Thursday, 8 December 2016
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re appointments to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 2, Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill 2016 - Second Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude no later than 3 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given five minutes to reply; and No. 3, statements on the funding of Orkambi for cystic fibrosis patients, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 2, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed one hour and the contribution of Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given five minutes to reply.
I want to raise the issue of sentencing policy and the increased use of firearms in this city. On Tuesday at 4.30 p.m., in broad daylight, armed raiders entered a McDonalds in Crumlin village and terrorised both staff and customers. This is a quiet residential area where firearms would never be seen.
In 2009 minimum mandatory sentences were brought in to deal with firearms and they had a certain welcome effect. However, I believe we need to go further. I call on the Minister for Justice and Equality to introduce minimum mandatory sentencing for first-time offenders. We need to update and strengthen our sentencing laws in regard to gun crime. It is commonplace in this city for gardaí and drug lords to don their bullet proof vests every morning before going to work. The carrying of firearms seems to have become commonplace on the streets of our city. We have to ask what we can do to ensure that the possession of firearms does not become commonplace among our citizens. I ask the Minister to attend the House for a proper debate about strengthening sentencing laws in regard to firearms and codifying and making consistent firearms law in order to protect our citizens and communities.
I want to raise the ongoing debacle over the auction of the Pádraig Pearse surrender letter, which is of immense importance to this State. I attended a protest last night. What I cannot understand is that the Government is, at huge expense to the taxpayer, appealing the decision of the High Court in regard to Moore Street and securing that monument after years of failure by various Governments, but it does not want to spend money purchasing this letter. I cannot understand this, given the year that is in it, of all years. Obviously, it is being sold to take advantage of the 100th anniversary of 1916 and to increase the potential.
Last night, it did not meet the €1 million threshold they had hoped for and they are now looking for an export licence for this letter which, in my opinion, should be the property of the Irish people for future generations to celebrate our heroes. The owner says he feels relieved of his responsibilities because the State or the Minister are not going to purchase this letter. I ask that the Leader would bring this to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and the Taoiseach. I assume everybody in this House supports the call that the State would purchase this letter-----
-----and secure it in a museum. I assume that is the case. The Government has a choice. It can spend a fortune appealing a High Court decision against the families of the 1916 leaders but it cannot purchase this letter. I will let people out there make their decision about the logic of all of that.
In times of darkness, it was great to see a positive light being shone on Europe recently, with the election of the Austrian President, Alexander 'Sascha' Van der Bellen. On behalf of all of my Green colleagues across Europe, I welcome this great election. Hopefully, other countries will take some lead from Austria so we can work towards a united Europe, as I believe that united we stand, divided we fall. This man is taking the lead in Austria.
I ask the Leader to amend the Order of Business to introduce a new Bill which I drafted, along with my Labour Party colleagues, the Pensions (Equal Pension Treatment in Occupational Benefit Scheme) (Amendment) Bill 2016. I know my colleague, Senator Norris, will be seconding it. The Bill aims to do the same thing that Senator Norris's proposed amendment to the Finance Bill sought to do yesterday, which is to address an ongoing discrimination against LGBT employees in pension schemes which required that they be married or enter into civil partnership before a specific date in order for their partners to qualify for survivor's benefit. This arises out of a case taken by David Parris against Trinity College Dublin which is before the European Court of Justice. Just a week ago, Mr. Parris unfortunately lost the case but there is nothing in European law to stop us introducing in our own domestic law a provision to ensure people will not be discriminated against just because they could not enter a legal marriage before a particular date.
This is an ongoing discrimination. Even after the great result in the marriage equality referendum in 2015, we still see people who, like Mr. Parris, could not have entered a legal marriage or a civil partnership before the necessary date, in his case, the date of his 60th birthday, in order to achieve certain benefits and entitlements under the occupational pensions scheme. This Bill would only affect a small number of people but it will address a very serious continuing issue of discrimination for those people. As I said, Senator Norris sought to address this by way of amendment to the Finance Bill. This is an alternative way to address it, namely, by introducing a Bill which will amend the pensions legislation to ensure people in Mr. Parris's position do not suffer ongoing discrimination.This is in tandem with the Bill that Senator Nash introduced this week to resolve the problem of individuals having offences on their record for acts that were decriminalised in 1993, after the decriminalisation of homosexuality. People are still suffering a chilling effect. This has been a huge issue in Britain and Senator Nash has called for an amnesty or pardon for those people to have their convictions effectively struck from the record given that the intercourse was no longer criminalised after 1993.
Can the Leader organise a debate on judicial appointments in light of the comments-----
Yes that is what I should have said. I would thank the Leader if he is willing to exceed to that request.
I would like a debate on judicial appointments in light of the comments by the chairperson of the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, Peter Ward, about the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross's, highly critical comments on the Judiciary, pointing out very serious issues around the encroachment of the Executive on the powers of the Judiciary. There has been a serious delay in the appointment of further judges and, as a result, there are delays in people accessing the legal system. FLAC has a really proud record of standing for the rights of individuals and their access to the courts, notably in the case of Dr. Lydia Foy, whose litigation ultimately led to the passing of the Gender Recognition Act 2015.
I wish T.K. Whitaker a very happy 100th birthday. I note his enormous service to this State.
I also congratulate T.K. Whitaker on his 100th birthday. He is the architect of modern Ireland. He got rid of the protectionist policies and effectively opened up free trade. He was Secretary General of the Department of Finance having joined the Civil Service in 1934. He was named Irishman of the century in 2002. I thank him for his work, now that he is 100 years young.
I have received correspondence about the Irish Coast Guard and the lack of legislation which covers it. As a medic working on the west coast I regularly liaise closely with our coast guard service and experience first-hand its members' bravery and commitment to serving the public while putting their own lives in danger. They face peril on every call out.
Yesterday, family members of missing people gathered in Farmleigh House to mark National Missing Persons Day. At the event the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, thanked members of the Garda Síochána for their work and continued support for those families whose loved ones are missing. He also said it is important to remember Irish Coast Guard volunteer Catriona Lucas, who gave her life in the line of duty in September of this year. Ms Lucas was the first volunteer coast guard to die in the course of duty and her tragic death brought home the true nature of the job. They really are unsung heroes.
It is quite unbelievable, therefore, that their work as a primary response agency is not afforded protection under legislation. A few weeks ago the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, addressed this House and said safety at sea is vital to this island nation. I commend the Irish Coast Guard, the volunteers, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI, and all involved in ensuring safety at sea on their bravery, remarkable courage and heroism in the service of others. These salutations are well meant and well placed but they are not enough. More needs to be done to enshrine in law the duties, roles and rights of our coast guard.
"Is it little more than a fiction that Parliament and Government are sovereign? [...] Are Governments nowadays to be compared to the totally deaf Beethoven in his later years, just being allowed to go through the motions of conducting the orchestra while the real control is being exercised elsewhere?" This is a quote from T.K. Whitaker, dated over 30 years ago. I too wish him a happy birthday. He has done an excellent job in the public interest and for this State.
Last night, psychiatrist Peter Rice from Scotland addressed the Irish Cancer Society. He is the chair of the executive committee of the Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems. It is telling that this series of talks around the country, hosted by the Irish Cancer Society, is called "Decoding Cancer". A total of 900 incidents of cancer are directly related to alcohol intake and 500 deaths a year are due to alcohol-related cancers. This is important because we will be discussing and hopefully passing the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. Awareness of alcohol as a cancer-causing agent is very low. People are aware of cirrhosis of the liver and so on but women in particular should be aware of the incidence of breast cancer which rises as alcohol consumption by women is rising. I would like the Leader to support the presentation by the Irish Cancer Society to decode cancer for Members of this House.
In the last Seanad the Seanad Public Consultation Committee produced a comparative report on the damage that alcohol causes and cancer. It was very successful. I can empathise with the Senator’s point of view while being Cathaoirleach and impartial.
I second Senator Bacik’s amendment to the Order of Business. This is a matter that we have all been pursuing. I instanced it first at the passage of the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Bill 2010 because this was an anomaly then affecting the Civil Service. Subsequently David Parris took an action which I am sorry he lost.
A couple of days ago I received a telephone call from a very old friend of mine, Victor Griffin, the former dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral. He is 93 and had been sent home from Altnagelvin Hospital to die of cancer. As a Christian he is quite happy with that and is in no distress at all. He wanted T.K. Whitaker's address because he wanted to write to him as an old friend and colleague to congratulate him on his 100th birthday.
This is something well worth doing. I am glad it has been raised by my colleagues here. He was a very distinguished Member of this House. He was very young when he entered the Civil Service in a senior position. For a while the great poet Thomas Kinsella was his private secretary, which is a rather curious and interesting fact. He was also instrumental in improving relations between the South and the North of this country. He entered discussions with the private secretary to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland which led to meetings between Sean Lemass and Captain Terence O'Neill. He worked with the Ford Foundation to launch the Economic and Social Research Institute and for a long time he was president or chairman of that institute. He was chancellor of the National University of Ireland, president of the Royal Irish Academy, a member of the Board of Governors of the Guardians of the National Gallery of Ireland and he had a great love of the Irish language. The seminal collection of Irish poetry, An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed 1600-1900, was dedicated to him.
It is also interesting and very heartening that on an RTE television programme which held a mass vote for the greatest Irishman of the 20th century, which Senator Feighan mentioned, he was up against all kinds of armed revolutionaries such as Michael Collins and beat the hell out of them. That is a terrific tribute to the feeling of the Irish people for the parliamentary democratic tradition of this country. I am very happy to wish the former Senator T.K. Whitaker a very happy birthday. I am sure the whole House would want to do this too. I only had the pleasure of meeting him once. He was a friend of former Senator Feargal Quinn who last year gave a lunch party in his honour and I had the opportunity to exchange a few words with him then. He is a great Irishman. We are all living with the positive benefits of the economic plan that he conceived.
I thank the eight Senators who contributed to the Order of Business. I join those who have acknowledged today the centenary of the birth of T.K. Whitaker and I wish him a happy 100th birthday. It is important to acknowledge and pay tribute to him today as a former Member of this House, appointed by both Jack Lynch and Garret FitzGerald, which was a sign of his ability to override political divides. He has rightly been described as the Irishman of the last century and his contribution is one that we should underline in respect of the new modern Ireland. We can differ about ideology and politics but T.K. Whitaker put in place the structure that is now Ireland, economic and otherwise.I acknowledge his contribution.
True. That is a fair point.
It is important - something we do not do enough in this country - to pay tribute and recognise greatness, no matter who they are. T.K. Whitaker is certainly a person who, for all of us as young people growing up, was the person who we looked up to. He was the architect of modern Ireland. I wish him well and thank him for his service. His life is the epitome of what good public service should be. On behalf of all us, I wish him well and a happy 100th birthday.
Senator Ardagh raised the issue of firearms and sentencing. The Senator is right to raise the matter in terms of the issue around the right to bear arms and the way in which people are using it at present. It is a tragedy. It is an awful indictment that we have people masquerading with guns in the streets of Dublin, in particular, and killing and injuring people. There was an incident in my native city of Cork last night. I would be happy to have the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality come into the House in regard to the issue of firearms and licensing.
Senator Mac Lochlainn raised the issue of the Pádraig Pearse letter and the Senator makes a valid point in terms of its importance. On foot of reading the exchange in the Dáil between the leader of Sinn Féin and the Taoiseach, I note the Taoiseach has stated the Government is not in a position to buy it. I note from talking to the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, that her departmental officials have spoken to Adam's auctioneers. Her officials also have spoken to other stakeholders in the cultural institutions on the price of the letter. One cannot perhaps put a value on it, but as for the value of €1 million to €1.5 million - it has been withdrawn from auction - my information is that such expenditure would not be value for money. I am not in any way trying to put a value on it. It is important that we preserve a lot of letters, paraphernalia and artifacts. We have some very valuable pieces, including letters and clothing, and the Government has bought Nos. 14 to 17 Moore Street. We have invested €5 million in Kilmainham Courthouse and another €5 million in the Military Archives. I hope that we will not allow the letter to be taken overseas. In an ideal world, the letter should be kept here as part of an exhibition. It is something I, on behalf of the House, can communicate to the Minister that has been raised this morning here.
Like Senator Grace O'Sullivan, I congratulate the new President of Austria on his re-election and wish him well.
On Senator Bacik's amendment to the Order of Business, I would be happy to accept the amendment and I commend her on the work that she is doing in terms of the Pensions (Equal Pension Treatment in Occupational Benefit Scheme) (Amendment) Bill 2016. We had a discussion here on the Order of Business yesterday on judicial appointments and I would be happy to have the Minister come to the House.
Senator Swanick raised the issue of the Coast Guard and the lack of primary legislation in that area. Senator Lombard raised it two weeks ago in the House as well. It is a matter for the Departments to work out, but Senator Swanick is correct that the men and women who serve in the Coast Guard are first responders as well. They provide a significant service to the State, saving lives and rescuing people, and putting their own lives at risk in the process. We can revisit that in the new year and we will have the Minister come to the House.
Senator Devine raised the important connection between cancer and alcohol. I would be happy to work with the Senator on the issue. It is important that we have the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 back in the new year and that we can reduce the harm that the misuse of alcohol can bring. The Cathaoirleach rightly said that the Seanad Public Consultation Committee in the previous Seanad did a powerful piece of work on alcohol. It is an issue that we can revisit because it is one that will not go away. It needs cross-party and Independent support to keep this message up. In particular, Senator Devine is correct to link the issue of women and cancer. It is something that we have to be vigilant on. It transcends the political divide. I would be happy to talk about that and move that along in the new year with the Senator.
Senator Norris raised the issue of the Parris case, seconded Senator Bacik's amendment to the Order of Business and spoke of T.K. Whitaker. I do not quite get what Senator Norris mentioned about the former dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral.
It was just that he is an old friend. Even though he is very ill and he is 93, he contacted me because he wanted to write a note of congratulations. That is what alerted me first to the fact that it was T.K. Whitaker's 100th birthday.