Tuesday, 21 November 2017
Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, Health Insurance (Amendment) Bill 2017 - Order for Second Stage and Second Stage to be taken at 4.45 p.m. with the contributions of groups spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply; and, No. 2, Health and Social Care Professionals (Amendment) Bill 2017 – Second Stage to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1, with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply.
I rise today to raise the Taoiseach's misleading of the Dáil last week on two occasions, albeit not deliberately, in regard to the Tánaiste's knowledge of the Garda Commissioner's legal strategy at the O'Higgins inquiry.The utterances by the Taoiseach were at the very least contradictory. I call on the Tánaiste to explain to the House why she misled the Taoiseach and to address the House on how and when she did so. The Tánaiste also needs to explain why she continually expressed her confidence in the Commissioner.
My apologies. However, I would like the Tánaiste to come to this House and explain why she continually expressed her confidence in the Garda Commissioner since 2015 in the knowledge that the Commissioner had instructed her legal team to discredit Sergeant Maurice McCabe at the O'Higgins commission. It is incumbent on her to come to the Seanad, to show us the same respect she showed RTÉ at lunchtime, and to explain and clarify matters in this regard.
I would also like to raise the issue of the HSE and waiting lists, in particular the issue of why the HSE and certain hospitals around the country are not implementing some of the 2008 consultant contracts. An "RTÉ Investigates" programme last week highlighted this issue. I am sorry, I am getting a bit distracted.
I would like to raise the issue of the "RTÉ Investigates" programme last week which showed that certain hospitals and the HSE were not implementing the consultant contracts from 2008. It showed that one consultant had worked 13 hours in a public hospital over eight weeks. There are 2,700 consultants working in 47 acute hospitals around the country. They are meant to work an 80:20 ratio of public hours to private hours but this programme showed that some consultants have been spending more than 20% of their time working in private hospitals. This does not just affect private coffers, it affects the health system and public health waiting lists. Last week I came across a young boy who is waiting for a dermatology appointment. He has been given an appointment on 19 March 2019. This is very unfair. The Minister for Health should address the House on waiting lists.
On 11 October I raised the issue of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people from their homes in the Rakhine state of Myanmar. It deeply disturbs me that, despite worldwide condemnation, the Government of Myanmar and in particular its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, are still standing by and allowing this humanitarian crisis to continue. Aung San Suu Kyi has received many awards for human rights including the Nobel Peace Prize, the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International and the freedom of the city of Dublin. These awards ring hollow in light of the lack of action taken by the Government of Myanmar. It behoves us, as a nation, to call Ms Aung San Suu Kyi to account. I call on the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to make a public statement condemning the Government of Myanmar.
Nobody seems any wiser this afternoon as to when the Tánaiste and then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, knew of the plan to discredit Maurice McCabe at the O'Higgins commission. The horrendous impact of the disgusting behaviour by those who have been protected by Government on Maurice McCabe and his family is now widely known. Of course, it is not only Maurice McCabe. It is also all of those who did not have the foresight and good fortune to tape the contents of meetings they had with those who set out to discredit them; all of those who have been subject to lies, innuendo and intimidation; and all of those who lost out on promotions just because they questioned practices they knew to be wrong.
Once again we see today that the spectacular waste of money that is the strategic communications unit, a Government unit which is supposed to slickly get news out to the public, has suddenly gone silent at a key time.The Taoiseach has provided little or no clarity in the Dáil today. We have to remember that all of this has come to light because of the work of good investigative journalists. We certainly owe a debt of gratitude to them. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste did not volunteer this information.
Serious questions remain. How did the Tánaiste, in her then capacity as Minister for Justice and Equality, read an email alleging serious wrongdoings without taking action on foot of it? How does she remember reading it in the first place? Where was this email for the past two and a half years? The Taoiseach has continually backed up the entire Department of Justice and Equality in defence of the former Minister for Justice and Equality and current Tánaiste. Three years have passed since he described the Department of Justice and Equality as "not fit for purpose". Under the stewardship of Fine Gael, which likes to call itself the law and order party, the Department of Justice and Equality has lost two Garda Commissioners, two Secretaries General and two Ministers inside two years. One could not make it up. It has been said that Sinn Féin is not fit for Government.
If the Leader thinks the record I have set out supports the idea that Fine Gael is fit for Government, he has lost all sense. An absolute farce has been happening. Where is the collective Cabinet responsibility in all of this? The lack of detail in the answers that have been given so far serves to increase public cynicism regarding politics in general. Will the Minister come into this House to address the many questions arising from what has become apparent in recent days?
I remind Senators that a commission - I understand it is not a tribunal of inquiry - is looking into the Sergeant McCabe allegations. I think it would ill-behove any of us in this House to come to conclusions before that investigation has been completed. I advise Senators to bí cúramach on that issue. The suggestion that there was a smear campaign against Sergeant McCabe has not been verified or established. It is a matter for the commission and not for this House. I remind Senators to be careful.
I want to highlight three areas of international co-operation on policy for Ireland. The first issue I want to highlight is the European pillar of social rights, as unveiled last Friday by EU leaders, including the Taoiseach, at the EU social summit in Stockholm, which was the first such summit for 20 years. I welcome this document, even if it is not perfect. If the EU is to thrive, it must resist the temptation to become a purely economic union, or indeed a military union as we have seen today, worryingly. Instead, the EU must focus on the development of a more progressive, fairer and more equal society as the foundation for the building of peace and social cohesion. This must be a priority for the EU. I urge the Government to underline in the next phase of the discussions the importance of the new social pillar not just as a discussion document or theoretical framework, but as something that is measurable and enforceable. Will we be able to discuss the social pillar in the House? In particular, will the social pillar underpin the European semester process?
The second issue I want to highlight is a source of great concern. In response to a Commencement matter I raised in the Chamber earlier this afternoon, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, informed me that the Cabinet has decided to pursue Irish membership of the permanent structured co-operation on security and defence initiative, known as PESCO. It seems that we will subsequently seek membership of the European defence fund, although this was not confirmed by the Minister of State.
This is a really serious concern in the context of Ireland's neutrality and its role in peace building. I suggest that Ireland has an opportunity and a responsibility to choose not to be a follower on the slippery slope towards ever-deeper militarisation, a possible European army and the securitisation agenda, which has damaged Europe and its credibility. Ireland has a chance to be a leader. It could and should be a beacon for a renewed focus on peace-building and constructive diplomacy in Europe and the wider world. Our true friends in Europe will understand that Ireland's neutrality and peace building role is at the centre of its focused approach and is an asset to Europe.I am very concerned that in the PESCO notification document the words "peace", "peace building" or "peacekeeping" do not appear even once. The UN is referenced one time only. We see a strong focus on NATO and we see the potential for multi-country procurement. This is not a romantic view. Can we have a debate on permanent structured co-operation on security and defence, PESCO? I am aware that it will need to be formally debated in the Dáil but I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate for Senators in this Chamber if we are to take what I believe would be a very negative and historic step away from our proud history of leading the peace building narrative and towards becoming yet another part of a European securitised flotilla.
I join other Senators in asking the Leader to call the Tánaiste to the House so Senators can debate with her the issues around the serious matters that have come to light in respect of what she knew or did not know when she was the Minister for Justice and Equality about the campaign to smear the Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe. The efforts of the Labour Party's Deputy Alan Kelly in the Dáil have tried to ascertain the truth and have led to the situation we have now, where we see a discrepancy, to put it mildly, between what the Taoiseach says the Tánaiste knew and what it seems, from Department of Justice and Equality documents, that she did know.
I understand the Tánaiste is answering questions and making a statement in the Dáil tonight. We were, therefore, not going to call for her to come to this House today. The Labour group intends to propose an amendment to the Order of Business tomorrow if we cannot get the Minister into the Seanad tomorrow any other way to ask her to answer questions about this very serious matter of the discrepancy and the lack of clarity around when the Tánaiste and former Minister for Justice and Equality knew about the campaign to discredit Maurice McCabe and what has been said.
I am aware that the Charleton tribunal is under way and that we must be mindful that it is a tribunal, but these matters have come to light through parliamentary procedures and parliamentary questions as well as through the work of investigative journalists. It is appropriate that we call for a debate in this House on this matter. I ask the Leader to facilitate us tomorrow. I believe this is a reasonable request, given that the Tánaiste is in the other House tonight.
I also ask the Leader for a debate, in due course, on the issue of online safety, especially for children. This is in light of recent reports around incidents of grooming by predators. All of us are concerned at reports of vigilante groups literally taking the law into their own hands. I believe there is a requirement on all of us, and certainly any of us who are parents or teachers or guardians of children, to exercise vigilance in use of the Internet by children. We should have a debate in this respect. I am aware that proposals from Government are coming forward, which I welcome, on the institution of a digital safety commission. That will be very welcome but, as legislators, we should also be exploring how we can place greater responsibility on Internet service providers and on bodies such as Facebook and Twitter and so on to ensure there is safety online for children and that predators do not have the sort of freedom that we see they may do.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle for being present today at the launch of our Vótáil 100 programme. This is the programme of events for 2018 to celebrate the centenary of women's suffrage, of women first getting the right to vote in 1918, and the election in December 1918 in which Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected to the Dáil and to Westminster. I very much look forward to being joined by other colleagues for the events we will host in Leinster House in 2018.
Today's edition of The Irish Timescarries a story outlining how three court cases objecting to the new runway at Dublin Airport were dismissed. I raise this because I have raised before the issue of the Minister and the clarity we require from him on the matter of the second runway. Initially the Irish Aviation Authority was the anointed arbitrator. After a long and due consideration, the Attorney General determined that this would not be appropriate and that there could be a conflict of interest. With these court cases resolved, people now need clarity. The residents in the area need clarity and the Dublin Airport Authority needs clarity. The proposed second runway is critically important in the context of the airport's future. It is estimated that 30 million people will pass through Dublin Airport this year. The current arrangements relating to the proposed runway would lead to the number of people passing through the airport being reduced by 3 million. Dublin Airport has an opportunity to become an international hub for Europe. Over 19,000 people have jobs at the airport and there are nine ancillary jobs associated with each of those. Dublin Airport is hugely important to the economies of Fingal, Dublin and the country in general. Opportunities abound in terms of future developments in tourism, the economy in general and in the context of various initiatives that have been undertaken by small innovators. Connectivity to the rest of Europe and the world is extremely important.
The Leader needs to request that the Minister come before the House in order that he might explain - in clear terms - his plans to resolve this issue. Currently, there is no clarity or direction and people do not know where they stand. This matter is far too important for the nation to be left lingering any longer in respect of it. The Minister needs to come before the House and he also needs to take action.
I wish to raise the issue of Cavan general hospital and the potential threat that hangs over it as a result of the report of the trauma steering group. That report was commissioned by the then Minister for Health and current Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar. It recommends that major trauma be transferred from smaller hospitals such as Cavan general hospital to major centres in Dublin and Cork. For citizens living in Cavan, Monaghan and surrounding counties, this would mean that any individual that suffers broken bones or major wounds would have to be transferred to Dublin in order to receive treatment. This is causing great concern among the citizens to whom I refer and to the staff who work in Cavan general hospital. Unfortunately, those of us who live in that part of the world are well used to threats hanging over our hospitals. For example, Monaghan hospital has lost some critical services and the people who live in Monaghan are suffering as a result. Unfortunately, we cannot brag about having a good ambulance service. I and others have spoken in this House about the delays relating to ambulance services in the region.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health to come before the House and provide clarity in respect of this issue? Following on from the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis, the Taoiseach provided some assurances on the position in this regard. However, he commissioned the report. The people of Cavan and Monaghan deserve to know the truth. What is the future of Cavan general hospital? I would like the Minister to come to the House and provide assurances to the people in the region that there is no threat hanging over the hospital.
There has been much discussion over the years about the use of Shannon Airport by American troops. There has been a great deal of talk about our neutrality. As permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, approaches, I am sure such talk is going to increase in volume and quantity over the coming months. It is important that I support Senator Higgins's request for a debate with the Minister on this matter. It is time we established the facts. In my view, the Shannon stopover is not a breach of our neutrality.
There was a time, in the very early days of the Iraq war, when use of the Shannon stopover might have called into question the issue of our military non-alignment status. However, I am of the view anything sanctioned by the United Nations does not breach that status. We heard this morning that PESCO will enable the Irish Defence Forces to purchase equipment on a global scale by , in effect, bulk-buying it with other countries. We will get better value for money as a result. I do not see anything wrong with that. There is no possibility whatsoever of a European army. We had a delegation from Latvia here last week, the members of which made clear they are not interested in such a development and will not subscribe to it. Indeed, most of the small countries in Europe that are aligned to NATO have no interest in becoming part of a European army. It is high time we in this House sat down and had an open and honest debate on the matter. Rather than allowing some of the urban myths that are out there to hold sway, let us put the facts on the table and have a discussion on that basis. It is important that our soldiers who go on military and peacekeeping operations overseas have the best equipment possible. More importantly, it is vital that we have the best equipment available here in this country so that we can do what is not currently possible, which is fly large numbers of troops across the State if we need to do so. I ask the Leader to organise that debate.
Will the Leader agree to a debate on the future of the rural post office network? Such a discussion would be particularly timely in the light of the excellent news today that the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, has secured €30 million in additional moneys to preserve the network and ensure the provision of five-days-per-week postal deliveries throughout the country and six-days-per-week deliveries for parcels. We all recognise the important role of the rural post office. In Cavan and Monaghan, it is the fabric of rural communities and an integral part of society. Areas such as where I represent could not contemplate a reduction in the network of post offices. A debate on the future of the network should include a consideration of issues such as the widening, upgrading and modernising of services to ensure their onward survival. The announcement of the new funding will be welcomed by all of us in this House with a passion for maintaining the fabric of rural Ireland. However, it behoves us to have a full debate on how the moneys will be used and how we can ensure services are provided that will preserve the network into the future such that it will not require further funding injections on a regular basis.
I join colleagues in supporting the proposal by Senator Alice-Mary Higgins for a debate on the EU proposals for permanent structured co-operation on security and defence. Sinn Féin has always made clear that the Lisbon treaty has the potential to threaten our neutrality.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business such that No. 18 on today's Order of Business, Statistics (1926 Census Release) Bill 2017 - First Stage, be taken before No. 1. The Bill seeks to amend the Statistics Act 1993 in respect of the 1926 census, the first census of the population of Ireland taken after the establishment of the State, in order to afford its findings a special heritage status and have them released to the public for genealogical, historical and other research. The 1901 and 1911 census returns for the entire island of Ireland have been available for public research for some 50 years and amount to a wonderful and freely available national heritage resource. The phenomenal success of making those returns available online has greatly increased the interest among our diaspora in their ancestral links to Ireland. The 15-year gap in census returns from 1911 to 1926 corresponds to the most important period in our history. The Bill will allow for the release of those data, with a special heritage status, and thereby bridge an important gap in our records.
I call for a debate on freedom of speech. I spoke at the weekend at the James Fintan Lalor Autumn School in Laois. Also speaking at that event was Mr. Kevin Myers, a distinguished and courageous war correspondent who led the fight for the recognition of the service given by Irish soldiers in the First World War.I disagree with virtually every word he has written and on one occasion he devoted an entire column to saying what an absolute blackguard I was, but I stand for freedom of speech. In an article in The Sunday Timesrecently, he wrote:
I note that two of the best-paid women presenters in the BBC - Claudia Winkleman and , with whose, no doubt, sterling work I am tragically unacquainted - are Jewish. Good for them. Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price...
It was stupid and obnoxious but it was read by two people in Dublin, who passed it, and two people in London who also passed it. He has since apologised for it and is a strong supporter of the State of Israel.
The chair of the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, Maurice Cohen, said Kevin Myers was not anti-Semitic but had inadvertently stumbled into an anti-Semitic joke. He said that branding him as an anti-Semite or a holocaust denier was an absolute distortion of the facts. However, self-appointed people decided he was to be hounded so he lost his job and is unemployable in journalism. This is absolutely shocking. He put on the record that he was an agent provocateurof the journalistic world and deliberately taunted and provoked people, believing that is what he is there for.
Kevin Myers also wrote an article in which he described the Traveller community as dirty, abusive, drunken and creating a mess everywhere, but in the second paragraph said, “You didn’t like that, did you?" This is what Friedrich Engels wrote in the 19th century about the Irish. He went on to say this was, of course, for us to inquire into. However, this second paragraph was never used and that is utterly shocking. He has said some ridiculous things. He has been described as a holocaust denier but he has said that millions of people were killed by the evil Nazis. He just nitpicked on the word. We really need a debate on the issue.
I also wish to raise the situation of George Hook. George Hook is a crusty old devil who said:
But when you then look deeper into the story you have to ask certain questions. Why does a girl who just meets a fella in a bar go back to a hotel room? She’s only just barely met him, she has no idea of his health conditions, she has no idea who he is, she has no idea of what dangers he might pose, but modern day social activity means that she goes back with him, then is surprised when someone comes into the room and rapes her. Should she be raped? Of course she shouldn’t. Is she entitled to say no? Absolutely. Is the guy who came in a scumbag? Certainly. Should he go to jail? Of course. All those things. But is there no blame now to the person who puts themselves in danger?
He asked a question. If one is not allowed to ask a question in this country, where are we? If there is a deliberate silencing of contrarian voices in this country, with whom I do not agree, we will be left with nothing but a single, monotonous, self-righteous voice.
I was very surprised last weekend at the tone of the editorial of the UK edition of The Sun, which talked about Ireland's "naive young prime minister" and advised him, "shut your gob and grow up." This is offensive and very damaging to UK-Ireland relations. The Taoiseach has every right to speak on behalf of Irish citizens, and on behalf of UK citizens in Northern Ireland.
Absolutely. As I have said before, the UK has shot itself in our foot and we must work extremely hard to ensure comments like this are not tolerated. I have heard from people in the UK that people in the Republic of Ireland will have no choice but to follow the UK out of the EU. I remind them that we are committed members of the EU. There has to be parity of esteem between Ireland and the UK and such comments must be condemned. Today, the DUP and Sinn Féin are having meetings in Downing Street and I hope they are a success. Brexit has caused huge complexities in Northern Ireland and huge trouble on the island of Ireland, as well as between Ireland and the UK. The editorial of The Sunis offensive and is not helpful to UK-Ireland relations.
I wish to refer to a meeting of the General Affairs Council in Brussels yesterday when unfortunately Ireland lost out to Paris in the decision on the relocation of the European Banking Authority with 167 staff from London, arising from the United Kingdom's decision to exit the European Union in March 2019. It was a great achievement on the part of all those concerned for us to go ahead of Frankfurt - which the agency would consider would be its natural home - to tie with Paris with 13 votes each, with one spoilt vote who decided to vote for each candidate, which was very generous but it was not much good to us. I am sure many Members when canvassing say they will vote for all the candidates and they put 1, 1, 1, against the names-----
No, I did not. I will say no more.
The drawing of lots does not seem a fair way to decide the fate of those 167 staff. Luck was not with us on the day. We did not have the luck of the Irish or the four-leaved clover in Brussels yesterday. The benefits to Ireland, which would have accrued, would have been enormous in attracting financial services from London, but we must still pursue that objective, irrespective of the decision. We must pursue the financial services to locate in Ireland because we have the best location in terms of language and our location with respect to the United States and the rest of Europe.
I want to compliment the efforts of the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee, and the Minister of State, Deputy Michael D'Arcy, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and the Irish diplomats in Brussels and throughout the European Union for a magnificent effort by our team. The strategy of withdrawing from the bid to win the relocation of the European Medicines Agency with a staff of 900 staff from London to Dublin was probably the right decision, which strengthened our case for the European Banking Authority. When I heard the outcome yesterday I was tempted to quote from Oscar Wilde's play, "The Importance of Being Earnest", but I decided in the circumstances, taking account of all the work that went into this, that it would be inappropriate to say, "To lose one parent may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both ..." and I will not mention the following words of the quote, other than to say that it does not apply in this case----
-----because carelessness was not the part of the role played, carelessness was not involved. Every effort was made and our diplomats throughout the world deserve credit. We fought them all and we won, and the Minister and the Taoiseach-----
We won when we were up against the strength of Frankfurt. In the circumstances all we can do is say we did not pull the winner on the day, it did not come out of the bag for us. There was a drawing of lots but that is not the way to do this. We should intensify our efforts now to attract banks from the United Kingdom to Ireland. As Senator Feighan said, they tried to shoot us in the foot when they decided to vote for Brexit.
Will the Leader indicate when the Government will bring about the reform of the Seanad? When will that happen? Where is it in the pipeline? It is extremely pertinent and urgent. The Seanad might be in a new building but we are following the Dáil badly. We are not being brave. We are not advising and we are not leading in any standard of thought process. I wonder where our energy, vitality and valour are. We were promised this and it is extremely important. As a Taoiseach's nominee, I do not come with a pathology of territory, which I hear and see in here every day. We are dissipated, pulling from each other and not working together, which we should be, especially in the area of Brexit, homelessness and the state of our system. We are not listening to each other and the public are not listening to us. I have not met anybody in here whose heart was not in the right place or who was not excellent at the work they were doing. Individually we may be doing work but we are not doing so as a Seanad. We are not doing it as a thinking House, a legislative House, and we need to realign ourselves to what we are supposed to be doing in here. We are not even following the Dáil. We are hanging around at the door of the Dáil.We are not leading or being brave. We genuinely need to look at how we are going to reform what we do in this House. How one gets in here is another day's work. Senator McDowell is right on this and he has mentioned it a thousand times here. We need to look at reform, regardless of what the reform is. We need to reform how the Seanad does its business. At the moment, we are outside the door of the Dáil looking in and making no impact.
I second Senator Warfield's proposed amendment to the Order of Business, namely, for No. 18 to be taken before No. 1.
I commend Senator Marie Louise O'Donnell. We really have to address this issue of Seanad reform. It is strange so many of us are calling for it, yet we do not seem to be going anywhere with it as a project.
Today, a group of men, the survivors of sexual abuse at Creagh Lane national school in Limerick, travelled to Brussels. The teacher involved has already been convicted in the criminal courts. The case happened 50 years ago but the victims' difficulty is that they are still awaiting redress. Unfortunately, the Government seems to have set its heart against offering any redress to these victims.
I met them last week, along with several other Deputies and Senators, outside the gates of Leinster House. These men are heartbroken and feel the State has completely abandoned them. I am delighted Deputy Quinlivan travelled to Brussels with them today and that our MEP, Liadh Ní Riada, is giving them strong support. I am pleased Limerick City Council, on an all-party basis, has asked the Government to address this issue. I am also delighted Senator Kieran O'Donnell is in the Chamber. I call on him to do more on this issue.
These men have waited long enough and deserve redress. Since the maximum redress they can get under the current scheme is €84,000, there is no financial reason not to give these people redress. It is shameful that they have had to wait this long. It is appalling that the Government continues to set its face against fairness and justice for these people.
Will the Leader organise a debate on this matter with the Minister for Justice and Equality? If the Seanad can do anything useful, surely it can unite on an issue like this and tell the Minister with one voice the need to address this issue. It is bizarre to think that the reason these people cannot get redress is because they did not go to a residential school but a day school. Accordingly, they are being penalised and offered no redress whatsoever by the Government.
There is no reason for this. I do not believe anybody on this side of the House came in with the intention of denying these people justice. The Government side has the power to address this issue. There can be no excuse for not addressing it. As a matter of urgency, will the Leader bring the Minister for Justice and Equality into the House? I know she will be busy for the next couple of days but she should be brought in as a matter of urgency in order that we address this together.
I support my colleague, Senator Norris, on his call for a debate on freedom of speech. Casting free speech and religious freedom as inferior to anti-discrimination laws should be debated in this House, as should the universal human right to the freedom to have a belief.
I want to raise the issue of a lack of consistency in planning decisions across local authorities. In County Donegal, a recent decision was taken to refuse a major planning application for a cinema complex in Donegal town. It goes against the economic remit of the planning and economic development section of the county council. It was a short-sighted decision which has been raised by many council members, including local councillors, Michéal Naughton and Tom Conaghan. My colleague in the other House, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher, has lambasted this decision as well. Short-sighted decisions of this nature rob rural towns of economic potential and job creation.When making planning determinations about projects of an economic nature, local authorities have to ensure they fulfil all the obligations contained within the local plan and also in national legislation. A freedom of information request was not even sought in this case. I ask for the Minister to come to the House to debate this issue and the obligations placed on the management of local authorities under the new Local Government Reform Act 2014. It is clearly not working and the councillors are left to raise certain issues. The management may or may not listen. The management in County Donegal is not listening to the vast majority of concerns being expressed by local councillors.
This is the third time I have addressed the roll-out of Leader programme funding from Deputy Michael Ring's Department. I believe the process is totally wrong. If a community group applies, it has to undergo what is called an article 48 check. There are 66 questions on just article 48. Every question has to be answered. It then goes back to the Carlow County Development Partnership, CCDP, and Pobal several times, then the local community development committee, LCDC, which is the main group handling this, then to the Department. It then returns to the LCDC. In over two years, only €150,000 has been spent through the Leader programme. Some €10.5 million is waiting to be approved.
This approval process takes forever because there are so many stages to go through. In Carlow, there has been one approval with about ten offers that are still with the Department. This is a national issue. This programme involves €250 million over seven years. We are over two years into this process, with very little funding going out. I am beginning to believe that the Minister has put this process in place so that people do not get their funding. The Minister, Deputy Ring, needs to come into this Chamber to address this issue and the process that these community groups have waited in for so long for their funding.
I endorse what Senator Norris has said about the need for this House to reconsider the balance with regard to freedom of speech. I was struck during the week by a piece by Philip Ryan in The Sunday Independentabout words put up on the Internet about the late Deputy Peter Mathews with regard to his death-----
-----by an activist in the pro-choice movement. I was struck particularly by her reply when confronted with the appalling bad manners and cruelty of the remarks she had published. She said she did not know the family of the late Peter Mathews and did not know whether they had read the remarks she made. He was a classmate of mine for ten years at school.
To echo what Senator Norris is saying, although I would not agree with him on many matters with regard to the issue on which she disagreed with him, he was a person who everybody in these Houses will remember as a thoroughly decent and good-hearted person.
This makes me consider this point. Why do people risk their membership of Fine Gael's national executive council by putting things on the Internet which they would not dare put in a letter to the editor of the Evening Herald, let alone The Irish Times, which they know would never be published? Why do people consider that, under either the anonymity or semi-anonymity of being obscurely identifiable, they can say things about other people which are totally uninhibited? They are remarks that one might make over a pint in a pub but would certainly never wish to see in permanent form to hurt the feelings of others.By the same token, and to add to the point Senator Norris made, it is remarkable that these Houses have licensed a radio service and that a set of radio licencees have said that no columnist in The Irish Times can broadcast on or be invited to participate in discussion programmes on its radio stations. Denis O'Brien appears to be the owner of these stations and the originator of the ban. We have to ask about that and freedom of speech.
It is all very well to talk about front-line defenders and to pose as the champion of journalistic free speech when one does things like that. We should have a debate in the House on freedom of speech. I do not believe in the current view that somehow social media are an opportunity to be utterly disinhibited and to say anything one likes about anybody regardless of the consequences. We must allow diversity and even mildly offensive material to be in our media and we should not automatically use some kind of catechism of political correctness to determine who can and cannot be broadcasters or guests on radio stations, which we license, and which are required to be objective and fair in discussions.
It has been a while since we have had a debate on the very important and pertinent issue of Brexit. At the very least we should have statements although I would prefer a debate with either the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade or the Taoiseach, given the gravity of the situation which we all acknowledge and have conceded in the House over many debates and statements in the past.
Yesterday I attended the launch of independent legal advice commissioned by the GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament. It was carried out by Doughty Street Chambers, a very highly regarded law firm in the area of human rights. The legal opinion is quite a comprehensive piece of work and I commend it to Members. It is available online. It states very clearly there is no legal barrier to securing special status for the North of Ireland within the EU. There is growing consensus across the European institutions that there needs to be a special arrangement for Ireland, in particular for the North, given our unique circumstances. It is apt that we have such a discussion.
The Seanad oversaw the establishment of the Special Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. We had a comprehensive series of hearings but that work has stopped and I do not think it should. As rightly pointed out by Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell, the Seanad should be proactive on this issue and it should be vocal and outwardly facing.
The report we compiled as a committee is unfortunately sitting on a shelf. We should take it to Brussels and Westminster and engage on the basis of the research. We should not only engage on the basis of the research we have carried out thus far but we should be proactive and consider reconvening the committee to look at the ongoing issues as a result of Brexit. Mar fhocal scoir, I commend the independent legal advice to Members for their attention and call on the Leader again for an update from the Government on Brexit.
I thank the 19 Members of the House for their contributions to the Order of Business. I will commence with Senators Ardagh, Conway-Walsh and Bacik, who spoke about Maurice McCabe. The Tánaiste has said on a number of occasions that she had no hand, act or part in the formulation of a strategy to attack the credibility of Sergeant McCabe.From my side, all we want to see is the truth found out and the facts put in the public domain once and for all. The tribunal has been established. Mr. Justice Charleton is the person in charge. It is his job and he has our full support to establish the truth.
As the Cathaoirleach said in his ruling, in his comment from the Chair, the tribunal is under way and all of us must be careful in what we say. The Tánaiste will address the Dáil at some stage this evening; I am not quite sure what the arrangements are. I would be very happy to facilitate the Tánaiste coming to the House this week at some point to have a statement on the matter. I would be very open to that and would not be afraid of it at all.
I know Senator Conway-Walsh has gone and she apologised. From my perspective, I hope all Members of the House keep minutes and keep records of what happened with whistleblowers because my party is very strong in what we have done to clean up white-collar crime. I challenge Senator Conway-Walsh and her party on how they have treated whistleblowers before she comes into this House and criticises the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Government of which I am a part. I would be very happy to have that debate at any time.
Senator Ardagh made reference to tonight's "RTÉ Investigates" programme. We need to watch and hear the programme in its entirety. However, my information is that it is about 14 of the 47 hospitals which have exceeded the 20% limit of private treatment. From our side of the House, we have pursued a model that has got differing viewpoints in terms of universality of health care and health treatment.
The hospital contract signed in 2008 had a very clear objective, to which we all subscribe, which is to improve access for public patients to public hospital care. That has not changed. It is a minefield with a number of different consultant contracts working in different ways. The obligation on the HSE and now the hospital groups is one that requires a piece of work to be done. None of us wants to see patients suffer. As I was driving up this morning, I heard people being interviewed regarding cataracts and hip replacements. We all want people to be treated in a timely way and with hospital care that is dignified and respectful. We will all work to strengthen the compliance which is not perhaps as robust as it should be. Certainly it is 14 of 47 hospitals. I would be happy to have the debate after the "RTÉ Investigates" programme.
I fully agree with Senator Lawless's remarks on the situation in Myanmar. We all thought Aung San Suu Kyi would show vision and her leadership would be a breath of fresh air, but she has been a disappointment to many of us. I agree with the Senator that it is a humanitarian crisis that requires urgent intervention in order that people be treated with respect and dignity. I will be very happy to ask the Minister to come to the House. Perhaps it might be quicker for the Senator to raise it as a Commencement matter. He is right to raise the matter and I fully support him.
Senators Higgins, Craughwell and Warfield raised the issue of the Defence Forces and permanent structured co-operation, PESCO, and Senator Craughwell mentioned the Shannon stopover. I certainly do not believe the Shannon stopover is in breach of our neutrality. I know the Minister of State at the Department of Defence gave Senator Higgins a very lengthy reply on the Commencement and the Cathaoirleach made reference to that. I fully understand her sincerity and passion on the matter. I will not read back to her the Minister of State's reply. We can have a debate on the matter. In his reply to the Senator, the Minister of State was very clear that it is in keeping with our previous international agreements.
I believe Senator Warfield referenced the Lisbon treaty. That was approved by the people in a vote in 2009. It was part of that discourse and debate.
The Minister of State in his reply was quite clear when he said the legislation setting out Ireland's approval process for PESCO was published in advance of the vote and enacted in November 2009. However, we will have that debate again because-----
I understand Senator Higgins' sincerity. It is important that the Minister of State's reply be circulated to all Members of the House because it addresses some of the issues Senator Higgins raised. We will have that debate. I welcome the European Pillar of Social Rights. Irrespective of our political ideology, we all will work and are working to make our society, our country and our community more progressive and more equal. I think all of us would subscribe to that.
Senator Bacik referred to online safety. The events of the past number of days have again highlighted the absolute importance of and the need for not only security and education of young people, but also empowerment of all of us in respect of this issue, which has become a new dimension and a new part of our lives. Senator Bacik's point was well made, and I would be happy to try to have that debate, if not before Christmas, immediately after Christmas.
Senator James Reilly referred to Dublin Airport and the ongoing issues regarding the need for a new runway. Any passenger going through Dublin Airport will recognise that it is completely chock-a-block, which at one level is healthy and positive for us as a country. It also requires Dublin Airport Authority to move other routes back to Cork and perhaps to Shannon. As a country, we need clarity and direction on the issue Senator Reilly has raised. I would be happy to have the Minister, Deputy Ross, come before the House in this regard.
Senator Robbie Gallagher referred to Cavan general hospital and the issues there. It is a very complex matter. Before the last general election, the Government had a very comprehensive strategy for smaller hospitals which saw a huge amount of money invested in older, smaller county homes in some cases. I am not familiar with Cavan general hospital specifically. Senator Gallagher raised issues regarding trauma. Trauma is very hard to define because a variety of specialisms could be involved, whether endoscopy, colorectal, urology, orthopaedic or neurosurgery, so I think the issue he has raised is not as simple as he has outlined. However, the Government is giving consideration to the issue he is concerned about.
Senator Joe O'Reilly congratulated the Minister, Deputy Naughten, on the future of rural post offices. Senator O'Reilly is right to welcome the €30 million in additional funding secured by the Minister for five-day postal delivery and six-day parcel delivery. Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell has recognised the importance of a post office network in this House previously and has raised it on a number of occasions. I would be very happy to have that debate in the future and I commend Senator O'Reilly on his contribution.
I would be happy to accept Senator Warfield's amendment to the Order of the Business and I am sure we will have a debate at a future date on the matter.
Senators Norris and McDowell referred to the issue of freedom of speech. Those of us who are democrats and republicans recognise the importance of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom to write and have one's works published and freedom to assemble. We steadfastly cherish all these rights and they are imbued in us. I am all in favour of divergence of viewpoint, whether in committee, on the public airwaves or through the medium of newspaper. Senator McDowell used the phrase "catechism of political correctness". That catechism has many different authors and doctors, but the problem we have now is that political correctness in some cases has gone too far. We will probably be criticised for saying that, but that is not to condone bad behaviour or ill-tempered remarks. I have a fear of the way in which social media is going in the world, that some people can and do, as Senator McDowell rightly said, say what they want when they want and how they want without any ramification or consequence. They can impugn the character of people very unfairly. We need to see this issue addressed. I would be very happy to have a debate in this House on the matter and I join the Senators in condemning the remarks passed on the death of Peter Matthews, a former Member of our Lower House.Peter Mathews was a gentleman. Whatever else about him, he was an absolute thorough gentleman.
Certainly, those who hide behind pseudonyms and anonymous profiles on social media do not deserve to be listened to anyway. They do not have the courage of their convictions to put their names forward, unlike many of us in this Chamber. I am worried about this.
I join with Senator McDowell in actively condemning the editorial decision by Newstalk to ban journalists from The Irish Times. It has no place in the modern republic. I am all for freedom of speech and diverging viewpoints and we may disagree. I was part of a number of referenda and election campaigns, as was Senator McDowell, and we disagreed vehemently on different things. We all have a right to express our viewpoint and to defend and make comment. I certainly think it was a bad editorial decision by Newstalk. I am not too worried if I never go on any programme again as a consequence of this, but that is a different by the by.
Senators Feighan and Ó Donnghaile indirectly referenced the issue of Brexit. The Taoiseach has been very clear, as has the Government, regarding the island of Ireland and our position regarding Brexit. Rather than condemning the Government, Senator Ó Donnghaile should compliment the Taoiseach, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, for working to ensure that we will not have a return to a hard border. They have been very clear about this. They have been very strong on this viewpoint. I certainly hope we can see it continue on an all-party consensus basis. As Senator Feighan said, Brexit is a catastrophe for us.
If he has contributions such as that which the Senator made last week he will get to do them very quickly and very well. The European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority are linked to the Senator's remarks, and the issue of the future of financial services is a debate we should and could have in the House and I will be happy to facilitate it. I thank the Ministers of State, Deputies D'Arcy and McEntee, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the civil servants for their work.
Senators Marie-Louise O'Donnell, Gavin and Ó Donnghaile referenced Seanad reform and the lack thereof. The Seanad-----
I am tempted to tell Senator Gavan that is some coalition of names but I had better not as I might get another comment. What the Senator referred to is not necessarily about Seanad reform. It is about the nature of the discourse and the debate we have here. Under the Constitution we do not mirror the Dáil and should not follow the Dáil. We set our own rules and our own criteria within the constitutional parameters we have. Certainly, I very much agree with the Senator. The Seanad had an all-party committee on Brexit, the report of which is not sitting on a shelf.It is very much part of the approach taken by the Government, the Civil Service, and indeed by all of us. The harmony brought about by that report is very much part of what the Government is doing. On the issue of mental health, the Seanad Public Consultation Committee sat on a cross-party basis and produced an excellent report.
With regard to the health care issue raised by the Senator, our Seanad was deprived a vote and thus a say on the Sláintecare report because Members of this House from certain parties failed to support the representation of Seanadóirí on the relevant committee. We are not meant to follow the Dáil; we set our own agenda. For as long as I have been involved with and interested in politics, the Seanad has always been seen in a different light to the Dáil, be it by the media, by society in general, by Senators themselves or indeed by the Houses of the Oireachtas, and this is something that we have to address and change. Reform very much depends on the viewpoint taken and I would be very interested to listen to any remarks on the subject of Seanad reform. Senator McDowell has published his Bill and there have been different viewpoints on what is contained in it-----
I would certainly be happy to have an ongoing debate on Brexit and on the future of the Seanad. It is also important that we come into this Chamber as Members of the House and debate in the fullest way the variety of issues, Bills and statements that come before us, that we initiate Private Members' Bills and that we challenge one another to carry out our business better. I do not have all of the capacity or knowledge and I am happy to work with every Member to make this a better House. In some cases, as the Cathaoirleach knows well, we can only debate what is before us, be it legislation initiated in this House or be it from the Lower House. I certainly cannot manufacture legislation, but the point the Cathaoirleach makes is one that we should all work on and I would be very happy to have him play a key role in that.
I cannot allow Senators who have already spoken to come in to make a second contribution. Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell is welcome to seek clarification on this again tomorrow morning and I will allow her in then. If everybody came back in at this point the whole meeting would disintegrate.
I thought that we had changed the Order of Business to a question and answer session so I thank the Cathaoirleach for his intervention. I would say to Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell that I feel that we led on Brexit, particularly with regard to the committee report that came from this House. We are also leading on mental health - I see that Senator Freeman has just walked in - and that particular report was an extraordinary piece of work that challenged many different aspects of the health system-----
It also gave parents an opportunity to participate in an active and meaningful way. The Seanad Public Consultation Committee is one way in which we can lead. If Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell has further suggestions on how we can lead then I would be very happy to listen and to take them on board. To be fair, I am not referring to Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell at all when I say this but I do feel that rather than coming in here to criticise, condemn and pour scorn, there is a duty on all Members of the House to-----
I am not sure that Deputies Deering and McGuinness and the Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, will be happy to work with Senator Murnane O'Connor on this matter. The bureaucracy the Senator refers to is something that frustrates us all.
While Senator Murnane O'Connor was making her contribution on this, Senator Kieran O'Donnell commented to me that this is a matter of finding a balance between accountability, the spending of taxpayers' money and ensuring that projects are delivered. We need to strike the balance. I was not aware of article 48 or of the 60 questions mentioned.Having been involved in sporting and community organisations, I am aware of the level bureaucracy to be fulfilled in order for a project to obtain grant aid. This is an issue that we need to examine. I believe we should have less bureaucracy and red tape. While I accept the need to strike a balance between the spending of taxpayers' money and accountability, 60 questions appears to be a bit excessive.
In regard to the human rights opinion from the European Union referenced by Senator Ó Donnghaile, I have not seen it.. We are all committed to ensuring there is no return to a hard border.
Senator Gavan raised the issue of the gentlemen who are travelling to the European Parliament today. I am not familiar with the issue. All victims of abuse, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred, deserve redress. The frustration, pain and sense of abandonment of these gentlemen must be acknowledged. I have huge sympathy for their case. Senator Gavan referenced the Department of Justice and Equality in relation to this case. It is a matter for the Department of Education and Skills rather than the Department of Justice and Equality. The Senator might get a quicker response were he to raise the issue as a Commencement matter. For my part, I will do all I can to ensure the cases of these gentlemen are looked at. We must all have sympathy sympathise and understanding for what they are going through. This is a wrong of society that needs to be put right.
I am happy to accept Senator Warfield's amendment to the Order of Business.