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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 9 Jul 1996

Vol. 148 No. 11

Order of Business.

Today's business is items 1, 2, 3 and 4. Item 1 is without debate. It provides for the implementation of a decision arrived at by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges at the instigation of the Leader of the Opposition which will enable Opposition groups to have more than one Private Members' Bill on the Order Paper at any given time. I am sure there will be full agreement on that. Item 2 should be fairly brief. Committee and Remaining Stages of item 3 and Second Stage of item 4 will be taken. I ask that there be some flexibility in the ordering of business today because items may run longer or shorter than anticipated. Perhaps the Whips could meet later, if necessary, to postpone business until tomorrow.

Tomorrow's business, the Court and Court Officers Bill (No. 3), 1996, was ordered for Thursday, but it has not been published yet. It is a simple Bill containing one section which provides for increasing by three the number of Circuit Court Judges and I wish to give Members notice of its content for the debate tomorrow.

I note item No. 1 is without debate. On behalf of my party I wish to thank the Leader of the House in that regard. It would be remiss of me not to comment on it. It reflects the view of the Leader of the House that where change is in keeping with the running of the House, he is most amenable. I also thank the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. This is a progressive step.

As the Leader said, the Whips will meet later in the afternoon to decide on any changes that may be necessary in taking the Bills depending on the time frame involved.

I wish to refer to two major successes by the Garda in the past week. As the Leader will be aware, we have debated the crime problem here on a regular basis. On behalf of my party I wish to record the success of the Garda in seizing £800,000 worth of illegal cigarettes last week and in seizing £1 million worth of heroin in Dún Laoghaire last night. It is pleasing that the day to day work of the gardaí is paying off.

Bearing in mind that the House will be recalled later this month to deal with a particular matter, it might be practical to also consider debating Northern Ireland at that stage. I am not saying we should debate that issue at this time, but it might be worthwhile giving some consideration to developments there towards the end of this month when the heat has gone out of the situation, I am sure we all have something to say on it.

Last week I raised with the Leader of the House — and he undertook to raise it with the appropriate Department — the tendency to clog up traffic on the north side of Dublin every time a clerk from Brussels comes to talk to a senior civil servant on this side of the Irish Sea. We should know the criteria under which gardaí are taken from the valuable work of detecting crime and following criminals to stand at cross-roads holding up traffic for people who are deemed to be important by persons whom we do not know. I am not suggesting that Heads of State and important people should not get due deference and tolerance, but holding up traffic at a whim is a matter about which the public ask questions. There may be security implications when Heads of State are involved but who makes the decision and who takes gardaí from other work to stop traffic on those occasions?

On item 1 dealing with the amendment to Standing Order 82, I agree with Senator Wright. It is a positive development and I thank the Leader for including it on the Order Paper.

Arising from Senator O'Toole's comments, it would not be helpful at present to debate the position in Northern Ireland because matters are at such a sensitive stage. I hope he is right that things will settle, and when they have, that we might return to it when we come back to consider the crime problem. We must also use that opportunity to appeal to Unionists to show restraint and leadership. There is a solemn obligation on constitutional politicians to ensure that only peaceful means are used to gain their objectives. It is important that we say that and they must show that they have a commitment to the peace process. That is something we can go into in greater detail if we debate the matter at that stage.

The other issue I want to raise is the continuing farce in Bord na Móna. I appeal to the Leader of the House to draw the attention of the Government to our concerns, stressing that this controversy, which is doing tremendous damage to the company and the morale of its workforce, must end. Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the position of its chief executive and board, the matter must be resolved. The Government must tackle and resolve this problem urgently.

I am sure all Members will join me in condemning the wanton destruction and desecration at St. Michan's Church on Sunday night last. We must all be seen to condemn out of hand any desecretion of areas where the dead are interred. Perhaps the Leader would also inquire from the relevant Department whether some funds could be made available for the reparation of these valuable artefacts which have been part of Dublin for many hundreds of years.

Within a couple of hundred yards of this House, a young chap lost his life on Friday evening last, apparently, simply because he pushed someone when he was in a hurry — under similar pressure, some of us might well do likewise. This killing did not get the same publicity as recent killings. I ask the Leader to bring this to the attention of the appropriate authority. If society is reaching the stage another 18 year old life is lost, appropriate action must be taken.

All of us endorse Senator Cosgrave's sentiments, especially in relation to St. Michan's Church and the desecration wrought there on Sunday evening last. As somebody coming from the country it may seem unusual that I should have a particular interest in that church but my earliest recollection of visiting this city was when I was taken to the crypt. In that crypt are the remains of the Clements family, otherwise known as Lord Leitrim, not remembered with much affection, but the history surrounding whom was influential. I hope the perpetrators of this atrocious act will be brought to justice expeditiously.

I am sure the House would like to join me in conveying our sincere thanks to President Robinson, on behalf of the Irish community in Britain but more particularly those in Manchester, following her recent State visit there. This was by way of reassurance to a city which is to all intents and purposes Irish and which, with the exception of Liverpool, probably has one of the highest concentrations of Irish people. Indeed, it was ironic that some of the businesses bombed out of existence in that recent callous IRA attack were Irish owned, and some of these owners now face destitution. The IRA might well reflect on the damage they have wrought yet again on the Irish community in Britain.

The President's visit was reassuring both for the Irish community and their English neighbours. The manner in which she carried out her duties was exemplary as were her statements about the real sense of Irishness we all feel having been warmly welcomed by civic leaders and the Irish people there with whom we deal regularly.

May I offer my condolences to the family of Michael McGoldrick, a very recent graduate, a tragic victim of the present unrest in Northern Ireland? I attended an honorary degree conferring ceremony at Queen's University on Friday last for a good friend of mine, Mr. Paddy Devlin. When I heard this dreadful news, it occurred to me that that young man may well have been in that hall since he was driving a taxi to maintain himself before continuing with his further studies.

Would the Leader inquire of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Government to what extent some fair brokerage can take place in the Drumcree and Garvaghy Road area between the two parties to the dispute?

I should also like a debate on Northern Ireland sooner than other Members appear to recommend, but that is beyond my remit. In the case of those Senators who are interested in the present position, that prevailing in north Down where I live is serious but not nearly as bad as on the occasion of the Ulster Workers' Council strike. Nonetheless, the burning of cars and damaging property is going on apace, with barricades being erected——

I must draw the Senator's attention to the fact that we are not now discussing this matter apart from questions being put to the Leader of the House.

Perhaps the Leader of the House would assure me that some sort of brokerage will take place, the position in that area having gone beyond the point of any agency being able to intervene.

I, too, should like to be associated with the condemnation of the vandals who destroyed human remains in St. Michan's Church. There is no doubt but that society has reached an all time low when sacred places where bodies have been interred for many years are destroyed. There is too much of this type of vandalism generally and appropriate authority for its control will have to be reinstated and/or augmented.

Since RTÉ appears to be handing of money like old hay——

I am not getting any of it.

——some with undue haste, to settle libel cases, could the Leader of the House ascertain how much RTÉ spends on such settlements annually? In addition, would he request the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht to refuse to approve increased TV licence fees while taxpayers' money is spent as if it were going out of fashion? It is scandalous for RTÉ to waste public money. That body, while criticising us and others, is unable to run its own show, yet it seeks more taxpayers' money. I hope the Minister will refuse to approve any increase in television licence fees until RTÉ is held properly accountable for the salaries of its staff — which information has already been refused — in addition to its precise expenditure on legal fees.

I support what I take were calls made rather discreetly for a debate on Northern Ireland. This is a good time to have such a debate because we should speak out while such occurrences take place. Would the Leader of the House make provision for statements to be made during the present intolerable occurrences in Drumcree? As a member of the Church of Ireland, I find it completely and utterly inappropriate and deplorable that a Church of Ireland should be used as a launching pad for this type of demonstration. I very much hope the Archbishop of Armagh, Dr. Robin Eames, made that point clear to the rector of Drumcree, although when I wrote to the bishops of the Church of Ireland on this issue some ten years ago I did not receive a single response.

I should like to inquire of the Leader of the House whether the provision for making statements on foreign affairs has now ended because I understood it was continuing. Unfortunately, I was abroad on a business trip with other members of a Foreign Affairs committee——

I avoided using the word "junket" specifically because I thought it would be indelicate of me to describe our very hard working trip as a junket. Would the Leader say whether provision could be made for a continuation of this debate?

I wish to raise another matter of considerable concern, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs which relates directly to Government and its responsibilities. I had occasion to look for the published reports of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs some time ago having discovered I did not have them. I raised the matter at that committee when I was told that, because of difficulties with inadequate resources, they were no longer being published; this was raised subsequently by my colleague on that committee, Senator Lanigan. I should like the Leader to inquire whether that remains the case and to ascertain if something cannot be done about it. It is extremely insulting to significant committees of this House that the reports have not been published for the past year or so. That makes our work extremely difficult.

We may not discuss this issue now.

I was raising a question about it, a Chathaoirligh. Will time be made available to continue the statements on Foreign Affairs. Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs had a meeting with the head of the International Red Cross who pointed out that Ireland was among a small number of countries that have not yet ratified Protocols 1 and 2 of the 1970s Revisions of the Geneva Convention. There is no principled or political reason for not having done it; it is simple bureaucratic inertia and, as we hold the Presidency of the European Union, it seems inappropriate that we should not have ratified these instruments.

I am most grateful to that literate and cultivated Member of the House, Senator Willie Farrell, for pronouncing St. Michan's correctly; I wish RTÉ would do the same. I regret that there was a disturbance in the vaults of St. Michan's. These vaults are referred to by Joyce in the Cyclops episode of Ulysses. They are part of the history and tradition of Dublin. The Crusader is over 800 years old; I understand the Crusader survived.

We may not discuss this matter now.

Once again I compliment Senator Farrell. I hope, in his other communications with RTÉ, he will correct its mispronunciation of St. Michan's.

I would like to refer to the matter raised by the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Wright, when he congratulated the Garda Síochána on the seizure of drugs and cigarettes. Thousands of people have signed books of condolence for Veronica Guerin and for the Garda sergeant killed in Adare. However, every day thousands of people buy cigarettes on the streets of Dublin, and that is the fuel, the daily cash flow, that drives the drug barons. It is ordinary law abiding citizens who buy those cigarettes and I understand why, but if they want to make a real statement about the drug barons, they must stop buying the drug barons' cigarettes. Every time they pay over £2 for their packet of Rothmans it goes straight to people who are intent on destroying the youth of this country with heroin and cannabis.

I congratulate the Minister for Justice who presided over these seizures during the past few days. She is blamed when things go wrong and when things go right she is entitled to praise. It is important to tackle the sale of cigarettes on the streets. I do not mean the people who sell them; they are not the problem. The crime barons will just have to find something else to sell. We have to cut out that cash rich route which is used to buy heroin.

I am sure the Leader of the House is aware of the long drawn out dispute between the Department of the Health and the environmental health officers which is holding up the registration and certification of a huge number of important tourism related projects — hotels, guesthouses and other premises that wish to be registered now that the tourist season is upon us. I understand there was some discussion last Friday but no resolution. Perhaps the Leader of the House could ask the Minister for Health to give some indication of what steps have been taken to get back to the negotiating table so that we can arrive at a resolution of this dispute and open up the possibility of registration for many of the projects that have been held up.

Would the Leader of the House ask the Government to make a decision on the Bord na Móna dispute? This issue has been raised here five times in all and, irrespective of how the contents of a document were leaked, the Government should make the decision which the board of Bord na Móna flunked and publish the salary, expenses and perks paid to the chairman. In the paper today a freelance journalist said that this controversy could be the "industrial shroud" of the chairman of the board, an appalling thing to say.

I thank the Leader of the House in respect of item No. 1. It is a progressive move and will be facilitated on this side of the House. When can we expect the Freedom of Information Bill to be referred to a committee.

I join with others who congratulated the Garda Síochána and the Customs and Excise on the seizures of heroin and cigarettes. I agree with Senator Magner that it is timely to point out, particularly to the citizens of this city, that, having wrung their hands last week over a foul murder, they might look to their consciences because each time they buy a packet of 20 cigarettes from those people who illegally sell them, they are contributing to the well being of the drug barons we all decry. It is time Irish hypocrisy was put aside and common sense shown. If people support the forces of law and order in this small matter, hopefully they will go on to do so in larger matters.

I join with those who criticised the extraordinary vandalism at St. Michan's Church over the weekend. It is appalling to think that the body of somebody who went through the Crusade should be endangered. It would be appropriate to send the good wishes of this House to those who have cared so long for that piece of Ireland's heritage. I hope the people who perpetrated that absolutely outrageous vandalism will be brought to court soon.

I join with my own party leader in thanking the Leader of the House for introducing the amendment in respect of item No. 1. Would the Leader of the House and the members of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges between now and next session, examine the possibility of amending the procedure in the Seanad to allow for a question time rather than continuing with the procedure where every Senator is entitled to raise as many issues as he or she can think of on the Order of Business. This would constitute a more orderly approach than the hit and miss procedure of raising matters on the Order of Business.

I understand some of my colleagues called today for a debate on Northern Ireland. This would be an appropriate time for such a debate. I would also call for the party leaders in the South to come together to discuss the very dangerous situation which is developing in Northern Ireland. I was at Garvaghy Road and Drumcree on Sunday and the hatred and abuse the RUC had to face would have to be seen to be believed. I compliment the RUC on the job they have done up to now. The stories about the residents there are not true. There is a very strong residents coalition taking in all groups, but there is much tension and there may well be major disruption which could have effects on the economy here and on the way of life of many of our people. The five leaders should come together and do something about this quickly.

I endorse Senator Dardis' comments on Bord na Móna and wish to convey to the Leader of the House the difficult circumstances under which boards of semi-State companies must operate. The semi-State sector is competing with private industry. The salary of a chief executive of a semi-State body is very low in comparison with that of a chief executive officer in the private sector. There should be guidelines but they should be fair and allow the semi-State companies to compete with the private sector because they are expected to perform to the same standard. Some chief executives of semi-State bodies do a magnificent job and are very poorly paid.

Senator Daly raised the issue of environmental health officers. The workload of environmental health officers has increased enormously as a result of EU legislation. The salary levels of environmental health officers were in line with those of community welfare officers approximately eight years ago. They have similar levels of qualifications and now environmental health officers are seeking pay parity with community welfare officers. They can stand over the case. I would like to see a speedy resolution of the dispute. Will the Leader do everything in this power to bring that about?

I join in congratulating the authorities on the recent seizure of heroin in Dún Laoghaire and the confiscation of illegally imported cigarettes.

Will the Minister for Justice or her spokesperson make a statement on the criteria for the transfer of prisoners from regimental to open prisons, such as Shelton Abbey? We have been discussing drug trafficking legislation and I read with horror about the transfer of a prisoner to Shelton Abbey, having served 70 days of his eight year prison sentence for the importation of £7 million worth of drugs. Somebody will have to take responsibility for this because it sends out the wrong message to the Garda Síochána who worked hard to get convictions and then found that a prisoner, Christopher O'Connell, was transferred to an open prison 70 days into his sentence. While we are shedding crocodile tears, the general public is rapidly losing faith in the system.

I would like to be associated with the expressions of congratulations to the Garda Síochána and Customs and Excise officers. I concur with Senator Magner's point and join with him in asking the citizens of Dublin to refrain from buying from drug barons. I compliment the people who refused to enter a gangster's pad on the borders of my county in the past two weeks. That is only right and proper.

As regards Senator Kelleher's point, I always thought it was the governor who made decisions on the transfer of prisoners. I wonder how the decision on the individual concerned was reached because it leaves a lot to be desired and something should be done about it.

I thank the Leader of the Opposition and others for their welcome of item 1. It is a small improvement but it will help the work of the House. Senator Wright very correctly drew attention to the two major successes of the Garda Síochána in recent days. Obviously everybody will be very pleased with that and I think it should help the process of restoring confidence in the efficacy and authority of the Garda Síochána. As we approach the appointment of a new Garda Commissioner, it is time that whatever divisions there were within the force was ended and whatever friction there has been between the Garda Síochána and the Government should be put behind them so that all sectors of the State present a united front in opposing crime.

Senator O'Toole, among others, raised the question of Northern Ireland. I do not think a debate in this House today or tomorrow would assist the situation in Northern Ireland. I hope Senator O'Toole is right that things may be restored to calm when the House meets again at the end of this month. Senator McAughtry drew attention to the murder of Michael McGoldrick and pointed out that it is a long time since we had to stand up and condemn a murder, almost certainly sectarian murder or assassination by people whose only intention is to foment greater disorder in Northern Ireland. This brutal murder deprived a family of their father, and a young man of a career. We must note the words of his distraught parents who placed some of the blame on the wild talk of some politicians. I do not think we have to go too far to point the finger at those indulging in wild talk. There never has been wild talk in this House. Our debates have always been restrained and responsible. In my judgment a debate in this House might not be a great help at this time but I will keep the matter under review.

Senator O'Toole also raised the traffic disruption to accommodate the civil servants who have come here for the European Presidency. I agree with him that there is a sense of disproportion about the disruption which is frequently caused simply to save some people five, ten or 15 minutes getting from the airport. Nothing could be more calculated to annoy people than unnecessary disruptions of this sort. I imagine the criteria are operational ones controlled by the Garda Síochána but it will do no harm to have the Senator's views conveyed to the relevant authorities.

Senator Dardis raised the question of Northern Ireland and I endorse his call to the Unionist leadership to show greater restraint and responsibility than has been shown in recent times.

Senator Haughey and others raised in a helpful way the question of Bord na Móna. Everybody would like to see this matter resolved and we hope it will be resolved one way or the other today. This unseemly matter has dragged on too long and we would like to see it resolved.

Senator Cosgrave raised the question of St. Michan's Church — and I thank Senator Farrell, helped by Senator Norris, for the correct pronunciation. What happened last night was appalling and dastardly. The last taboo has been broken — an attack on the dead. It is also an attack on our heritage. I hope Senator Cosgrave's proposals that some financial aid can be given to help the authorities to do what they can to make good the damage will be forthcoming. There is a general sense of outrage at this vandalism.

Senator Mooney raised an important point. We should be grateful to President Robinson for going to Manchester. Her tangible bridge building at a difficult time, holding out the hand of friendship and making sure that the people of Manchester know that what has happened to them is repugnant to the overwhelming majority of the Irish people, is building in a very personal way a friendship that could have been damaged. Senator McAughtry raised the question of Northern Ireland. I think I answered this point. We are all conscious of the sensitivity of the situation and that Senator McAughtery is one of the few Members who sees what is happening there daily.

Senator Farrell raised the question of libel cases against RTÉ. The public affairs department in RTÉ will give him details of the amount they have paid out, I presume they should, and perhaps then we could use the information.

Senator Norris made a multiple intervention. Some of the points he raised have been answered. The debate on foreign affairs will take place in the next session and the reporting of the foreign affairs meeting is a matter for the Joint Committee for Foreign Affairs. I have no plans for a debate on foreign affairs this session. Senator Magner made the point which was supported by others on the public responsibility not to buy cigarettes which they know have been stolen or imported illegally. That could be as much their way of making a gesture as the signing of condolences or giving flowers. This is a practical way of striking out against those people.

Senator Daly and Senator Townsend raised the question of the environmental health officers. I do not have the up to date position but I will try to find out about it. Senator Roche asked about the Freedom of Information Bill. It will not be taken in this session but I will look sympathetically at making time available next session.

Senator McGowan raised the question of Question Time in this House. Curiously that was one of the points looked at by the Committee on the Constitution. It came down strongly against Question Time in this House arguing that the Government was primarily responsible to the other House. We should look at whether there is some way Members can have easier and quicker access to information. Perhaps we can do that over the summer in the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Senator Maloney gave us the benefit of his experiences over the last few days. Senator Kelleher raised the question of prison sentencing. It is my understanding that this is exclusively the responsibility of the governor; it is an operational matter.

Order of Business agreed to.