Seanad debates

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Address to Seanad Éireann by Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP

 

4:35 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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On my behalf and on behalf of my fellow Senators I welcome to the House Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP for the Ireland South constituency who was elected to the European Parliament in June 2009. A Sheáin, a chara, I wish you well in your role and continued success in your work in the European Parliament. It is a great honour and pleasure to welcome you and I now call on you to address the House.

Mr. Seán Kelly:

Ba mhaith liom míle buíochas a ghabháil libh, a Chathaoirligh, a Cheannaire agus a Sheanadóirí, as ucht an cuireadh bheith anseo libh inniu. Is é seo mo chéad uair taobh istigh de dhoirse cáiliúla ársa an tSeanaid. Is geal liom bheith i bhur measc ar feadh tamall beag. In thanking the Leader, Senator Maurice Cummins, for the opportunity to address the House today, I commend him and his office on this excellent outreach initiative to improve communications and dialogue between the Oireachtas and the European Parliament.

I am very grateful for the opportunity and hope this series marks the beginning of a continued, frequent and productive line of communication between the two parliaments. To be afforded 15 to 20 minutes speaking time is a novelty for me - I barely know what to do with it - being so accustomed to the European Parliament's practice of affording one or two minutes at most.

In the midst of Europe's difficulties and given our holding of the rotating Presidency of the Council of Ministers, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Ireland joining the European Union, it is an appropriate time to reflect on our participation in the European Union and consider how we wish to see it develop in the next 40 years. I congratulate the Seanad on being to the fore in our national discourse on this issue.

Ireland's membership of the European Union has empowered and enriched us. When Ireland joined 40 years ago in 1973, our GDP per capitawas approximately 60% of the then European average. Today, despite the recent economic turmoil, we continue to boast one of the highest GDP per capitaratios in the Union. Living standards have risen to such an extent that modern Ireland looks and feels like a very different country from the Ireland of 40 years ago such are the improvements and developments our participation in the European Union has gained for us.

The clearest embodiment of our membership of the European Union, after the euro, is the Common Agricultural Policy. Up to 2008 Ireland had benefited from almost €44 billion under the CAP. I am cognisant of the fact that my colleagues have already addressed the House on CAP and Common Fisheries Policy reform and I will, therefore, avoid discussing these issues, despite their being a substantial portion of my workload.

The European Union has experienced many difficult phases since its foundation, from accusations of inactivity to incompetence, overreaching and failure. Nobody here would deny that the current difficulty facing Europe, while not an existential crisis, is one of the most challenging to date. As this House has debated many of the issues involved and with my colleagues, I do not wish to bore Members with repetition. However, the situation at the European level is unrecognisable from it was only one year ago. Europe has managed to pull itself back from the brink. While the situation has calmed, in March, unemployment nationally still stood at 14%, while across the European Union it had reached a figure of 10.9%, two depressingly high figures. Worse again are the figures for youth unemployment across Europe. At 23.5%, nearly one quarter of all young people in Europe are unemployed.

Unemployment is a scourge which has continued to wreak havoc across the Continent, not least in Ireland. While we are in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in living memory, the problem of unemployment can only be fundamentally solved through a return to economic growth. Growth and job creation go hand in hand, albeit with a lag between a return to sustainable growth and significant job creation. This House has focused on this issue relentlessly and I hope Senators will continue to do so.

The European Union works slowly, in a somewhat Byzantine manner, while markets, the media and, most importantly, citizens expect rapid, speedy action. This has resulted, several times throughout the crisis, in expectations for the European Union being too high, particularly regarding timeframes. That said, it can also be reasonably stated it has failed to achieve reasonable expectations at other times.

The mantra of "more Europe" is a common, catch-all, silver bullet solution touted by many in the European Parliament and the European Commission without a clear outline of what it would consist of. The failure to communicate is made worse by the sense of disconnection between European institutions and citizens and has led to legitimate questions on credibility.

The need to re-engage with the peoples of Europe has never been more urgent. This is why I am of the firm belief that next year’s European Parliament elections are of such crucial importance. They offer the citizens of Europe the first pan-continental opportunity not only to cast judgment on how the challenges Europe has faced since 2009 have been dealt with, but also to set out how they wish to craft Europe’s future narrative. This is a critical time for Ireland and Europe. It is imperative that charting the way forward and building a shared vision for the future of Europe is a bottom-up process where events such as this provide the forum for expressing views and crafting that shared future.

National parliaments have an integral role to play in this. While Europe is engaged in what can only be described as a mass fire-fighting exercise, we are now at the point where we can and must begin to envisage a future for Europe. The era of fire-fighters is coming to an end. We are about to witness the dawn of a new era of architects. Designing a shared vision of the future and charting the path to achieving this will be a long and arduous process. However, it is also incredibly exciting and exhilarating that for the first time in a generation Europe is being remoulded and reformed before our eyes and with our participation.

My paper today revolves around the theme of beyond the crisis, informed by my work on several European Parliament committees. The construction of our future demands policymakers to be architects and visionaries, capable of brave decisions based on sound evidence, to think long term, to focus on the sustainability of economic decisions, to strive to ensure that both citizens and businesses reap the full benefits of long-term continuing investment in education and to anticipate the infrastructural demands of society and the economy 20 to 40 years down the line.

I am fortunate that the committees that I serve on in the European Parliament are more focused on meeting the long-term future prospects of Europe. I sit on the industry, research and energy, the culture and education and the regional development committees, as well as the delegations for relations with the United States and Canada. I will outline the work of these committees and delegations towards fashioning the architecture of Europe beyond the crisis. The industry and regional development committees focus on the foundations for economic growth and development.

The potential of research and innovation offers Europe the greatest opportunity for future economic growth. From the "eureka" moment onwards, researchers and entrepreneurs must be supported and encouraged in developing their ideas into tangible concepts, as well as fostering their inquisitive entrepreneurial spirit from the genesis of a product to its delivery to the final consumer. In 2010, European leaders adopted the Europe 2020 strategy. It is designed to place the European economy on a sound and sustainable footing. At its core is a recognition that research and innovation are absolutely and fundamentally necessary in fostering and spurring long-term sustainable economic growth.

Horizon 2020 is the programme for implementing this goal. It brings all European funding for research and innovation under one umbrella. The programme will make it easier to avail of EU research and innovation funding schemes. Increased and more streamlined investment in research and innovation will play a core role in economic recovery, the return to jobs and growth and will be vital in regaining European competitiveness. Up to €70 billion is earmarked over the next seven years for Horizon 2020, 3% of European gross domestic product. It represents the greatest commitment ever to research and innovation and is an example of the EU directly investing in the European economy, providing researchers and innovators with solid support and real opportunities.

It comprises three mutually reinforcing pillars. The first, excellence in science, concentrates on basic fundamental research managed by the European Research Council promoting the gold standard for research.

The second pillar - creating industrial leadership and competitive frameworks - revolves around supporting research and innovation by business and entrepreneurs, particularly SMEs in the areas of ICT, nanotechnology and biotechnology. The third pillar - tackling societal challenges - focuses on a broad range of the challenges European society faces now and into the future - issues such as health, demographic change and energy security. To quote the Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, "Horizon 2020 means simplification. Since we want our scientists and innovators to spend more time in the lab or workshop and less time filling in forms, we are slashing red tape to make it easier to access financing."

Ireland is already at the forefront of research and innovation in Europe. We are among the best placed member states to fully exploit the funding opportunities offered by Horizon 2020. Over the next seven years, I am confident that our researchers and innovators will continue to secure a disproportionately large amount of European research funding, generating more jobs and higher sustainable real growth. Investment in research and innovation is a solid, sound investment in our future economy and prosperity. Horizon 2020 empowers prepared countries such as Ireland to continue as innovation pioneers in the science and technology spheres, building a stronger, sounder, sustainable economy.

I will move now to the issue of data protection, which has dominated my work on the industry committee over the past year. I attended over 250 external meetings on this and a similar number of meetings within the institutions. With the increasing use of big data, and people living more of their lives online, come big questions regarding privacy issues. Horizon 2020 calls for the development of a framework to safeguard human rights in the digital society so that users can control how their personal data is used by third parties. Big data offers huge potential benefits to society as a whole. It can offer innovative solutions to some of greatest societal challenges in the fields of health research, smart cities, education and the efficient delivery of public services. This was at the heart of my recent week-long conference on EU science, global challenges and global collaboration, the biggest conference ever held in the European Parliament, from 4 March to 8 March.

We are entering a data-driven era, but what does that mean to citizens? There are many benefits, but there are also many legitimate concerns that citizens' privacy is at stake. We must remember that the right to privacy is a fundamental right enshrined in the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights. As citizens, we demand that our privacy be protected in the context of rapid technological development, and this must be our top priority. Therefore, the Commission came forward in early 2012 with the biggest data protection reform in 20 years, the proposed general data protection regulation. This seeks to update the provisions of the 1995 directive on data protection. I was appointed on behalf of the Parliament's powerful industry, research and energy committee to lead negotiations on this reform in collaboration with the lead civil liberties committee. What we are seeking to do is to provide a clear framework for innovation in big data, which can deliver enormous benefits to society as a whole, without unnecessarily hampering it with meaningless red tape. Key to this balance is trust, so that we as citizens are aware that our data is being protected. As a result, there are a number of key innovations in this reform, focusing on robust corporate governance models, which are anchored in the powerful new mandatory position of the data protection officer. Also, there will be a strong system of administrative sanctions implemented by independent data protection authorities - watchdogs with teeth. Consent will be made clear and unambiguous for data subjects and the relationship between controllers and processors will be clarified, something of crucial importance in the burgeoning context of cloud technology. I have also introduced wording to promote broad consent, which is of key importance in the field of medical research. At the heart of my report has been the goal of achieving a strong balance between the right to privacy and the obligation to promote innovation to be respected in the ongoing negotiations.

An area closely related to research, innovation and data protection is patent protection. It is one of the real triumphs of the Irish Presidency and the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, in particular, that agreement has been found, whereby 24 countries have agreed to what is known as the Unified Patent Court Agreement. The importance of patent protection cannot be understated. European businesses invest billions every year in research and innovation, nurturing an idea from the "eureka" moment and guiding it all the way to the marketplace. Recognising and vindicating the rights of businesses and innovators to the ownership of their ideas is crucial in empowering European businesses and researchers to continue to increase their investment in research and innovation, confident in the knowledge that their endeavours will be respected. The patents package provides the framework for this recognition, reducing costs for business and providing a simplified structure for the recognition of patents across Europe, with access to a robust judicial remedy in cases of conflict. It is a crucial step in reducing the burden of red tape for enterprises across Europe through providing innovative European businesses with a one-stop shop for registering and protecting patents within the European Union. It has the potential to unleash economic growth across Europe. It is estimated that it could potentially save European businesses between €150 million and €290 million annually and this is only the initial saving under a simplified system. The true opportunity which patent reform affords European businesses is in unleashing the potential within European businesses and research sectors.

With regard to recent developments at the European Parliament's Regional Development Committee, the committee focuses on the fundamental physical infrastructure required for economic development in Europe's peripheral regions. Ireland has benefited incredibly from regional development funds over the course of the past 40 years through investment in vital economic structures, transport mobility and connectivity, thereby ensuring the necessary economic infrastructure was in place to empower the regions to fulfil their economic potential. The work on regional development has now moved towards those regions which need it most in eastern and southern Europe. While that does not mean the issues and economic potential of peripheral regions in western Europe are forgotten, nonetheless, one is less concerned with roads and railways and more concerned with realising the long-term economic potential of the regions.

I wish to briefly present to the House, if Senators will indulge me for a few more minutes, a summary of a report on the topic of Blue Growth which I authored for the committee and which was overwhelmingly accepted last week by 41 votes to one. The fact that Ireland is an island nation places it in an enviable position to fully benefit from the European Union's new Blue Growth strategy which is fundamentally aimed at utilising our marine resources in a sustainable manner to generate growth and foster job creation. It is being formulated to identify and tackle long-term challenges and highlight synergies within the sector to unleash growth. In concrete terms, it is examining ways of removing the administrative barriers that hamper growth, fostering investment in research and innovation and promoting skills through education and training. It focuses on the aquaculture industry, as well as short-sea shipping, coastal tourism and the offshore wind energy sector which present incredible opportunities for Ireland.

The role of aquaculture in promoting regional development in coastal areas across Europe is central. Some 90% of aquaculture businesses in the European Union are SMEs, providing 80,000 jobs. There is a need for the sector to be supported but, more importantly, to be significantly expanded through adopting innovative methods and schemes, funded through the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, in promoting the development of aquaculture in deep water, alongside offshore wind farms. My opinion is focused on developing maritime clusters and exploiting the resulting synergies across the sector.

The opportunities for growth and resulting job creation, both normal and innovative, are evident throughout this strategy. This strategy, once completed and implemented fully, has the potential to generate thousands of long-term sustainable jobs directly and indirectly across Ireland and with proper implementation and ambition, millions throughout Europe.

Having touched on what I believe are the major issues which I have worked on in the European Parliament over the past year or so, I will now discuss a topic which may be of more direct interest to Senators. The Lisbon Treaty conferred considerable extra powers on the European Parliament, transforming us as an institution into a full legislative Chamber and an equal partner with the European Council, a fact we do not tire reminding ourselves of in addition to any poor commissioner whose legislative proposals are not quite to some of my colleagues' liking. The same treaty conferred a new, more substantial role on national parliaments as watchdogs for the principle of subsidiarity as part of a wider role to contribute to the good functioning of the Union and right to information. National parliaments are now expected to scrutinise freedom, justice and security issues in addition to their traditional role in treaty change and enlargement.

As the House is aware, the European Commission sends out copies of its legislative proposals and the Oireachtas, along with every other parliament across Europe, has eight weeks to respond. Given the sheer quantity of Commission legislative proposals, I wonder how national parliaments currently manage their responsibilities and I genuinely wonder how their role can be strengthened and reinforced within the context of the development of EU institutions into the future.

While the future of Seanad Éireann will be decided by the people in the exercise of their sovereign right this autumn, I hope that the responsibility of European legislative scrutiny will be given due consideration in whatever new configuration of the Oireachtas develops after the referendum. I note that many Members of this House have been very much to fore in calling for the Seanad to take on these European responsibilities in a structured and comprehensive manner as part of an overall reform of Seanad Éireann. This is certainly a development I would welcome if the Seanad was to be retained.

Tá an t-aitheasc seo tagtha chun deiridh anois. I will finish with one sentence of Euro-speak. I wish to thanking you for good opportunity to speak on this issues today during the Irish Presidency and I wish you very well in your legislation today and today after, vielen dank.

5:00 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP, to the House and wish him well in his work and his work as a former uachtarán of the GAA who contributed greatly to the work and development of the GAA during his period as president. I also congratulate him on his membership of very prestigious committees. He has detailed very comprehensively the amount of work he undertook in the industry, energy, and research committee, the committee on culture and education, the regional development committee, the delegation for relations with the United States, and the delegation for relations with Canada. It is very important to have Irish MEPs involved at that level given the significant connection we have with the US. I know Mr. Kelly is working very closely with the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who is an excellent and very experienced commissioner.

One of the issues affecting farming, which I am sure Mr. Kelly brought to the attention of the European Parliament, is the crisis in fodder in Ireland. It is a fodder famine. Farmers are disappointed by the lack of response from the EU. Perhaps Mr. Kelly can outline what the reaction has been because it is an emergency and in those circumstances, one expects an emergency response from the EU and the Government.

Has any action been taken or will it be taken to involve the European Commission in the crisis in this country? It is absolutely essential that the crisis is brought to the Commission's attention and that the Commissioner for Agriculture is aware of the situation and comes here to see at first hand how serious the situation is. It is imperative that every action is taken to support farming at this critical time.

The Leader of the House is making every effort to give this House a role in the scrutiny of EU legislation. During the debates on the Lisbon treaty this was clearly articulated, promised and committed to, and the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Creighton, was very supportive of this suggestion. The Dáil is extremely busy and the Seanad could play a very strong role in scrutinising EU legislation. For example, a Bill on the below cost sale of cigarettes came before this House in the past two weeks. I am not sure whether Mr. Kelly is aware of its details although his portfolio might cover it. As Senators White and Norris highlighted, it was quite shocking that a directive and decision by the Commission, based on obvious lobbying by the tobacco industry, would provide for the below cost sale of cigarettes. There should be no tolerance of below cost selling of alcohol or cigarettes. To encourage anyone to engage in smoking or drinking by providing products at low cost seems to be contrary to the European Union. Those issues should have been scrutinised here and a yellow card should have been presented to the European Parliament and it should have been debated. I will not ask Mr. Kelly to respond to that point now but he might look at that situation when he returns to Brussels. That is something that people cannot understand and it gives the European Union a very bad reputation.

A question also arose about the eel fisheries. When a decision is made and a directive issued it should be reviewed after a certain number of years. There is a 99 year ban on the fishing of eels in the Republic of Ireland and that does not apply to Northern Ireland where there is a much more tolerant approach. I was appalled by the Ministers at the time, led by the Green Party Ministers, who pushed this agenda through. I know that we must conserve eels and that is fine but there should be a unified approach to this. Why are we the only country of the 27 that has a total outright ban on the development of eel fisheries? Those are the types of issues that bring the EU into disrepute in this country.

I am sorry I do not have more time to speak but I wish Mr. Kelly well in his work. I have one final point to make. I regret very much the reduction in the number of MEPs from 12 to 11. Will we lose an MEP every time a country joins the EU? I accept that we voted for that in the Lisbon treaty but is it really the situation? We need every MEP possible to represent this country in Europe. I hope that there will be no more reductions, if the number is reduced to 11. I assume Mr. Kelly will be able to respond to that question.

5:05 pm

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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On behalf of my colleagues in the House I welcome Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP, to address us this afternoon. His address was most enlightening. It is very important that we have such exchanges between Members of this House and Parliament and our representatives in the European Parliament. Before I ask Mr. Kelly a few questions, I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge not only the great work he is doing in the European Parliament but also the level of commitment and energy he gave to his previous roles which included a very successful presidency of the GAA.

From the level of knowledge and detail shown today, Mr. Kelly's extensive experience outside politics has served him well in Brussels. I also congratulate him on being voted MEP of the year last year for research and innovation, which is quite an achievement for a person who is in his first term in the European Parliament.

There are a number of issues on which Mr. Kelly might be able to share his thoughts today. Online gambling is an issue which has been raised on several occasions in this House and Mr. Kelly has made strident efforts in proposing legislation which seeks to protect minors from online gambling advertising. This is a very strong initiative on his behalf and perhaps it is one on which he might touch further.

Only last week, Seanad Éireann invited in 45 transition year students from around the country. They submitted questions to the Deputy Leader and I on a wide range of issues. I was taken aback at the extraordinary level of awareness and engagement shown by most of these young people. Some spoke quite forcibly on the issue of bullying and how we can promote positive mental health among young people. When we think about the challenges modern society pose for our youth, alcohol and drug abuse spring to mind as the main culprits, but Mr. Kelly is right that we need to open our minds to the new forms of bullying affecting our young people. I am interested in hearing his views on how we can balance the protection of the rights of our young people while acknowledging the importance of free expression which social media provides. I commend Mr. Kelly on his efforts to highlight the growing instances of cyberbullying and his recent seminar which focused on young people and how they can combat this epidemic. I am eager to hear his views on how we can protect young people from this new form of communication.

I would also like to touch on Mr. Kelly's committee work, in particular the work with regard to data protection. The Irish Presidency is at an advanced stage in negotiating the harmonisation of data protection legislation across the European Union. There is huge potential for Ireland in taking full advantage of big data which would benefit transport and infrastructural planning, medical research and e-commerce but what is of concern here is maintaining people's right to privacy. Mr. Kelly might be able to share his thoughts on how we can strike a very important balance in that regard.

Finally, I wish to touch on the issue which could be one of the defining points in our Presidency of the EU, namely, the negotiations for an EU-US trade and investment partnership agreement which has been raised by Senator Barrett on several occasions. I have seen the studies which have suggested that if such agreement were in place, the EU would benefit to the tune of up to €220 billion, with the creation of more than 400,000 new jobs. That certainly would be a significant achievement which would pave the way for a more competitive and expandable single market. Such an agreement would see the establishment of the largest trade bloc in the world. As a country which is driven by export-led growth, there would be huge opportunities for Ireland in this regard. I would like to hear Mr. Kelly's views on what stage our Presidency is at in terms of progressing these negotiations and on the potential benefits we can expect from such negotiations.

I assure Mr. Kelly that this House is very aware of the important role it can play in the scrutiny of EU legislation and the exchange of views we have had in recent weeks, which will culminate in Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn coming in next week - European week - will add to and help progress the relationship between this House and the European Parliament which is of paramount importance. I hope we will be in a position to progress these closer links between Europe and this House in the future.

I sincerely thank Mr. Kelly for his enlightening address and look forward to hearing from him regarding some of the questions that have been posed.

5:15 pm

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I call Senator Barrett.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I thought the debate would go back and forth.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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No, it is over.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I apologise to both Senators.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I welcome Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP. There are many aspects of his work that I would like to raise and commend him on. Perhaps I shall limit myself to crediting him for his work on the committee called Delegations for Relations with the United States. Senator Cummins mentioned the EU-US trade agreement and a number of Senators are following its progress. I also commend Mr. Kelly on his valuable contribution as rapporteur regarding the Commission's proposals to reform the EU data protection rules and to examine how the continent can have uniformity and introduce one data protection law for one continent. I have read the proposals with great interest.

I was heartened to hear Mr. Kelly speak so passionately today, and earlier this year, about youth unemployment and the youth guarantee. As he will know, Ireland has the fourth highest rate of young people not in education, employment or training in the EU, also known as the NEET figure. He expressed the need to tackle the monumental toll that emigration is taking on young people today. I commend all that he has done to support the youth guarantee. I would be heartened to hear his opinion on the draft recommendations establishing the youth guarantee that were adopted by the Council last week. Does he feel that the measure goes far enough?

With regard to his work on the Industry, Research and Technology Committee and the Regional Committee on Data Protection in Europe, what role will the digital agenda play in Ireland's recovery? I know that he has touched on the subject in some way.

Mr. Kelly raised the issue of data protection and talked about the importance of balancing rights. Therefore, I wish to raise a people protection issue. Perhaps it is more of a child protection issue but we have discussed it in the House. I refer to child abuse material on the Internet which is an issue of considerable concern to myself and several Senators. As a State we have an obligation to protect real children from real abuse in the real world. The Independent group tabled a motion on 29 February 2012 that called on the Government to block all child abuse material, irrespective of its jurisdiction or origin. At present we block material from within Ireland but it should be blocked, irrespective of jurisdiction. The Minster for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, said that he would consider the proposal in the context of the planned sexual offences Bill. However, there has been no urgency in bringing the Bill before us so I look to the EU to see what it can do. Several member states have introduced such blocking of the Internet.

I note and acknowledge the European Parliament's written declaration on highlighting the global dimension of the fight against online child sexual abuse content. I thank Mr. Kelly for signing the declaration earlier this month. As noted in the declaration, the cross-border nature of most online child sexual abuse content shows that strong international co-operation is necessary. What does Mr. Kelly feel can be done to facilitate this co-operation to remove the content at source and address its online distribution networks? I believe that we should block it but some people will counter my belief by citing Internet freedom. However, each digital image is an image of a crime scene. We have a policy to block drugs entering the country. It does not solve the problem but acts as a deterrent. In the same way we should block all child abuse in Ireland as happens in several EU member states. I would welcome hearing Mr. Kelly's opinions and I hope that he will support me on the issue.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I call Senator Susan O'Keeffe and she has five minutes as leader.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I welcome Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP. As Senator Cummins has rightly said, credit is due to him for the enormous amount of work he does in Europe and for his work in his previous role as president of the GAA. I wonder, as I sit here, which EU country is closest to counties Kilkenny or Kerry in their race to be supreme at various sports.

One of the main dilemmas, and Mr. Kelly touched on it, is the way we reach out to Europe and Europe reaches out to us. Mr. Kelly referred to the disconnect, and people always do that. We have not made the progress we should have been able to make by now with modern technology, our understanding of politics and our greater capacity to travel as ordinary citizens of Ireland, and that does not apply just to Ireland. For example, the greater power granted to the European Parliament under the Lisbon treaty is very welcome. Voting to cap bankers' bonuses, as the Parliament did last week, and the Parliament voting for a new policy on discards for the Common Fisheries Policy are two welcome and timely initiatives that are in touch with what Members here are interested in. However, I suspect if people on the street were asked if they knew the European Parliament had voted for any of those measures, they would ask what we were talking about.

Is the difficulty, as Mr. Kelly said, that one gets only a minute to speak? Is it because Europe is still based in Brussels and people do not believe it is relative to home? Is it because of the huge variety of activities in which an MEP engages? People here and in other countries find it difficult to find something that is happening in Europe that is relevant to their daily lives. All the work about which Mr. Kelly spoke - the blue growth strategy, the patents and so on - is relevant. I speak having had only a brush with Europe having stood in the European elections and I found that was a matter people would raise constantly. They would ask what Europe does for us and when one tried to explain a number of issues their eyes would glaze over.

There is clearly no quick fix, nor should there be one, for an issue as important as this, but does Mr. Kelly believe there ought to be something proposed. Many people in this room would share his view on the Seanad having a greater role in regard to European legislative scrutiny. That would help but if it is the case that the people decide to abolish the Seanad, is there another solution to the enormous amount of scrutiny required of European legislation and to that disconnect because if the Seanad cannot fulfil that role, who will?

In addition to that disconnect we have the rise of any number of right wing parties across any number of countries in Europe including Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Greece and the Netherlands to name a few. Right wing parties-----

5:25 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I think the Deputy means far right.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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I am sorry, far right. I thank the Senator.

In the vacuum where people are not connecting with Europe it is very easy to create a message that Europe is too strong, has too much power, that the power should revert to the sovereign and that we do not want Europe interfering in our lives. That message then takes hold in the vacuum that is caused by the fact that our capacity to connect with Europe and Europe's capacity to connect with us is not as good as it should be.

Mr. Kelly is a relatively new MEP but it is often such people who can see clearly the way that might be managed into the future. I would have a serious concern as to the way that might be managed. That does not take away from the work being done by Mr. Kelly and his fellow MEPs. I am not trying to do that. I am saying that would be my biggest fear about the success of Europe. I am a Europhile and I agree that many of the changes that have occurred in Ireland occurred because we were members of the European Union but what is Mr. Kelly's view on that? What could he bring to that given that, as Senator Cummins said, he had a great deal of experience outside of politics? Is it the case that Europe is too big and that we should return to a free trade environment? Is it that the project is too big and too disparate to connect with people? I am not suggesting that. I am curious to know Mr. Kelly's view on it.

I thank Mr. Kelly. I will follow with interest the blue growth strategy because it is an extremely interesting area. I commend Mr. Kelly's work.

5:30 pm

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte mór roimh Seán, sár iar-uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael. Bhí brú mór ann don phróiseas síochána nuair a thoghadh Seán mar uachtarán ar Chumann Lúthchleas Gael. Bhí sé an-fhoighneach agus cneasta in aghaidh gach a bhí ina choinne an t-am sin. Níl aon dabht againn anois ach go raibh sé ar fheabhas don tír agus do Chumann Lúthchleas Gael gur tugadh cead sacar agus rugbaí a imirt i bPáirc an Chrócaigh. Tá meas mór ar Sheán i measc Aontachtaithe, de bharr gur canadh "Dia, Sábháil an Banríon" - "God save the Queen" - i bPáirc an Chrócaigh.

What I have just said is that they liked hearing "God Save the Queen" sung in Croke Park. It made a major impact. As recently as last Friday, the gesture was recognised as huge in the North-South discussions at Stormont. I spoke to some constituents in Enniskillen soon afterwards and a strong Unionist said that if his barn needed repairing and a neighbour loaned him his, he would respect that neighbour. Senator Brennan referred to the Rugby World Cup which we have applied to host. The fact that it could be staged here without any of the controversies which Seán Kelly had to endure represents a remarkable contribution to his country. I am delighted that we have a Kerry Senator in the Chair. Mr. Kelly will recall that in his difficulties in the GAA, it was a key man from Leitrim, Tommy Byrne, who rang the bell after three minutes, thereby extinguishing loquacious clergymen and former presidents of the GAA from Cork who thought they were still running the organisation. It was a major achievement. Senator O'Sullivan is playing an important role in ensuring that proceedings observe the rules.

There is an interesting story in the book about an encounter with a former Cathaoirleach, Rory Kiely. Mr. Kelly wrote that "Rory was a shrewd operator and, as Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, carried a fair deal of weight". I am glad to hear it. We will pass on the news to the current Cathaoirleach. Mr. Kelly will recall that while Mr. Kiely was against the change being proposed, his son voted for it. I hope when the retention of the Seanad is dealt with, the precedent will be observed. I was delighted that a constituent of mine, Mr. Peter Boyle, was president of the IRFU at the relevant time and helped Mr. Kelly move through a wonderful period of sporting friendship and ecumenism. I remember the legendary Pádraig Kennelly of Kerry's Eye introducing me to Seán Kelly. It is hardly a surprise that he is MEP of the year for research and innovation. If he accomplishes in Europe a fraction of what he has done in Ireland to promote the peace process, the EU will be in his debt.

To respond to Mr. Kelly's speech, our present problems are the result of the massive design faults in the euro currency. We have discussed them here. There should have been more debate with the British, the Danes and the Swedes, who pointed out the faults originally. I find it very difficult to imagine that Greece and Portugal can survive at a fixed exchange rate with Germany. Mr. Kelly mentioned the €44 billion we have made from the Common Agricultural Policy, but the currency has cost us €64 billion to rescue banks which went broke as German money flowed in. The EU must move faster. Last week, the Seanad discussed legislation to introduce mechanisms like those being implemented in the USA and UK to separate utility banks from casino banks and to require banks to be better capitalised. The legislation is being held up by the slow pace in Europe, which should be addressed. There are now 25 million unemployed people in the EU, which represents an increase of 2 million in the last 12 months. As other Members have said, there is problem with Europe appearing to be so distant and 27 people taking an age to make up their minds to do anything. The EU must justify itself to the citizens.

The research budget is good, but it must have inputs. To refer to one of Mr. Kelly's previous great interests, much of the research, innovation and education budget should focus on primary level. Science was removed from the Irish curriculum in the 1920s and it would be brilliant to reintroduce it. There is also a languages problem.

I think languages were nearly there in the primary schools in the 1920s, but to make room for religion and the revival of the Irish language, they were taken out of the curriculum. It would make a major impact if these subjects were part of the primary school curriculum as everybody goes to primary school.

Mr. Kelly will play a crucial role in the new era of architects. I have already mentioned research and innovation.

As the Leader has said we are crucially well placed to foster relations with the United States and I am delighted that Mr. Kelly is on that committee, as we are midway between the United States and Canada and the European economy. Canada has the largest proportion of Irish people in its population. I think we will be organising some visits there in October and November. This provides huge scope and I am delighted that Mr. Kelly is connected with that also.

Mr. Kelly quoted the statement by the Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who said: "Since we want our scientists and innovators to spend more time in the lab or workshop and less time filling in forms, we are slashing red tape to make it easier to access financing." I think we should also add that they should spend more time teaching because scientists must encourage and develop the current crop of young people to take an interest in science. They have been neglecting that due to the current emphasis on research and on independent funding of the research and filling in forms.

County Kerry has had remarkable success in regional development and has developed an airport with a link all the year round with Germany. The Liebherr group came to Kerry long before the Common Market. That has to be promoted and people such as Denis Cregan, the chairman, must be commended for what they are doing. We have the resource of the marine, an immense area off our coast that is far bigger than the land mass of the country. What we can get out of the blue project will be most interesting.

Mr. Kelly's success comes as no surprise. We wish him well and I thank him for his address to the Seanad. From setting the precedent of rugby in Croke Park, I am delighted that he sees a role for the Seanad in the future. I would much prefer to have him on my team than on the opposing side.

Go raibh maith agat a Sheáin.

5:35 pm

Acting Chairman (Mr. Ned O'Sullivan):

I call Senator Cullinane who has two minutes, but I will give him a long two minutes.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome a fellow Munster man, Mr. Seán Kelly, as I am from Waterford. I agree with much of what Senator Sean D. Barrett said on the lethargic approach of the European Union to a range of issues since the economic crisis. We have seen inconsistences in its approach to banking. We in Ireland were forced not to burn the bondholders but Cyprus was forced to burn the bondholders as well as depositors. There are still controls and credit limits on the banks in Cyprus. Europe has not had a coherent approach to the banking situation. There is some move towards a single European banking supervisory body, which we support. We need strong regulation in the banking sector. We also need to ensure the European Central Bank acts as lender of last resort, which has been the missing element since the crisis started. While we have had difficulties with the European Stability Mechanism, we would prefer the European Central Bank to be the body to provide the funding for the ESM. The EU has gone for a different approach but it is still not up and running. We saw that it was not used to capitalise the banks in Cyprus. We still have not got the retrospective deal that will take off our balance sheet and off the shoulders of the taxpayers, all of the banking debt that we hold as sovereign debt. Unfortunately some of this was made sovereign by Mr. Kelly's party by the promissory note as well as the money that was put in by the previous Government.

There is an unemployment crisis across Europe. The level of youth unemployment in Spain is phenomenal as is unemployment generally. Many countries across Europe, to mention just Italy, Portugal and Greece are facing a real crisis in unemployment as we are in this State, with the number of unemployed people stabilising at 14.5%. This is still a significant figure which presents challenges. We need a coherent focus in the European Union and in this State on how to respond to this crisis. That step change must involve some level of easing of austerity. The Government seemed to be moving in that direction and talking about taking €1 billion less in austerity measures next year. That needs to happen. We need a stimulus to create jobs, we need more investment.

I have two quick questions on the domestic situation. With the abolition of the milk quotas, there is a major opportunity in the dairy sector for Munster and the south east. Will Mr. Kelly comment on that? There are major opportunities in beef production and fisheries. The Common Fisheries Policy needs to be reviewed and we must ensure we have a thriving fishing industry that supports many coastal villages.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Ned O'Sullivan):

A number of questions have been put to our guest and at this interim stage I call Mr. Kelly to respond to the points made so far.

Before doing so, I know I am slightly abusing my position in the Chair, it would be remiss of me as a Kerryman and a very old friend of Mr. Seán Kelly, if I did not extend best wishes to him. We were in the College of Education together. It was a very good year, which produced no less than the Taoiseach, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle of the Dáil, an MEP, and mé féin.

Mr. Kelly has approximately five minutes.

Mr. Seán Kelly:

I return the compliment to the Acting Chairman, who has been a good friend and colleague for many years and a great Kerryman.

Senator Leyden mentioned the US partnership agreement, which we hope to start as soon as possible. That was a great move by the Government because it sent a positive signal and a great deal of progress has been made on it. It is expected that when President Obama comes to Enniskillen for the G8 conference he will be able to announce an agreement to start negotiations. That is a significant advancement. When I was elected and went to Europe four years ago, I attended as a delegate on the EU-US conference and at that time America had more or less given up on Europe. America was looking east. Things have changed. The Irish Presidency has done a good job at putting ourselves at the centre and getting people together. President Obama's special envoy was here last week and this shows that the Americans and Europeans are serious about it. The Commissioner for Trade, Karel De Gucht, thinks we can have an agreement in two years. I think that is a bit optimistic but in terms of timetabling it is good because the US President will be anxious to conclude it before his term finishes and a new European Parliament will be coming in. This is a significant development for Ireland, Europe and the United States.

I sympathise with farmers on the fodder crisis. I was in Mitchelstown last Saturday week when Dairygold brought in lorries of hay. The Minister has been doing his best. He has spoken to Commissioner Cioloş about the issue and I, as a member of the regional development committee, have written to Commissioner Hahn, as he is responsible for regional development and in particular for the solidarity fund. I have asked him to address the fodder issue and to meet me as soon as possible. The solidarity fund usually takes effect after an event, for example after disasters, such as the flooding in Cork or fires and drought across Europe, but help is needed right now, which is the problem. We need to consider an emergency fund that can kick start immediately. We will do our best and keep pressing the message. If solidarity is to mean anything one must come to the aid of people, at a time of crisis.

I am concerned about the whole approach to tobacco in Europe in the sense that we should be trying to encourage the farmers in southern Europe who depend on the tobacco crop to try to diversify into some other crops so that in the long term we would eliminate it.

There is a question of competition concerning below cost selling and so on and much more could be done in that regard. I agree that we should be targeting the elimination of smoking in the long term. That would encourage farmers, particularly in southern Europe, to diversify.

I agree that the issues concerning fishing, particularly eel fishing, are ones for the Cabinet rather than the European Union. However, MEPs are concerned about them.

Small member states have suffered a decrease in their number of MEPs, from 15 to 13 to 12 and now 11. Member states have a veto, if they wish to exercise it, and that aspect should be considered. We need to consider this matter from a broader perspective, especially in the context of the enlargement of the European Union. If new member states continue to join and the number of MEPs per member state continues to reduce, with what number will we finish up? Small countries such as Malta have a guaranteed minimum of six MEPs, which number cannot be touched. Is Ireland's representation going to fall to near that number soon, bearing in mind that Malta has a population of only 500,000? Therefore, this issue needs to examined in a broader context. The best thing to do would be to postpone the decision. With one year to go before the European elections, we do not have a clue what the constituencies will be or whether we will have 12 or 11 MEPs. In terms of timing, that is unacceptable.

Senator David Cullinane referred to the bondholders. We would all like to see the bondholders being burned, but when the crisis occurred, the European Union had to respond to it. There was no mechanism in place in that respect. As Senator Sean D. Barrett said, the euro was introduced without the necessary important structure being in place to accompany it. In the case of Cyprus, at least the taxpayer did not have to carry the burden. That should I hope strengthen our case when we come to ask that it be examined in a similar light under the ESM when the banking union is established. From that point of view, a line may have been drawn in the sand to the effect that taxpayers will not pick up the bill any more. That in itself would make banks, their shareholders and boards of governors more cautious when they know they would be hit first. The fact that we will have one single supervisory mechanism in Europe will I hope ensure banks will be properly monitored in the future. This is a very important development.

On unemployment, we all want to see more people in employment. In this regard, there is a need for more investment. The European Union is conscious of this and it is part of the Irish proposals under the Irish Presidency in terms of stability, growth and job creation. Different measures will be examined to try to improve the position, particular in regard to Structural Funds and so on.

Under Food Harvest 2020, there will be great opportunities for Ireland. The reformed Common Agricultural Policy allows for this. There was a move to keep milk quotas, but that proposal has been more or less rejected. I hope that will be the end result and it will help us. Markets are growing worldwide. There is a huge growth among the middle classes in developing countries, particularly the BRIC countries. There are also great opportunities for Ireland in fisheries, particularly the aquaculture sector, to which I referred.

My friend, the Leader of the House, Senator Maurice Cummins, gave me great praise for my role as president of the GAA, as did other speakers, for which I thank them. It was a great occasion when Croke Park was opened up. It was great to have the Queen of England there. It is also great that Croke Park could be used in the holding of the Rugby World Cup in 10 or 15 years time. It took congress less than one minute to agree to this, which shows the way things can move on and opinions can change. As was mentioned, Mr. Tommy Moran from County Leitrim and I got a lot of stick at the time, but we got over it and matters worked out well.

The question of bullying, including cyberbullying, was mentioned. In that respect, the protection of minors is crucial. It is important to work with parents to help them to become aware of what is happening. They need much more help, as do schools. There is a move towards peer to peer mentoring in Britain, something that should be introduced here because many young people who are bullied believe it is their own fault. As a consequence, they do not speak to anybody about it. There is scope to address the problem by introducing peer to peer mentoring, or cyber buddies is another term for it. The Oireachtas is examining that issue. I will help to progress it in the European Union to try to deal with the issue of bullying generally, particularly cyberbullying which is far more secretive and damaging to young people.

The issue of data protection was raised. We have to balance the right to privacy with the opportunities for businesses to grow. A proposal was brought forward by some committees in the European Union that every company with 250 customers should have a data protection officer. I fought to have this proposal rejected, as it was a ridiculous proposal. A butcher could have 250 customers and he or she would have to take on a data protection officer. That proposal would simply not work and, thankfully, we were successful in defeating it. Trust is key. It is important to instill confidence in people that their data will be protected. On the question of consent, we are seeking a clear and unambiguous approach in this respect. I hope we will achieve a balance.

Another aspect that is important for Ireland is the concept of a one-stop-shop where companies operating throughout Europe could pick one member state as their main establishment. That would suit Ireland more than any other member state because many of the big companies have a base here. We have a good reputation in data protection through the work of the Data Protection Commissioner, Mr. Billy Hawkes. This is something companies would welcome and it would be useful and helpful to Ireland in attracting more companies to invest here.

I have dealt with the US trade agreement; therefore, there is no need to go over it again. I also mentioned bondholders.

The youth guarantee scheme is very important. It is great if a young fellow finds a job within four months of attaining his qualifications, but I am concerned about how the provision on training will be interpreted. Such training must be meaningful, beneficial and lead to a job. We will have to put on our thinking caps and monitor it when it comes into effect because there is a danger that young people might be sent for training which might not be of great benefit to them.

5:45 pm

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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I interrupt Mr. Kelly to advise him that time is passing and that he will have an opportunity to speak again at the end of questions. If he will now conclude, we will bring him in again at the end. As I am being replaced in the Chair by Senator Paul Coghlan, I call him first to put his questions.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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All politics is local; therefore, I welcome my near neighbour from across the road at home and thank him for addressing us. I congratulate him on being the model MEP. We have been watching his progress and appreciate how well he is doing on committees in the European Union and his work, on the issue of data protection in particular. I merely want to wish him well and ask him when he comes here again to say a few words on a matter in which we are all interested and about which there is much guesswork, namely, the new Irish constituencies and the loss of seats, which we all regret, to also speak about EU expansion. Serbia's application has been approved and Turkey and other countries want to join. I wish him very well in the future.

Photo of Ned O'SullivanNed O'Sullivan (Fianna Fail)
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It is easier to take questions from the remaining three speakers together.

Photo of John GilroyJohn Gilroy (Labour)
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I welcome Mr. Kelly. It is often thought that the sum of human experience is contained in this House. It probably is, but it is also good to have an opportunity to hear what representatives in other Houses of Parliament have to say. I listened carefully to Mr. Kelly's contribution which I found to be astute and incisive. If any evidence was needed that he was a more than ordinary and thoughtful politician, we do not need any more having heard what he has had to say. I have two brief questions for him. He made a reference, obliquely I admit, to the future of this House. In other European countries with a bicameral system in place is a debate taking place on the future of the Upper House? Can he point to any rumour or talk among his colleagues about this possibility?

My second question is about how we might be perceived by our European partners.

From speaking informally to European MEPs, how do they see us implementing the austerity programme, which we are obliged to do? I understand there is a diverse range of views on the issue. In a formal way, do people think we are doing well and that it is the right way to go, or that we are stone mad to pursue this policy?

5:55 pm

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP. I think the title is Deputy Kelly but Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP, sounds much better. His presentation was extremely interesting and shows the innovative and important work he is doing. He is also well recognised in Brussels, obviously because of the award he has been given. I had occasion to be there recently and everybody seems to know him. He is gaining a similar status in Brussels to that he has in Ireland, and he is certainly making an impact.

There are two issues I wish to raise, one of which has already been addressed by Mr. Kelly, which is that of scrutiny of European Union legislation by the Seanad. The reality is that Brussels and Strasbourg influence much of what we do here, yet there is a huge disconnect, as others have mentioned, including Senator Susan O'Keeffe. As I know he agrees with that proposition, I will not waste my time on that issue.

I wish to mention the co-location of the European Parliament. The financial and environmental costs of having two seats, one in Strasbourg and one in Brussels, strike me as extraordinary. It is estimated that it costs between €180 million and €250 million per year, as every month the Parliament must be moved lock, stock and barrel from Brussels to Strasbourg, with files, staff and Members of the European Parliament all being transferred at great expense, for the sake of a few days' work before moving back to Brussels, only to repeat it the following month. Does Mr. Kelly have a position on the issue? Perhaps we should move towards a one-chamber European Parliament. I commend him on his work and thank him for coming to the House.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I welcome not only a fellow Kerry person but a fellow parishioner to the House and commend Deputy Seán Kelly on his work in the European Parliament. I would like to hear his views on the proposed alignment of the partnerships with local authorities and how it will affect EU funding, as there is a fear in communities that the funding will be diluted. EU nationals working here have child benefit paid to the countries in which their families reside. It is a bone of contention for many people, especially in a time of recession, that child benefit is paid at the Irish rate in other EU countries. Has the proposal that child benefit be paid at the rate of the country in which the family resides been discussed at EU level, as the rate is quite high in Ireland?

My third question concerns EU tourism policy. In Europe, has Deputy Kelly heard discussion of the price of rail travel in Ireland and whether it is prohibitive for tourism, given that a one-way rail ticket costs the same as a return ticket? I am aware this is having an adverse affect on tourism. I would welcome his views on those issues.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP, whom I have admired for many years, particularly during his term as president of the GAA. Given the welcome and support he has received from all the Kerry representatives in the House, his re-election must be assured, whether Ireland has 11 or 12 seats the next time.

I enjoyed his presentation. It was encouraging to hear that we are coming to the end of the firefighting and will see a new era of architects with a better engineered European structure where, I hope, the mistakes of the past will not be repeated. My questions relate to Mr. Kelly's experience since he became an MEP. For a person who was previously involved in an organisation that made decisions quickly and achieved much in a relatively short period, I am curious to know whether he finds the pace of decision-making within the European Union frustrating. How much influence can 12 MEPs have in such a large Parliament? Does it matter whether we have 11 or 12 MEPs in the future? How well do the 12 Irish MEPs work together on common issues? With regard to the jobs crisis, Mr. Kelly mentioned the huge challenges we are facing. Where does he see the real opportunities for job creation? What areas should be targeted? What advice would he give to the Government to stimulate the economy and create badly needed jobs?

Mr. Seán Kelly:

I thank the Senators for their kind words. I must come here more often. It was good to hear those words. It is not often that a politician gets that kind of praise.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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We may not be here. The MEP may be on his own.

Mr. Seán Kelly:

Time will tell. Nósfaidh an aimsir. Is maith an scéalaí í.

I was in the middle of responding to Senator Sean D. Barrett, whose father I admired immensely, on an important point about education, particularly at primary level. It is an issue we are highlighting at the education committee in the European Parliament, especially with regard to science and languages. Ireland has failed badly in respect of languages. The one thing I notice in Europe is that the vast majority of people speak two, three or four languages without difficulty. There are opportunities for people as interpreters if they have languages. Two years ago I visited Intel, where a presentation was made to me and I was informed that 25,000 jobs were lost to the sector in Ireland because although we had people with skills they did not have the language skills required. Germans or French people want to deal with people in their own language. The Senator is right; this should start at primary level. Like sport, the younger a person takes up a language, the easier it is for them. Members may have heard of CoderDojo in the Dáil. I took that to the European Parliament. It is helping to fill a void in respect of skills. There are 2 million job vacancies in Europe owing to a lack of ICT skills. To some extent, that is an indictment of educationalists generally and a lack of vision. That is the reason there is a constant need for more interaction among education institutions, business, industry and politicians - to ascertain the trends and ensure those gaps will not occur into the future.

Senator Susan O'Keeffe mentioned connecting with Europe; that is a big problem. There are two things I wish to highlight. First, good news is no news. If one does good work it will not be reported, but if one says something controversial one has a much better chance of being noticed. That is the reality. Second - I have said this in the European Parliament on a few occasions - the European Union is the worst PR machine in the world. For all the good work it does, it gets no credit. Member states will speak about the money they are giving for this and that without any reference to the fact that the money is coming from Europe, and the European Union does nothing about it. There is a major job to be done in looking at the way in which the message is communicated. Initiatives such as this, with MEPs addressing the Seanad, are important in helping to get that message across. If one speaks to any visitor group to the European Parliament I can almost guarantee they will all say they have a far more positive view of Europe as a result of the visit.

Obviously, there is a job to be done in communicating the message.

People give out about the powers of the European Union. Those powers were given to it by the people, or by their governments, in the treaties. If they want to change them, then it is a matter for the people. That point is often lost when discussing what is happening.

I see my good neighbour Senator Paul Coghlan has been joined by other neighbours Senators Sheahan and Moloney.

6:05 pm

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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The place is full of Kerrymen.

Mr. Seán Kelly:

I believe the European Union will expand in the future. Croatia will join on 1 July and there are many applicant countries. I have used the phrase festina lente and believe we should expand perhaps more slowly than we are currently, in order that we can control it properly and it does not unravel, which is a slight danger.

We do not know what the constituencies of MEPs will be at the next election because a decision has not been made. We probably will not know until July or possibly September, which is six or seven months before the election. That is totally discriminatory in regard to people trying to protect their jobs.

I think there are 15 bicameral institutions in the European Union. Other than in Ireland, I have not heard of any discussions on the number increasing, where countries have a single institution, or decreasing, where countries have two institutions.

In regard to the question on how people in Europe see us, they like us.

Mr. Seán Kelly:

Ireland's reputation is very good. I said to the parliamentary party that I felt there was too much expectation in regard to the Irish Presidency because it was looking at the countries before us and after us and at our record where each of our six Presidencies were deemed successful. It was perhaps expecting too much of the Irish Presidency. The Irish Presidency is going well and our reputation is very good from that point of view. The vast majority of MEPs work hard.

I was asked about co-operation. We co-operate, in particular on national issues, and we discuss issues which will impact on Ireland. For example, in regard to the Common Fisheries Policy, before the vote, Mr. Pat The Cope Gallagher said to me that my group - the European People's Party - was against the Hague Preferences, which was a special arrangement for Ireland, and asked if I could get a few people to vote with us on that. I said I would because many would not know what they were voting on. Seven people around me voted in favour and it was passed by six votes, so it was crucial. We co-operate on such issues which is only right, or we nearly always co-operate. Some might have a different ideological view. However, in the vast majority of cases, we wear the green shirt once we step on the aeroplane.

In regard to the single location, the leader of our group, Joseph Dual, is great but he comes from Strasbourg, so he does not want to hear about it. However, over the past three years, the majority of MEPs have voted for a single location as opposed to going to Brussels and Strasbourg. As was said, it costs €180 million per year and the CO2 emissions are 19,000 tonnes, with lorries going to and fro. There is the inconvenience because it is more difficult to get to Strasbourg as there are fewer flights going there. It takes me approximately 13 hours to get to Strasbourg in that one has to wait on a bus for an hour in Frankfurt waiting for other MEPs to arrive. I have made a number of suggestions. We actually had a meeting last week at which I said that if MEPs wanted to keep Strasbourg, which is a lovely city, as a symbol of peace because of its history - depending on whether Germany or France won the war - perhaps we could go there one week each year. That might be a sensible proposal. Even though we go to a lovely building, it is idle 317 days of the year, so it does not make sense. That should not happen, in particular at a time of austerity.

The price of rail tickets is high but I think they are higher in Europe, unfortunately. Again, I suppose it is an internal matter. I got the train from Mallow last Saturday week and I think it cost €62 return but if one was going for more than one day, it would cost a lot more. In the times we are in, one cannot control everything. Ideally, the less public transport costs, the better but at the same time, one has to balance the books.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I was talking about the adverse effect it is having on tourism. Is that being discussed in Europe?

Mr. Seán Kelly:

Costs are the same in Europe, unfortunately.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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What about child benefit and alignment?

Mr. Seán Kelly:

Child benefit is not really a matter for the European Union per se. There are agreed structures in regard to the free movement and rights of people. I heard the suggestion Senator Moloney made being made by a fairly prominent Member of the European Parliament one day but he did not get much backing for it.

I thank Members.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Kelly for attending the Seanad and wish him well in his deliberations and further success in the years ahead. It was great to listen to him over the past hour and a half.