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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 21 Apr 1999

Vol. 159 No. 1

Order of Business.

The Order of Business is Nos. 1 and 23, motion 31. No. 1 is Committee Stage. No. 23, motion 31, will be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Business will resume thereafter, if not previously concluded.

I wish to ask the Leader about a number of matters we should discuss in the near future. Clearly, the fall out from the Sheedy case and its ramifications need careful consideration. I ask the Leader to provide time for a debate on that matter in the fairly near future. I do not necessarily want such a debate today or tomorrow because it is better to let the dust settle on this issue before we examine it in some depth. I would appreciate if time could be made available next week and if the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform could come to the House.

Everybody is following with a certain dismay the failure of events to unfold in Northern Ireland. There should be a debate on this issue, although I am not asking for it today or this week. I would like such a debate in the near future.

Senators have raised the question of East Timor on many occasions. Would it be possible to have a debate this week on the events there? I also ask for a debate on Kosovo, but not this week.

The House should give some consideration to aspects of the Sheedy case, apart from its impact on the Judiciary. I agree with Senator Manning that the matter needs to be discussed at some length. People need to take careful note of the situation in which the State and the Judiciary found themselves, in that there was no system for dealing with grievances or complaints. In the event of people feeling that some error of judgment had taken place, they had only one choice or another. I will not go into the matter any deeper than that because I see that the Chair is becoming uneasy.

There is a parallel with elected representatives. There should not be a system for any group of workers, whether elected representatives or members of the Judiciary, where the only choice is between ignoring something or sacking them. In every other job there is a series of ways of dealing with such matters, including fining, reprimanding, demoting or dismissing.

I would strongly make the point that Members of this House are in the same position. That is not to make any comment on what happened to members of the Judiciary, but I am simply using it as an example. It is my personal view that dismissal was not the appropriate action. As the general secretary of a trade union I would think there were intermediate steps that should have been taken.

To continue the connection, which is important for Members of this House, I have heard comments about pensions arrangements being made for the people who resigned. In terms of their entitlements, were they in any other group of workers, teachers for example, their trade union would make the appropriate arrangements to ensure they were looked after.

The Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Ethics is examining aspects of this matter. When it comes up for discussion it is hugely important that Members look at this with a broad and open mind. We must have ways of protecting ourselves that will include ways of punishing us. There must be a balance so that there is a system of dealing with problems for whoever has a complaint. I stress the need for people to take to heart the issue of conditions of service for people in public life, including the Judiciary and public representatives.

I strongly support the call for a debate on the Sheedy affair. It is a matter we have a duty to debate because we have a constitutional responsibility in relation to it. We were very close to having to exercise that responsibility.

Since we last met, we have had the resignations of a Supreme Court judge, a High Court judge and the Dublin County Registrar. We must have a debate on the report that has been prepared by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

That is essential and must be done sooner rather than later, as there are very serious questions to be considered. We know what happened but we do not know why or whether it will happen again. We do not know what measures are being proposed to deal with the situation. We have responsibilities in relation to impeachment but those are quite extreme. How can we exercise them in the context of the separation of powers if we are already compromised by the appointments procedure? All judicial appointments are made by the Executive. There should be an early debate on this matter so that it can be carefully examined and so we can see where we are going. Constitutional provisions are involved.

I agree with Senator Manning that we should have a debate on Northern Ireland. Much has happened since Easter. Before Easter we were very optimistic that there would be a resolution of the Good Friday Agreement impasse, but that has not happened and the situation seems to be deteriorating rapidly on all sides. There is talk of parking the Agreement for some indefinite period and that would necessitate legislative provisions being introduced in the Oireachtas.

There are full page advertisements in today's newspapers calling for an independent international judicial inquiry into the killing of the human rights lawyer, Rosemary Nelson. She was honoured in Downing Street yesterday, which is rather ironic considering that such an inquiry has been refused while the Chief Constable of the RUC seems to be indicating such an inquiry into the assassination of Pat Finucane. I ask the Leader to convey to the Taoiseach the many requests made on both sides of this House for an internationally accepted, independent judicial inquiry into the Rosemary Nelson case.

It would be useful if the House discussed the Sheedy case, though I sense there is a certain relief that we are discussing the case and not motions to impeach judges. I am conscious of the separation of powers between the Oireachtas and the Judiciary but that does not preclude us from passing comment on how we believe arrangements should be made in respect of judicial appointments or the Judiciary itself. Neither does it preclude the Judiciary from commenting on what takes place in the Oireachtas and they have never been reluctant to do so.

We are disappointed that there has not been further progress in Northern Ireland but we have to do whatever we can to encourage the parties to keep talking. Over the Easter recess I read Senator George Mitchell's book and he kept coming back to the same point: what is the alternative? There can be no going back and if the parties to the talks keep that in mind there might be more progress than there appears to have been to date.

Senator Manning raised the issue of East Timor. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is to be commended for visiting that country and seeing at first hand what is taking place.

Hear, hear.

It is apparent to anyone reading the newspapers or listening to reports that there is an attempt by Indonesian-backed paramilitaries to alter radically the outcome of any referendum that might take place on the future of East Timor. For that reason it is important that we hear the Minister's view after his visit and that we express our views on the way forward. The Seanad has a considerable record of interest in this urgent issue. I look forward to hearing the Minister's report on his trip.

The case for a debate on the Sheedy affair has been made very strongly by the leaders of all groups and I am sure the Leader of the House will respond to that request. I ask other Senators to keep their comments on this matter for that debate, whenever it takes place.

The number of planning applications being lodged with local authorities is unprecedented in the history of the State. Will the Leader impress on the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the need to look after our forests – a precious segment of rural Ireland which is in danger of being wiped out? I know of one planning application before Galway County Council which, if granted, will remove a forest in Oranmore. This is sad and wrong. Will the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to recommend that local authorities, when granting planning permissions for developments which might affect forests, insert caveats or clauses requiring that mature forests be preserved as far as possible? It has taken a great deal of time to grow our forests and it would be sad to see them removed. They must be protected and their protection lies in the hands of the Minister.

Will the Leader bring a more mundane matter to the attention of An Post? Letters are now being franked with a reminder that the European Parliament elections take place on June 11. Other elections will take place on that day also and the Leader would be well advised to bring this fact to the attention of An Post.

Will the Leader ascertain from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland if the institute's survey of radon gas has been completed? Radon gas presents a grave danger to health and it is time we had a debate on this matter in the House. I know the Leader is in favour of holding such a debate. If the RPII has completed its national survey we could hold a debate with a view to reinstating grant aid to households at risk of contracting cancer from radon gas.

I am sure the Leader knows that the Minister for Health and Children is concerned at the disquiet which has been expressed regarding the control of laboratory testing of cervical smear samples. Will the Leader ask the Minister to introduce legislation to prohibit testers from examining slides in their homes? A domestic kitchen is not a laboratory environment and it is not acceptable that vital medical tests should take place in a home setting.

With regard to the Sheedy matter, may I ask a question of the Leader?

Senator Mooney appears to be unwell. Perhaps he could have some assistance.

I have just turned purple, or is it pink?

Will the Leader refer a matter of considerable concern to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform? I have heard nothing but a paean of praise for the registrar's office in the newspapers, perhaps because journalists do not enjoy the privilege we have in this House. It is my opinion and experience that the registrar's office is run in an arbitrary, capricious and grossly unfair manner. I have personal and direct experience of this and I am prepared to make papers relating to a particular case available to the Minister. I hope a committee of both Houses will be established to look into this matter. The Minister said it would not be possible to arrive at the facts of the case without a tribunal of inquiry and then, inexplicably, that there would not be one.

I have allowed considerable latitude in ths matter.

I appreciate that, and I am sure the Leader will convey my comments to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

I support what Senator Manning said about East Timor. It would be useful to have a debate on this subject. I also support what Senator Dardis has said. The Minister for Foreign Affairs deserves our strong congratulations. He was there during a massacre while he was at an interview with Bishop Belo in Dili. I understand he spoke very forcefully to the Indonesian president, Mr. Habibie. It is an appalling situation where the military governor is inciting massacres. I will leave it at that because we do need to have a debate.

I strongly support the call for an internationally monitored and manned, or personned, inquiry into the murder of Rosemary Nelson. This must happen as it is not appropriate for the RUC to investigate the murder, nor is it even in its interest. If there is something rotten among some personnel in the RUC, it must be rooted out. If there is not, then it is equally in its interest to have this matter ventilated publicly. I am sure Members will support the call which has already been made in this matter.

Will the Taoiseach agree to allow Ireland's next EU Commissioner appear before an Oireachtas committee? It seems strange that the nominees of the next EU Commission will be subject to the approval of the European Parliament. We have a democratic deficit which needs to be put right. The Taoiseach should allow the nominee to appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs. It is important the public is aware of the nominee's views on Europe and Ireland's role within Europe. In the US, for instance—

We will not enter into a detailed outline of the reasons for this request.

Not on this occasion.

You made the request.

The Senator will be interviewed for the job.

It is important to note that in another great democracy all appointments to the executive must go before Congress. We should examine whether it would be suitable or desirable to put some such system in place.

There is great unease about the Great Southern Hotels.

Jackie took care of that.

I was unaware of that. I am interested to hear what the Leader has to say on the matter. The core business of the group has been mentioned. If core business is the issue, then we have a right to look at the core business of the towns and cities in which the hotels are situated. There can be no doubt about the group's ability to run profitably as it has been doing so since 1984. I would like the Minister to come before the House, if possible, to allow us as public representatives and trustees of the public interest, to have a say as regards the plans of prospective purchasers.

The forestry section of the Department of Agriculture and Food and Coillte are excluding cutaway bog from eligibility for forestry. This is a mistake because no property or ground is as suitable. Will the Leader bring this matter to the attention of the relevant Minister? This is an important issue in the midlands and the west where there are large tracts of bog from which peat has been extracted. The only suitable use for such land is forestry. The Department should encourage rather than disallow it.

I raised the question of bank interest rates in the past and seek a debate on it. The situation is unreal in that Central Bank rates are less than 3 per cent but mortgage rates range from 4 per cent up to perhaps 12 per cent. Overdraft rates range from 10 per cent to 12 per cent, term loans are the same and credit card rates are at 24 per cent. Only commercial banks buy money at a reasonable rate, 3 per cent. Everybody else buys money at interest rates which vary between 5 per cent and 24 per cent. An exorbitant problem is created by financial institutions at that level. While we read lovely headlines about low interest rates, they are not passed on to the ordinary person. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Finance to come into the House for a two hour debate so that we can find out exactly who is profiteering as a result of low interest rates? Banks make exorbitant profits of between £500 million and £600 million per year, yet they are not passed on to customers.

Before Easter I asked for a debate on the report on the future of Aer Rianta, which also includes the Great Southern Hotel group. The report has been published and I ask for it to be put before us for discussion.

On "Morning Ireland" reference was made to increasing violence against women. I hope that we will be able to source the author of the report and have it debated in the House. Senator Keogh referred to the cervical cancer screening debacle and it will be debated during Private Members' Business this evening.

I sought to raise a matter on the Adjournment, a Chathaoirligh, and I understand your reasons for not allowing it. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food whether he is fully aware of the reason behind the non-decision of the racing board on the future of Tipperary racecourse? A huge uncertainty surrounds this great and historic racecourse.

The Senator should not try to subvert my ruling.

The Senator wants an each way bet.

The Leader may be able to obtain information which I require for my constituents.

Will the Leader ask the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Wallace, to come into the House to discuss the Women's Aid report on aspects of domestic violence, particularly the revelation that only 2 per cent of breaches of barring order cases are successful when pursued in the courts? A huge amount of positive work has been done in this area over the years but clearly a problem remains at a particular level in the process. Since, a Chathaoirligh, you asked us not to refer to the Judiciary, I will not.

No. 11 on the Order Paper is statements on FÁS and its contribution to Irish life. Will the Leader schedule that debate at the earliest opportunity because it is important that the changes being implemented in the operation of community employment schemes as a result of the Deloitte & Touche report are examined? Some sections in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment are implementing the report and I specifically refer to the fact that under 25s are excluded from community employment schemes, which, I am sure the Leader will agree, is a serious matter.

Later we will debate the legislation on the national qualifications authority, which will set up new higher education, further education and training councils. FÁS programmes will be coupled with them and access to them must be progressively transferred from FÁS. I have asked on many occasions for a debate on this in tandem with the passage of this legislation because a co-ordinated policy is necessary. I am not asking the Leader for an immediate debate because all of us are under pressure, but we are approaching the end of the academic year and, in some cases, the training year and FÁS should be high on the agenda for the next session. We will be able to discuss the many courses and apprenticeships it supervises and the convoluted approach to them. We need to start again, given that new schemes have been set in train to allow access to such courses. FÁS can play a big role in that.

This is my sixth time to ask this simple question. I do not assume the Leader has left me out but in case he has, because of the plethora of requests for debates, I remind him that, like a faithless lover, he has promised me a debate on censorship on many occasions but has not yet delivered. I ask him again on what date we will debate the Fianna Fáil proposals to debate the censorship laws. He has promised me this debate on five previous occasions and I hope it is on his list.

For 28 days we have seen pictures of the war in Kosovo and Serbia. Should we as a nation do anything about the crisis or take a view on ethnic cleansing, the position of the thousands of refugees and the weeks of bombing? I fear we will drift into membership of Partnership for Peace without a discussion and suggest that this House is the ideal forum for such a debate. If we are to join PfP it should be following a debate, perhaps one without party political considerations. I fear we are taking steps without such a debate but this is the perfect time for it. I urge the Leader to find time for this debate in the immediate future, before decisions are reached.

I also call on the Leader to ask the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to support the call for an international investigation, with an independent chairman, of the murder of Rosemary Nelson. I welcome the report issued during the recess by the UN on the murder of Pat Finucane. It is ironic that Rosemary Nelson was honoured yesterday with a legal award in Downing Street while the Law Society in Northern Ireland refused to support the UN report, despite its being endorsed by many Northern barristers and solicitors.

Could the Leader ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to give the House an update on the case of the Hamill family from Portadown? A man has been acquitted of the murder of Robert Hamill. Rosemary Nelson was the family's solicitor. She was taking a civil case for them and gave them great support. Robert Hamill's brother was arrested a number of months ago in relation to disturbances on Garvaghy Road. The issue needs to be opened up and I ask the Minister to report to the House on it.

I support Senator Keogh's call that no smear tests be carried out in private houses, as happened in the North-Western Health Board area. I will await this evening's debate for the Minister for Health and Children to give us a full report on that affair.

I support Senator Finneran's call for a debate on bank charges and interest rates. I ask the Leader to request the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come to the House to discuss planning. During the last three years there has been an increase of over 100 per cent in planning applications to most local authorities. That is a huge increase by any standard but there has not been a corresponding increase in staff. The Minister should provide extra resources to local authorities to deal adequately with the increased volume of planning applications.

I share the concerns of my colleague, Senator Quinn, about the lack of debate on Ireland's foreign policy, especially in light of what is happening in Kosovo. For the vast majority of Irish people, the extent of their involvement in or debate on foreign policy is to praise, justifiably, the peacekeeping role of Irish soldiers in the UN. However, we are in an ever-changing world and, as the Senator said, it is necessary that we debate foreign policy matters, specifically in relation to Partnership for Peace and events in Kosovo. We are dealing with evil and it is important this House sets a lead. Outside this House people, for their own political agendas, are confusing and contorting Ireland's foreign policy position. It needs to be more defined and for that reason I share the view expressed by Senator Quinn. There has been a wide-ranging and comprehensive debate within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, contrary to public perception.

I ask the Leader, in light of the Government's published list of proposed legislation for this session, to inquire if a specific Bill listed for this session regarding the protection of special sporting events could be introduced in this House. This House initiated the debate on this matter under the then Leader, Deputy Wright. The Cathaoirleach would have been aware of that. For that reason, if no other, this legislation could be adequately and efficiently dealt with in this House. It is important as it protects listed national sporting events from the predatory instincts of Sky and others. I ask the Leader to use his influence to ensure it is a Seanad Bill. Perhaps he might give an indication when the Bill will be introduced.

In response to Senators Manning, O'Toole, Costello, Dardis and Norris who expressed serious concerns about events during the past week concerning the Sheedy case, I will allow time in the House to discuss it in the near future. I listened very carefully to the views expressed by the group leaders and am very mindful of the timing of a discussion on this matter in the House. It is right and proper for us to discuss it in a calm manner in light of the many new problems it has brought before us as legislators. I will discuss this with the leaders in the coming weeks to see how we can progress the proposal.

Many Senators, including those I have mentioned, spoke regarding their disappointment at the lack of progress in the Northern Ireland peace talks over the Easter period. I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by Senators. I welcome Mo Mowlam's announcement on the vacation, by the British Army of the Crossmaglen Rangers' playing pitch which was a matter of contention within the GAA . This is supported across the nation. It is another step forward in life returning to normal in that part of the island. Hopefully there will be further signs in the near future. The Nationalist community welcomed it and had looked for it for a long time. All party leaders and members in the North were very pleased with the announcement.

The alternative to achieving an agreement is unthinkable. I concur with the Deputy Leader on the view of George Mitchell that there is no alternative. We encourage leaders of all political parties. I give special credit to the Taoiseach for his tireless effort on behalf of people in the South and the whole island and to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy David Andrews, and the Minister of State, Deputy Liz O'Donnell, on their efforts to try to achieve a solution in the North.

I am pleased to inform the House that I had discussions with the office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs prior to today's Order of Business and he can come to the House tomorrow morning after the Order of Business to make a statement on his visit to East Timor and to allow Senators to make statements afterwards.

Senators Costello, Norris and Bonner called for a full independent inquiry into the Rosemary Nelson case. I will have time allowed so this can be discussed with the Minister in the House.

I will pass on the views of Senators McDonagh and Burke with regard to planning applications. We are fortunate that most of our local authorities are in the process of updating their county development plans. The five year period is coming to an end and many local authorities could not have forecast in their wildest dreams the growth that has taken place over the past two and a half to three years. Planning applications have trebled in most counties, particularly those on the east coast. If Members think we need more time to discuss this subject then I will make time available.

I will convey Senator Fitzpatrick's views to An Post with regard to notifying the electorate that two to four elections will be held on 11 June.

Senator Coogan mentioned that the national survey on radon gas is now due. As he stated, I have a personal interest in this issue. I will come back to the House as soon as I can get some information on this issue.

Senators Keogh and Bonner expressed various views on the Adjournment matters. I know they will make their contribution and I agree with the concerns they expressed.

Senators Coghlan and Jackman expressed concern about the future of the Great Southern Hotel group. They also raised the Aer Rianta report and the possible privatisation. This issue will be discussed here at length. The report has been made available to the Minister. I have not received it but other Members received copies today. I will allocate as much time as the House requires to discuss this matter.

Senator Coghlan also referred to the appointment of the next EU Commissioner. I will convey the Senator's views to the Taoiseach and he will take them seriously. However, as the Senator will know, it is up to the Taoiseach, the Government and the EU President to make a decision on this issue.

I am looking for the same rights as the European Parliament.

Senator Finneran expressed serious concern about cutaway bogs. I will convey his views to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government.

Senators Burke and Finneran called for an urgent debate on bank interest charges and credit card charges. This is a contentious issue and I will allocate time at the earliest opportunity.

I will convey Senator Hayes's concern to the Minister regarding Tipperary racecourse.

Senator O'Meara called for a debate on the Women's Aid report. I can facilitate that debate. Senator Ormonde has on many occasions called for a debate on the FÁS report, its future, its achievements and its success. Senator O'Meara also called for a debate on FÁS. I will allocate time for a debate at the earliest opportunity.

As Senator Ridge correctly pointed out, she called for a debate on censorship on five other occasions. I know she is extremely patient. I will see what I can do to facilitate a debate over the next two weeks.

Senators Quinn and Mooney called for a debate on Kosovo and joining Partnership for Peace. I will allocate time for a debate. The Minister for Foreign Affairs will be abroad next week. Perhaps we can debate this issue in two week's time.

Senator Bonner expressed concern for the family of Robert Hamill in Portadown. He called for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come here and make a statement. I will convey his views to the Minister.

Senator Mooney called for the Bill for the protection of special sporting events to be initiated in the Seanad. I will make this request to the legislation committee tomorrow morning.

Order of Business agreed to.