allowed to go before the New Ireland Forum to express their diverse views in a very controlled manner. The Seanad also played a consultative role in respect of its own reform and various individuals were allowed to appear before us to make contributions.
It is much more difficult to make peace than it is to make war. We are making peace at present and everyone has witnessed the results brought about on foot of the Good Friday Agreement. I salute everyone who has played a role in this regard. However, I am of the view that we are taking the results and benefits of the Agreement for granted and forgetting the suffering of people who lost loved ones. Even normality can exacerbate the grief individuals feel because they must continue with their lives against the background thereof.
In light of its status, I am of the view that the House might be in a position to play a consultative role and allow people to express their view. I suggest that this matter be discussed by the Government and not merely the CPP. It would be a grave injustice to the thousands who suffered as a result of the Troubles if they were to simply be ignored because progress is being made. I ask that the CPP consider this matter.
With respect to Senator Callely's comments, there is no question of anybody on this side of the House not wishing the negotiations between the Government and the social partners well. Everyone wishes those negotiations well because their outcome is vital to the national interest. However, Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole and Alex White commented upon the fact that a democratic deficit exists in the Houses. This is a line of thinking to which I also subscribe. The Leader recalled the Seanad this week and the first item on our agenda was a debate on the economy. However, Members were not presented with a framework document, an options document or any other kind of document which might have indicated the nature of the Government's thinking on the matter. As other Senators and I commented in recent days, the debate took place in isolation and was disjointed as a result.
There is a need for the Dáil and Seanad to be involved in a more structured way in the current process. The Oireachtas must be made more meaningful. We did not do justice to the debate on the economy or give to it the detailed consideration it required because we were not presented with an options or framework document. That is what is wrong and what has given rise to the lack of accountability. Everyone accepts that it is to the Houses of the Oireachtas that people should be accountable.
Senator O'Toole referred to North-South co-operation and the meetings that take place regularly, not merely at ministerial level but also among agencies and bodies of an official or semi-official nature. It would be useful if Ministers could make occasional reports to the Seanad in respect of this matter.
Senator Bacik requested a debate on female genital mutilation, FGM, and the case of Ms Pamela Izevbekhai and her children, who are based in Sligo. Irrespective of a debate, an outcome, a court judgment on FGM or whatever, people must recognise that this is a very human case.
I know those involved and I can state that Ms Izevbekhai's children speak with Sligo accents. Regardless of the law or any considerations relating to FGM, these people have lived in Sligo — they call it home — for quite a period of years. It is clear that a large proportion of the local community would like them to remain living in the area. On the basis of the human considerations involved, a decision should be made to allow these people to stay in Ireland.
We could then debate FGM and other issues. It is not possible to have a completely open-door policy. Legal proceedings in this case are ongoing but the children involved are trying to go about their daily lives. They are more native to Sligo than they are to anywhere else. If one of the county's teams reached an All-Ireland Final, they would support it. I would appreciate it if the Leader could bring this matter to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern.
All of the various pillars are represented at the social partnership negotiations. Seanad Éireann and Dáil Éireann are represented there by the Government. Those acting on behalf of the Government are mandated by us to obtain the best deal possible. That deal will then be brought back to the Houses and Members can approve or disapprove of it as the case may be. As Senator Coghlan, as a member of the industrial and commercial panel, is aware, if he had gone in a different direction with his career, he could be on the other side of the fence and could be involved in representing the social partners in the negotiations. Everyone wishes those involved in the negotiations well.
Unlike Senator Regan, I will not prejudge the outcome and state that whatever deal is arrived at will be the wrong one. I completely disagree with the sentiments expressed by the Senator. Like Senator Callely, I wish those involved well. There is no stronger message that could be put forth than by having the social partners and the Government — which represents the Houses of the Oireachtas — emerge next week with a deal in place and a statement of intent to the effect that the country is in control of its affairs and is prepared to take all necessary action.
Will the Leader make time available for a debate on banking and banking regulation? We need to give careful consideration to the regulatory environment that applies in respect of banking. Momentum is building in the United States for the establishment of an aggregator bank. Under this model, bad debts could be pooled and managed centrally. This would allow banks that in a stronger position to proceed with their main business, namely, the supply of credit to the domestic and commercial markets. I am not necessarily saying we should do that, nor am I saying we should not do so. A debate on that issue would be positive. The aggregator bank idea is gathering momentum, in particular in the United States and the UK, and we should consider it.
Clearly some progress has been made in recent days and we have seen the markets rally since last Friday. I do not believe there have been five days over the past eight months when we have seen such a rally, so that is welcome. On a pan-European basis at the very least — I do not know if there are grounds to do so internationally — we need to begin to put together some basic regulatory conditions which we will operate into the future so that the disastrous situation in which we find ourselves internationally is not replicated in the future.
I was glad to see this morning the publication by the National Roads Authority of its plans for roads expenditure for 2009. It is approximately €1.5 billion in expenditure with some particularly worthwhile schemes throughout the country. In County Meath, major schemes like the Slane bypass will be progressed as will minor safety schemes such as improved measures at Kilmoon Cross.
In this current climate, it is clear there are benefits to be gained and savings to be made from procurement policies. I do not know whether a cost-effectiveness study of these schemes will be done. However, I suggest the Leader asks the Minister to do a value for money appraisal of these schemes to ensure where there are savings to be made, they can be put towards fighting the cutbacks on Dublin Bus and commuter bus services so that we see a much more evenly balanced commuter policy and not only expenditure on roads, which is worthwhile and necessary, but also expenditure on the maintenance of our public transport services.
I welcome the Leader back. I do so because he very kindly welcomed me back yesterday. It was excessively courteous of him and I would not like him to think he was under any slight because I did not do the same to him. He is a Castlepollard man in whom there is no guile. Had it been anybody else, I would have thought it might have been a sly attempt to suggest I was not here at some stage. As he knows well, like himself, I have been here every day and, as some people think, have spoken a little too much.
I thank the Leader for his constructive suggestion yesterday that we might be able to put together an all-party motion to support the Government's moves in regard to a war crimes tribunal on Gaza. The Minister for Foreign Affairs advanced this measure with other EU foreign ministers. He was supported by Cyprus, Portugal and Sweden. I suggest that the Government might be encouraged to continue to talk to these countries to see if this can be done because, as Senator Ivana Bacik said very powerfully, there is prima facie evidence of war crimes in this instance.
We should monitor external trade association agreements. That is a non-violent matter. Some 75% of Israeli agricultural products come into the European Union. The Union could have switched that war off if it had threatened agricultural imports. That is a good reason I will again campaign against the Lisbon treaty if it is put before us because that is the kind of thing with which we have to put up.
I ask the Leader about the fate of two Bills, the first being the immigration Bill. We had a briefing about the immigration Bill in the audio-visual room which was well attended by Members of both Houses. It is quite defective and needs to be amended by this House. When is it proposed to take it?
When will the domestic partnership Bill, the civil partnership Bill or whatever it is being called now be introduced? I notice that in the past week Sweden has joined a growing number of countries to introduce a Bill on full gay marriage. Could we have a clear and firm commitment on that?
Will the Leader get the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to welcome the EU directive on pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides in which 22 substances have been banned? A number of Members on both sides have raised the extraordinary destruction perpetrated on the hedgerows in County Meath with the dangerous use of these products. As a result of this directive, they will be controlled and instruction will be given to local authority staff when they are used close to schools, hospitals and so on. This is a really positive move from the Union and I would like it to be officially welcomed. It has been met by silence even though a case was highlighted in this House.
I support Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú in his promotion of the concept of the Seanad playing a larger part in regard to Northern Ireland, whether by way of debate, as in the past, or in the manner which the Senator and, I believe, Senator O'Toole proposed. There is a danger that we will accept peace in Northern Ireland without recognition of the horrors which took place over the years. We can help in some way.
There was criticism in recent days of Denis Bradley and Archbishop Eames because they proposed that money should be paid to all those families which suffered during the difficulties in Northern Ireland, even those who were responsible for planting bombs and for creating some of that horror on both sides. It is very easy for us to criticise decisions such as that but these two men have thought this through and have come up with what they believe is a solution. That would be worthy of discussion but Northern Ireland should be on our agenda more regularly.
My postman reminded me the other day that An Post is 25 years old this month. I have not seen any sign of celebration but at an Oireachtas committee the other day, a member said he or she did not want any more e-mails while another said he or she gets so many e-mails that he or she does not give them the attention they deserve and that if he or she wants to get attention, he or she sends a fax. Another member said that if he or she really wants to get attention, he or she sends a letter. The handwritten letters I receive get much more attention.
We should ensure we continue to use An Post to maintain a healthy postal service in Ireland. One area in which we can help to do so is to concentrate on handwriting in primary school. I see my grandchildren here pay a little less attention to handwriting. I have grandchildren in school in France and the attention given to handwriting at primary school there is so much better than it seems in Ireland. In the long term, the ability to write letters by hand is essential if we are to have a thriving postal service in the future. Let us ensure we recognise the benefit of handwritten letters rather than just electronically delivered mail.
I wish the social partners well in the economic recovery talks. There is an obligation on all the social partners to ensure we bring the public finances back under control. However, I issue a warning that scapegoating young gardaí, teachers and nurses is not the way in which these partnership talks should be approached. We need to be cognisant of the fact that many young families are struggling. There are people who this time a year and a half ago would have been looking at a bright future but they have lost their jobs and are drawing the dole. The schemes to help those people need to be looked at. For example, a root and branch reform of the back to education allowance needs to take place along with other schemes which would put people back into training to ensure we can reboot the economy.
An important point made by Senator O'Toole last week on "The Week in Politics" and again last night by Vincent Browne on "Nightly News with Vincent Browne" on TV3 was that back in the 1980s, when social partnership was used as a model to get this economy going, we were told there was no money in the country. We now know that was not the case. Millions of pounds were siphoned out of this country. If everyone is expected to make a decent attempt to get public finances in order, we need to know the correct state of play and ensure a bit of fair play. Can we get a commitment that the banks will not repossess the homes of those who have recently found themselves unemployed? It is important this House plays a vital role in contributing to the debate on the recovery of the economy.
Senators Fitzgerald, O'Toole, Alex White, Regan, Callely, Coghlan and McCarthy all expressed their views on and wished the talks the success they deserve. I want to correct Senator Alex White on one issue he raised. The document I referred to, which I understand was of assistance to most Senators, was the one produced by the Taoiseach in Dublin Castle just before Christmas. That clarifies the position.
I said also that any request for time to debate the economy would find favour and would be facilitated on a weekly and monthly basis. The Taoiseach's words in the Dáil yesterday brought home the stark reality of the position in which we find ourselves. All participants in the talks are to be congratulated on the responsible way they are addressing the difficult position. The most eminent people at those talks said yesterday that even the suggestion a month or two months ago of the various directions in which the talks must proceed would be unthinkable. The Taoiseach said yesterday that we are facing the most difficult global economic conditions in 70 years. The most severe financial crisis since the great depression is taking its toll. For example, the United States is now in the middle of a recession that began in December 2007 and may prove to be the longest and most severe in the post-war period. Those are stark statements from the Taoiseach and everyone in a responsible position is expected to act in accordance with the difficulties we face.
It is uplifting to see the way the talks are proceeding. We hope that over the weekend they will come to a conclusion in time for the Cabinet meeting next Tuesday morning. We can then address the difficulty as a nation, with each of us playing our part. Regardless of our position in life, everyone would like to be able to play their part and I look forward to a successful conclusion to the talks. On the conclusion of the talks I will propose to the House that we suspend whatever business is on the agenda to allow Senators to express their views on the merits of the proposals, with the Minister present.
Senators O'Toole, Ó Murchú, Coghlan and Quinn called for a debate on the report by Archbishop Eames and Mr. Bradley, which was launched yesterday. I join all Senators in congratulating those two eminent and responsible citizens on the way they have worked steadfastly in the interest of everyone on the island of Ireland. I have no difficulty affording time in the House for that debate. As has been said, suffering has been experienced by families for the past 20, 30 and 40 years, going back to pre-1968 and 1969. That is a long time ago. Those of us who were working in the North of Ireland to make progress in every possible area are aware of that. Senator Quinn is someone I listen to attentively regarding matters pertaining to Northern Ireland because I am aware he has close family ties there and a great deal of experience pre-1969 and since then.
The suggestion made by Senator O'Toole regarding the North-South talks is a very good one. We should invite the Minister to the Seanad after each round of talks, where possible, and give Members and the general public an update on issues, as is done in the Assembly in Belfast.
Senators Alex White and Hannigan called for a debate on transport. I welcome the massive allocation of funding made available by the Minister for our road infrastructure and the huge sum of money being spent on our motorways and dual carriageways, in particular those from Dublin to Cork, Dublin to Galway, Dublin to Limerick and Dublin to Belfast. Who would have thought 25 years ago that this would be the case? We used to travel to the North of Ireland to experience the good roads in that part of the country. One would know when one came across the Border that one was back in the different territory. There has been a transformation in our road network. To be parochial with Senator Hannigan, I understand the road from Clonee to Kells in our constituency is seven or eight months ahead of time and will be completed by the end of this year. That is tremendous news for those of us who have to sit in our cars for an hour and a half or two hours some evenings when travelling home.
Senator O'Donovan called for a debate on all aspects of the seafood industry, including mariculture, agriculture and all those areas. We have an advantage in being a coastal country and there is a major opportunity for job creation. Time will be made available for that debate in the near future.
Senator Callely offered congratulations to the Health Service Executive on the major improvement in standards of hygiene in our hospitals. I join him in that regard. He expressed views also on the court case which took place yesterday and the reduction in the life sentence for a paedophile offence. I will pass on his strong views to the Minister.
Senators Bacik and Norris called for a debate on Gaza. I have already made a commitment in that regard. I am in contact with the Minister's office to determine when this debate can be facilitated at the earliest time. I will pass on to the Minister Senator Bacik's views regarding Israeli produce.
Senators MacSharry, Norris and Bacik expressed support once again for Pamela Izevbekhai and her family in Sligo. I will convey their views to the Minister. A decision has been made on that case in the High Court and I understand the intention is to proceed to the Supreme Court. The difficulty for Oireachtas Members is that when a case is before any court, we must not interfere under any circumstances, regardless of the strongly held views of most Members of this House on this case.
Senator MacSharry called for an urgent debate on banking. I have no difficulty in allocating time for that debate and hope to have it in the next three or four weeks.
Senator Quinn offered congratulations to An Post on its 25th anniversary and on the postal service, which is quite good here. He also offered words of advice to our young people, particularly those in our primary schools, on the importance of ensuring that hand writing is kept to the required standard, which is a major personal advantage to every individual. If I receive a handwritten letter from someone it speaks a great deal in terms of the content before I even read it. It puts me in a positive mood and I join with the Senator in his views, which I will pass on to the Minister. It is rare occasion when one receives a handwritten letter, with the modern technology available to us.
Senator Norris asked for an update on three items of legislation. I have the details in my office of the immigration Bill and the civil partnership Bill. I will get back to the Senator later this afternoon on those matters.