Thursday, 14 March 2013
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, ráitis maidir leis an Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge 2010-2030, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and all other Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.
May I start by wishing the 266th successor of St. Peter, the new Bishop of Rome, every success? He is in Members' prayers in a difficult task. Pope Francis is a humble man who avoids the luxuries other cardinals would embrace. He takes the bus to work, visits the slums, prays with the poor and has chastised those in his flock who refused to baptise the children of unmarried mothers, which shows his true humanity. He became a cardinal when Argentina was going through an economic crisis and he has derided and lambasted unrestrained capitalism. His courage can be seen from the time when the military junta was in force in Argentina. He interceded directly by persuading a fellow priest who would say mass for the dictators to step aside in order that he could say the mass and intervene directly, which resulted in the saving of the lives of two priests. He has taken the name of St. Francis, obviously intentionally, because of the great respect St. Francis had for humanity in terms of challenging authority. The church at the time was riddled with corruption and he also challenged corruption. In his ministry, St. Francis was given his task with the words, "Go repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin". I am sure the new Pope Francis perceives the enormous challenges he faces and he is in Members' prayers for his enormous work.
Fianna Fáil intends to move an amendment to the Order of Business and I ask the Leader to bring into the House the Minister for Finance in respect of the mortgage crisis and yesterday's Government announcement on what it is talking about doing.
It is nice to have one's learned colleague interrupting. A day cannot go by unless Senator Coghlan interrupts me.
I feel that my life will not be complete unless he interrupts me. What we saw yesterday is that the Central Bank is, in effect, giving the banks a charter to evict people. It is amazing how language is used by governments. In war, governments talk about collateral damage. They do not talk about deaths or killing. In a financial crisis or mortgage crisis, they talk about people who will have their homes repossessed. They do not talk about evictions. That is, in effect, what the Government is allowing the banks to do. They talk in percentages, for example, 12% of people are in arrears. That is approximately 95,000 people who are in arrears for 90 days or more. Approximately 50,000 homeowners, people with mortgages, are in arrears of up to 90 days. That is hundreds of thousands of people ? our constituents, neighbours and friends ? who are in arrears.
We have seen what the banks have done in the past when they were told to engage with small businesses. They were told to give them loans and to meet certain targets. What happened was that they massaged the figures. We all know that small businesses cannot get loans from banks. The banks tell us they are meeting the targets. The Government is now setting new targets for mortgage arrears. We know the banks will massage the figures. We know what happens when governments allow banks to evict people because we have seen it in Spain. Last November the Spanish Government stopped banks evicting people for two years because of the massive increase in suicide.
I will do it in a moment. What happened in Spain is that the suicide rate increased because of evictions and the Government intervened. What we are doing is the reverse. We will pass legislation through these Houses which will make it easier for banks to evict people. That will result in an increase in the rate of suicide in this country. Knowing what happened in Spain, why would we allow the same to happen in this country? I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on the matter.
Next week is St. Patrick?s week. Unlike the media and others who will lambast Ministers for travelling all over the world, I wish every success to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and all those who are travelling on behalf of the citizens of this country for the promotion of tourism and this country. Perhaps the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs could come to the House on his return because the issue of the undocumented Irish remains unresolved.
Could I also wish colleagues a happy St. Patrick?s Day, given that it falls this weekend? I agree that it is important that our Ministers travel abroad to represent Ireland across the world to ensure that we can get the maximum benefit for this country in terms of tourism and support for the economy at this time. It should be a great weekend at home in terms of people travelling here and everyone going to the parades and the events. I hope the sun shines on the parade for everyone.
I thank colleagues on both sides of the House for their support for the Bill I proposed on behalf of the Labour Party Senators group last night ? the Employment Equality (Amendment) (No.2) Bill. We are delighted the Bill has received Government support and will now move forward to Committee Stage. I hope that can be done quickly. We said as much to the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, last night. I again acknowledge the support of all colleagues who spoke in favour of the Bill, including Fianna Fáil Senators. Senator Power has a strong track record on the issue and also Senator MacSharry. Fine Gael Senators Colm Burke and Jim D?Arcy also spoke in support of the Bill and I did not get an opportunity to thank them last night. I appreciate their support and that of my Labour Party colleagues. The Bill was ably seconded by Senator Moran and Senator O?Keeffe also spoke. The Bill is important as it will challenge for the first time section 37 of the Employment Equality Act which gives an opt-out to religious-run institutions against the normal anti-discrimination law provision. The Seanad Gallery was full last night of people from various groups from the trade union movement, human rights and LGBT groups who have very much welcomed the passage of the Bill on Second Stage. As other colleagues such as Senators Barrett and Norris acknowledged, it confirms the importance of the Seanad as a forum where we can introduce Bills-----
-----and achieve Government support for them and thereby result in changes in the law that benefit society. That is most important.
I ask the Leader if we could have a debate at some stage in the future on the incorporation of economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution. I will speak later this morning at an event being organised by Amnesty International in conjunction with a number of other NGOs, which will be chaired by former Senator, Catherine McGuinness. It is focused on the issue of the incorporation of social, economic and cultural rights into the Constitution. The Labour Party has a strong policy on the issue and last year in the Dáil it introduced a Private Members? Bill to incorporate economic, social and cultural rights into the Constitution. It is a topic to which we could return in this House and deal with although it may well come up for discussion at the Constitutional Convention later in the year. It might be helpful to have a debate in this House at some point during this year in advance of the Constitutional Convention considering whether it might wish to consider the issue at the end of its 12 months in operation in December.
I rise to concur with Senators Daly and Bacik in wishing the best of luck to the Taoiseach in his visit to the White House on Monday. As the House is aware, the EU decided this week to open formal negotiations with the member states on the EU-US free trade deal. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, has welcomed that. Commissioner Karel De Gucht will be in charge of the negotiations from the European side. A deal would be worth ¤86 billion to the European economy. In his State of the Union address, President Obama has also referred to the importance of a deal to him. As a great friend of the United States and as President of Europe, the Taoiseach can play a key role.
We also have an important trade element in that there is newspaper speculation that the President and the Taoiseach will refer to the ¤18 billion order for new aircraft by Ryanair of 200 new aeroplanes from Boeing. We will be in the United States as a major trading partner of the United States. The Ryanair success is built on the Southwest Airlines model founded by Herb Kelleher from Kanturk in County Cork. Our trading links are significant. The Taoiseach will not be just in the White House for sentimental reasons. He will visit a building which has an Irish architect, James Hoban. I hope the discussions between the President and the Taoiseach will focus on the architecture of economic recovery and the need to bring down the high level of unemployment in Europe and the United States. I ask the Leader to extend the best wishes of the House to President Obama and the Taoiseach for the success of their Monday meeting.
I urge Members who might be in Buenos Aires to visit the Coghlan region. There is a railway station named, Coghlan, which is spelt correctly C-O-G-H-L-A-N. I concur with everything Senator Daly said about the new pontiff. The name Francis is wonderful.
Senator Daly was totally wrong then when he continued on to the other subject. He should never have left the first issue. The Government is treating the mortgage arrears crisis with all seriousness.
The engagement with the banks is taking place. Senator Daly is always rushing his fences. People are engaging more and more. The Central Bank has told us that mortgages in arrears of 90 days and more are declining. There is hope for people and there is engagement. A menu of options exists and please God it will succeed.
Finally, I also agree with Senator Daly's expression of good wishes. I wish a happy St. Patrick?s Day to everyone.
I second the amendment. I support the comments made by Senator Bacik and others in support of the decision of Ministers to travel abroad to take advantage of the unique profile Ireland enjoys over the St. Patrick's Day weekend. One could not buy such access. Having read some of the usual negative comments in the media, I advise those responsible to get a life and realise these festivities afford us a major opportunity that few other countries enjoy.
Having reached the halfway point in the Cheltenham racing festival, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Irish horse racing industry on the exceptional performance of Irish racehorses at the event. I have called for a debate on the industry on a number of occasions without success. The conclusion of the Cheltenham Festival will present an opportunity for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to come before the House for a discussion. It is not all good news, however. As I noted previously, the number of horses in training has declined significantly in recent years. Whereas during the boom one was nobody if they did not have the leg of a horse, nowadays people are turning horses out of stables because they cannot afford to train them. We are all familiar with the pitiful plight of many of these horse. This is a great week for the Irish. We have, in Ruby Walsh, the most brilliant national hunt jockey of all time and it is time we recognised this by giving him an award. I hope the Leader will raise this matter with the Minister.
I ask the that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, come to the House to discuss the possibility of implementing a policy which would, without doubt, assist the safety and well-being of many teenagers. Bullying and suicide are two issues persist and remain prevalent among teenagers. Every channel of communication must be considered as we seek to raise awareness of these problems, which are reaching unacceptable levels. Helpline information must be easily accessible for those who need it most. On that basis, the Minister should consider adopting a policy of having suicide prevention and anti-bullying helpline numbers printed on the back cover of all secondary school books. This information should include telephone numbers and website addresses for Childline and other relevant bodies and organisations engaged in anti-bullying and suicide prevention efforts. I seek a discussion with the Minister on the possibility of implementing an initiative under which every school book and manual on the curriculum would feature the information I have outlined.
For me, there is only one story today, namely, the election of Pope Francis. I share the happiness of my Roman Catholic friends at this extraordinary event. I stated a few days ago that the Holy Spirit would need to be very alert to find somebody among the current collection of cardinals, all of whom were nominated by the previous two Popes. However, the Holy Spirit seems to have done so. The moment Pope Francis came out on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica something happened. One could tell this even before he opened his mouth. His demeanour immediately reminded me of the last truly great Pope, John XXIII. I think there is something of Pope John XXIII about this man, for example, his simplicity of dress. I noticed that when one of his assistants tried to put the stole back on him he pushed it away. He also uses public transport and visited people in the slums. As the greatest leader of all the Christian churches, he showed humility when he knelt down and the silence that subsequently spread through the crowd was very impressive as it is almost impossible to get silence among such an enormous group of people. He commanded such respect and I believe he will continue to do so. He also asked for prayers and certainly has mine.
I did not sign the motion requesting the previous Pope, who is now known as Pope Emeritus, to visit Ireland but I would gladly sign a similar motion for this Pope. I know he is against gay marriage but we forget sometimes what extraordinary progress we have made in certain areas and how uncomfortable it is for people of a certain age to have to deal with these dramatic changes. I believe he is a man who will learn and he has indicated dialogue is taking place and he has opened dialogue, not only with his flock in Rome but with people all over the world. One sign of this was the wonderful and refreshing sound of the so-called dissident priests singing like 24 blackbirds baked in a pie on the airwaves today.
While the Pope may be against gay marriage, he visited hospitals in Buenos Aires at a very difficult time and embraced, kissed and washed the feet of 12 AIDS patients. There is a simple beauty in that gesture. He chose the name "Francis" after Francis of Assisi who disagreed with the Pope when he declared that irrespective of what the Pope said, animals had souls. There is something wonderful about St. Francis. When I was involved in the running of the Hirschfeld centre, the gay community centre which had facilities including a cinema and restaurant, the most popular film was "Brother Son, Sister Moon", which is about St. Francis of Assisi. Among the wounded people of the gay community who have been regularly sprayed with acid from the Vatican at Christmas in recent years, the election of Pope Francis means a new beginning for all of us. This man has given hope to a world that badly needs it.
I support a call made in the other House by Deputy Willie Penrose that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government impose an immediate moratorium on all planning or development of further wind farms until such time as the Government and Department conclude the review into the guidelines for the development of these massive wind farms. Proposals have been made for 2,500 giant turbines across large tranches of the midlands. I commend the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, and the Minister of State at this Department, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, on initiating a review of the guidelines because the current guidelines are out of date, ineffective and obsolete.
This is a national, rather than local issue, which is of concern in many counties, including Galway, Clare, Westmeath, Laois, Offaly and Kildare. There is a view, which is not without foundation, among the communities concerned that big wind, if one likes, has the ear of government and that the Government is acting to some extent as a front of house salesperson promoting the interests of commercial wind farms. This approach is dangerous and wrong. The community and national interest must be embedded in policy. I call on the Government to step back from what appears in some quarters to be a cosy relationship with elements of the private companies that are promoting massive wind farms. There are genuine concerns about the scale, social impact and sustainability of existing developments as well as the setback requirements. The idea of proper and meaningful consultation is a farce given that the wind companies are doing secret deals with landowners behind the backs of their neighbours and no one knows precisely what is happening. Wind farm promoters state they will connect to the national grid by underground means, whereas EirGrid maintains that undergrounding is not feasible or possible. Someone is telling a porkie.
The Seanad should have a debate and discourse with the Minister or Minister of State to allow Senators to feed into the policy directive on the control of and guidance pertaining to the development of new wind farms. Community interests and concerns are not being adequately taken into account and must be considered.
Bheinn ag tacú leis an méid atá ráite ag an Seanadóir a chuaigh romham, ach dhéanfaí dearmad scaití go bhfuil sé i bPáirtí an Lucht Oibre agus gur cheart don Aire féin, an Teachta Rabbitte, teacht isteach agus é fhreagairt maidir leis na ceisteanna sin.
It is appropriate that all eyes were on Rome yesterday and I welcome the election of Pope Francis. I hope he will be successful in his position and we will see a more open and tolerant church under his reign. Some of the events in this country yesterday would remind one of Roman times.
I am thinking of the Colosseum, which I visited recently, and that yesterday's proposal on mortgages is almost akin to throwing innocent mortgage holders to the banking lions, with the Government just watching the whole process. As said previously, there are 195,000 mortgage holders in distress. We have been waiting for a long time for action from the Government on the issue. The previous Government was also very slow to act. It received two expert group reports and did nothing to alleviate the plight of mortgage holders. The members of that Government are now jumping up and down looking for support for people in distress. The current Government is giving more power to the banks and giving them the ability to hassle people in arrears and to move people off tracker mortgages. It is opening the door for repossessions. This is an awful day for mortgage holders and a terrible indictment of the Government.
We should have been hearing about a non-judicial, independent mortgage resolution body with power to impose resolution agreements on lenders and borrowers. This body should have had a full range of solutions available to it, including debt write-down. The first priority should have been to protect the family home by restructuring mortgages in a way that makes them sustainable in the longer term. However, we have seen that the power has been handed over to the banks. The banks are in the driving seat once more. The big lobby has won over and it is an absolute disgrace on the part of the Government. I call on the Minister to come to the House as soon as possible so we can debate the so-called resolution mechanism that has been proposed. It is an absolute disgrace attributable to the Government and the people who support it, in addition to the banking system, which is obviously pushing very hard to mind its own vested interests. It is a very bad day for citizens.
It was interesting to hear about Coghlan railway station in Buenos Aires.
Some of my colleagues will recall the old jibe of that hero of some socialists, Joseph Stalin, who asked how many divisions the Pope has. Anybody who has been observing the events in Rome over recent days and reading the media, social media in particular, over the past 24 hours will certainly agree that the Pope still has very many divisions. The election last night of a new pontiff will, I hope, bring about a great a spirit of renewal, not only in the church but also in broader society. In the short time since the Pope's election, what we have learned about his thinking on social policy, respect and concern for the poor and underprivileged is not just a religious message. It is also very much a political message. I hope many lessons can be learned by governments all over the world. We must wish the new Pope well in the enormous task he is taking on. Millions of people throughout the world today seek a new start in the church.
I join Senator Ned O'Sullivan in congratulating those responsible for the Irish success story so far this week at Cheltenham. In one sense, there is a bizarre connection between Cheltenham, with its horses, and the Pope. Generally, there is a politically correct view that horse racing and the horse-racing industry-----
-----should not be encouraged. That is wrong because thousands of people are employed in the industry in the country. It is the only sport in which it is clear that Ireland is the absolute world champion. A debate considering the new structures would be very useful. There is a new chairperson in Horse Racing Ireland. The question of future funding of racing arises.
As many other Senators have said, St. Patrick's Day is a time for celebration. We do it exceptionally well in Ireland. We do it in every community and throughout the world. St. Patrick's Day is also a time for bridge building. We have seen many instances of this. Added to the celebration on this occasion is the elevation of our new Pope, Francis. It is interesting that when all the world leaders send congratulations to the new Pope, they all know the role that the church has played in peacemaking, health, education and the relief of poverty. This is a great story, to which Ireland has been central from the time that the Pope sent St. Patrick here. We should rejoice in that as it is particularly important. We should avail of this opportunity to give a tangible expression to the history of the relationship between Ireland the Vatican. When world leaders are sending expressions of congratulation, would it not be wonderful if we in Ireland availed of the opportunity to do some bridge building and reopened the embassy at the Vatican? It is an ideal opportunity.
It is important that we avail of the opportunity to acknowledge the generosity of Senator David Norris this morning. We all feel too comfortable at times in our own bunkers and forget the sun is shining outside. We also forget that we have so much in common because of matters that divide us at a given time. Senator Norris's contribution this morning will be the defining moment of our congratulating Pope Francis. We must try to find ways and means to work together and ensure acrimony is not dividing us. We must use every opportunity to bring strength and unity to what we want to achieve. Tá súil agam, nuair a bheidh seans ag an Rialtas machnamh arís ar an ambasáid atá dúnta faoi láthair, go n-osclófar í athuair. If we lose the opportunity to build bridges, our words will not mean much in other areas.
I support Senator Whelan's call for a moratorium on wind farm developments until there is proper engagement on the issue. I am sick and tired of listening to the spin of the Irish wind energy sector, including the suggestion of 77,000 jobs. The reality is quite different. In recent weeks in my county, we saw that a couple had to leave their home because of the noise of wind turbines next door. I thank RTE, the Irish Independent and many other media outlets for covering this issue. Today, after four years, the company in question finally decided to sit down with the people affected to try to resolve the issue.
We know that many sweet deals have been done with farmers in the dark of night. We also know there is no social dividend for the people affected by living beside wind turbines. Next June, in this city, there will be another conference packed with people in favour of wind energy who make many millions of euro out of it. They will invite the Taoiseach and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and spin it to them that wind energy is the way forward. The people who are affected have no voice. Nobody is listening to them. We really need to sit down with them and listen to them. The Minister needs to come to this House to debate the issue after Easter. We called for this months ago. It is now very important that we have it immediately after Easter.
I, too, congratulate Senator Norris. Senator Ó Murchú has worded my point very well. The election of Pope Francis represents a new beginning. We have heard words today from everybody and there is a sense of hope. This has been brought about by the demeanour and sympathetic manner of the new Pope. He showed this when he was elected yesterday. It gives us a chance of a new beginning. Therefore, I support entirely what Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú said. This is our opportunity to reopen the embassy in the Vatican. It is exactly the time we should do so. We should show our response to what Pope Francis has done.
Comments were made last night about the age of Pope Francis and it was suggested that he might be a little too old. I discovered, however, that he was born 20 days after me, so any suggestion that he is a little too old is being rejected entirely by me and I hope by others as well. There is a lot of life left in that old dog yet and in this one too. In the context of discussions about age, I draw the attention of the House to figures published yesterday which indicate that the life expectancy for males in Ireland is shorter than in a number of other European countries. Life expectancy for males here is 77 but it is beyond 79 in at least seven other European countries, including Iceland, Italy, Sweden, Malta and Switzerland, among others. These figures were published by the World Health Organisation and represent a challenge for our Department of Health. When I came into this House first there was a huge number of road deaths every year but the country grabbed hold of that problem. Various Ministers rose to the challenge and as a nation we decided we would do something about it. That required a change of attitude and behaviour and the number of road deaths has reduced dramatically as a result. We must now set a challenge for ourselves vis-à-vislife expectancy in Ireland, particularly for males. We have a shorter life expectancy than a number of other countries and we can do something about that.
Although the new Pope is less than 24 hours in office, his election has had an enormous impact already, as is obvious in the House this morning. When I saw his demeanour last night and heard his opening remarks, it struck me that he was a Christ-like figure. He is a man who came from very humble origins, renounced the trappings of power and mixed with the poor. I understand he advised friends last night not to travel to Rome to celebrate but to give the cost of such travel to the poor. He has set the agenda for a very reforming and progressive papacy. I join with my colleagues this morning in wishing him well and in welcoming his appointment. I was a little concerned about the fact that he is 76 years of age but, like Senator Quinn, he has much to contribute. He might be well advised to read some of Senator Quinn's publications, which could set him on the right road. His is an inspired appointment and I look forward to him reforming the church. In a way he is taking on a challenge similar to that faced by many governments around the world. He is faced with rescuing the church from the difficulties of recent years, the scandals, financial irregularities, the fall in membership and the loss of confidence among the faithful. The initial response to his appointment has been overwhelmingly positive throughout the world and hopefully the new Pope will build on that.
This weekend represents a fantastic opportunity for Ireland to sell itself around the world and I wish various Ministers, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste well in their travels to publicise and promote our country. I hope, as our economy picks up, the aspiration of some of my colleagues on the other side of the House that the embassy in Rome is re-opened, as part of the healing process, will be realised. I wish everyone in the House the very best for Saint Patrick's Day and hope it is a safe and enjoyable occasion for everybody.
Obviously, I join my colleagues in welcoming the election of Pope Francis the first. However, I am sorry to have to rain on that parade but I must again ask for a debate on the mortgage issue with the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, in the wake of yesterday's announcement. I had great hope preceding that announcement but it could not have been any worse, as far as I am concerned. It puts the banks completely in control. When I was on the other side of the House previously, as well as on this side, I listened to people in serious mortgage difficulty who genuinely felt the banks have a virtual seat at the Cabinet table. The only thing left for the Government to do at this stage is to formally appoint a bank representative to the Cabinet. Far from extending assistance to struggling families throughout the country, the announcement yesterday strips out what little protection people have at the moment. The Government is giving additional powers to the banks to contact people and is abolishing the limits that were put in place to curb harassment. The code of conduct as we know will be thrown out. While there are targets set in terms of the banks putting proposals to borrowers, there are no targets for them in terms of agreeing new arrangements with punters who are in mortgage difficulty. We have seen no more than superficial engagement on the part of the banks to date, with only a token number of split mortgages agreed. I am extremely saddened by the announcement yesterday, which puts the fox in charge of the henhouse in a way that will squeeze people. The financial regulator, Mr. Elderfield admitted that we are likely to see an avalanche of repossessions now, which is regrettable. The Government is putting the people last. It is important that this is acknowledged today and that this message is not lost among the words of congratulations for the new Pope. It is a sad day for borrowers in Ireland and I hope the Leader will agree to bring the Minister for Finance to the House to discuss this. We need to see real measures and tangible help for those who are struggling to keep their homes. Yesterday's announcement, I am afraid, puts the banks in absolute control.
I also welcome the election of the new Pope and wish him well in his future years. As someone who has visited many developing countries, I have seen the incredible work the church is doing on the ground. A member of my family is working in a school with a pupil teacher ratio of one to 70 but still that school can provide a full meal to each pupil every day. There are four schools feeding 4,000 children every day as a direct result of the work of the Catholic Church. The selection of a Pope from outside Europe is a welcome development. It will add to the growth of the church in developing countries and will see a refocus in Europe in terms of the role of the church.
I wish to move on to the issue of banking debt. I am concerned by the alarmist comments of some of my colleagues on the other side of the House and by their suggestions that people will be driven to suicide. Comments like that are unhelpful and may lead to people focusing on the possibility of suicide. It is outrageous that such comments be made in this House. The Government is approaching this issue in a very balanced way. I remind Senators on the other side of the House that yesterday there was a public offering on 10-year debt for Ireland. We were looking for ¤3 billion to be invested but got an offer of ¤12 billion. The Government decided to take ¤5 billion at 4.15%, which is 75% lower than the rate that was offered to Ireland when Fianna Fáil was in power. I urge members of the Opposition not to forget that. Their alarmist comments this morning are outrageous. This Government has brought stability to the country and the proof of that lies in the success of the public offering yesterday. More than 400 investors offered to invest in Ireland. When Fianna Fáil was in power, fewer than 20 would offer money to be invested at any one time. That is the stability this Minister for Finance has brought us. I would love to have the Minister for Finance here to talk to Senators about all of the positive things that are happening, just in case they are not able to read the newspapers themselves.
I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Finance to the House so we can discuss all the issues and show that we are approaching it in a balanced and focused way, to ensure that by the time the Government finishes its term three years hence we will have the issue resolved.
I try to make it a practice not to make points or arguments that are of exclusively religious interest, given that this is a civil forum. However, obviously the election of a Pope is a very significant matter not just because the Pope is a head of state but also because of the size of the Catholic Church and its relevance to the world and in so many people's lives, particularly in its engagement on behalf of the poor. In that context I wish to note Senator Norris's very generous words this morning. He has given us an example of how we can find ways to talk to each other and to reach out in love and respect despite the acknowledgement of sincere differences about important issues. I thank him for that. I will try to imitate him.
I am also very glad that Members mentioned that this is the opportunity to press the restart button on the question of Ireland's permanent representation at the Holy See. I would like if a gesture was made. I have no insight into what was said at the conclave but I can offer Members a small scoop because I can quote some words said by Cardinal Seán Brady to his fellow cardinals in the run up to the conclave. The words now seem prophetic. He said, "Witness to heroic practical love, especially love for the poor, has always been among the church's most authentic and effective means of evangelisation. Perhaps at this time the Lord is calling a man who can not only enlighten the mind but also set hearts on fire by his witness to practical Christian love, especially love for the poor. The young people of today with their iPads, Internet and mobile phones are the first truly global generation. They are drawn to Christ and the gospel not through words alone but by prophetic actions of witness to the possibility of a civilisation of love." My hope for An Pápa Proinsias is that-----
They were Cardinal Brady's words at one of the general congregations prior to the conclave. I believe they are quite prophetic. This is not just a matter for Catholics, for whom this is a moment of joy, hope and aspiration, but also for all people of goodwill throughout the world who aspire towards the possibility of a civilisation of love. Let us hope this pontificate will be one that will see many good things happen and better relations between people within the church and in debates about the church in Ireland as we move forward, continuing, not starting, the work of reform.
Yesterday was a day of new beginnings on a myriad of fronts. This country made a very potent entry into the bond markets, in which it was offered ¤12 billion but borrowed ¤5 billion. It is a gigantic step in terms of regaining our economic sovereignty, which unfortunately was lost a number of years ago.
It was also a day in which the Government made a genuine, meaningful, albeit incremental step in the direction of dealing with the crippling mortgage problem facing many young people in this country. This will not be resolved overnight and there will possibly have to be more initiatives, but I believe this is a gigantic step in the right direction. The people who criticise it are the people who engage in negative politics. Yesterday was a day of positive politics.
In addition, we saw what I consider to be an inspirational Pope being chosen by the conclave. It was an inspired choice. His humility, his connection with poor people, the fact that he is from Buenos Aires and that there are 500 million Catholics in that part of the world mean it is another step in healing and positivity.
What we saw yesterday was our entry in the bond markets again, the announcement of steps to alleviate the mortgage crisis and the election of a new Pope. The irony and uniqueness of those three events that affect Ireland so significantly cannot be lost. I hope that as we move forward we will see positive politics, not the typical squabbling that has taken place in this Chamber and in the Lower House for the past number of years. It is time that everybody worked together to ensure our country returns to its rightful place, where the citizens are treated with the respect they deserve from the elected Members.
That was well said by Senator Conway.
I, too, welcome the election of our new Pope yesterday, Pope Francis. It is ironic that we were in the middle of debating the amendment to section 37 of the Employment Equality Act, which I was proud to second. This Bill will end the discrimination against LGBT teachers and medical workers and discrimination against workers on the grounds of their marital status. I particularly welcomed that when I heard about the Pope's election last night because he is such a humble man and he has chastised priests for refusing to baptise the children of unmarried people. I hope his election will be a positive step. I reiterate the sentiments I expressed when I heard that the previous Pope was resigning, that I hope there will be a greater role for women in the church and that the new Pope will bear that in mind. All the early statements about him are very positive. Everybody is very positive towards this man, who appears to be extremely humble and who has a very difficult job ahead of him.
I wish to raise symphysiotomy again. It is a topic I have raised on numerous occasions in the past 18 months. Where is the Walsh report? Is it with the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly? It has been extremely delayed.
Once and for all, where is the Walsh report? The Minister should come to the House for a debate and questions and answers. There was an article in the newspaper last Saturday about a judgment and settlement of a symphysiotomy case that was carried out in 2000. As far as I know, the Walsh report goes up to only 1994. What bearing will that case have on it? I also want answers about the redress scheme for the Neary women, that is, the women who were outside that settlement. It is great that we have made progress with the Justice for Magdalenes group-----
The majority of Senators welcomed the election of our new Pope, Pope Francis. We all wish him well. He certainly has a very onerous task. As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day, and we should not expect things to change overnight. He will have a very difficult job in making changes and I believe the cardinals in their wisdom decided they wanted a change of government within the Vatican.
Am I going to be interrupted even when speaking about the Pope on his election?
It will be a new beginning and new hope for all of us. There are many lapsed Catholics who are looking for a reason to return to their faith, and this might be the catalyst those people need. We all welcome the election of Pope Francis. There is a great deal in a name, and that has been enunciated by many of the Members. St. Francis fought poverty. We should give the man a chance to settle into the job. I hope he will do an excellent job for the world and for world peace. It is an inspired choice, as one of the Senators said. Let us hope the Vatican, the Catholic Church and the world will prosper as a result of the new Pope's election.
There are other more mundane matters but they are also important. Mortgage arrears were mentioned by Senators Daly, MacSharry, Ó Clochartaigh and others. I have stated on numerous occasions that the Government acknowledges that the mortgage arrears issue is one of the most serious social and economic matters facing the country. It is a cause of distress for many families and an impediment to economic recovery. The Government has prioritised the issue by implementing new legislation, structures and processes to resolve mortgage arrears. The banks must now step up their engagement with borrowers in difficulty to allow these people to see a better future, which is what we all want.
There are now specific time-bound targets for the six main banks, which will ensure measurable progress in dealing with the issue. By the end of July, the banks should propose sustainable mortgage solutions for 20% of distressed borrowers, reaching 30% by the end of September and 50% by the end of 2013. The vast majority of distressed borrowers will see solutions proposed by the end of 2014, so there is progress on the issue.
It is nonsense to say that this is a charter for bankers. Let us see how this operates, as the Government is doing its best to solve the problem by having legislation and reforms in this area. People bringing in extraneous issues such as suicide is deplorable.
Senator Bacik referred to the Equal Status (Amendment) Bill, which had a very informed debate yesterday evening. She also called for a debate on the economic, social and cultural aspects of the Constitution, which I understand will be dealt with by the Constitutional Convention. Senator Bacik wished the Taoiseach well in his deliberations and meetings with President Obama.
The European Commission yesterday agreed a draft mandate to be used by the EU in its upcoming negotiations with the US on a new free trade agreement, the transatlantic trade and investment partnership agreement. It is up to the EU's economic council of trade Ministers, currently chaired by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, to reach an agreed position on the new free trade investment partnership. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, is holding a meeting for the EU trade Ministers in Dublin in April to achieve this agreement. The Minister returned from a trip to the US yesterday, where he held a series of high-level meetings with key figures in President Obama's Administration, including Mr. Mike Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs, and the US trade representative, Mr. Ron Kirk.
A major new study published yesterday indicated that EU exports to the US would increase by 28% or ¤187 billion each year as a result of increased trade from the new EU-US free trade agreement. Agreement between the two economic blocs would also increase global trade, producing an extra 6% growth in exports for the EU, bringing total benefits to ¤200 billion. Those points were pushed by Senator Barrett as he noted the importance of this free trade agreement between the EU and the United States. We all wish the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Bruton, well in the deliberations.
We knew the Pope had connections to Argentina and we are glad to hear from Senator Coghlan of his Kerry connections.
Senators O'Sullivan and Bradford spoke about the Irish horse racing industry and I will try to arrange to have the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine before the Seanad to discuss the matter. Senator O'Sullivan and others also mentioned St. Patrick's Day and wished Ministers well, outlining the importance of them visiting abroad and particularly Asia and other areas. This year will see 19 Ministers and Ministers of State, including the Tánaiste, travel to 21 countries across North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a series of trade, investment and tourism programmes. This will continue not just for St. Patrick's Day but throughout the year. Enterprise Ireland will embark on a record number of ministerial-led trade missions, with increased focus on high-growth economies in Asia, the Middle East and South America. Such visits are very important for exporters and the economy in general as we try to generate growth. They should be welcomed by all.
Senator Higgins called for another debate on suicide prevention and cyber-bullying, as well as for new initiatives to be introduced in schools. I will bring that matter to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills. With regard to the comments on Pope Francis, it has been alluded to by others that Senator Norris gave some very generous, wise, welcoming and reasoned words, and I agree with that.
Senator Whelan called for a moratorium on wind farm construction until guidelines are decided. There has been a public consultation process but I agree with the Senator and I will try to arrange a debate on the subject when we return after Easter. Senator Ó Murchú spoke about bridge building and re-opening the embassy in the Vatican. I have no doubt that ways and means will be found to do that at a later stage.
Senator Quinn spoke about men's health and a change in attitude that is required. He also mentioned the life expectancy of men in this country, which is shorter than that in many European countries. We will raise the matter with the Minister for Health and try to get him to the Seanad to discuss the issue. Senator Burke welcomed the selling of ten-year bonds at 4.15%, which is a step closer to regaining our economic sovereignty that should be welcomed. Senator Moran spoke about symphysiotomy and the Walsh report. I have reverted to the Senator on the issue but I will find out at what stage is the report.
Other Senators spoke about the election of the pope as an inspired choice. I am sure we all wish the new Pope well. I will accept the amendment to the Order of Business to allow No. 11 to be taken before No. 1.