Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re arrangements for the address to Seanad Éireann by Dr. Mary Robinson on Thursday, 24 November 2011, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of the Order of Business; and No. 2, statements on infrastructure and capital investment, to be taken at 3.30 p.m. and to conclude no later than 5.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes, followed by questions from the floor not to exceed two minutes. There will be a sos on the conclusion of No. 1.
I am confining the Order of Business today to 55 minutes. Some Members may not get in but I was criticised on the previous day by some of my own people for allowing it to go on and, therefore, I will have to stick to the rules. If everybody plays by the rules and keeps to their time, many Members will get an opportunity to speak.
The clock starts now. First, I want to correct the record of the House. Last week I raised the matter of student fees and the fact that Labour Youth and Labour Party Members were not at the march. I am happy to correct the record of House in that the national chairperson of Labour Youth contacted me to tell me that there were some members of Labour Youth at the march. I commend them for taking that stance in opposition to their own party. It is a difficult thing to do. He was also able to confirm that there was only one member of the Labour Party Parliamentary Party at the march, the newly elected Member, Deputy Patrick Nulty. I am happy to correct the record of the House and the Labour Party Members might reflect on the reason they let down their youth movement so badly.
Second, and most importantly, regarding the mortgage arrears implementation strategy, we had a very good debate here some weeks ago with the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes. All of us agreed that the Minister of State was very forthcoming. In response to questions from myself and a Senator on the Government side of the House he stated:
[We] will not be obliged to wait until the budget is introduced in order to discover what the Government proposes to do. It is the Government's intention - as set out by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan - to put in place a full implementation strategy in advance of the budget. This will mean that no one will be obliged to wait until the first week of December to discover what are the Government's proposals.
He also stated:
It is the responsibility of [...] Members of this House to ensure that we deliver on what we have proposed. That is what holding a Government to account involves.
I intend to hold the Government to account here today because last Tuesday the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, in response to my colleague in the other House, stated:
I am planning to make an announcement before Christmas [not before the budget] but whether that is before or after the budget I cannot say. It is more likely to be in those weeks between the budget and the Christmas recess.
The Government has had the Keane report for almost nine weeks. The Minister of State came into this House and stated on the record, which I welcomed at the time, that we will have a full implementation strategy on mortgage arrears published in advance of the budget but his boss, the Minister, Deputy Noonan, has stated that we will not. I do not believe the Minister, Deputy Noonan, when he states the strategy will be published before Christmas.
We saw the figures last week. Almost 10% of mortgages in this country are in distress and the Government is doing nothing about it. The Government side has defeated a family home Bill already in this House, so what is it doing on mortgages?
The Minister of State or the Minister for Finance should return to the House and tell us why we are obliged to wait until after the budget to hear the Government's proposals. Only three weeks ago we were told they would be published in advance of the budget but the Government has reneged on that promise. Hopefully Members on the Government side will take up that issue.
Turning to what I may call "Joan's 12 Steps to Economic Recovery", which was published by the current Minister for Social Protection in advance of the election in February, the seventh step states that she will protect child benefit. I hope she does and I hope the Government is not flying a kite and causing grave concern to thousands of families by suggesting a €10 cut in child benefit. This will be fought tooth and nail by my party. Nowhere in any agreement does it state that child benefit will be cut. I remind Members opposite------
I wish to move an amendment to the Order of Business, to call on the Minister for Health to attend the House today to tell us what the Government is doing in respect of the 120 State run community nursing homes, including the home in Abbeyleix and St. Brigid's in Dublin. I want him to confirm that it is not Government policy to close all these community run beds for the elderly. There should be a debate on the very important service given to our elderly by the community nursing homes. I agree with Senator John Whelan of the Labour Party, who said this was a bridge too far for him. I hope the Members opposite support this amendment.
I am sure if I went to my local hardware store I would probably find wallpaper with a design called "Fianna Fáil promises".
I would like to wish the Cabinet well in its discussions on the budget. In the midst of all the rumour, innuendoes and suggestions, protocol always is that the budget will be announced when it is announced. I would like to see some sort of decency maintained in that respect.
On a different matter, I would like to commend a model which is coming to the Button Factory in Dublin on Thursday. It is the "Leitrim Equation 2" model of musical delight, which is about more than music. It is about bringing older and younger people together in a spirit of co-operation to discover the sort of traditions and the cultural richness of Leitrim. I would like to commend that as a model for the way in which communities can come together and find things in common when times are difficult.
I would like to ask the Leader if the authorities can find as a matter of urgency a way of responding to the increase in the numbers sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin. This is a problem that is particularly acute in Dublin, although there are people sleeping rough in Cork, Galway and Limerick. The number of those in Dublin has gone from 60 in 2009 to 70 in 2010 to 87 as of 9 November 2011.If there needs to be an emergency intervention when the weather gets colder, the authorities need to ensure that we do not find people literally on the streets. This problem occurs every year at this time, but it is particularly difficult this year because there is a shortage of beds to cover the increased numbers. Direct intervention is needed.
I call on the Minister for Foreign Affairs to make a statement on Egypt and Syria. We are all aware that people are losing their lives in both of these countries; that there are serious violations of human rights; that although elections have been promised in Egypt for next Monday, there is no certainty they will occur; and that the situation in Syria is deteriorating daily. It is difficult to calculate how many people have died in Syria - it may be 3,000, it may be 3,500. We do not know because coverage is scant, journalists and so on are not allowed in, and human rights organisations have been prevented from entering. I would appreciate if the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade could make a statement on these matters.
Members of the House will perhaps know - certainly if they consult the record - that over many years I have intervened to protect the right to privacy of citizens of this country against inappropriate media intrusion, such as the publication of the names and occupations of accused persons in a country in which people are held to be innocent until found guilty. For example, after a robbery in which a man was tied up and stabbed to death, the newspapers said he had died as a result of a bizarre sexual ritual, which was inappropriate and incorrect, and his family were extraordinarily distressed. I also spoke on the Defamation Bill, with some assistance from Senator Walsh of Fianna Fáil, and we occasioned the withdrawal of the original Bill.
It was, therefore, with some interest that I read the report of the initial stages of the inquiry in the UK under Lord Leveson, and I have a specific question to ask the Leader. Mr. David Sherborne QC made certain accusations against the British media: that they have been illegally accessing people's private voicemails; bribing employees to divulge personal information; blagging sensitive details through deception and trickery; blackmailing vulnerable or opportunistic individuals into breaking confidences about well-known people; intruding blatantly into the grief of victims of crime; vilifying ordinary members of the public unwittingly caught up in such events; hounding various well known people and their families and friends purely because this sells newspapers; and bullying those who, in seeking to question these practices, are merely exercising the same freedom of speech behind which much of this behaviour is sought to be shielded or excused by the press.
I am asking the Leader if he will try to institute an examination of the behaviour of the Irish media, because they are certainly engaging in these practices, to my absolute knowledge - through knowledge passed on to me and in my own direct personal experience - and I will be making a complaint, which I ask the Leader to take seriously, on the basis that the editor of a newspaper actually told me that certain recent negative treatments of myself were as a result of such activity, which I properly conducted as an elected Member of this House, and that this was "payback time". I regard that as unacceptable. I will be making a full statement to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and I expect my colleagues to stand by me, particularly in light of the remarks of Lord Leveson when he said he was aware of the fact that potential witnesses, including Members of Parliament, felt threatened by the possibility of further exposure and delving into their private lives should they dare to give evidence. This is a matter that needs to be examined. I ask, first, that my complaint be treated as a matter of extreme seriousness and urgency by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, and, second, for an examination of the way in which the media operate in this country. The British media are now, in my opinion, afraid to do the kind of things in the UK that they are prepared to do in this country because they regard us as a colony, and they regard it as appropriate to behave in this manner here although they would no longer do so in Britain.
I am asking for two things. First, I ask that my complaint, when I make it shortly, be treated seriously by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. It is a specific complaint and will be supported by statements. Second, I am asking for an examination into the conduct of the Irish media.
Arising out of that, he knows what he saddled this Government with. I ask him to await the budget speech.
I would like to refer to tax exiles. We learned recently that there are more than 5,800 people domiciled here but non-resident for tax purposes. The previous Administration brought in what was considered to be a worthwhile measure - a levy - but sadly, as we now know, only ten people contributed bringing in a total of €1.48 million. Something is seriously amiss here and must be addressed.
Another man from my neck of the woods and that of Senator Ned O'Sullivan has made a fantastic contribution to this country. He has set up his business abroad, he has done well and he has made a significant contribution of more than €95 million to various good works in the mid west. Recently we learned of the scholarships he has established. This gentleman is an example to all others domiciled here but non-resident for tax purposes. This matter should be addressed urgently. I am unsure how it should be tweaked but I am keen for us to take up the matter. I realise we cannot have the Minister here in early course but perhaps the matter will be addressed in the budget, which Senator Darragh O'Brien so eagerly awaits and wishes could be announced today.
Three times last week, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I called for a debate on the budget and, more specifically, on pre-budget proposals from parties, groupings and individuals. On the three occasions, the Leader failed to respond or to give us a date on when exactly this could take place. Senator Coghlan spoke of having to wait until the budget is published. We know from all the leaks we have seen so far that VAT will go up by 2% and that domestic charges, such as water charges-----
While we called for a debate about what should be and what could be in the budget, parliamentarians in Germany were discussing the Irish budget so it is somewhat rich for Senator Coghlan or anyone from the Government to talk about having to wait until the budget is published when members of foreign parliaments are discussing what could be in the budget.
I fail to see what is wrong with the Minister for Finance coming to the House to discuss alternatives not only from political parties or groupings, but to give all of us an opportunity to present to the Minister all the options and alternatives proposed by advocate groups throughout the country. How many meetings have taken place in this building at which groups have come in to discuss their alternative proposals? Yet, we have not had one chance to discuss any of these with the Minister for Finance. It is not good enough that discussions can take place in a German Parliament but not in this House where they should take place.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business so that the Minister for Finance should come in today to discuss pre-budget alternatives and so that Sinn Féin should be given five minutes speaking time. This matter was voted on last week. We sought five minutes when group spokespersons are being given eight minutes. We wrote to the Leader and the Cathaoirleach to get speaking time on important issues. Perhaps we should have written to Angela Merkel because we may have secured more speaking time that way.
I call on the Leader to afford us the five minutes speaking time given to statements being taken today. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business so that the Minister for Finance would come in to discuss pre-budget alternatives and so that a Sinn Féin representative would get five minutes in this context.
There is a serious and potentially dangerous situation unfolding in County Roscommon as we speak. Yesterday, 14 firemen were taken off the payroll of Roscommon County Council for failing to attend a breathing apparatus refresher course. Every year they attend this course but there is a national proposal that the course would be done on the basis of a pass or fail mechanism although this has not been agreed nationally. By Wednesday, another tranche from Roscommon County Council will not attend the course until it is agreed nationally. It will also be taken off the payroll and we will not have sufficient cover in the event of an emergency.
The county council responded today in The Irish Times by saying it would like to reassure the public that despite the reduced numbers each fire brigade in the county is fully operational. That statement is ludicrous because six firemen are needed to mobilise a fire brigade. Most of the units in Roscommon will have five or fewer. It also admits that the case is before the Labour Relations Commission, yet it is trying to force the hand of the firemen by using heavy-handed and bullying tactics.
I gather the problem has been created by the ego of one man whom everybody knows and seems to be trying to settle scores. I cannot for the life of me understand how anybody could decide to shut down a fire department in a county. In most cases right across the country chief officers and assistant chief officers of the fire department have no practical training or experience at putting out fires. They would not know how to put out a cigarette butt, let alone a fire.
I call on the Leader to address this issue with the Minister, Deputy Hogan. The situation is quite serious and by Wednesday it could be disastrous unless it is dealt with. I would appreciate a response from the Leader.
I, too, look forward to the budget proposals when they are announced. It is important to note the speculation in the newspapers is coming directly from Cabinet Ministers. It is very unfortunate because either a genuine battle is taking place to protect certain things or a sham battle is happening which is putting the fear of God into the Irish citizenry, only to then have proposals announced which are better than those initially circulated. It is a disgraceful way to treat people in the run-up to a budget and it is happening directly from leaks.
We all crave stable government after the general election. There seems to be a huge instability in the Fine Gael and Labour Party Government. I want to draw a matter to the attention of the Leader. There was a major leak from the office of the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, on the issue of Ministers driving in bus lanes. While it is of concern to some peoplem, it is not a huge concern of mine. The Minister seems to have gone to newspapers to remove himself from the decision and try to absolve himself of responsibility. That is a brand-new departure in Irish politics. A Minister has never distanced himself so openly from the decision.
It is about time Ministers stopped doing this, acted collectively and confidentially, conducted their business around the Cabinet table, took the difficult decisions that are necessary in the interests of the country and stopped protecting their own positions. It is very dangerous and I am calling for a debate on collective responsibility in Cabinet. We are seeing huge breaches of it, in terms of the budget leaks and the other issue to which I referred. It is a small issue but it is important to make the point.
My party will introduce a Bill next week on interest rates and forcing the regulator to do what the Taoiseach said it and the banks would be forced to do. Nothing has happened. We had a lot of waffle last week from the Minister of State, Deputy Hayes. The House can vote for or against the proposition next week. It will be a well drafted Bill.
I want to raise the issue of the pension levy. We objected to the Finance (No. 2) Bill. Colleagues may remember we tabled an amendment to the Bill which would have mandated pension funds to absorb the charge, something which was opposed by the Government in the Bill. It was voted down by the Government side last week. The Minister, Deputy Noonan, wrote to pensioners to tell them there is scope for the pensions industry to absorb the impact of the levy from fee income and charges and he has written to it in that regard. We now have a new departure. The Minister will write to the pensions industry but not mandate something.
I second the proposal of Senator O'Brien.
I ask the Minister for Health to investigate the VHI in regard to coverage for PET and CT scans. Until this year it provided coverage for those scans but it has introduced new regulations and patients are no longer covered. An eminent medical person said it is detrimental to good patient care and PET scan use is growing elsewhere, yet the VHI is going in the opposite direction.
An eminent oncologist has pointed out that he is "constantly fighting" to get approval for these scans from the VHI and that this is "absolutely interfering" with his ability to treat patients.
One patient approached the Financial Services Ombudsman and took the VHI on. The company relented in that case and the person in question was afforded cover. Without access to these tests, patients are embarking on courses of treatment, including surgery, that are unsuitable, unnecessary, costly and, in some cases, cause trauma to the patient. All of this is happening at the behest of the VHI. Aviva and Quinn Healthcare have not taken the same position, but it may be just a matter of months before they do so, because insurers generally follow one another.
I congratulate the HSE on its decision to cover public patients for PET and CT scans. The executive is stepping up to the mark. However, a cancer specialist has pointed out:
Many cancer specialists are pushing their patients across the corridor into the public system to access the scans. This leaves the HSE to foot the bill for private patients.
Not only is this imposing an additional cost burden on the public system, it is also denying public patients their right of access to care. There are only seven PET scanners in the country, six of which are in private operation and available for use by public patients, in co-operation with the VHI, under the National Treatment Purchase Fund. Public patients are suffering as the queues get longer as a consequence of VHI pushing private patients into the public system to access this service.
The Minister must take the VHI to task in order to ensure it provides cover for people who have been paying insurance for years. I read about a man who had been a VHI customer for 40 years but had to pay for a PET scan out of his own pocket this year. That is unacceptable and it must be investigated.
Senator Norris has made a telling and focused contribution today. Those of us who are familiar with his work in this Chamber know the courage he has demonstrated on so many occasions. He has given a voice to people who had no voice and has always been consistent on issues of human rights, privacy and so on. As such, his concerns should be taken seriously in respect of his submission to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. In the long run he is doing a favour not only to this House, but also to journalism, which we all respect, and the freedom of the media. I hope the Leader will take his concerns on board.
On another issue, faoi mar is eol dúinn go léir, tá sé i gceist Oifig an Choimisinéara Teanga a dhúnadh mar oifig reachtúil agus neamhspleách. Feictear é seo mar chúlú ó thaobh na Gaeilge de agus is droch chomhartha é maidir le Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge.
Ag féachaint siar ar na blianta, cuid des na deacrachtaí is mó a bhí ann, ó thaobh cur chun cinn na Gaeilge de, ná nach raibh seirbhísí ar gcur ar fáil tré Ghaeilge nuair a bhí siad ag teastáil. Anois, tá Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla ann, ina luaitear gníomharthaí a bhfuil orthu seirbhís dátheangach a thabhairt. Tá ath-bhreithniú á dheánamh ar an Acht sin i láthair na huaire. Bhí an Coimisinéar Teanga lárnach don obair sin agus is trua go mór go bhfuil sé i gceist deireadh a chur lena oifig, cé go mbeidh a chuid feidhmeanna ag dul isteach in Oifig an Ombudsman.
Tá súil agam, mar sin, go mbeidh an Rialtas sásta éisteacht agus ath-mhachnamh a dhéanamh air seo, because the Coimisinéir Teanga is absolutely central to the 20-year strategy and to the legislation which we passed in this House. I hope it is still possible, even at this stage, to defend its independence as a statutory body. There is unanimity on the Irish language in this Chamber and goodwill throughout the country. This issue will strike a chord with many people. I ask the Leader to take it on board. It is not too late. We must maintain the independence of that office.
As we prepare for the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Rising, I draw the attention of the House to a forgotten, although no less brave, cohort of men. During the Second World War almost 5,000 Irishmen left or deserted the Irish Defence Forces to join the British Army to fight for democracy and the future and freedom of Europe. Many of these brave men never made it home, giving their lives on the battlefield of Europe. For those who returned, their heroism was met not with honour but with hostility.
In August 1945, the then Government, headed by former Taoiseach, Éamon De Valera, circulated a list of almost 5,000 service men it labelled as deserters under the Emergency Powers (No. 362) Order 1945. This list was a blunt political tool denying these men their constitutional right to defend themselves in an Irish court. Membership of this list meant a person was barred from government employment for seven years and had to forfeit any pay due. Appallingly, it was the ordinary squaddie that was tarnished as officers were exempt. It was ordinary working class lads, some decorated for valour, that were not simply forgotten but punished for their part in the fight against fascism.
At the time, Fine Gael, in opposition, appealed for their pardon but then Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera and Minister for Defence, Deputy Oscar Traynor, refused. Since then there has been a movement to have them pardoned as an act of compassion. I welcomed the statement of the Minister, Deputy Shatter, in the House in July that although desertion could not be excused in any Army he realised that the circumstances were somewhat different and was prepared to give the matter some thought. For these veterans and their families, I ask the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to revoke the Emergency Powers (No. 362) Order 1945 and issue a pardon to these brave men who fought with a sense of idealism and a commitment to protect democracy from tyranny.
I call on the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss the "Prime Time Investigates - A Mission to Prey" programme of 23 May in which a friend, a priest I know well, was defamed by RTE. Members will be aware that in this regard a settlement was reached in recent days with Fr. Kevin Reynolds. Irreparable damage was done to Fr. Reynolds's reputation and if it were not for his loyal parishioners and friends, who stood by him, the damage to his health would also be irreparable.
I am calling for a public inquiry into how RTE made that programme and the alleged large amounts of taxpayers' money spent on repairing the damage done by RTE. The Minister must determine the cost to the taxpayer of RTE's behaviour, following which funding to RTE should be appropriately cut this year.
There are major ethical issues in regard to how the alleged victim was persuaded to make the allegation against Fr. Reynolds. I believe that other elements of that programme need to be investigated. I have reason to believe that Christian Brother Dillion who had-----
The person concerned is no longer living and as such does not have an opportunity to defend himself. There are serious issues contained in that programme that must be investigated. One allegation was made against the person concerned, who is deceased.
I have been provided with information that calls into question the basis on which the programme was made. I ask that the Leader invite the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to the House to discuss the awful injustice done to Fr. Reynolds and the potential injustice to other victims named in the programme and what appropriate action can be taken in that regard.
The very survival of this House is under threat. I suggest that our behaviour here last week did not enhance our chance of survival. The way we behaved was not acceptable and we need to be very careful in future that we earn the respect of those who are going to make that decision in the future. Following Senator Norris's plea to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to give serious consideration to his obviously deeply-held concerns, I urge the committee to do so.
I ask for a debate on the announcement yesterday by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, regarding the guidelines for the size of shopping centres and supermarkets likely to be built on the outskirts of towns. These guidelines were introduced some years ago. The Minister is of the opinion that they should be changed. I was impressed at the size permitted in the Dublin area whereby it would be increased from 3,500 sq. m to 4,000 sq. m and different sizes would apply in cities such as Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford. The reason I raise this matter is that I think the Minister clearly believes that the fight against the rise in the cost of living would be enhanced by this measure. However, I read that it has come about because the EU-IMF bailout terms insist on such a measure. It is exactly the sort of measure we should be debating in this House.
I am concerned at the rise in the cost of living and the fact that the cost of living impacts on every household in the country and if this can be alleviated by the introduction of larger stores, that is well and good. However, I have been in quite a few towns around the country in the past two years and the main streets of many towns are devastated because of the shopping centres that have been built on the outskirts. A solution to this problem needs the sort of attention this House could give. The Minister stated that the recommendations are based on a Forfás recommendation of last year. I am concerned that if we are to bring our costs of retailing and of living into line with other countries, we must ensure that the centres of so many towns are not devastated.
I was in Drogheda last week and it was interesting to see what could be done by buying local. Thirty food producers in County Meath and County Louth in the areas close to Drogheda met a group of approximately 50 customers - eateries such as delicatessens and restaurants. These businesses did not realise there were so many good producers in their own area. I suggest that every part of this country should consider buying local and Members could set an example to the rest this Christmas deciding to buy local and certainly to buy Irish. The answer is in our own hands. We should also have a debate in the House.
I will be brief but what I have to say is important. It has come to my attention that a young boy in County Kerry who is severely disabled is being denied an eye-activated computer by the Department of Education and Skills. This computer costs in the region of €12,000 but it is his only way of communicating with the world as he is unable to communicate otherwise. I know that budgets are tight but what price do we put on a child being able to communicate with this world? The computer would not even cost as much as what Bertie Ahern used to spend on his make-up-----
It is far more important that this child gets what is essential for him. The special needs report has been submitted but the Department is refusing to grant the funding. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House. I know the budget is imminent and he is probably tied up with the preparations but I ask that he come to the House as soon as he can to tell us why his Department is refusing to provide funding of €12,000 for a child who badly needs this equipment.
I echo the call for an inquiry into the RTE programme. The general public is outraged. Some of the articles I read at the weekend leave me in no doubt that RTE has serious questions to answer on this issue. So far, no head has rolled and although RTE went through the motions of making a full apology, which I accept, I wonder if it came from the heart. We must look very seriously into that.
Belatedly, and following the discussions of last week, I turn to the proposed closure of the embassy to the Holy See. After listening to people in rural Ireland over the weekend, I believe the Government has made a ham-fisted job in this regard. The subject will not go away. At this stage, rightly, we have separated church and State, having, in the days of the great Jack Lynch, moved an amendment to the Constitution to establish this. Although the Catholic Church has no special position under our Constitution it still has a special position in the hearts of a great number of people in this country. This is seen as a knee-jerk reaction by the Labour Party element in government to try to catch up with the Taoiseach's speech on the infamous day he went over the top about the Vatican. This matter must be revisited. I ask the Leader to invite the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, to come to the House and discuss the situation.
I fully support the comments of our colleague, Senator Norris, in regard to taking an overall look at and reviewing the media in this country. Like most Members on this side of the House, I was in the unusual position of not having a party candidate in the presidential election and therefore was able to take a more objective view of media reporting than I normally would. The whole media handling of the presidential election was a thundering disgrace, to quote an infamous comment made at one time by somebody else belonging to the other side of the House. It was outrageous. Each candidate, with the possible exception of the winner - who well deserved to win and will make a great President but concerning whom I did not see much critical analysis - was peeled like an onion every day of the week. It was mortifying.
It will be a brave man or woman who will put forward himself or herself to be Uachtarán na h-Éireann in seven years' time if he or she is to be subjected to the kind of unfair comment to which Senator Norris was subjected. I ask people to revisit the headlines in the Irish Independent in the week before polling day and consider the analysis of one particular candidate and the way in which he was dismantled.
Yesterday in the west of Ireland there was an announcement stating that Ryanair will be flying to and from four destinations in Europe, in France, Spain, Germany and Italy. This is fantastic news for both the west and midlands and should be celebrated. No doubt it will increase tourism in the region. Other airports in the country should take a lead from Knock Airport on this. It did not happen by accident but was strategic. The airport reduced its costs and that is why it is getting the business. Both Shannon Airport and Dublin Airport should learn from Knock, a small airport by comparison, but significant in the successes it has had in a relatively short period. I do not know if this warrants a debate but it is certainly worth mentioning.
I join Senator Norris and, in particular, Senator Mullins, regarding their comments on the media. I cannot put the matter any better than they have, with the different points they made. It appears the media believe they are in power in this country and we really need to stand up to them. I do not know who they think they are at this stage. I do not mean to personalise this - it is not a personal issue - but legally the media is obliged to make an apology to a person they have wronged. However, in many cases they only do so when they are so advised. Their behaviour is unacceptable and I join other speakers in seeking a debate on the issue.
I join Senator Quinn in the comments he made about retail and buying locally. We must do this and must stand up to the multinationals as much as we stand up to anything else. It irks me to have to go to certain shops to buy certain items. I want those items to be available locally. As Senator Quinn stated, that matter is within our control. I would welcome a debate on the matter in the House because it warrants one.
I dtosach báire, ba mhaith liom ceist a ardú leis an Ceannaire. Tá iarratas déanta le tamall anuas maidir le díospóireacht faoi chúrsaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta. Tacaím leis an méid a dúirt an Seanadóir Ó Murchú maidir leis an gCoimisinéir Teanga. Ní dóigh liom go dtuigeann an Rialtas na himpleachtaí ar fad a bhaineann leis an cinneadh a fógraíodh an tseachtain seo caite. Ardóidh mé é sin leis an Aire Stáit níos déanaí. Baineann an cheist seo le comhthéacs níos leithne maidir le cúrsaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta. Tá sé fíor-thábhachtach go mbeadh díospóireacht againn maidir leis an straitéis 20 bliain, todhchaí Foras na Gaeilge, an tsamhail nua mhaoinithe do na heagrais Gaeilge, todhchaí Údarás na Gaeltachta agus mar sin de. Bheadh mé fíor-buíoch dá mbeadh an Ceannaire in ann soiléiriú a thabhairt dom faoi cén uair a bheidh an díospóireacht sin againn agus cén uair a bheidh an Aire Stáit istigh linn.
Ba mhaith liom tacú leis an leasú ar Riar na hOibre atá molta ag mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Cullinane. I would like to second the amendment to the Order of Business that has been proposed by my colleague, Senator Cullinane. A number of comments have been made about the order of the House last week. What happened was regrettable. There will be two debates at the end of this week about the role of the Seanad. I would like to confirm that Sinn Féin and its members want to play a constructive role in this House. We want to subject Government policy, and the policies of parties that have gone before us, to constructive criticism. We do not believe we are being afforded an opportunity to do that. We will use the democratic means that are available to us in this House, just as the Government parties did when they were in opposition.
We will do that until we feel our rights have been upheld. We want to act in a constructive way that adds to and broadens the debate. If we are able to bring people in from outside the House to discuss the role of the Seanad, we should allow Members to do likewise.
I would like to conclude by asking the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to consider the possibility of organising a parliamentary confusion workshop. When one examines some of the statements that have been made by members of Fine Gael and the Labour Party in recent days, it is clear that there is a certain amount of confusion among them. They are not sure whether they are in government. They seem to be castigating their own Ministers and their own party policies, only to vote with the Government parties when they come to these Houses. It would be very useful if a parliamentary confusion workshop could be organised to explain the difference between being in opposition and in government, and between following a party Whip and not following it.
This Government has been endeavouring to help unemployed people in genuine ways. I am shocked and disappointed that in recent days, the INTO has decided to issue a directive to its 32,000 members to the effect that they should not participate in the JobBridge internship scheme for newly qualified teachers. Everyone in this House should come together to say that is neither acceptable nor right in these times. The union is objecting and ordering its members not to participate on the grounds of exploitation. We need to look at the realities. No posts will be displaced. All public posts in schools are advertised. Newly qualified teachers will benefit from this scheme by gaining experience. Importantly, they will be allowed to complete their periods of probation during these internships. The classroom teachers whose classes will be taught by those participating in the internship scheme will be allowed to work with those children in their classes who need extra help. Alternatively, they will be able to work on school improvement plans. I fail to understand how anybody is being exploited in these circumstances. It is a win-win all around.
I appeal to the INTO and the TUI, through the Seanad, to reconsider and reverse this decision. We are not in ordinary times. JobBridge is a short-term measure to help our people in the short term. It is no more and no less than that. I would like the Leader to ask the Minister, Deputy Quinn, to intervene with the teacher unions as a matter of urgency. The Minister should allay their fears and request their co-operation for the sake of newly qualified teachers. Almost 3,000 people have qualified as teachers in the last two years. If the union's approach continues, it will be protectionism in the extreme. In my view, it is unfounded.
There is no need for it. I appeal to the Leader to seek a response from the Minister, Deputy Quinn, on the question of the type of negotiations he is involved in with the teacher unions. If he gets a response, perhaps he will bring it back to the House tomorrow.
I share the concern of some of my colleagues regarding the unfair treatment of Fr. Kevin Reynolds by RTE. Has it come out in the public domain yet as to which side's lawyers enforced the gagging order that is preventing us from finding out about the settlement? It would be useful to know this. Having seen it in the health service, as a statement of general principle, public bodies should be prevented from enforcing gagging orders when disputes of this type arise.
We had a Marie Antoinette moment in the House last week. I apologise if I am perseverating on a matter raised by my esteemed colleague Senator Quinn and others. As a fair outsider to the political system, what went on here last week was nothing short of appalling. In fact, it is being understated as to how grossly irresponsible it was to have a series of endless quorum calls, procedural motions and every vote taken in triplicate when everyone knew the result. It was not only wasteful of our time but of the public purse. It is not something that any Member should be doing. The blame is as much on the Government side as it is on this side.
Of course, there is no difference, as we know. When one disrupts the proceedings of this House, one is wasting taxpayers' money. As a result of the disruptions last week, we need extra time for today's session to make up for the time which could have been used more profitably last week.
May I remind Members what the Seanad should be? It should be deliberative, non-partisan and bring a different kind of experience to the one found in a House populated by full-time professional politicians. That was the intent of the framer of our Constitution. He sought a diversity of skill-sets to be brought into the House to be used for the benefit of the public. It should not be an ongoing endless Dáil cheanntair meeting for non-existent fantasy constituencies into which it is degenerating.
It is thoroughly unedifying. If one could have tried to design a better advertisement for the campaign to abolish the Seanad, one could have done rather little worse than just filming one hour of what went on here last week.
Will Members please acknowledge that the core of a democracy is the structure of its parliament and the way it is elected? We must insist on a debate with the Taoiseach on the Seanad's future which will prepare the public for its deliberations on it rather than another rushed referendum. The Government must explain its intentions with respect to one half of the Parliament of our real Republic and the timing of a referendum on it.
The Leader of the Opposition called for the Minister for Health to attend the Seanad for a debate on health services as soon as possible. I hope when he does attend he will bring the most modern cure and strongest tablets for amnesia. That prescription will have to be applied to the Opposition benches. Members on the other side seem blissfully unaware that this day 12 months ago, the IMF came to town to clean up the mess caused by Fianna Fáil Governments and to bring some financial assistance to a country that was then bankrupt, and which is now slowly but surely beginning to improve.
Last week, I called for a debate on the budgetary options because I am politically tired of hearing people pronounce what they are against while failing to come forward with plans and proposals.
All I hear from Fianna Fáil Members is what they are against. I know they have much to be silent about concerning what they did over the past 12 years in ruining the country. A debate on the budget could go in tandem with some reflection on how we have progressed with the EU-IMF deal. We need to debate the financial options available to us.
As for my friends in the Sinn Féin Party who are wondering whether they would get more speaking time on the budget if they wrote to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, I must remind them that its party and its paramilitary wing was in close contact with the German Government in the 1940s. Perhaps that level of co-operation might be a wise move.
I have been told by many people, particularly the very people for whom Senator Bradford prescribed amnesia tablets, that the proposed VAT increase will cost jobs and businesses along the Border even though, as indicated earlier, it had been in the memorandum of understanding agreed to by the Fianna Fáil Party.
Over a number of years, perhaps not at once. Is it possible to have a discussion on the economy in the Border counties about which we have heard so much over the past few days and in the light of fact the Fine Gael presidential candidate did not know how many counties were in the State currently. I ask the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation to come to the Seanad to discuss how the proposed budget measures will affect the Border economy and counties such as Cavan, Monaghan, Louth, Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim. We hear about people crossing the Border in times of recession or at the time of changes in the budget, which is why I am calling for a discussion on the proposals in the budget.
I join with other speakers in requesting the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte to come to the House for a debate not only on the RTE debacle but the behaviour of the press in general. We have come to a point where we must reflect seriously on the sweeping powers of the press. I encourage my colleague, Senator Mullins who has made salient points that he should pass on the additional information he has to the Garda Síochána for criminal investigation because it sounds as if it warrants that.
A number of Members have called for a debate on the budget. I think it would be a good idea if we were to consider a lengthy pre budget debate in both Houses. In other countries the Budget Statement is effectively a summation of a period of deliberation, discussion and analysis of pre-budget submissions and various different proposals in the parliaments. I think the kite flying and leaks that happened in the past couple of weeks and indeed over the years is most unhelpful. That deliberation and discussion should happen in the parliamentary structure and the budget speech on budget day should be a summation of the best that has emanated for it.
A final point.
In terms of the child benefit payment, I think the comments of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar were very correct and telling. It is completely inappropriate that the child benefit payment is not in any way a means tested payment. Even at this late stage, I call on the Government to look at the possibility of self declaration. It is wholly unacceptable that people on an income of €100,000 or a €1 million should benefit from this payment. That is not what the scheme is designed to do. I think self declaration to be followed by a proper means test is the appropriate approach for the future.
I join with my colleagues in wishing to raise the Fr. Reynolds matter. I pay tribute to the solicitors who acted for him. People are open in their criticism of the legal profession, but this was a case where the legal profession stood by their client in spite of the fact that it was up against a major player in the Irish media. The solicitor took on the media and came through with the truth. That is a tribute to the solicitor and to the legal team who acted for him. I recollect dealing with RTE on a similar matter a number of years ago when we served a High Court writ on RTE in the reception area of the RTE studios to find the writ dumped into the waste paper bin in front of our eyes. That is the way we, as members of the legal profession, were treated by them. I congratulate the teams who acted for Fr. Reynolds in this case.
I wish to raise an issue on the European Globalisation Fund, a matter I raised previously. Last week the European Parliament voted through €35.7 million for Irish construction workers who have lost their jobs. I know that a number of MEPs have raised concerns about ensuring that every cent of that money is used for the retraining and upskilling of people who have lost their jobs this country. I would like to have a debate because on previous occasions, some of the money from the European Globalisation Fund had to be refunded to Europe. I want to ensure that the same mistakes are not made again. It would be appropriate to have a debate and to identify the issues that arose on the last occasion and ensure they do not arise again. I would like the Minister to come to the House to explain the difficulties that occurred the last time and to make sure we have dotted all the i's and crossed the t's on this occasion to ensure none of the money has to be refunded.
The Leader of the Opposition referred to the speculation regarding child benefit. It is only speculation and the Cabinet is meeting today. No decisions have been made other than on the Minister of Finance's proposal regarding VAT, which is based on the IMF bailout programme signed up to by the previous Government.
I will inquire whether the Minister for Health could be available later this week to discuss the community nursing home issue outlined by Senator O'Brien and, therefore, I do not propose to accept his amendment to the Order of Business.
Senator O'Keeffe stated the number of homeless people in Dublin has increased significantly. We should all address this as much as possible. There is a need for more beds for homeless people and I will raise this with the Minister, especially coming up to Christmas as the weather gets colder. I have made a number of requests to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to come to the House to deal with the issues of Syria and Egypt and to have a general debate on foreign affairs. I will get back to the Senator on that.
Senator Norris referred to the despicable practices of some media sources in the UK and he questioned the activities and conduct of the media here. I assure him that any complaints made to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will be investigated thoroughly, as they have been previously. Senators Ó Murchú, Mullins, Conway and O'Sullivan also sought a debate on the role of, and ownership of, the media. I will endeavour to have the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources come to the House for a debate. This issue should be debated in this House.
Senator Paul Coghlan raised the treatment of tax exiles. I am sure the matter will be addressed in the budget proposals. The amount they paid over the past year is certainly not acceptable and I am sure the Minister for Finance will address that matter.
Senators Cullinane and Bradford sought a debate on pre-budget submissions. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brian Hayes, has attended the House on a number of occasions to deal with the ECB interest rates and other issues.
We asked for a debate on the capital programme leading up to the budget and that will be taken later. I will endeavour to have the Minister of State in again before the budget but Sinn Féin has published its proposal for everybody to see. I would like an opportunity to dissect some of the nonsense in the proposals.
During the lifetime of the previous Seanad, a former Sinn Féin Member had no difficulty with the time allocated because he joined another group. It is open to the current Sinn Féin Senators to encourage people to join a larger group. If such a group is formed, its members will have the same time allocated to them as that which is allocated to everyone else. The former Sinn Féin Senator to whom I refer - Deputy Pearse Doherty - joined another group when he was a Member of the House.
Senator Kelly referred to fire service training in Roscommon. I will raise that matter, which is under arbitration at present, with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan.
Senator Byrne referred to Ministers and the Cabinet acting collectively. I assure him that they are acting collectively. The comment made by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, related to a freedom of information request.
Senator Keane referred to the fact that the VHI is not providing cover in respect of PET scans. There is an anomaly in the system in this regard. I will raise this matter with the Minister for Health because it is ridiculous that consultants can refer public patients for such scans but that the VHI will not provide cover in respect of them for people who are paying private health insurance. Last week, Senator Colm Burke referred to the VHI providing cover in respect of patients at a new hospital in Cork. Perhaps it might be possible to arrange a debate on the overall matter of health insurance with the Minister.
Senator Ó Murchú requested debates on the independence of An Coimisinéir Teanga and on the Irish language. I have asked that the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy McGinley, come before the House for a debate on the Irish language. I hope to receive a response from the Minister of State in respect of that matter soon.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien referred to seeking pardons for Irish soldiers who fought for the rights of small nations in the Second World War. The Minister for Justice and Equality and Defence has commented on this matter in the past and I will take it up with him. Many men from throughout this country left to fight for the rights of small nations during the Second World War. I am of the view that consideration should be given to issuing pardons in respect of them.
Senator Mullins called for a public inquiry into why RTE broadcast a television programme relating to Fr. Kevin Reynolds. I understand a request has been made to the effect that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Natural Resources and Agriculture should investigate the matter. Regardless of what is deemed to be the appropriate forum, the matter will certainly have to be addressed because it is far too serious to be brushed under the carpet at this stage. Senator Crown inquired about gagging orders and that issue should also form part of the debate on the matter relating to Fr. Reynolds.
Senator Quinn inquired with regard to planning regulations and the primacy of town and city centres. That is an extremely important issue. In recent years shops and retail outlets in such centres have closed. Any changes to the planning regulations should be debated in the House. If new regulations are to be introduced, I will ask the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to come before the House to discuss them.
Senator Moloney referred to the question of obtaining an eye-activated computer for a young boy who lives in the constituency in which she resides. I suggest that she raise this matter on the Adjournment in order that she might obtain an adequate and first-hand reply from the relevant Minister in respect of it.
Senator O'Sullivan also asked for a debate with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Gilmore, on the proposed closure of the embassy to the Holy See. I am seeking to have him attend the House.
Senator Noone complimented Knock airport on Ryanair expanding its services. We all would compliment Knock airport on its negotiations in having its services expanded.
In response to Senator Ó Clochartaigh, persons from outside the House will attend the House to discuss the rights of older people, which is a subject for consideration by the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. I do not believe the Senator would try to prevent them from attending the House. It will be a good debate in the committee and is something that should be encouraged.
Senator Healy Eames raised the stance of the teachers' unions on the internship programme and the need for young teachers to get experience. That is an important matter and I will inquire with the Minister for Education and Skills as to the nature of the negotiations in that regard.
In response to Senator Crown, I addressed the question of public bodies being prevented from making gagging orders in such cases as the RTE case. I would agree totally with the Senator's opinion on what the Seanad should be about. Disruptive proceedings in the House are not to be encouraged.
Senator Reilly raised the issue of VAT increases and the Border economy. Difficult decisions must and, as I stated, will be made. That may form part of the decisions that will be made in the budget. We must try to get back our economic sovereignty. That is what the Government was elected for. The Government will do its best to protect the vulnerable in society and produce a fair budget but it will be a difficult budget for everybody.
Senator Conway addressed the RTE situation and also proper means testing of child benefit. I believe all would agree that there must be proper means testing. Child benefit should go to those who deserve it most - the vulnerable in society. That is what the Government will work towards.
Senator Colm Burke asked how the globalisation fund, a fund on which he worked hard when he was a Member of the European Parliament, will be distributed for training, etc., to construction workers. It is a matter which I will raise with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton with a view to having him in to the House to debate the issue.
Senator Darragh O'Brien moved an amendment to the Order of Business, "That a debate on the Government proposals for the 120 community nursing homes, including Abbeyleix and St. Brigid's Hospital, Shaen, be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 17 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Terry Leyden, Paschal Mooney, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Darragh O'Brien, Ned O'Sullivan, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Averil Power, Feargal Quinn, Kathryn Reilly, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 30 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, John Crown, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Tom Shehan, John Whelan)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe.
Amendment declared lost.
Senator Cullinane has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate with the Minister for Finance on the pre-budget proposals be taken today and that five minutes be allocated to a Sinn Féin Senator in that debate." Is that amendment being pressed?
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 15 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Terry Leyden, Paschal Mooney, David Norris, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Darragh O'Brien, Ned O'Sullivan, Averil Power, Kathryn Reilly, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Against the motion: 31 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, John Crown, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Lorraine Higgins, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Rónán Mullen, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Feargal Quinn, Tom Shehan)
Tellers: Tá, Senators David Cullinane and Trevor Ó Clochartaigh; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe.
Amendment declared lost.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 29 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Terry Brennan, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Maurice Cummins, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, James Heffernan, Imelda Henry, Caít Keane, John Kelly, Maire Maloney, Mary Moran, Tony Mulcahy, Rónán Mullen, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Feargal Quinn, Tom Shehan)
Against the motion: 13 (Thomas Byrne, David Cullinane, Terry Leyden, Paschal Mooney, Darragh O'Brien, Ned O'Sullivan, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Averil Power, Kathryn Reilly, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe; Níl, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson.
Question declared carried.