Seanad debates

Thursday, 18 December 2014

10:30 am

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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The Order of Business is No. a1, Water Services Bill 2014 - Second Stage, to be taken at 12 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed ten minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed six minutes, with the debate to be adjourned at 2 p.m. and resumed at 3.45 p.m.; No. b1, Appropriations Bill 2014 - All Stages, to be taken, subject to the passage by the Dáil this morning, at 2 p.m. and to conclude no later than 3 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons during the Second Stage debate not to exceed six minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, with the Minister to be given five minutes to reply. Committee and remaining stages will be taken immediately thereafter. A Motion for Earlier Signature of the Appropriations Bill 2014, without debate, will be taken at the conclusion of No. b1, subject to the Bill's prior passage in Dáil Éireann; and No.1, Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill 2014 - Committee and Remaining Stages (resumed), to be taken at 3 p.m. and to conclude no later than 3.45 p.m., if not previously concluded.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Seanad Éireann is at the centre of political attention today and will be thus tomorrow and possibly on Monday because of the decisions that we, as Members of the second House of the Oireachtas, must make. It is not surprising that the Taoiseach was so anxious to get rid of this House. He tried his utmost to destroy this House and if he had succeeded, the Water Services Bill would have been passed last night to provide for the imposition of water charges. This is the straw that is breaking the camel's back for the people of Ireland. We are the last bastion of democracy in this country now. That is why every Member of this House who will be in attendance for the duration of the debate bears an enormous responsibility. I have never received more representations on any other issue since becoming a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas than I have received about the Irish Water issue.

The Water Services Bill has been passed by the Dáil under the guillotine, which should not have been the case. There should have been a full, open and democratic debate on the legislation. I appeal to every Member of this House to listen to his or her conscience and vote against the Bill, vote down the Government, reject its proposals and let the will of the people speak. I hope the Leader will confirm that tomorrow's schedule will include an Order of Business. If not, my party will oppose the Order of Business today.

I welcome the decision by President Barack Obama to normalise relations with Cuba through an exchange of ambassadors. This is the most significant shift in US policy towards Cuba for over 54 years. The US President and the Cuban President, Raúl Castro - with the backing of his brother, Fidel Castro - have both addressed their respective nations on this issue and I welcome this step. That said, the full normalisation of relations will depend on the approval of both the US Congress and Senate, which will not be forthcoming at this point in time, given that the Republicans are in the majority in both Houses. There is very significant opposition to this move in Miami and other parts of the United States. There has been an improvement in Cuban-US relations with the release of an American citizen who was in prison in Cuba and of several Cubans who were in prison in Miami.

US international relations have been damaged by the embargo on Cuba which has been in place for the last 54 years. The difficulties the embargo caused for the Cuban medical system have been evident throughout that period. US citizens, from the "land of the free" and "home of the brave", could not leave the US and travel 90 miles to Cuba. This country should be very proud of the fact that we have exchanged ambassadors with Cuba throughout the period of the US embargo. I met the Cuban ambassador in Dublin recently and am delighted that our good relations with that country still stand. We should now be ready, willing and able to increase our contacts with Cuba. I would suggest that Aer Lingus, which operates from the US, should be planning ahead in the context of US tourists being able to visit Cuba. Yesterday was a very significant day and I welcome the announcement made by the US and Cuban Presidents. I might add that Fianna Fáil has been outstanding in this regard, having allowed Aeroflot flights to fly from Shannon Airport to Cuba, despite the policy of the US.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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I am very concerned that the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre is currently at risk of losing its Leeson Street headquarters, where it has been based for the past 28 years. The building is being sold by a NAMA debtor. The Rape Crisis Centre has managed to raise €1 million from donations to buy the building but there is still a shortfall of €800,000. The centre is very much dependent on its State grant but that grant does not cover the cost of renting accommodation.

As every woman will know, the Rape Crisis Centre is a front-line organisation that protects women at the most vulnerable time of their lives after they have been subjected to rape or attempted rape. It would be an incredible shame if NAMA was permitted to sell the centre's headquarters out from under it. We are all aware that NAMA has made enormous progress in selling assets. That said, its mandate also requires that NAMA delivers a social dividend to the people of Ireland which I believe it is not doing. I ask the Leader to raise the matter of the Rape Crisis Centre and its headquarters with the Minister concerned. It would be an incredible shame if, after 28 years of excellent service, the Rape Crisis Centre would lose its essential Leeson Street premises.

I also wish to raise the issue of a pregnant woman who has suffered a serious head trauma and is on life support in Beaumont Hospital, as reported in several newspapers today. This tragic case, of which the Minister for Health and senior HSE officials are aware, underlines the flaws in the current legislation governing pregnancy. I welcome the comments by the Minister yesterday to the effect that the current legislation does not protect the long-term health of women and does not cover situations of fatal foetal abnormality. The Labour Party's position is that the legislation should be amended accordingly.

I am aware there is no appetite at the moment in Government to deal with another referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, but this issue must be kept to the forefront of our minds. We need to have a debate in this House, on the anniversary of the enactment of the legislation, to determine the extent to which the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act is protecting the health of women and performing its long-term role.

I am gravely concerned about an issue relating to Dún Laoghaire Harbour, which depends to a great extent on the business of the Stena Line ferry company. That business is worth approximately €7 million per annum to the town. There is a common perception that Dún Laoghaire is a well-off area and that the loss of such business would not have any impact. However, Dún Laoghaire has suffered dreadfully in recent years, particularly since the economic downturn. It is effectively a region of Dublin and it is unfortunate that Dún Laoghaire is losing out to Dublin Port. There is an issue here in terms of the interests of the regional areas of Dublin and its centre.

I ask that we take account of the balance of rights in this situation. I would appreciate it if the Leader would raise this issue with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

10:40 am

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I agree with Senator Leyden that the eyes of the people are on this House today. I congratulate the Leader on ensuring that we will have a full debate on the Water Services Bill and that it will not be foreshortened by the use of the guillotine. This is a worthy recognition of the important role the Seanad can play and I hope that the debate will be as useful as might be expected.

Senator Leyden also referred to Cuba. There are changes taking place in the world and some of the most significant of these are probably happening in Russia. The huge drop in the value of the rouble in recent weeks has been quite dramatic. I recall that approximately two months ago I highlighted the fact that the price of Brent oil had been reduced and I criticised the fact that evidence of this was not apparent in petrol stations. However, the reduction is now being passed on to motorists and at the petrol station closest to my home, the price currently stands at €1.35 per litre. While this is a dramatic reduction, I am not sure it reflects the overall drop in the price of Brent oil. If we want to maintain our competitiveness, we must ensure that energy costs continue to be reduced.

Senator Hayden referred to Dún Laoghaire. It was only a year ago that plans were announced for the development of a new terminal to allow cruise ships to dock in Dún Laoghaire. At present, such ships cannot dock there. This development is very important in the context of tourism. Some very good news is emanating from Shannon to the effect that the number of flights into and out of the airport has increased substantially since the change of management took place there. This is a reminder of the importance of giving individual units the freedom to do what they want rather than having them controlled from elsewhere. From the point of view of tourism, the entire Shannon area will benefit from the increase in flights to which I refer. Let us ensure that this continues to be the case.

Photo of Hildegarde NaughtonHildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael)
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I wish to raise two issues. First, I congratulate the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and the Cabinet on agreeing the criteria for the selection of the European capital of culture 2020. This is very important for cities throughout the country that wish to submit applications in respect of this prestigious designation. The people of the city of Galway, in which I live, have been waiting anxiously for the launch of the applications process. Winning the European capital of culture designation would represent a huge opportunity to highlight the richness and diversity of cultural life in Galway. Major work has been ongoing for some time on the tender proposal, so yesterday's decision by the Government is welcome. According to the EU, being awarded European capital of culture status has led to the regeneration of cities, a raised international profile for cities, an enhancement of the image of cities in the eyes of their inhabitants, the rejuvenation of cities' culture and a significant increase in tourism. I wish all the cities applying for designation as European capital of culture every success.

It is important to acknowledge that Christmas can be very lonely for many people throughout the country. Yesterday, I met representatives from the Samaritans in Galway who wanted to raise awareness of the organisation's freefone number 116 123. This a new number, which is operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is one of the European Commission's easy to remember freefone numbers that are designed to assist people. Christmas can be a very difficult time for the older people who may be lonely or who may be the subject of elder abuse. The delegation from the Samaritans informed me that people can contact them about anything. In Galway alone, the Samaritans receive 800 calls each week. The number of calls has increased significantly since the new freefone number came into use in March. I commend the six telephone operators which have funded the freefone service to the tune of €100,000 per year. Some 1,500 volunteers are working for the Samaritans throughout the country. It is important for people who experience difficulties to realise that they are not alone and that they can call the non-judgmental individuals who operate the freefone helpline to which I refer.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I support the comments made by Senator Leyden in respect of the dramatic developments in the relationship between Cuba and the United States. We have been made aware that Pope Francis, who celebrated his 78th birthday yesterday, played a crucial role in brokering the landmark deal between the United States and Cuba. As more details emerge about the watershed normalising of diplomatic relations between the two countries, we are learning more about the instrumental role the Pope played in bringing American and Cuban leaders together. Given that relations between the US and Cuba were frozen for 50 years, what happened yesterday represents a paradigm shift. The Pope wrote a letter to President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba during the summer in which he urged the two to mend the relationship between their countries.

President Obama really seems to have rediscovered his, to use a crude word, mojo particularly in view of what was announced yesterday and the compassion he has shown towards undocumented Irish and others in the United States. The Pope, whose mantra is "mercy and compassion", is 78 years of age and he has provided extraordinary leadership and encouraged people to be more tolerant, understanding and forgiving. Despite the negative reaction of some Cuban exiles in Florida, I am of the view that this process is going to move forward. President Obama is on a mission and he intends to open a US embassy in Cuba. In addition, 50 American prisoners in Cuba are to be released. People have visited the Houses of the Oireachtas to request our help in having the Cuban five - who were convicted of being involved in espionage in the United States over 20 years ago - freed. President Obama has indicated that he intends to release these individuals. This is a wonderfully inspiring time for everyone. Showing leadership is what it is all about - it is not about engaging in populist politics.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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At this time of year people struggle and find themselves in very challenging situations. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is one of many charities which do fantastic work. It is important to recognise businesses that go the extra mile to do something different. I refer here to Hotel Doolin, which is located in County Clare and which normally closes for three days at Christmas. However, it has been announced that the hotel will remain open in order to accommodate people sent to it by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The staff at the hotel will work on a rota basis and free of charge during the Christmas period. The companies which supply goods to the hotel will provide food and other essentials in order to ensure that less fortunate people in Clare will have an enjoyable Christmas. The meitheal displayed by the staff and management at Hotel Doolin should encourage their counterparts at other hotels to realise that sometimes giving up one's Christmas is a good thing to do. It is not about money, rather it is about time. What the people at Hotel Doolin are doing is noble, honourable and reflects the spirit of the people of Clare and Irish people in general. I commend them on their action.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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Yesterday, I advised the Leader of my view that the Water Services Bill is bring rushed through the Houses of the Oireachtas and - in light of public concern regarding this issue - stated that I would request that today's Order of Business to be amended in order that our deliberations on it be delayed until January. It is wrong that we are dealing with the Bill in this way. As a result, I formally propose that the Water Services Bill be removed from the Order of Business and taken in January.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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Like previous speakers, I welcome the moves announced yesterday in the context of normalising relations between the US and Cuba.

I very much applaud the role played by Pope Francis in bringing about an improvement in relations after almost 50 years. I hope that Pope Francis will continue to play an active role in helping to broker peace in many of the trouble spots around the world. I think he could be a great influence for reconciliation and for improving relations between warring factions.

I very much welcome the strong tourism figures announced in recent days which show that approximately 7.3 million overseas visitors will have come to our country in 2014, which is up 8% on 2013. These visitors will contribute €3.6 billion to our economy, which is up 9% on 2013. Much of this success is due to the excellent marketing of the Wild Atlantic Way, which is making a huge contribution to tourism in this country. The fantastic work being done by Tourism Ireland in promoting Ireland abroad, in particular in the United States, is very significant. The additional flights between Ireland and the US this year also contributed very significantly.

Next year is looking particularly good with new Aer Lingus flights from Washington DC to Dublin, new United Airlines flights from Chicago to Dublin, a new Transavia service from Paris to Dublin, Finnair flights from Helsinki to Dublin and flights from Gothenburg in Sweden. While 2015 is looking particularly good, we need to keep our eye on the ball. Our hotels need to ensure their prices remain competitive, they continue to give good customer service and value for money and they address some issues and problems in that area. In the new year, I would like the Leader to organise a full debate on tourism and the huge contribution it can make to the recovery of our economy.

As we head into the Christmas period and with the huge increase in traffic on the roads and, unfortunately, the increase in the number of people losing their lives on the roads, I urge everybody to be particularly careful, to ensure nobody goes out on the roads having consumed alcohol and to do everything possible to ensure no family is without a loved one this Christmas as a result of irresponsible behaviour on the roads by any of us.

10:50 am

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I support Senator Craughwell's amendment to the Order of Business. As we are aware, the Water Services (No. 2) Bill 2014 was guillotined in the Lower House. That was the second time that a water services Bill, which is of national importance, was guillotined, albeit the Bill was given a little bit more time on this occasion than on the previous one. We do not know what will emerge as a result of the guillotining of that Bill. It is only right and proper that we have time to read that Bill, as passed by the Lower House. This House should not rush to judgment until we have had an opportunity to read it, and the amendments made to it, properly.

Having said that, I want to clarify that if the amendment to the Order of Business is not successful and we proceed with Second Stage of the Water Services Bill 2014-----

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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Now the Senator is thinking positively.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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As Whip of the Fianna Fáil party, I want to clarify something. Since the unfortunate confinement of our colleague, Senator Jimmy Harte, due to a serious injury, on every occasion our party has honoured a pair for the Senator. There may be speculation in that regard but as the Whip of the Fianna Fáil party in the House, I will give a commitment that pair will continue to be honoured, regardless of how difficult or serious-----

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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That is absolutely daft.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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-----the legislation before us.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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As a Labour Party Senator, I appreciate that.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I have to say that is a load of nonsense. In politics, one wins. It is as simple as that. One takes advantage. That is what I have learned in political life, in particular if one is motivated by the interests of the people.

(Interruptions).

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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The illness of a Member should be exploited by this side and I will not pay any tributes to Fianna Fáil for that.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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For God's sake, that is an outrageous comment.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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It is unbecoming of Senator Norris.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I welcome very much the relaxation of the relationship between Cuba and the United States of America. It has taken 50 years, which is a hell of a long time. Through their secret agencies, the Americans have been involved in bombings, murder, invasion, assassination attempts on Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs and so on, so I am very glad that this is coming to an end.

Like Senator Mullins, I salute Pope Francis for his very positive intervention in this matter. However, I sincerely hope there will be a complete revision of the noxious and impertinent Helms-Burton legislation which purports to give the United States the right to dictate financial policy and trading relations to other countries throughout the world. We very recently saw an example of that where Bank of Ireland froze perfectly legitimate bank accounts on behalf of a Cuban solidarity group. This was an appalling infringement of our financial independence and I sincerely hope this is revised. As I understand it, the three remaining members of the Miami Five, who went to Florida to warn the United States about the armed activities of the anti-Castro movement there, who were arrested as spies in a most nasty and dangerous operation and who were incarcerated for many years, have been released. It is a good day and a positive move by the United States of America.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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Senator Leyden, the acting Leader of the Opposition, referred to the Water Services Bill 2014. The other House is not a matter for us but there were 40 hours of debate there. I can assure the House that if we want 80, 90 or 100 hours of debate, it will not be curtailed in any way.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Ninety days.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I oppose the proposed amendment to the Order of Business. We will deal with this Bill in the same way we would any other in this House. I can assure Members that we will not guillotine-----

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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We will come in at Christmas, if necessary.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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-----this Bill and we did not do so the last time. I can assure Members that they will have time to debate this Bill for as long as they wish, and as is proper.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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It is a complete waste of time.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Allow the Leader to respond to questions raised.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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If it is a waste of time, there is no point debating it at all, but that is up to the House. I am totally in the hands of the House in regard to how long it wants to give to this Bill on every Stage.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I commend the Leader of the House.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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In regard to the Order of Business, work will continue as usual. We will have an Order of Business tomorrow. It will be no different from any other day. We will have normal business. We are not in an emergency situation or anything like that. It is time for cool heads.

Senator Leyden welcomed the decision of President Obama on normalising relations with Cuba, as has everyone, but as the Senator pointed out, there are a lot of steps to be taken in the meantime. Senators White, Mullins and Norris praised the role played, and the leadership shown, by Pope Francis in brokering a deal between both countries. It is welcome that such negotiations are going on. I am sure there is still a long road to travel but we wish them well in their negotiations. I note the point Senator Norris made in regard to the freezing of the bank account, which he raised some months ago. I hope that will be rectified as a matter of urgency.

Senator Hayden referred to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the possibility of it losing its headquarters. It would be very regrettable if that were to happen.

There is no doubt about it. I will certainly make representations to the Minister. I do not know whether the Minister can interfere with NAMA on it. I hope some resolution can be found in that regard.

Senator Hayden also called for a debate on the need to review the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013. We will certainly give consideration to that in the new year.

Senators Hayden and Quinn spoke about Dún Laoghaire Harbour and Dublin Port. They mentioned the possibility that Stena Line will leave Dún Laoghaire. There is no doubt that such a move would be a massive blow to Dún Laoghaire. I remember the damage that was done to my own city of Waterford when a major carrier left the local port. Indeed, that decision is continuing to damage the Port of Waterford. I note the points that were made about the competition between Dún Laoghaire Harbour and Dublin Port. I will certainly bring the matter to the attention of the Minister. Competition between ports is of paramount importance. Senator Quinn referred to the competitiveness of Shannon Airport and the benefits that have accrued to the area and the tourism sector as a result. It is certainly worth considering.

Senator Quinn referred to the need to be very vigilant about monitoring energy costs in the interests of competitiveness.

Senator Naughton welcomed the agreement on the criteria for the designation of the European capital of culture. I am sure this will be welcomed by people in all cities, including Galway and Waterford, and by all Senators who have an interest in the tender competition for that prestigious designation.

Senator Naughton praised the work of the Samaritans and highlighted the availability of the organisation's helpline. We all agree that the Samaritans have done excellent voluntary work throughout the length and breadth of the country over the years.

Senator Conway praised the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He mentioned that an hotel in County Clare has kindly offered to give generously of its time and money in order to help people who are less well off than others over the Christmas period.

I do not see that there is a need for the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Craughwell. As I said earlier, we will have plenty of time to debate the Water Services Bill 2014.

Senator Mullins welcomed the excellent tourism figures. He said that the 8% increase in tourist numbers this year has generated great benefits for the economy. I suggest this has resulted from various measures taken by the Government, including the VAT reduction and the removal of the travel tax. Senator Mullins also welcomed the new flights and routes that are planned for 2015 and 2016, which will lead to further tourism benefits in the years ahead.

Senator Mullins reminded us of the importance of thinking about road safety over the Christmas period.

We thank the Whip of the Fianna Fáil Group, Senator Wilson, for the ongoing provision of a pair for one of our colleagues who is severely incapacitated.

11:00 am

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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We would have reciprocated that practice during the term of the last Government when someone on the other side of the House was seriously ill. I think it is a good practice. We thank the Fianna Fáil Group for it.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator Craughwell has moved an amendment to the Order of Business, "That the proposal regarding the Water Services Bill 2014 be deleted from today's Order of Business." Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 18; Níl, 29.


Tellers: Tá, Senators Gerard P. Craughwell and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.

Amendment declared lost.

Question put: "That the Order of Business be agreed to."

The Seanad divided: Tá, 30; Níl, 19.


Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden; Níl, Senators Gerard P. Craughwell and Diarmuid Wilson.

Question declared carried.