Thursday, 14 October 2010
Order of Business (Resumed)
I am glad the necessity for initiatives made in recent weeks, and the sincerity with which they were made, is being understood. I am somewhat saddened that it takes a number of letters and a number of people to write those letters for the message to sink in.
I am further saddened that the lack of consensus on these issues to date is being prolonged unnecessarily by people continuing to look at this as a points-scoring exercise. We have a serious situation in respect of our public finances which is exacerbated by the financial institutions' situation, but we are an economy with economic growth, a positive balance of payments and, with the necessary political will over a particular timeframe, we are better positioned than most to get over this set of circumstances. It requires a degree of political consensus to bring this about. I am more hopeful than I have been because I get the sense that all Members in this House are beginning to understand that we are in the middle of an electoral cycle and an economic cycle. The decisions taken by the Government will have an impact on the Government that follows an election. Once that is understood, the country can move on. When those who want to take that responsibility are prepared to take those decisions, our country will be better for it.
Following Senator O'Toole's comments about the inertia in bringing about real public service reform and the inflexibility that exists in redeploying people, I can provide a worrying example in the HSE west region. Portiuncula Hospital kindly offered a surgical day clinic for plastic surgery in the hospital because it had the capacity, beds, nurses and porters to accommodate it. Unfortunately, that service had to be suspended because the consultant carrying out the clinics cannot find the administrative support to continue. Within HSE west, he cannot find a clerk to write 24 letters a month to maintain the service. The 72 patients lined up between now and the end of the year for day case plastic surgery must now join a waiting list of 2,156 patients in University College Hospital Galway. A number of months ago, HSE west spent €90,000 on a report by consultants Mott MacDonald. On page 4 of the report, it is recommended that HSE west should explore opportunities to redeploy corporate staff to support individual organisations. Some 813 corporate staff are employed by HSE west and it is my understanding that it is possible to redeploy one of them to Portiuncula Hospital to have the service maintained. That is a crystal clear example of what Senator O'Toole was talking about. If the HSE and other public service organisations are genuine about public service reform, this simply should not be happening. We have a great record of producing report after report and choosing not to act on them.
The rescue of the Chilean miners has captured the imagination of the whole world. What we have seen is the seemingly impossible made possible. The Chilean President put it exceptionally well when he said Chile would never be the same again, that the people were more united than they had ever been before. The reason they are united is they united in the face of adversity. There is no nation that can identify with that philosophy and achievement more than Ireland. Looking back on our history, we overcame what had seemed like insurmountable obstacles. One thing we discovered was that there was no boundary to the triumph of the human spirit, unless we ourselves put obstacles in the way. Like many other countries, Ireland is in a very deep hole economically. We can continue digging or come up with a plan, unite and try to get back onto terra firma once more. I have been listening to and contributed to the debates in this House since we first became the country was in recession. I have heard many positive voices, of people of vast experience, all of whom are very honourable in their own right, and now see light at the end of the tunnel, whether it is in the letter from the Taoiseach or the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley. From where the letter comes does not matter. What matters is the problems and the human toll - people who cannot repay mortgages, do not have jobs or hope and confidence. In the name of God, let us take inspiration from what we have seen in recent days in Chile because if we do not, history will not be kind to us for remaining idle at a time like this.
Consensus means there is an agreement to agree on something, it does not mean there is agreement on what that something should be. These are early days. I congratulate the Green Party and Senators Bradford and MacSharry from opposite sides of the House for their persistence in that regard, as it is what the people want. Deputy Rabbitte of the Labour Party has announced he is puzzled by it. I am not as puzzled as the Taoiseach's colleagues in not understanding his slowness in grasping the merits of a proposal that would puzzle Deputy Rabbitte. He should have grabbed it from day one because if the end product was to puzzle Deputy Rabbitte it had great merits which he should have seen from the beginning.
I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on an issue raised by Senator Ó Murchú, our response to the recession which is not a product like the First World War but more of a process like the Second World War. It is rolling. Therefore, our reactions to it must be continually responsive. In that regard, I read this morning Dr. Peter Bacon's suggestion that some of our national assets should be sold in order to meet the difficulties of mortgage holders. Whatever about the merits of such a suggestion, it was a reminder that we do have wealth and national assets that could be sold. There is, therefore, money to be invested. It was an imaginative response by Dr. Bacon.
This House has an extraordinary wealth of political experience, as Senator Ó Murchú says, at the practical or sharp end of life. We are not the best in the world at planning, but we are and always have been extraordinarily good at imaginative improvisation under pressure. However, we have not had a chance to utilise that extraordinary ability. Under Daniel O'Connell, we improvised by organising mass meetings and engaging in mass agitation. We also improvised during the land war and by engaging in guerilla warfare. We improvised in relation to everything that was considered valuable in the State. Perhaps we might have a debate to allow Senators, without being put under pressure by the Whip or party, to share with us their views on how we might think outside the box, do radical things and use the Irish imagination in dealing with the recession.
I welcome the rescue of the Chilean miners. I acknowledge also the role played by Ireland - it was a drill brought from County Clare that was used to bore down and create the shaft through which they were rescued. In as much as Senator Ó Murchú was linking the rescue with the economic situation, I remind the House of Esperanza, which means hope, a little girl who was born to one of the miners while he was trapped.
As spokesperson on education and deputy spokesperson on Northern Ireland issues, having attended the Council of Europe last week where we debated a report on extremism and being a little cynical, I ask that we have a debate on the English language, but more so because of what we term criminal and thuggish behaviour being engaged in in the name of something else. In Strasbourg last week I complained that the word "extremist" was being used in respect of someone who wanted to blow people up, shoot or do others harm and said that this was not in keeping with my understanding of the English language. In the same vein, the term "dissident republican" is abused because a republican is a person who respects the idea that a republic is made up of people from many backgrounds on a shared piece of ground. In that context, I draw the Leader's attention to a story in today's edition of the Irish Independent entitled, "Gang Forced to Pay Protection". One of the country's most feared criminal gangs is paying protection money to dissident republicans in order to be able to deal drugs in its home city. That in itself merits debate, whether we are talking about the use of the English language or the direction in which Ireland is moving. I repeat a call I have made many times for a debate on republicanism in Ireland which would be connected to how we deal with the many commemorations by people on all sides with whom we aspire to sharing this land as a republic or an all-island republic. Such a debate would be timely in order that we call people what they are, criminals and thugs, not anything more glorified.
No one should be surprised by Fine Gael's and Deputy Kenny's response to the situation in which we find ourselves. I had been saying for some time that my party would respond positively and constructively. However, there was something peculiar, to say the least, about the fact that the leader of the minor party in government had taken it upon himself to write on his party's stationery, given that, when one formed an integral part of the Government, the initiative should have come from it.
I am pleased that the right course has now been taken in that the Taoiseach, however reluctant, has written to Opposition leaders inviting them to take part in talks. Of course, we are going to engage in them. It reminds me of Liam Cosgrave's-----
I am coming to it, a Chathaoirligh, as ever. It reminds me of Mr. Liam Cosgrave's closing line last night in the Mansion House when launching Mr. David McCullagh's book on his predecessor, Mr. John A. Costello, that his greatest achievement as Taoiseach was that he had made reluctant democrats of the Opposition, of Fianna Fáil.
I concur with those who welcomed the Taoiseach's letter to the leaders of the Opposition parties. I also pay tribute to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who showed enlightenment and courage in the face of ridicule during the past week. He took an initiative which was necessary, namely, putting the dire situation in which we find ourselves above party politics and asking all others to subscribe to the same motivation. I will not anticipate what the leaders of the Opposition parties will do, but I hope they will show the commitment so well articulated by Senator Bradford and that they will rise to his level of response. The country awaits and needs such a response.
In talking about the national interest would Senator Regan be prepared to clarify in the House the motivation behind his letter to the European Commission on the establishment of NAMA, given the revelations in the High Court yesterday?
In welcoming the Taoiseach's letter Fine Gael was the first party to support a budget deficit target of 3% by 2014, to recognise the need for a cross-party approach and the front-loading of budgetary corrections and to agree to a four year budgetary process.
The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, showed how consensus could not be reached; all he was trying to do was to save his own political life and that of Senator Boyle.
Senator O'Toole raised an important issue, the advertising of public sector jobs. There is supposed to be a moratorium on public sector recruitment, but there has been a plethora of jobs advertised. Who is responsible for this? In Cork a school traffic warden on a busy road cannot be substituted owing to a lack of cover. Senator Cannon has pointed out that front-line services are being hit and there are reductions in service delivery in hospitals and education. How can top jobs in the HSE and the public sector be advertised when we are depriving people of the delivery of vital services? This demonstrates the need for reform. We are either serious about the issue or we are not. We spoke yesterday about bringing workers in the public sector with us. The majority will follow us if they are given leadership, but the advertisements are not doing this.
Will the Leader of the House make time available to Senator Regan to make a statement on a story in The Irish Times today about a letter he sent on behalf of the major developer, Mr. Paddy McKillen, to the European Commission regarding NAMA? It would be appropriate for the Senator to make a statement to the House clarifying his position. Was he acting on behalf of Mr. McKillen, or in his capacity as a Member of this House or as a member of Fine Gael? It would be appropriate for such an eminent person, a senior counsel and a shareholder in Goldman Sachs, to make a personal statement.
I welcome and celebrate the decision to sign a contract for the building of the cystic fibrosis unit at St. Vincent's Hospital and warmly congratulate those splendid young people with cystic fibrosis who have led such a courageous and dignified campaign, including Ms Orla Tinsley and Ms Gillian McNulty who have done the State and fellow patients a great service. This is a good day and I look forward to the building being opened. While it will not be ready until 2012, Members on all sides of the House have strongly supported the project.
I support the remarks made by Senator Harris. We are a wonderful people and have extraordinary resources of talent. The one area in which we excel is showing imagination, creativity and what Senator Harris described as improvisation.
We all receive interesting messages from people around the country and Senator Cannon came out with some useful suggestions yesterday. I have received communications from a woman who has called for the creation of a State agency to take over idle buildings in prime tourist spots such as along the banks of the River Shannon and turn them into tourist facilities. If we were to advertise these abroad, people would come and spend their money. We should let those who own idle houses wash their faces.
I have one negative question. When will the Oireachtas address the legal implications of the state of our knowledge, practice and science in the field of assisted human reproduction? Yet again the newspapers are reporting on a judgment in which the Oireachtas has been chastised by a judge for its indolence in not addressing this fundamental human problem. There was an effort made to address the issue by a distinguished former Member of the House, Dr. Mary Henry, who placed a Bill on assisted human reproduction before it. Let us take on the subject and look after the welfare of citizens.
It is good news for County Louth.
I reiterate the point made by Senator Norris about the cystic fibrosis centre which is much needed. I hope the project will move quickly and without delay.
Yesterday the Dignity 4 Patients group which represents victims of sexual abuse in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital held a press conference in Buswells Hotel following a meeting with the Minister for Health and Children. It extended an invite to the Minister to come to Drogheda to meet victims of abuse, to which she said she was not averse. I would like the Leader to relay the invitation from the Seanad to the Minister. If she shows compassion, it will send a message to the victims.
I join Senator Carroll in his remarks on the victims of abuse at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. We must pay tribute to the hard work done for them by the support group which has done tremendous work in recent years. I ask the Minister to seriously consider the request made.
The Leader is aware from the briefing he attended in Buswells Hotel yesterday that many students have still not received their grants and are being denied access to college facilities such as libraries and laboratories because they cannot pay their registration fees in the absence of their grants. It might be the end of November before students in County Meath are informed if they will receive a grant. I ask the Leader to use his offices to make representations to the colleges and ask them to allow the students concerned to access facilities while they await the payment of their grants.
In UCD, because of the moratorium on staff recruitment, disabled students have not been provided with assistants who help them to read notes and access lecture halls. Disabled students are unable to go to college because the assistants have not been approved. Will the Leader make representations to UCD to have a system put in place to allow applications to be assessed as soon as possible?
I also support the remarks made on the cystic fibrosis centre and call for a debate on the matter.
I call for a debate on the issue of fuel poverty. There have been many reports in the media on rising energy prices, but many do not have the financial capability to deal with high heating costs, particularly if we have a difficult winter.
Approximately 25,000 houses have been covered by the warmer homes scheme, of which 16,240 were covered last year. We are seeking a similar number this year. For those in the scheme who find heating their homes difficult and have been in receipt of the fuel allowance, having their homes insulated for free in recent years has been a good news story. It is a story the Government needs to push. More than 1,000 people per week are applying for the home energy saving scheme.
While there is much doom and gloom concerning fuel poverty, the insulation of homes is a good news story. When people are negative about the carbon tax, it is important to consider its positive aspects. I would welcome a full debate on fuel poverty and call for the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, to attend the House to discuss it.
Senators Twomey, Ó Murchú, Keaveney and Coghlan offered their congratulations to the Chilean ambassador. On behalf of the House, I congratulate the President of Chile and his lady wife, who stood by the mine as the 33 miners returned from the dreadful conditions in which they had lived for 70 days. Returning those miners to their families was a marvellous achievement on the part of the engineering staff and everyone involved. It was uplifting to watch and was compulsive television viewing. It was a good event that lifted the people of Chile and most of the people watching across the world. I hope the inspiration given by the Chilean men and women who made it possible will be felt throughout the world. I send our congratulations and best wishes to the Chilean President and ambassador.
Senators O'Toole, Cannon and Buttimer discussed advertising jobs in the public sector, public sector reform and local authorities. County Westmeath has an excellent county manager in Mr. Danny McLoughlin, who is also the director of services for the electoral areas of Mullingar east, Mullingar west and Coole. Where there used to be four directors of services, there are now only two.
Senators Alex White, Boyle, Ó Murchú and Walsh referred to the Labour Party's consideration today of whether to join the consensus talks in response to the Taoiseach's letter of invitation. I wish everyone well with their important responsibilities, as the national interest comes before party or person. Almost everyone in both Houses is serving because of a commitment to the public good. Never was that commitment more needed than it is now, especially among the leadership of all parties. I look forward to the Labour Party playing its part. I am delighted that the Fine Gael leader is also joining the Taoiseach in the talks at this difficult time.
Senator Cannon mentioned the surgeon at Portiuncula Hospital who is awaiting a single administrative staff member. If 800 staff are employed by the HSE in the region, surely it would be common sense for that excellent hospital's request to be answered. I spent seven weeks as a patient there. It is top class and has been a wonderful training hospital. The dedication of the Medical Missionaries of Mary to the hospital has been incredible. I will support the Senator's call and will contact the Minister's office after the Order of Business to try to use my influence to pass Senator Cannon's request along the line.
Senator Harris asked for a debate on the response to the recession. We will continue our debate on banking next Thursday. Many Senators made requests of me during the week. On Tuesday, we will conclude Second Stage of Senator Quinn's Bill and then deliberate on the Tánaiste's new VEC proposals. I want the House to make a contribution to the proposed changes. On Wednesday morning, Senator Cummins's Bill on the additional member in NAMA will be before the House.
I beg the Senator's pardon. I give my commitment to schedule the Bill for Wednesday. In the afternoon, we will discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport in the shape of the new tourism reform package. I hope we will be able to make an input into it. All day Thursday we will receive an update on the banking situation. Following the commitment I gave to the House at the start of this term, we will also let the Minister know our views on the matter.
Senators Walsh and Leyden expressed an opinion on Senator Regan. I have noted their comments. Senators Norris, Carroll and Ó Brolcháin raised the matter of cystic fibrosis and welcomed the good news that the contract will be signed today. We all want to join in that welcome. All parties did their utmost and quite a few parliamentarians worked hard to see this day come about. I congratulate everyone involved. I look forward to the Government's commitment and to the opening of the facility in the near future.
In response to Senator Norris, I will make inquires into the Bill tabled by the former Senator, Dr. Henry, and revert to him. Senator Carroll raised the matter of dignity for patients at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and referred to the hospital group's invitation of a meeting with the Minister. I will pass it on to the Minister this morning. Senator Hannigan discussed access to college library facilities for students awaiting their grants. I will pass his strong views on to the Minister.
Senator Ó Brolcháin raised the issue of the high cost of heating and the great success of the warmer homes scheme. As he stated, 25,000 houses have benefited. There is significant interest in the opportunity, given that there are 1,000 applications per month.