Seanad debates

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Bretton Woods Agreements (Amendment) Bill 2011: Second and Subsequent Stages


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

12:00 pm

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Members of the Seanad for agreeing to discuss this Bill today at short notice. I will begin by recalling the background to the Bretton Woods Agreements to which this Bill refers. The International Monetary Fund, IMF, was conceived in 1944 when representatives of 45 countries, meeting in the town of Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in the United States, agreed on a framework for international economic co-operation to be established after the Second World War. They believed that such a framework was necessary to avoid a repetition of the disastrous economic policies that had contributed to the Great Depression.

The IMF came into formal existence in December 1945 when its first 29 member countries signed its Articles of Agreement. The planners of the agreements were far-sighted. They realised that there will always be imbalances and crises in international monetary affairs and a sound adjustment mechanism was required. The IMF began operations on 1 March 1947 and, later that year, France became the first country to borrow from the IMF. The IMF's membership began to expand in the late 1950s and during the 1960s, as many African countries became independent and applied for membership. Ireland joined in 1957. Since then, the world has changed and is continuing to change dramatically. The IMF's method of operating has changed to reflect this as it has sought to adapt to the changing needs of its expanding membership in a globalised world economy. I caution Senators against extrapolating to today the strong criticism in the 1980s of the IMF policies in Africa and South America as that critique is no longer valid. In the past four years in particular, the IMF's managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has launched an ambitious reform agenda aimed at ensuring the IMF continues to deliver the economic analysis and multilateral consultation that is at the core of its mission, ensuring the stability of the global monetary system in a very changed world. This includes reform of governance, greater accountability, financial reforms, and a trebling of the fund's lending capacity as part of the response to the global financial crisis.

This is the context in which the Bill is being discussed today. The Bill is required to allow Ireland convey acceptance of amendments to the IMF Articles of Agreement which were approved by the IMF board of governors, including the governor for Ireland, in 2008. Acceptance of these amendments by Ireland will contribute to the process of bringing the amendments into force.

The two amendments to the Articles of Agreement which are scheduled to this Bill are part of a package of reforms agreed by the IMF in 2008, first, to realign voting power in the IMF to reflect changes in the global economy and, second, to increase the voting power and participation of low income countries, LICs. The 2008 reforms will adjust the IMF quota shares of members to reflect better their relative weight and role in the global economy. A member's quota also determines the amount of financial resources a member contributes to the IMF and the level of access and cost of IMF financing. While the quota adjustments will benefit emerging market economies in the main, a number of advanced countries, including Ireland, who have been significantly under-represented for some time, will also receive a quota increase. The increase in Ireland's quota share will also have the effect of reducing the interest rate payable on the funds borrowed by Ireland from the fund by about 18 basis points or, specifically, by €1.8 million per billion borrowed per annum.

Since the 2008 agreement, I have attended two annual meetings of the IMF-World Bank, where further reforms and quota changes were discussed, which culminated in a further set of agreements, the 2010 reforms, which, when implemented, will have the effect of further increasing Ireland's quota. The impact of this quota adjustment, when implemented, will have a far more significant increase on Ireland's interest rate, with a potential reduction estimated at 80 basis points, or approximately €6.5 million per billion per annum, when implemented. However, it is first necessary to implement the current 2008 quota reform with which the present Bill is linked.

The Bill is essentially technical in nature and provides for the acceptance of the fifth and sixth amendments to the IMF Articles of Agreement, both of which are scheduled to the Bill. The Third Schedule contains the Articles of Agreement as they currently stand and which are to be amended.

The fifth amendment, at Schedule 1, is known as the voice and participation amendment and must enter into force before the quota increases can become effective. This requires acceptance by the required voting threshold of three fifths of members having 85% of total voting power. Our current information from the IMF is that the voting requirement is very close to being attained.

The fifth amendment contains three sections, the first of which authorises the IMF board of governors to adopt rules in order that IMF executive directors of constituencies with more than a specified number of countries may appoint a second alternate executive director. Currently, every constituency has only one alternate executive director. The purpose of the section is to enhance the capacity of the two African constituency offices to represent the countries in their constituencies at a higher level in recognition of their special challenges, including the heavy workload associated with the important advisory and financial role that the fund is playing in many of the member countries.

The second section of the amendment amends the formula for the calculation of the IMF votes of member countries. The purpose of the amendment is to increase the voting power of low-income countries which has been eroded over time partly because of the relative increase in the economic power of other countries and also because of the impact of successive rounds of IMF quota increases. This is a central element of the 2008 IMF reform package.

The third section of the amendment is a consequential amendment which provides that the new rules for calculating votes shall not be affected by the suspension of any member's voting rights.

The Government is also taking the opportunity presented by the Bill to accept the sixth amendment to the IMF articles of agreement. This is called the investment authority amendment. While it is independent of the voice and participation amendment and the 2008 governance reforms, including the quota increase, the fund has suggested to members that they may decide to communicate their acceptance to the fund at the same time as the two amendments.

The first three sections of the investment authority amendment which was agreed in 2008 provide for a broadening of the range of instruments in which the IMF may invest by removing a number of limitations in the current articles of agreement. Notwithstanding the removal of a number of limitations, the amendment provides that all investments should be made in accordance with rules and regulations to be adopted by a 70% majority of the total voting power of the fund. The final section of the amendment is related to the creation of an endowment from the profits of the sale of a limited portion of the IMF's gold holdings.

It is in the interests of Ireland and the rest of the IMF membership that the Bill be enacted. For that reason I commend it to the House.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State on what is an interesting day in politics. This is the more civilised Chamber of the Oireachtas in which technical legislation such as this can be debated. The work of processing legislation must continue and the Bill is exactly the type of technical legislation the Minister of State likes to bring before us. He has set out the reasoning behind it. The collision of politics, economics and banking has resulted in a date being fixed for the general election.

There has been much ill-informed comment about the IMF which has been portrayed as a bogeyman, but when one reflects on the reasons behind its establishment, the work it has done throughout its history and the aid and support it provides for countries such as Ireland, one must recognise that it has worked. However, like every other agency, it is in need of ongoing reform. The Government and its successor will be keeping in close contact with it in the coming years and it is in our interests that the Bill is passed in order that the proposed reforms will be introduced.

I wish to set out some facts about the IMF to demonstrates the significance of its role on the global financial stage. Its membership comprises 187 countries with total quotas of $328 billion. As of last year, it had committed loans worth $200 billion and it is now engaged in the financial bailout of this country. Although political slogans will be commonplace during the general election campaign, we should see the IMF as part of the solution for us rather than a problem. It did not cause the country to be in distress and is playing its part in turning our economic fortunes around. In that regard, we must engage with it.

I note what the Minister of State said about interest rate changes. In the wider scale of things, these changes are not huge, but they are to be welcomed nonetheless.

The IMF is more than 60 years old. It began to expand in the late 1950s and, from an international perspective, its role in trying to support and redevelop Africa is laudable. However, that work is still in its early stages. While we have seen tremendous growth in the emerging economies of China, India and South-East Asia, this has yet to happen on the huge continent of Africa. I hope the updated and improved IMF will play a positive role in its development and redevelopment. It is in the interests of every citizen of the globe that there is strong economic growth worldwide. In so far as the IMF is beginning to make a difference through its policies on Africa, that must be welcomed.

I am far from being an expert on the IMF. Its current managing director, Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is being spoken about as a future candidate for the French Presidency and will probably make a decision in that regard in the near future. His reputation has been enhanced since he took up his position in the IMF. Most neutral commentators suggest he is carrying out his duties in a professional, dynamic and visionary manner. Notwithstanding the fact that the Opposition suggests the Government could have negotiated a better bailout package, Mr. Strauss-Kahn is playing his role in this country's recovery.

This has been a dramatic day for the body politic, but politics is all about change and renewal. The fixing of a date for the general election is unusual in this country but the norm elsewhere in Europe. It allows for a relatively long election campaign and the voters will have more than two or three stressful weeks to decide between party A or B. Clearly, I have my own opinions, but I hope we will have time to reflect on and debate the choices to be made. Rather than play a game of Punch and Judy or replay history, the next five or six weeks will give us time and space to conduct a civilised campaign that will allow us to prepare for the future. That is good for the electorate and the country, as well as for politicians. We need to have an election campaign which will move us beyond anger, despair and the blame game to engaging in mature political reflection and debate. Whether we will be winners or losers individually, we should use the coming six weeks to regenerate politics. I look forward to playing whatever small role I can in that regard.

On this day when the clock for the 11 March general election has commenced ticking and when finance and the regeneration of this country and its economy will be to the fore, we are debating this Bretton Woods Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2011. It shows that the jigsaw of the country's recovery is complex. Domestic, European and world economic decisions will all be part of our solution. Whether we like it or not, the IMF has a role to play and we must continue our engagement with it.

I hope this technical change will strengthen the IMF's capacity to intervene where necessary and to assist where required. I wish the Minister of State well in passing this legislation and all my colleagues well in the few difficult months ahead.

Photo of John Gerard HanafinJohn Gerard Hanafin (Fianna Fail)
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I take the opportunity to endorse what Senator Bradford said. I look forward to a campaign which will be constructive, positive and forward-looking based on policy and with a view to what is best for Ireland. In terms of the vision the different parties have for Ireland and how they will explain to the electorate the rationale for decisions, I hope they will try to avoid any knee-jerk reactions which do not reflect the reality of the situation surrounding decisions made and that we put them in the context of the circumstances that prevailed at the time. I look forward to a brighter future which I am certain is the aim of every party in this House.

The Bretton Woods Agreement is an historic agreement reached in 1944. It was preceded by the Atlantic Charter which, interestingly, was agreed in 1941 between Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt of the United States. I mention the confidence of the United States at that time in terms of how it viewed the future. Even before it entered the Second World War, it indicated the type of world it wanted to see after it. It was a remarkable show of self-confidence and self-belief on the part of the United States at that time that it indicated the type of world it envisaged. It outlined the type of trade, access to goods, access to the seas and the rights of individual trading nations. That all came to pass with the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1944 and the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The reason for looking forward was as a result of the difficulties of the 1930s. The 1930s were overshadowed by the boom 1920s which was followed by the crash in 1929 when it became obvious that people could not repay the massive amount of credit pushed into the economies of the world. That was followed by the Depression.

We were very fortunate that we had that historic analysis. I firmly believe we would have had a second Depression as a result of the financial crisis in the United State in 2007 and 2008 except for the fact that people knew the mistakes made in the 1930s, subsequent to the 1929 crash. The mistakes made in the 1930s not only led to the extension of the Depression but were a major contributor to the Second World War and to other wars. Wars have an economic basis.

Measures taken included the introduction by the United States of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act which placed tariffs on 20,000 goods imported into the United States. It then used depreciation of its currency to ensure it had access to other markets. Nazi Germany introduced a favourable exchange rate mechanism and favourable trade arrangements with countries trading with it. The British Empire had a preference for its own colonies and the French followed suit. There was a strong need for a world system of economics that included access to markets.

The head of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke's, doctoral thesis was on the Great Depression and he knew how to handle the difficulties which arose in 2007 and 2008. We faced a very serious situation. I gave a great quote from the film "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" previously in the House. One of the elderly advisers on Wall Street played by Eli Wallach was asked what to do when Lehman Brothers collapsed. He said it was 1929 all over again except this time it would be worse because it would happen quickly, banks would close, ATMs would stop spitting out money, there would be panic on the streets, jobs would be lost, standing orders would not be paid and that it would be the end of the world.

Thankfully, there was a man who knew how to deal with the situation and he immediately pumped money into the market. The Americans increased the amount of money in circulation to ensure there was not a liquidity problem. Rather than do the obvious thing, cut their markets, ensure production for their own country only and introduce tariffs to protect their own jobs, they ensured the world economies stayed open. This is part of the work the IMF does and what the Bretton Woods Agreement catered for.

I am sorry one part of the Bretton Woods Agreement was changed in 1971 by Richard Nixon, namely, going off the gold standard. I still believe that having the gold standard as a back up fund is the best way forward. Again, as each difficulty arises and as the situation changes, we see what is necessary. We are now emerging from what could have been one of the most serious Depressions since 1929.

The fact we are increasing our quota from .385 to .528, which has historically been under-represented in the IMF, that we will achieve cheaper funding and that we are full participants in the IMF is welcome. Other major economies have benefited, including France in 1947. The UK has twice gone to the IMF for assistance. As the Minister mentioned, the new IMF is not the same as the IMF which got involved in Africa and Latin America in the 1980s and which unfortunately got a bad reputation. Now it is seen as having more of a consultative and assistive role. I am very proud we are able to patriciate fully in this.

3:00 pm

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House to deal with important legislation to reflect changing times and attitudes. It is one of a number of areas in which we are involved globally. No fair-minded person could argue against the objectives and what is proposed in this legislation. A fair-minded person might propose it should go further but the reality is that one must take steps slowly.

I am sure the Minister of State will agree it is important to recognise that were we sitting here 15 years ago having a debate on global economic affairs, the so-called BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China would not have rated as major markets and having an impact in monetary and currency terms. Looking at world stock markets over the past year and at the countries which made the greatest gains in terms of investment in their markets, I believe Brazil was the only one of the emerging markets which did not outperform the traditional western developed economies.

We should recognise that the IMF sets out to deal with global economic systems and create stability, which we completely support. It begs certain questions which we in this country are not courageous enough to answer, including the question of the euro. In the past six months we have seen the debate on the euro move from left to right across Europe and out to the peripheries. It began with problems in Greece, then a problem in Ireland and on to a possible problem in Portugal. It then appeared as if it might move on to Spain and possibly the huge economy of Italy. People are talking about problems in Belgium.

While I know the Minister will not be comfortable with this, we need to ask ourselves what is the logical economic argument in favour of having 29 different central banks looking after one currency which is effectively what we have in Europe; it is unsustainable. In the same way that Chancellor Merkel is wrong to argue against the concept of euro bonds, we are wrong to argue that we should all have our little central banks. We need to remember they are central banks and not just out-offices of the European Central Bank. They each have significant levels of authority, influence and decision making power within individual countries, as in our case. We need to review that. We need to have the structure of the Central Bank as it is at the moment based in its head office. However, we do not need the amount of power each of the central banks has. We can distinguish between that matter and taxation issues. The bridge between those is the budgetary matter.

One of the most positive steps in the four year plan is the step most people criticise, which is that people need to put their cards on the table and outline proposals for the budget. We can give people autonomy in doing that, but if people step out of line they need to be regulated. It is no different from the concept of a bank being regulated by the State. However, within all the benefits of a European currency we need to recognise that it does not give us complete freedom. It is like the freedoms we are given under our constitutional rights. We have perfect freedom as long as those freedoms do not interfere with the rights of other people and if they do a judgment call needs to be made. If, for instance, the right to free speech is in danger of libelling somebody or causing hatred or racism, there are ways to deal with it. All those rights need to be looked at.

What we are trying to achieve here is some form of democratic economy. Let us move away from the IMF for the moment and look at it in European terms. The Treaty of Rome was introduced to establish the free movement of labour, capital, goods and services in what we called then the Common Market. We have moved on from that and now have the European Community. The Common Market is supposed to have developed into a much more sophisticated animal in the meantime, but it has not. It is still not possible to bring a car from Belgium to Ireland without going through tonnes of red tape. I could give many other examples.

We started with the IMF in order to democratise the decision making process within it to reflect the influence of the emerging nations, which is a good thing. However, let us consider Chad in Central Africa which is usually considered the poorest country in the world. In all we have done with world trade agreements, the IMF, the European Union and all the trade barriers having been brought down, Chad is now worse off than it was 30 years ago. However, if Chad was allowed to sell into the US or Europe and its citizens were allowed to work here - I am not proposing we would do these things - it could increase the wealth of that country very quickly and see it come up to a more general standard. It is not to say that would be easy to do and I do not propose that we consider doing that, but I am proposing that we soften the protectionism that surrounds many of the markets on the globe. Ireland is more innocent than most in this regard. We have a more open economy than many of the so-called leaders even in European terms. The Minister of State has a great grá for the French nation, but one does not need to spend much time in France to see that despite them being great Europeans, they flout more European regulations than any other country. Whether in agriculture, market gardening or supporting its energy industry, they find ways to protect their industries.

We need more openness and the Bill moves in the correct direction in recognising the need to open up and give more influence to the emerging nations. While I may be going off the point somewhat the United Nations Security Council could do with more democratisation for the same reason. If that council were elected by a vote of all the UN member states and got its power in that way like a country's government, we would have a far more equitable and democratic decision-making process within the United Nations which would find more acceptance in many places where it does not today. Instead the United Nations, which is very positive, is where we now democratically fight what would have previously been wars, so we cannot complain about that, but it is not democratic. Nor was or is the IMF, but at least what we are proposing today brings the IMF forward into a more democratic place. In that regard it is to be welcomed and the Government is to be thanked for introducing the Bill. I have no problem in supporting it passing through the House efficiently and quickly today even though it has come to us at short notice.

Photo of Mark DeareyMark Dearey (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I wish to take up the theme of democratisation in welcoming the Bill which represents some progress on that front. When one considers how slow any democratisation of the United Nations Security Council is, one must be thankful for signs of it within the IMF. I have been following the United Nations Security Council's debate on reform for many years. It is not unlike the debate on Seanad reform; there are many words but not much activity on the ground. One of the better ideas which attracts me, even though it probably breaches the notion of the United Nations, is that of regional representation within the Security Council, which would provide a voice that, in particular, Africa ought to have.

I welcome the small progress the Bill represents in providing a more meaningful voice, particularly to southern countries. However, some of the commentary suggests the changes are minuscule in terms of many of the less developed nations and much more needs to be done. This small step forward ought to be afforded the support of the Chamber.

I note the view of the Debt and Development Coalition that a double majority voting system which would require the achievement of two separate majorities, one based on one country, one vote, the other on economically weighted quotas, would give much more equity to the decision making processes within the IMF. It would increase the influence of southern countries in decision making and allow them to build coalitions with nations that have similar challenges and problems in their path towards sustainable development. I echo another point made by the Debt and Development Coalition, namely, this increased dialogue would generate among members a better prospect of building consensus and would lead to a more equitable set of parameters within which global trade happens, as alluded to by Senator O'Toole. There are gross assymmetries between nations in trading arrangements to the point of naked protectionism on the part of the more powerful partner in the asymmetric trading relationship.

I refer to gold sales where windfall profits will be used primarily for internal IMF purposes. The point has been made by those watching the passage of this Bill that this amount, which may be up to $2.5 billion, could be used as a matter of urgency by southern countries in need of appropriate supports.

In general, the IMF has demonstrated an improved competence but, as the Minister of State mentioned, the 1980s version may be fixed in the minds of many of us. I certainly studied these matters back in the day and saw the IMF as an agency that made at least as many inappropriate and economically and culturally insensitive decisions as it did good ones. However, I accept that as an organisation it has moved on a long way from those times. It is still the case that a stronger voice for less developed nations would lead to a better decision making process for the vast swathe of the global population which is currently under-represented in the way the IMF reaches its conclusions.

The Minister of State highlighted the merits and small advances made. I recognise these and therefore welcome the Bill and shall support it.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senators who contributed to this debate. As we have seen with the United Nations, the reform of international institutions tends to proceed rather slowly but we must be grateful for what has happened. Obviously, we are discussing decisions taken in 2008 but the situation has accelerated vastly since then and there will be a follow-up to the meeting in 2010. Undoubtedly the global crisis put the IMF centre-stage although a few years previously, if anything, it had tended to have become something of a backwater.

Senator Bradford was right to remark that we should not see the IMF as a bogey man. I was reminded last night in the other House that the Bretton Woods Agreement was about setting up an enlightened, international, new world order after the Second World War and incorporated this into my speech today. Keynes was centrally involved in establishing the agreement. In the 1980s a different economic wind was blowing with the advent of Reagan and Thatcher and monetarism. The IMF was perceived as being harsh and insensitive in dealing with developing countries. That may be somewhat of a caricature and added to in international political debate, but none the less there was a certain foundation to that critique.

Senator Bradford was right to say that growth and development have yet to happen on the continent of Africa. There were calls from one party in the other House last night for the IMF to be abolished, to which I responded that in my experience, having attended two annual IMF meetings in 2008 and 2009, the least developed countries would not appreciate such a development. The IMF is an international body which is of assistance in development and it operates its meetings back to back with the World Bank.

Senator Hanafin is right that since the 1930s people have been very anxious to avoid the mistakes of that decade with its prolonged and deep depression and all the political consequences that ensued. It was undoubtedly a contributory factor to the Second World War during which tens of millions lost their lives. Notwithstanding the depth of the crisis we are experiencing, we should not underestimate the difficulties of many other countries at the present time. We are looking at nothing remotely comparable to the early 1930s and are at an entirely different level of development.

Senator O'Toole alluded to some of the problems concerning the governance of the eurozone, although I did not interpret his remarks as advocating we should try to leave that group. He was talking more of reforming its governance, which is an ongoing debate, especially among the eurozone countries. It has not learned how to deal with crises in the making, but that may have an impact on how we might restore confidence to the eurozone and the associated countries, many of which have had their defences severely tested in recent times. We are talking not only about the situation of individual countries but about the eurozone as a whole. I take the view that membership of the eurozone is of long-term strategic benefit to this country. Any attempt to take another course would be significantly disruptive. The reality is that we have always been, even as a country which is politically independent, part of a currency arrangement. We were either united with sterling, as we were until 1 January 1979, or alternatively linked with the European Exchange Rate Mechanism which crystalised in Economic and Monetary Union. I am confident that there is a role to be played by national central banks, as well as the European Central Bank, in this arrangement, but that is a debate for another day.

In principle, the democratisation of international institutions is progressive, but most international institutions, particularly those with power and economic strength, have weightings attached. The United Nations which is often seen as a model has five permanent members of the Security Council. Within the organisation these member states have vastly more power than all other member states; they have a right of veto, for example. With regard to the IMF, we must bear in mind the big contributors, the biggest by far being the United States. If they are to continue to make that contribution, they must have confidence in the organisation. For a period some ten or 20 years ago the United States, under a Republican Administration, effectively lost confidence in the United Nations and was very slow to make financial contributions.

There is a trade-off to be made if we want to secure the full financial backing and participation of the United States in the IMF. I get the impression, having attended two annual meetings, that most, if not all, countries want to secure the commitment of the United States to the IMF, but if this is to be so, the extension of quotas, votes and the principle of democratisation should not threaten what can be seen as vital American interests. All wealthy countries have a certain fear that they will be converted into cash cows; in the eurozone Germany has the potential to become a cash cow for poorer countries in a process it cannot control.

That is the background to the debate. The 2008 changes which we are discussing represent a cautious move towards democratisation, but the 2010 changes which have also been agreed are perhaps slightly more far-reaching. One should not exaggerate this point.

I thank the House for its support for this progressive measure which is relevance to our domestic position to the extent that there will be a limited reduction in the interest rate we must pay on the IMF element of the loans we will receive. The later agreement, when this round is completed, will have a somewhat larger beneficial effect.

I will respond briefly to comments made by Senators Bradford and Hanafin. Reflecting on what has happened in one of the strange and extraordinary days that we all experience in the Houses occasionally, I very much endorse the view expressed and hope we can have a constructive debate on the issues involved. I hope this will not happen only during the run-up to the general election and that it will be possible for various parties and Independent Members to approach problems in a realistic fashion rather than saying things which would be regrettable later if those parties were in government afterwards. If parties have no likelihood of being in government, they should not mislead the people about what it is possible to achieve. I am firmly of the view that when the election is over, no matter what the strength is of different parties, groups and Independents in representing the people, all elements in the Oireachtas will have to co-operate closely and perhaps be a little more constructive which was not always the case in the past. The Oireachtas can work with the Government of the day to lift the country out of its difficulties and reach a more benign path as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.