Tuesday, 23 March 2004
Seanad Éireann Debate
Ms O’Rourke: The Order of Business is No. 1, Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 6 p.m., with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, Members may share time and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage; and No. 2, Finance Bill 2004 — Second Stage, to be taken at 6 p.m. and to conclude not later than 8.30 p.m., with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes, Members may share time and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than ten minutes before the conclusion of Second Stage.
Mr. B. Hayes: We are not opposing the Order of Business, although we are resolutely opposed to the cutbacks being introduced in the Social Welfare Bill. We will make this clear in the House today and tomorrow.
On a separate matter, a little like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is now moving in the direction outlined by Deputy Richard Bruton some years ago in a document he produced regarding evaluation within schools. I support and welcome the initiative by the Minister who is now talking about introducing a formal evaluation of schools and ensuring that parents have greater accountability within the school system in terms of examination results and evaluation within the school. Too many children are losing out because of poor school performance and poor performance within the school system. Up to 20% of children are being lost in the education system. I support the Minister’s efforts to introduce greater evaluation in the education system. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate with the Minister on this issue. Fine Gael outlined its support for this measure three years ago and was castigated at the time by the then Fianna Fáil Government. Fianna Fáil is now adopting the position outlined by my party. We welcome the U-turn by Fianna Fáil on this issue.
Regarding the ongoing postal dispute, the Leader has considerable experience as a former Cabinet Minister and will understand the dilemma now faced by the country if the postal service is disrupted for some days. The labour Act of 1991 introduced a code of practice for essential services. I am not aware of any public utility company running essential services which has negotiated such a code between management and unions and that should be introduced. It is wrong that the entire country can be held to ransom in respect of an industrial dispute of this nature. The Government and the Minister responsible have taken their eye off the ball. I ask for a debate on the issue to bring about some reason and to ensure that posted letters will be delivered as soon as possible. One cannot have a proper, functioning, modern economy where the postal service is in dispute. I ask the Government to examine the 1991 legislation and find a means of introducing a code of practice that both management and unions can agree to.
Mr. O’Toole: At a time when the Government will make the case that there are bureaucratic reasons for bringing us in line with the rest of Europe, I ask that we do not become involved in those issues in this House. I am simply asking that whatever the arrangements and the double payments, that the €12 million should be given back and then whatever needs to be done can be done.
Mr. O’Toole: If the Cathaoirleach was allowed to have a view he would share my view. It is not about the structure or about the double payment, but about taking €12 million from people who can least afford it and it should be given back.
I ask the House to refer to the extraordinary, iconic vision of two bits of a wheelchair and a blob of blood on a Palestinian street as a recognition of how we have entered a new dimension of extra-judicial executions with targets now including political and religious leaders. It seems there is no end to this and we have opened up something to which there is no limit. Whatever the reasons for it, we can not justify internationally the killing of somebody who is a religious leader, no matter how radical or unacceptable he is — what he says is utterly unacceptable to me. We must believe in the rule of law in a democracy.
On a minor matter, we were treated to the Minister for Transport opening a brand new railway station and platforms in Dublin. It seems all trains will run better and faster with no delays. I draw to the attention of the House that the Kerry train was ten minutes late again this morning, despite ten new platforms, the spending of €117 million and the assurances given by the Minister for Transport. Maybe he has something against the people of Kerry or the Kerry trains but it is not working. We should not accept a delay of ten minutes.
Mr. Ryan: The idea that the second richest country in the world would descend into controversy over the fact that a Government exists which thinks it is all right to take money away from widows is a commentary on the quality of this country and the values that ten years of this Government have given it. This is so unthinkable——
Mr. Ryan: This is not about social welfare. The social welfare changes are a symptom of the collapse of the values of solidarity that the Fianna Fáil in which I grew up, stood for and spent most of my childhood and early adult life struggling to create has now torn apart by insulting the widows by telling them they are an anomaly. The widows of Ireland are victims of cruel injustice in their lives, coupled with a cruel injustice.
Mr. Ryan: On values, I reiterate what Senator O’Toole said. Something horrible and brutal happened yesterday and, as he said very eloquently, it will be an icon for the future. We need to take a leadership role in this regard, to have the international democratic community say that any society which claims to be democratic but reserves to itself the right to execute anybody it does not like is no longer fit to be classified in the company of democratic societies. Unless the democratic world says that, we are giving a rationale to terrorism for which all democratic societies will pay a price. We have to realise that democracy is based on the rule of law; it is not mob rule. I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on the fundamental issue of what we mean by democratic states and democratic society because what happened yesterday was an affront to every democratic value.
Mr. Dardis: I want to ensure it is on record that this side is just as condemnatory in its denunciation of what took place yesterday with regard to the murder of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Terrorism from whatever quarter has been always condemned in this House. Terrorism from the state is no less terrorism than terrorism from any private army, irrespective, as Senator O’Toole said, of the views held by the sheikh and the possibility that people were sent out as suicide bombers by him. Nevertheless, if the rule of law is subverted, we are on a slippery slope. We know that from our own experience here where, against all the odds, we upheld the rule of law. I am glad the European Union condemned the assassination also in strong terms. One would have expected the United States to be more condemnatory in what it had to say.
Mr. Dardis: I suppose there is always a temptation to have soundbites on the Order of Business. However, the appropriate time to discuss social welfare matters is on Second Stage of the debate on the Social Welfare Bill. To be fair to Senator Brian Hayes, while he expressed his strong opposition to the Bill, he waited and will, I am sure, be able to make his remarks in the debate. I assume that those who denounce the Bill will be equally strong when it comes to the debate on the matter.
Mr. Finucane: While none of us supports the actions of Hamas, one must deplore what happened yesterday. The Taoiseach, in his capacity as President of the European Union, should call in the Israeli ambassador to ask him what is going on out there. Surely, in making decisions such as this, Mr. Sharon knows the monster he is creating. The tit-for-tat situation which exists in Israel and Palestine is deplorable. The Taoiseach is a respected figure in Europe at this stage and should call in the Israeli ambassador to ask him direct questions about what is happening.
Representatives of An Post recently came before the relevant Oireachtas committee to present its survival plan. One has to be realistic and recognise that it is in a critical financial situation, and that the intervention of the Labour Relations Commission may be required. While a dispute will cause irreparable financial harm to An Post, I am not sure there is awareness of the critical situation in the company at present.
Mr. Mooney: I support the views of both sides of the House regarding yesterday’s events in Palestine. Ireland has always adopted an even-handed approach to the Middle East problem. We would always support the right of Israel to exist and to defend its borders, while, at the same time, supporting Palestinian self-determination. However, the ironic aspect of yesterday’s events is that Sheikh Yassin was in Israeli custody and was released after two Mossad agents entered Jordan to poison one of his henchmen. King Abdullah of Jordan in a telephone call insisted that the two Mossad agents would be tried in Jordan.
Mr. Mooney: Due to the fears this caused, the Israeli Government, under Benyamin Netanyahu, released the sheikh and now it has killed him. One has to question where Israeli policy will lead. I am fearful not only for events in the Middle East but for the impact on the towns and cities of Europe, given what happened in Madrid. A heavy burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of Prime Minister Sharon and his cabinet which, as we all know, is dominated by hard-line, hawkish elements which do not fully represent the views of the vast majority of the Israeli people — it is the government they are stuck with.
All sides of the House will agree that the furore which surrounded the anti-social behaviour on St. Patrick’s Day is a timely reminder of what is happening to our society. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform attended the House throughout the debate on the Garda Bill, for which we all applaud him. I think I speak for all sides when I ask the Leader to ask him to return to the House to outline the initiation of some radical policies, similar to the initiative outlined recently in the United Kingdom. We must deal not only with what is happening in Dublin but in every town and village, including my own small town of Drumshanbo, which suffers anti-social behaviour also.
Mr. Mooney: I accept that. I ask the Leader if she would consider bringing the Minister to the House to outline his policies in this regard. It could be in the form of a motion or there could be an all-party approach to the issue.
Mr. Norris: I ask the Leader for a debate on the situation concerning health, in particular tuberculosis. I raised this issue some weeks ago in the context of the resurgence of the habit of spitting. This is of particular concern given that there is now a resistant strain of TB and that the only consultant dealing with the disease has been removed from Peamount Hospital. In the circumstances prevailing in the country we need a proper service to cater for tuberculosis.
I join colleagues calling for a debate on the Middle East. Sheikh Yassin was a sinister and fanatical figure and although I question the degree of his spirituality, he was entitled to due process of law. The man was a paraplegic and it was appalling to see him and seven or eight others targeted in this fashion. There is no question that this will do damage. I think of Patrick Pearse’s oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa: “The fools, the fools, they have left us our Fenian dead.” A new icon has been created and matters have been stirred up. Sinister domestic political motives are involved. This issue was raised earlier and the US has a heavy responsibility because it did not condemn this. Since President Bush was elected the situation has gone downhill steadily because Mr. Sharon operates in the penumbra of morality created by President Bush.
Mr. Norris: There is one thing we can do and I ask the Leader to put it to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. We can operate the human rights provisions of the external agreement of the European Union. We should not be trading with a rogue state. It grieves me to say that because it is a state I love.
I seek a debate on President Bush’s visit. He is perfectly entitled to come here but the citizens of this country also have rights. As an elected representative, I am horrified to learn that our Government will hand a licence to kill to agents of Mr. “Gunslinger” Bush. This is being done and they are saying they have diplomatic immunity so they cannot be prosecuted.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: From time to time different embassies contact us about views we express here on different issues or because they want to brief us. That suggests they take account of what is said in the Chamber and that is why I am supportive of the views expressed about yesterday’s atrocity, the assassination of an invalid cleric. What worries me particularly when I listen to statements from those embassies’ home states is that they can be quite ambiguous. For the United States, in particular, to use a word like “uncomfortable” about that terrible atrocity is certainly prostituting language as I understand it.
Labhrás Ó Murchú: One reason I want a debate on this matter is that we tend to have to raise issues on the Order of Business and gradually people are being confused — traumatised, in fact. They are not being given the opportunity to have their views reflected by elected representatives in the Oireachtas.
When we had a debate on Iraq I went out on a limb, and I am glad I did so. I made a specific pronouncement which concerned me personally and I see no change in the situation except that the arguments which were coming from the protagonists, particularly from the international coalition, are now gone. Does that mean we just park those and forget them? Do we not revisit and analyse those arguments?
I call for a debate not just on the Middle East and Iraq but on the hypocrisy coming into international debate. If the Seanad gave leadership on this openly, honestly and with integrity we would prove the reason for a Chamber like this. Also, the majority of people, whose views are not being reflected, would then feel at last they had a voice in this democracy.
Mr. Browne: Arising from the Tánaiste’s decision concerning the need for a motorway or dual carriageway to the south-east and that a clear commitment was given before the last election by Senator Dardis that taxpayers’ money would not be provided for a motorway, will he do the honourable thing by considering his position within the PDs and resigning? Senator Ryan spoke about values and it is important to restore public confidence.
Mr. Fitzgerald: I welcome the decision by the Minister for Education and Science to open up a debate on the publication of schools’ performance tables. A related issue concerns how much information should be made available to parents and students who must make decisions about choosing schools. While the Education Act 1998 banned the publication of performance tables, at the other extreme some people argue that raw data should be made available. There are a number of models to consider and I welcome the Minister’s decision that information will be made available on such models to all partners in the education debate. I can assure Senator Brian Hayes that when we have such a debate, which I would welcome, we will be more than delighted to engage with him on the issue of U-turns.
I welcome the decision by one of the teachers’ unions to invite the Minister for Education and Science to attend its conference in the near future. I never had any doubt about the union’s ability to engage in a meaningful debate with the Minister.
Ms Tuffy: I also wish to condemn the killing yesterday of Sheikh Yassin which, apart from endangering the lives of Israeli citizens, maintains the never-ending cycle of violence which leads to loss of life on both sides. Although the House was not sitting at the time, it is important also to condemn the killing of ten people last week by two Palestinian suicide bombers in the city of Ashdod.
Senator O’Toole spoke about the significance of a religious and political leader but I feel it is even worse when civilians are killed while going about their daily business. The Israeli Government is taking the wrong approach and there is dissent within Sharon’s Cabinet. In condemning their latest action, we must be clear also about condemning any threats of revenge through suicide bombings. The Palestinian Authority must do the same.
Mr. Dooley: I would welcome a debate on President Bush’s visit to this country. There has been much misinformation on this in recent days, including the issue of diplomatic immunity. The Government has made it quite clear that that case does not arise and that the Garda Síochána will lead any investigations concerning the security of the US President. It is important that the police force of our sovereign State should do so. This will also help to dispel some of the myths surrounding suggestions that President Bush should not visit Ireland. It would be a major mistake to put such views on the record of the House. If we were prepared to abandon a visit by the American President, it would give a strange signal to terrorists around the world. Such a visit would obviously be of benefit to Europe and the Middle East.
Ms Terry: On a number of occasions, I have asked the Leader to invite the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to attend the House to discuss anti-social behaviour on our streets. Today, Senator Mooney has called for the Minister to attend the House to debate the same issue. The appalling events on our streets on St. Patrick’s Day brought shame on all of us and on our country in front of the many tourists who were visiting. It was not an isolated incident, however, because such events occur daily, although they are aggravated at weekends. The Minister has not turned up in the House to discuss those issues and we were unable to discuss them during the debate on the Garda Síochána Bill. This is a societal problem as well as a justice problem which must be addressed, but the Minister has ultimate responsibility for the safety of people on our streets.
Dr. Henry: The deaths of more than 200 people in the bombing in Madrid was appalling but the number probably would have been greater if the accident and emergency services had not worked so efficiently to deal with the 1,500 casualties in a short time. No country is safe from such a catastrophe. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to address Ireland’s plan for major catastrophes not only in Dublin but around the country? The accident and emergency services are in chaos and the pre-hospital emergency services are grossly under-resourced. Will the Leader also ask the Minister to outline what Amercian-owned manufacturing facilities will do if people are injured because they must be likely targets in light of the upcoming visit of President Bush? This is a serious issue. The last rehearsal of a plan to deal with emergencies such as this went badly and I hope the Leader will ask the Minister to address this issue in the House as soon as possible.
Mr. Cummins: I join colleagues in condemning the Government on its disgraceful treatment of widows, which I will address at length on Second Stage of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004.
Mr. Cummins: The issue of the long delays in the taking of driving tests was raised a few months ago. I call again on the Minister for Transport to come to the House to explain what measures he intends to take to address these long waiting lists. It takes more than 60 weeks to get a driving test in Waterford, which is an absolute disgrace. There is a need for urgent action. Waiting lists are not only confined to the health service.
Mr. Quinn: There was a fire in a hostel in Dublin last weekend and 12 children were rushed to hospital afterwards. It is a reminder to us of the responsibility we, as a nation, have towards those in our care. It has been reported in the UK that there are no sprinkler systems in any of its prisons, with the exception of one prison ship. I do not know what is the position in Ireland but the State has a responsibility to those in its prisons. Is Ireland in the same position as the UK? If so, will the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform come to the House to outline whether he will take steps in this regard to put our minds at rest?
Prisoners will only be allowed to smoke in prison cells from next Monday and, as a consequence, accidental fires could take place. A total of 670 malicious fires were started in prisons in Britain last year. I do not know the solution but the installation of sprinkler systems would be a step in the right direction. I hope the State has undertaken its responsibility in this area to avoid future catastrophes.
Mr. Coghlan: I support Senator O’Toole’s call regarding the Minister for Transport. He opened lovely new platforms at Heuston Station to much fanfare yesterday. This morning the Kerry train was in sight of those fine platforms when it came to a sudden stop. Senator Finucane and a number of Members of the Lower House can attest to this. An announcement was then made that the train was awaiting platform clearance. There is a parking problem in the station.
Mr. Coghlan: There is a technical problem. The entire set-up is wonderful. I am not saying anything against it but there are problems, which I hope are only teething problems. We have been in sight of the platform on several occasions when we have had to wait for ten to 15 minutes. We need to hear from the Minister for Transport on the proposed programme for rolling stock because the travelling public in the south west region and Kerry in particular are treated as second class citizens. I appeal for at least one extra carriage.
Mr. Feighan: I join my colleagues in condemning the assassination Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. State sponsored terrorism is not welcome. As somebody who has spent many years in Israel and has great regard for the Israeli people, this is the wrong approach.
I also join my colleagues in expressing dismay at the behaviour during the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. I had the honour of marching down Fifth Avenue in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. On my return, I could not believe the reports of public disorder and riots, fuelled by drink throughout the country. It is creating a very bad impression and sending a serious message to visitors. We have to invite the Minister to respond to Members questions on Garda resources and the deployment of the promised additional 2,000 gardaí. If we do not stamp out this behaviour, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations will be banned because the thugs and louts will have taken over. We cannot allow that to happen.
Ms O’Rourke: The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, raised the whole school evaluation process, which is completely different from the league tables. This point was echoed by another speaker. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is taking a broad view, which should be welcomed. Parents will have a greater say in the running and accountability of the school. We will seek a debate on that matter.
The Senator also raised the postal dispute. Yesterday, the Taoiseach stated clearly that the Labour Relations Commission should get involved as the arm of State in the dispute and I hope that will happen. The 1991 code of practice would have been enacted under the legislation, but I am not aware of any semi-State company that uses it to effect.
Senator O’Toole raised the issue of the €12 million due to widows. I have looked into that technical matter and Members may raise it during the debate on the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2004. I speak as a widow who is at work, but I know many others who need this money.
All Members were horrified by the assassination Sheikh Yassin. In his report Mr. Robert Fisk wrote that it sure took some courage to kill a man in a wheelchair. That is exactly what happened. A man who could not walk and defend himself was assassinated. It was an atrocious act to gun down a man who could not take cover or hide. However, when we come to the issue raised by Senator Tuffy, we will consider the other side.
Ms O’Rourke: We will have to invent a moveable platform. Senator Ryan spoke about the unthinkable act of taking money from widows. We will hear what the Minister has to say today, which will be very useful. The issue of terrorism in Palestine was also raised. There was a debate on the matter on the radio as I travelled to Dublin early this morning. It was mind boggling. It is as if the Israelis are programmed to say the same thing all the time. Senator Dardis referred to the terrible event of the assassination of Sheikh Yassin as well as to Second Stage of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Senator Finucane requested that the Israeli ambassador be invited to the House to account for his country’s activities, particularly the latest atrocity. That request will be passed on to the office of the Taoiseach.
Senator Mooney raised the Middle East question and referred to Mr. Sharon who congratulated himself and his cabinet on what had happened. It is mind numbing. Senator Mooney also spoke about the anti-social behaviour of people on St. Patrick’s Day. No. 12 on the Order Paper deals with over-indulgence in alcohol. While we all express our abhorrence of this behaviour, we must look at ourselves too. I do not refer to Members in particular, but to older, middle-aged people. We are part of society and we cannot simply stand back and condemn a group. We have all contributed to the conditions which have led to circumstances in which it is unsafe to leave one’s house at night in certain areas. There is a limit to what a Minister or gardaí can do, no matter how many of the latter are on the street.
Senator Norris expressed worry about the resurgence of tuberculosis. I understand a consultant has taken a matter to court in this regard. The Senator then referred to President Bush. I saw and heard Commissioner Conroy who said quite clearly yesterday that it would be a matter for the Garda to enforce the law if there was any breach thereof. I am satisfied by that.
Senator Ó Murchú’s comment was highly significant. Like the Senator, I have never diverged from the facts on the Iraq war which some of us here expressed clearly. I am glad that on at least one issue I made up my mind correctly very early on. There is a need for a debate on the manner in which international figures and events are shaped by the people. When there is hypocrisy, why does everybody seem to forget it straight after it has happened? They pass on to other matters as if the hypocrisy did not matter. Daily, we hear that the link it was attempted to forge in the public mind between al-Qaeda and Iraq never existed. That was done to make people feel better about an invasion which was utterly wrong. I will seek to provide for a debate along those lines.
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Fitzgerald welcomed the evaluation of schools and he is right. I am very pleased to be participating in a rethink on this important topic. Senator Tuffy said it was important to consider suicide bombings and the ten Israelis who were killed last week also. That is true but the horrendous nature of yesterday’s killing has felled us all.
Senator Dooley said it is important that the Garda would monitor the entourage of President Bush and said he would welcome a debate on whether the President should come here. Senator Terry spoke about anti-social behaviour and pointed out that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform had not come to the House. I checked and found that the Minister had attended the House on more occasions than any of his Cabinet colleagues. While I understand that he has been here to discuss legislation, he is very assiduous about attending both Houses.
Ms O’Rourke: In terms of events and hours, he has come here more often than any other Minister and this should be recognised. There is a strong legislative programme before the House this week and next week and it will be difficult to find free time for debates. I have constantly asked the Minister about this matter. However, how many gardaí or Ministers for Justice, Equality and Law Reform could control or assuage what is clearly a societal issue?
Ms O’Rourke: Senator Henry raised the issue of the readiness of accident and emergency departments to respond to a major emergency. She asked that the Minister for Health and Children come to the House to discuss the matter. She also raised the issue of American companies.
Senator Cummins referred to social welfare. He also spoke about delays of up to 60 weeks experienced by people awaiting driving tests. This is of great disadvantage to people who want to comply with the law.
Senator Quinn referred to a British report on the absence of sprinkler systems in prisons. I understand the Government there has now taken action on foot of this report — I knew of one of the people who died in the fire — and has said that every hostel or nursing home should also have sprinklers. I will ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to outline the position here.
Ms O’Rourke: It would be difficult to embarrass him. Senator Feighan also spoke of what he observed in New York. We will endeavour to meet with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to debate the issue.
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