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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 1 May 1997

Vol. 151 No. 7

Order of Business.

This morning I got a copy of the statement made by Senator McGowan last night and I have arranged for it to be sent immediately to the chairman and chief executive of An Post. I will convey their reply to the House as soon as I receive it.

Today's business is Items 1, 2 and 3. All Stages of Item 1 will be taken as there is only one section in this Bill. It is to conclude not later than 12 noon, but if more time is needed, it will be provided. Item 2 will start at 12 noon and there will be a sos from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Item 3 will be taken at 2 p.m. and Second Stage will be completed. This Bill is in the name of Senators O'Kennedy and Daly. After Second Stage of that Bill, we will resume the debate on Item 2. As happened yesterday, there will be a certain flexibility and discussion between the Whips to see if further business can be taken.

It is good that there is flexibility and that small changes can be made during the day. I subscribe to this because sometimes there is timewasting because of a lack of flexibility.

Will the Leader tell us what legislation, statements and other business the House will be dealing with from now until the summer recess or end of term? I will not ask about fisheries statements, but I want to know everything that will happen in the House over the next few weeks.

The Order of Business is agreed, but like Senator Fitzgerald, I would like some answers from the Leader. Is there any possibility of debating the Geneva Convention Bill, which has been published? I asked the Leader yesterday and he said some of my concerns could be raised in a debate on the Chemical Weapons Bill. That Bill applies far less to us than the ratification of the Geneva Convention Bill. I would like that to be included in the list of legislation to come before the House before it adjourns.

I have called for a debate on safety in the fishing fleet on a number of occasions. Yesterday I welcomed the response from the Minister for the Marine, Deputy Barrett, to the recent policy blueprint. If it is possible, we should have a debate or series of statements on that report before the election or summer recess. Some of the figures it contains are harrowing. For example, 64 per cent of fishing vessels are deficient and 70 per cent of fishermen have no formal training. This should be addressed as soon as possible.

I welcome the announcement that Castletownbere is to have a training centre for fishermen but I hope that will not be at the expense of the Greencastle fishing school, which is planning to extend and improve its facilities. I come from a strong fishing constituency.

The Senator is trawling for votes.

I welcome the Minister's statement but I call on the Leader for a debate or series of statements on this matter in the House.

I refer to the Leader's helpful approach to the statements on An Post last night. It was a pity that Senator Neville was not allowed to contribute, because this was an all-party concern. We should have sufficient flexibility and discretion from the Chair. I have been in this House a long time and no Opposition has ever behaved as responsibly as this one. We have not called divisions on the Order of Business and the record will show that no party has behaved better in Opposition and shown such maturity. A little flexibility should have been shown last night.

I support Senator Maloney's call for a debate on fisheries which should include a report on the Foyle Fisheries Commission. It has been fined £40,000 in the courts for discriminating on religious grounds. We cannot ignore the fact that this Government is participating in the management of the Foyle Fisheries Commission, a cross-Border organisation which has been found guilty of discrimination. We should have an open and fair debate covering all aspects of fishery policy.

I repeat my request for a debate on the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. It is time we responded to this report rather than allow it gather dust. The report is important and detailed.

I ask the Leader to bring to the attention of the Minister for Health the urgency of the Food Safety Bill, which is due to be introduced. In the next few days we will rush through a number of Bills because of a possible general election. The value of the Irish pound will give exporters a considerable opportunity, particularly in relation to food. The Government's decision to set up a Food Safety Council and to introduce a Bill has become more urgent.

I was delighted to read that the European Commission has given Mrs. Bonino the authority to set up a food and veterinary office and that she has recommended that it be located in Ireland. The link between veterinary medicine and food is a recognition of the importance of what she calls a "plough to plate" control on food. We have the opportunity to establish a reputation for the quality of our food and it would be a pity if we delayed the introduction of this legislation. The Food Safety Council was set up on a preliminary basis last October but it is now May and the legislation has not come before the House.

I was interested to note there was not an immediate call for a discussion on the Constitutional Review Body's report on the Seanad published yesterday. Like Senator Dardis, one or two Members will suggest that there will be a demand for sex changes if Members are to be reelected. We should ensure the report receives the discussion it deserves. We have had interesting discussions on the work of the Seanad but this report has come from outside the House. While it may not be urgent, we should have a debate on it shortly.

I endorse Senator Quinn's call for a debate on the role of the Seanad. In most countries public buildings, particularly Government buildings, are marked by the national flag but that is not the case here. As we approach the tourism season, this would be an opportune time to mark our public buildings by flying the national flag. Polling stations should also be similarly marked at election time. Often our flag is debased because it is flown only in public houses and other dubious institutions. It is something of which we should be proud.

Without pre-empting any debate the House may have on the all party committee report on the Seanad, I refer to a misinterpretation in some of this morning's newspapers on one of the proposals. We do not suggest that half the Members of Seanad Éireann should be women. We suggest that half of those nominated by the nominating subpanels should be women. We cannot tell people involved in direct elections that they must exercise a franchise which will limit their right to freedom of choice.

Today elections to Westminster will take place elsewhere in this country. As party spokesman on Northern Ireland, I wish our colleagues in the SDLP every success in their continuing commitment to peace. I wish all the political representatives in Northern Ireland the same success. It is important that whatever Government emerges from the general election in Britain will have a sense of urgency to put in place a permanent peace in the event of another ceasefire and be committed to involving all the elements in Ireland, North and South, in discussions. In my experience, no party is better qualified to make that contribution than the SDLP which, during 30 years of tension and violence, has steered a consistent and non-sectarian course and deserves our congratulations and best wishes.

Following on from what Senator Sherlock said, yesterday the Disability Federation of Ireland, representing the Irish Wheelchair Association, Cerebral Palsy Ireland, the Centre for Independent Living, the National Association for the Deaf and the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, had to take the unprecedented step of arriving outside the Houses of the Oireachtas to protest about their scandalous treatment by an uncaring Government. I agree with Senator Sherlock that it is time we had a discussion on the commitments given by the Department of Health in 1996.

We are not debating that matter.

They received a commitment last year for annual funding of £12 million towards the programme for an independent future. In the first year, the Government reduced that commitment to £3.6 million. How can any Government justify treating people with such disdain and contempt? I agree with Senator Sherlock that we should have a full debate soon.

When Irish Life was privatised some years ago its management stated that it wanted to be free of the shackles of Government so it could expand. Since then up to 500 jobs have been lost and we have witnessed several debacles, including the sale of the Mespil flats. We have also seen the longest lock out of workers since 1913. However, there appears to be plenty of money for the top cats given the severance payments paid to managers in recent years while at the same time, the workers seek their just demands. The Minister responsible should contact the management of Irish Life and tell them their treatment of the workers is unacceptable in 1997 as the company made £96 million last year.

Senator Fitzgerald asked what legislation is expected to be dealt with between now and the end of session. Apart from the legislation on today's Order Paper, the International Development Association (Amendment) Bill, 1997, the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1996, and the Shannon River Council Bill, 1997, a Private Members' Bill, we will also deal with the Finance Bill, 1997, which we will debate next week, the Chemical Weapons Bill, 1997, the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, which is just a report from the Dáil, the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Bill, 1997, the Merchant Shipping (Commissioners of Irish Lights) Bill, 1997, the Youth Work Bill, 1997, the Prompt Payments Bill——

I can call off the troops and go on my holidays.

——the Electoral Bill, 1994, the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Bill, 1997, and the Licensing (Combating Drug Abuse) Bill, 1997. That is the legislation it is intended to introduce before the House rises.

It will be a long hot summer.

I assure colleagues we will sit next week and a full week the week after. As Senator O'Kennedy, our resident expert on the Seanad, knows, the Upper House is ever vigilant, will not be adjourned and will remain in session, even when Deputies in the other House are engaged elsewhere.

There is the rub.

I am serious. That is the legislation it is proposed to introduce in the House in the coming weeks. We will sit a full week next week, although we will sit late on Wednesday to allow people to attend the Arbour Hill ceremonies. We will also sit a full week the week after. After that, I am open to consultation. Senator Fitzgerald also asked about statements on a number of issues. I will attempt to facilitate him if time can be found. I have made a number of commitments in that regard which I will try to honour.

Senator Henry asked about the Geneva Conventions (Amendment) Bill, 1997. I do not think it is proposed to deal with it in this session.

Senator Maloney raised the issue of safety in the fishing fleet. There will be a number of debates dealing with the fishing industry and he has an opportunity then to pursue the matter further.

Senator McGowan is correct that the procedure agreed for statements on matters of importance could be made more flexible to allow other Members to take part and I will raise the matter at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The Senator has possibly raised the issue of the Foyle Fisheries before on the Adjournment. It is an important issue but also a very specific one which might be amenable to being raised on the Adjournment.

Senator Sherlock raised the issue of people with disabilities. The record of this Government is one which can be defended, but on the other hand no Government can probably ever do enough for people with disabilities and I would welcome a short debate on the matter, if possible.

Senator Quinn asked an important question. The Food Safety Bill is not at a stage where it can be debated but the point he made is extremely serious and I will convey the text of it to the relevant Minister. As of now, it is not proposed to publish the Bill within the next two weeks.

The Senator also asked about the report of the all-party review group on the Seanad — I will not call it the O'Kennedy report. It is important and I have read it. It takes into account many points made in this House during our lengthy debate on the subject. It offers a map or charter of what a second House should be doing in the next century. There are details in it I think are slightly daft, but it also has a number of good ideas. It is worthy of the fullest debate by this House, but I suspect it is not an issue exercising the minds of the electorate at present and will probably have to await the autumn.

Senator Mary Kelly raised an interesting point about the flying of flags on public buildings. Perhaps we do not fly the flag on a sufficient number of them. There is something very fine about the national flag flying on a good public building but something awful about a dirty, soiled and grubby national flag flying outside a hotel or private building. People frequently fly the flag in a way which brings it into disrepute.

All parties join in Senator O'Kennedy's tribute to the SDLP. Over the years it has fought the hard fight, sustained the heat of battle and has some of the finest people we have ever met. Our good wishes go to them, as they do to all parties which stand for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Senator Townsend asked about the Irish Life dispute. All parties would like to see a prompt resolution as it has gone on for too long.

Order of Business agreed to.