Thursday, 2 October 2014
Order of Business
I am compelled again to raise the unfortunate issue of the McNulty debacle. From listening in the corridors last night and this morning, I am aware oil was poured on troubled waters at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting and its members seem happy there is no heave against the Taoiseach. While that may be the case, there are still many questions to be answered-----
Many questions for this House and the public still remain to be answered. Yesterday, I reiterated that the issue of the vacancy of the Seanad seat arose because of Deirdre Clune’s election to the European Parliament. The Seanad by-election concerns this, not the other House. I have demanded and will continue to demand that the Taoiseach comes before this House to tender a full explanation to Members here about the shenanigans that went on.
A number of outstanding questions remain. The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, has not done herself proud in the replies she has given. She mentioned in one of her statements that she wanted regional balance when she appointed Mr. McNulty to the board of IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art. If one reflects on that, she was also aware that he was a potential Seanad by-election candidate and that once he became one, he would have to resign from the board. Is this a simple ruse? The Minister ignored the cap of nine members for the board of IMMA and enlarged it to 11 members, a bit like the banking inquiry shenanigans that happened here some time ago. There is also the further question of why, despite the clear suggestion that a woman would have been the preferred candidate, did the Taoiseach and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht chose to ignore this.
Some are claiming this debacle is over. It is not because the Seanad by-election will take place on 10 October. What if Mr. McNulty is elected by Government party Members? If he is, it will create a serious crisis because he has already withdrawn from the race. Has the Taoiseach directed the Members of his parliamentary party not to vote for him? For anyone to claim this is over-----
Whatever way this pans out, these are questions that must be answered. I reiterate my demand that the Taoiseach, no one else, should come before this House to explain what has happened. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that the Taoiseach comes to the House today to answer questions on this issue. A similar amendment was rejected on yesterday’s Order of Business but this side of the House will keep on insisting on this until the Taoiseach comes into this House and shows respect for this Chamber. In a referendum last year, this Chamber was protected by the people. The issue of the vacancy of a seat here is a matter for the Seanad. It was very remiss of the Taoiseach and the Leader yesterday to reject this proposal. I hope the Deputy Leader today will change the view of the Government side and request the Taoiseach to come to the House. Even if it were for next Tuesday or Wednesday, I would then withdraw my amendment to the Order of Business.
The many unanswered questions concerning the debacle of the McNulty affair - which I accept is unfortunate for that man - affects the status and dignity of this House. We need those answers and the only person to provide them is the Taoiseach.
He and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, have given full explanations. While I know it might not be relevant to the Order of Business, a Chathaoirligh, the Taoiseach asked that Mr. McNulty’s wishes be respected.
I welcome the revised model for ministerial appointments which is implicit in what Senator O’Donovan is calling for. All of this has been dealt with. A report will be made by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and brought back to Cabinet within six weeks. The new model will be operable fully from 1 November which we all respect and support.
I gather there will be an announcement today regarding Part V of the planning process. While we await the details, I understand it will provide for more flexibility and improve the situation as regards social housing and housing generally.
I want to raise the issue of the decline in the international rankings of Irish universities as published today. Trinity College Dublin dropped out of the top 100 while University College Dublin out of the top 200. There has been a dramatic decline during this recession in the State funding of universities with an increase in fees and the use of some private incomes.
The staff to student ratio has deteriorated. It is over 18 compared with 11 in the United Kingdom. If the Irish universities were ranked by funding, none would get remotely near the top 200. We must invite the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, in here to discuss the implications of this. To have 20% more students and to lose 2,500 staff means fewer courses are on offer and the quality of the graduates will suffer.
The rankings are seriously defective in that they underestimate areas where Ireland has been successful in the past in the humanities, the social sciences and so on but they have an international impact. There is a funding crisis. There is an increase in Government attempts to control universities, which is a mistake. There were financial problems which should not have been allowed to occur. Our briefing note on higher education prepared by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service states: “Quality is something which has become ‘increasingly government-driven rather than institution-led’ . . .”. That is a mistake. It has involved layers of bureaucracy. We need people in the classroom. People of all senior ranks in universities should get back to lecturing. There are problems like that. There were some expense account scandals that the Comptroller and Auditor General had to investigate in Waterford and elsewhere. We need more resources for the classroom. The numbers are based on 2012 and will get worse before they get better. This could be a point of decline in Irish education. Nobody wants to see that. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the extra time.
It is very difficult to take what Senator O’Donovan said this morning seriously and to see the Fianna Fáil Party making such a major issue of one board appointment. This is the party that was hammered in the 2011 election and yet before it left office stuffed boards with its supporters and cronies that ran into seriously inflated numbers-----
At this stage the people want us to get back to discussing the real issues of the day, such as how we can accelerate the success of the Action Plan for Jobs. How can we get more people back to work? We all welcome the fact that the live register figures published yesterday show a further decrease in the numbers unemployed. Employment is now at its highest level since 2009. The numbers on the live register have fallen by 4% since the launch of the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs, from 15.1% in February 2012 to 11.1% in September 2014. It is firmly on track to create the 100,000 jobs that it promised in the programme for Government. Could we invite the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, to the House in the next week or two to discuss how we can help spread employment opportunities to the regions and further help small businesses create much-needed employment in the rural communities that many in this House represent?
In light of the number of very serious and tragic accidents on farms in recent weeks I would like to have a discussion with the Minister for Education and Skills about how to include a health and safety segment in the school curriculum so that young people, whether living on farms or travelling our roads, can be made much more aware of the hazards associated with large, high-powered equipment because tragedies such as those we have seen recently cannot be allowed to continue. Too many families have been bereaved as a result of accidents that could have been prevented.
I am sorely tempted to respond in detail to Senator Mullins but I will avoid the temptation other than to say that he should Google "State appointments". A journalist yesterday said, in the context of the ongoing State appointments row, that what politicians in these Houses know but do not admit is that all Governments have done this. I will admit that all Governments have because that has been the system.
It was pointed out that in the American political system, for example, the newly-appointed US ambassador to Ireland - whom I welcome and wish well, following his ratification - will serve for only two years because when the Obama Administration ends all the Democrat appointees will be gone. If a Republican is elected President, Republicans will be appointed to boards. That happened in Greece during the bailout process where, I discovered, as others I am sure did, that not only are state appointments made by politicians and governments but revenue collectors are appointed by the government, which has led to enormous inefficiencies. I am not justifying this. I applaud the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, for moving very quickly yesterday to send a memorandum to the Government to the effect that appointments to State boards will go through the Commission for Public Service Appointments.
As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications I went through a process this summer, with my committee colleagues, of sifting through 140 curricula vitaesent in by members of the public, in response to an advertisement from the committee. This was to recommend four members for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and four members for the RTE Authority to the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Alex White. We interviewed all eight candidates yesterday, which was an exercise in democracy at its purest. All parties and none applauded it.
I know that Senator Brennan, who is on the committee, will agree that while the process was very difficult and burdensome because of the time it consumed over the summer, we came up with four people for each board of whom we can feel very proud. They have come through a very pure democratic process. I have no idea what, if any, their political affiliations are, and Senator Brennan would say the same. They are recommended on merit. I welcome that process. Maybe now we can take this item off the agenda and focus on the economy, as Senator Mullins says.
It would be churlish of me not to acknowledge the reduction in unemployment figures. That is a wonderful development. Long may it continue because it means that fewer sons and daughters, brothers and sisters will have to take a plane out of the country.
I agree with Senator Barrett’s concerns about the future of third level education. As a recent graduate of University College Dublin, UCD, I am well aware of what is happening on the front line and in particular of the pressure on academic staff to deliver with less and less resources. We tend to talk in terms of falling unemployment figures and improved fiscal outlooks and so forth, as though the war on austerity was over but it is not over. We are living with the results of austerity, particularly in the third level sector. There is sometimes a lack of sympathy for that sector in the way that there is sympathy for the needs of children. There is no doubt, however, that the way our universities fare is important for inward investment and for how the wider world perceives this country.
I was very disappointed to see all Irish universities, except the National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG, effectively fall down the rankings, and continue to fall as they have done for the past few years. That includes Trinity College, Dublin. I noticed, however, that the chief executive officer of the Higher Education Authority made a few positive points including, for example, that the student contribution of €250 should remain with the universities and not be effectively removed by the State’s putting less money into third level education. That should be considered. Will the Acting Leader ask the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, to consider that as an immediate response to the crisis in third level education? I would like the report on the funding of third level education to be expedited and put on the table as a matter of urgency. I do not believe the Irish university system can continue to take the hits it has taken over recent years and not slip further in the international rankings.
I agree entirely with Senators Barrett and Hayden.
There is little doubt that we must invest. It has been interesting to hear the Government state for a number of years that one reason Ireland has had successful foreign direct investment is because of our high standard of education. Since the onset of austerity, as we call it, resources for universities have been reduced and this would account for the disastrous showings on the rankings. Although I heard Mr. Tom Boland express the opinion this morning that these rankings are not necessarily the only measurements one can have, their importance is recognised around the world and, therefore, we suffer a great deal from anything that would damage them. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has stated we should not assume that austerity is over but should make sure we get it right. As a nation, we still are spending more than we are earning and no family, no home and nobody can continue that way. Consequently, I believe we must consider carefully how we spend and how we earn. While the figures are very good, and Senator Mullins touched on some of them, we have a long way to go before we relax.
If I may take one further case, one district in our island is out of control, namely, north Louth and south Armagh. I refer to the amount of smuggling, including the smuggling of cigarettes, tobacco and alcohol, and diesel laundering that is going on there, which is so out of control that it appears to me as though there is a Mafia up there, running it on both sides of the Border. To a large extent, Members know how this must be solved. Something similar was experienced in Dublin some years ago and it was not until the death of Veronica Guerin that suddenly the Government and the Garda decided to do something about it and to move on it. I believe the death of Adrian Donohoe in Lordship, County Louth, should have been the point, as was the death of Veronica Guerin, when it was decided that something must be done about this. Apparently, it was known who killed Veronica Guerin but the State had difficulty in bringing him to court. Similarly, I believe there is strong knowledge as to who were the culprits in the case of Detective Garda Adrian Donohoe. The Garda and the Minister must move on this as it is something with which we cannot live any longer.
Cronyism, favouritism and jobs for the boys and ladies has been a topical issue in both Houses for the past week or so. I note that like my colleague on the opposite side of the House, Senator Mooney, I took part in a working group in which we examined 129 applications for appointments to the RTE Authority and to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It involved 129 highly qualified people and that working group had the difficult task of reducing the number down to eight, that is, four to RTE and four to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. As Senator Mooney noted, we have been taking part in this exercise for the past two months or more. Yesterday, we interviewed those whom we had chosen from their curricula vitae and I feel honoured to have been part of this working group, which chose eight highly qualified people, men and women, who will be a major asset. My point is this is the manner in which appointments to all State boards should take place. There was no cronyism, no one approached me on behalf of anyone, there was no favouritism or anything but we had a consensus and chose eight great people. As Senator Mooney also stated, no one knew what politics they had. They were not jobs for the boys and this is the way it should be.
I am unsure who called for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to come into the House urgently, but I also call on him to come into the House to discuss the planning laws in which there is room for improvement and which must be tightened up. An example is unauthorised developments in many parts of Ireland and how decisions by An Bord Pleanála to dismantle them have not been implemented by local authorities. Members must review urgently the planning law in respect of these matters.