Order of Business.

Today's business is No. 1, Order for Second Stage and Second Stage, with contributions of spokespersons not to exceed one hour and contributions of other Senators not to exceed 30 minutes. Senators may share time. Business will be interrupted between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. The debate will adjourn at 4 p.m.

The Order of Business is agreeable. I wish to draw the attention of the Leader and the House to a statement made yesterday by Mr. Michael Fitzsimons at the annual meeting of the Chief Fire Officers Association and amplified this morning on "Morning Ireland", to the effect that there are serious deficiencies in the application of fire safety regulations, that night clubs in particular are not being supervised properly and that, in the words of Mr. Fitzsimons, there is a danger of a another fire such as that in the Stardust occurring. These are very serious and measured words from a person who is in a position to know what is happening.

Given that the regulations in this regard issued from the Houses of the Oireachtas a debate on the issue should be organised as a matter of urgency, particularly to see if the problem is as Mr. Fitzsimons has said and to see what needs to be done to ensure we do not have a calamity such as he predicts.

I wish to lend support to the statement of the former judge, Mr. Hugh O'Flaherty, that he will not come before an Oireachtas committee. I have always felt it was like exhuming the body of a hanged man to ask him why we hanged him. The time to ask for information is before we end a person's career or pull the trap door from underneath them.

He volunteered.

He should not have volunteered in the first place. It was a good example of the pressure he was under and convinces me it is an issue of constructive dismissal. It shows how people can make incorrect decisions when they are put under pressure or given Hobson's choice in how they are to be treated.

I congratulate Mr. O'Flaherty for demanding due process and his constitutional rights and I am sorry he did not do so earlier. If he had we would have witnessed the operation of a process of impeachment in the Houses of the Oireachtas, something which would not have worked. This is relevant to the manner in which we deal with our own affairs, something I will not discuss at this time.

I also wish to raise the Telecommunications (Infrastructure) Bill, 1999, which I understood was originally ordered for this week. What is the current status of that Bill and the Education (Welfare) Bill?

I disagree with the sentiments expressed by Senator O'Toole. I am disappointed that former Justice O'Flaherty, who expressed his willingness and volunteered freely when facing impeachment to come before the committee, has decided now that he is free not to do so. It would be an ideal opportunity for him to clear his name and I think he should come before the committee. I agree entirely with the need for due process, but the opportunity existed and he volunteered to appear when he was still a judge, a time when there might have been some constitutional impediment. Now that he is a ordinary citizen I see no reason why he should not appear before the committee.

Once again I wish to raise the anomalies in sentencing in relation to serious drugs offences. We need a response from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on this matter. A man was sentenced today to six years in prison for the largest single heroin haul in the history of the State, with the admission that a number of similar importations had already taken place. At the same time, an Irish national was sentenced to five years for possession of £11,000 worth of ecstasy and cocaine. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform introduced legislation providing for a minimum of ten years' imprisonment for anyone convicted of being in possession of drugs worth £10,000 or more. A non-national who is part of a gang which imported the largest quantity of heroin into the State received a sentence of six years with a review after two. The anomaly in judicial sentencing boggles the mind. We need an explanation as to why this is happening.

Can we have a debate on Northern Ireland given that the marching season is approaching? There has been the welcome development of David Trimble meeting the residents of the Garvaghy Road and I hope there will be some progress in that respect. European elections are about to take place, and this would be an appropriate opportunity for us to make known our concerns.

I have raised the issue of political lobbyists before and it was taken up by the leader of the Labour Party at the party's conference last weekend. What does the Leader of the House intend to do about the fact that the House is becoming infested with political lobbyists, as is the other House? We do not know who they are, who they represent or what they are doing here.

How do we know they are here?

I can identify some of them. Some of them represent the banks, others Rupert Murdoch, and others interests of which we are not aware.

Maybe even Independent Newspapers.

A committee was established to examine this issue and was supposed to report back with proposals about registering the interests of lobbyists, which happens in many other countries but has not happened here. Perhaps the Leader of the House could address this issue and tell us whether it is fair that ordinary people should have to lobby through clinics and big business should lobby through privileged positions and by coming to the House.

It is probably a mistake always to criticise the media but I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to something which concerns me and probably a number of others. Several important developments occurred in the House in past weeks. One was the historic statement of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Andrews, about East Timor and the undiplomatic language used. There was no report anywhere in the newspapers about that. Last night, we had another important debate which was a little rancorous but that is good. We extracted significant information from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform which had not previously been on record. There was not a whisper about that anywhere. I do not blame journalists but it is time a senior representative of the House contacted the newspaper editors and asked them about editorial policy. My understanding is that, even when stories are written, they are frequently axed at editorial level. The idea seems to be that the Seanad is not worth covering. Some times we are silly and banal but there are occasions when what happens in the House should be reported.

What we need is more publicity for Senator Norris.

I would even give some to Senator Ross because his newspaper is doing so badly by him.

Would Independent Newspapers be lobbying on the Copyright Bill, by any chance?

We will do what we can for Senator Norris.

I support Senator Manning's remarks about the concern we all have about fire risk. I hope this matter will be conveyed to the appropriate Minister. It was sensibly raised by Senator Manning. We all know of such circumstances. For example, I know of one place in Parnell Street where a large number of immigrant people have been housed by unscrupulous landlords, with a drinking club having been established resulting in cigarette smoke penetrating into adjoining houses. Large numbers of children live in the house and there would be a catastrophe if a fire were to break out. There is another example around the corner in North Great George's Street where a professional man lives in a tenement. I do not know what fire regulations apply but a proper inspector should be appointed before there is a tragedy.

Will the Leader ask the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, to update the House on the Luas project about which the House had a number of debates? There is already gridlock in the city. I was stuck for ten minutes in O'Connell Street because CIE buses, especially Imp buses, parked where they were not supposed to. If that happens now, what will happen when they run the trams? Only one access to the underground section has been provided.

Regarding Hugh O'Flaherty, I sympathise with the man who was a fine judge, but his change of mind about giving evidence seems extraordinary. Senator O'Toole has weakened rather than strengthened his position when he said it was a classic example of the kind of wrong decision made under pressure. Judges should make good decisions under pressure.

I disagree with Senator O'Toole and agree with Senator Costello about the refusal of Mr. O'Flaherty to—

We are not debating this matter and it is not a question of agreeing or disagreeing with any Senator. If Senator Connor has a question for the Leader of the House on the Order of Business, he should ask it.

I have listened to other Members and noted the Cathaoirleach's tolerance as they made their points. I wish to make a valid point and express an interest. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights and I regret the decision of Mr. O'Flaherty to write to our chairman saying he will not come before the committee. Like Senator Costello, I do not understand in light of the letter which I have in my possession which he wrote to—

If Senator Connor is a member of that committee, the appropriate place for him to make his points is at a meeting of that committee, not on the Order of Business because the matter is not relevant to it. I allowed the leaders of the groups to refer to it.

And the spokesperson of the Independent group.

We cannot become involved in the detail of this situation on the Order of Business because it is inappropriate.

I regret the Cathaoirleach changed the rules for me.

That is disgraceful. The Senator should withdraw that remark.

I have one other point to make about the debate in the House yesterday attended by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. He engaged in an intemperate outburst—

On a point of order, a Chathaoirligh, Senator Connor should withdraw that remark.

I will not allow yesterday's debate to be reopened on the Order of Business.

The Cathaoirleach will appreciate my difficulty. I was embarrassed for the sake of the House by the Minister's outburst.

That is disgraceful. The Minister is not here to defend himself.

I was doubly embarrassed by his rather undignified canter of exit from the House when he had finished his outburst. Although six minutes of the debate remained, I was not given an opportunity to defend myself against an unwarranted attack by the Minister upon me.

(Interruptions).

I cannot allow this matter to proceed. However, having known Senator Connor for a long time, I am sure he will overcome and survive the embarrassment.

The Minister is doing too good a job. That is Senator Connor's problem.

I assure the Cathaoirleach that I have my sensitivity, but it is for the good name and reputation of the House that I make these points. Will the Leader raise this issue with the Minister and ensure that, when he is exiting from the House in future, he will not run off like a racehorse?

That is a disgraceful remark.

Senators should confine themselves to matters relevant to the Order of Business. It is inappropriate that we should have this type of exchange on the Order of Business.

I would like to see three matters on the Order of Business. One is the number of drivers who have not passed a test. I gather that in Dublin alone over 29,000 people are driving without having taken their driving test. The House has debated the issue of road deaths on a number of occasions. The Minister can do something about it. If there are 29,000 provisional licence holders in Dublin city and county who have not yet passed their test we are at fault and there is nobody else to blame. It is a scandal and something must be done about it. I understand that there are well in excess of 100,000 provisional licence holders throughout the country.

I have referred on a number of occasions to the importance of addressing the issue of the millennium bug. There is a need for an urgent debate on this matter. While large businesses may be ready for the eventuality of computers breaking down on 1 January 2000, according to the newspapers today small businesses are not prepared and the figures suggest there could be very serious problems next year. I ask the Leader to respond to this request. It has been made on a number of occasions.

The investment plans by the State to be put to the EU later this year for the period 2001-6 were published today. This is a strategic issue which the House is ideally placed to debate. The plans are biased in favour of the east and south of the country against the west. This is the opposite to the direction we should be taking. It is an issue we should debate urgently, otherwise decisions will be made regarding the presentation to the EU which will be presented as a fait accompli.

I join with Senator Ross in calling for at least a debate on the issue of lobbyists. The Senator made a valid point. The Ethics in Public Office Act does not address this issue. Other countries have similar legislation covering lobbyists. While individuals and groups must approach Oireachtas Members or hold public meetings to express their views and get support for their ideas, political lobbyists appear to have the run of the House. Big business should not have a greater say and a greater opportunity to meet politicians than members of the public.

Mr. Ryan

I could hardly be accused of being a sycophant when I say, Sir, that I have never seen you change the rules either to suit or not suit any Member of the House. It is not your style. I am not a sycophant, therefore nobody could accuse me of seeking favours. That has never been my style in this House.

I agree with my colleagues on the issue of fire safety. It is unfortunately a tragedy for this country that in many cases we only respond when there is either a scandal or, in the case of today's business, when there is profound and threatening external pressure. It is time we were proactive about fundamental issues and about risks either to our people or to our future as an industrial country.

Last week the Acting Leader agreed with me on the question of Ryanair's discrimination against handicapped people. I ask the Leader to raise the matter again with the Minister. It is outrageous for the company to advertise a £29 return air fare to London when it turns out to be £93 for a handicapped person because of the charge for wheelchairs in each direction. It is wrong and uncompetitive because it puts all Ryanair's competitors at an advantage. A large proportion of those travelling by air are elderly, sick and handicapped. This is a profoundly important issue which I hope the Leader will vigorously pursue with the Minster.

In view of the Bill before the House today it would be a help, Sir, if you reiterated the requirement on Members to declare their interests when engaging in debate in the House. It is important that when Members debate this Bill they should, in the interest of transparency and accountability, explicitly declare their interests, if any.

The Labour Party will shortly publish a Bill to regulate lobbyists.

Can we lobby the Senator on the Bill?

Mr. Ryan

I have no problem with that. The role of former Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas as lobbyists needs to be considered. They have an extraordinary degree of unregulated access to all parts of the House, including the Members' Bar. The idea of paid lobbyists being able to use Members' facilities as a place within which to lobby is an abuse that should be immediately regulated, perhaps by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.

I agree with Senator Norris's views on the media. I have no longer any idea about what determines media coverage. A succession of matters of profound importance are debated in both Houses of the Oireachtas. Annoyingly, some smart ass journalists will say some time in the next six months that politicians have done nothing about various issues. For example, I know journalists who say that politicians do nothing about immigration, East Timor and so on. The politicians address these issues but they are not reported and they are then blamed.

The Senator has made his point. We cannot address it in detail.

I support Senator Costello's call for a debate on Northern Ireland. I also concur with his views on the talks being held between Mr. Trimble and the representative of the Garvaghy Road residents association.

I welcome the commitment by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to vigorously pursue the issue raised by the Government regarding the suspicion of collusion by the security forces in the murder of Pat Finucane and other murders. In discussing the matter with the Minster for Foreign Affairs will the Leader ask him, if he attends the House, to address the ongoing investigation into the murder of Rosemary Nelson? Given that we are approaching the second anniversary of the death of Robert Hamill perhaps he could also update the House on the developments with regard to the investigation and the position of the family.

I ask the Leader to seek a remedy from the Government regarding certain decisions by An Bord Pleanála. I refer specifically to the 11 per cent of cases where the board overturns the reports of its inspectors. Reference has been made to the need to declare interests. It is important, in the interests of openness, transparency and accountability, to address this issue. I do not dispute the right of the board, which it presumably has in law, to overturn an inspector's report. However, where it does so a full explanation of its reasons must be available.

I agree with Senator Ryan's views on the failure of the media to report things. Journalists have been much praised and have been given a lot of airtime on radio to discuss issues they raised in the newspapers but which were raised in the House six and eight months earlier. If a politician raises an issue he or she does not get any coverage but if journalists do so six months later, probably after reading the Official Reports of the House, they get the credit. It is a matter that needs to be addressed.

There is a need for another debate on alcohol abuse. In all the debate on certain events of the last few weeks there has been no mention of alcohol abuse. If there was no such abuse problems like this would not arise.

I am tired of people blaming learner drivers. I have never seen them get involved in an accident. Yet two highly qualified Garda drivers are on the point of losing their jobs because of alcohol abuse. Why are we so benevolent regarding the abuse of alcohol? We know that is the cause of 70 per cent of road accidents but we will not say it because we are afraid to offend the big people in the brewery business. Until we have a debate here, we will not point out who is responsible. It is as a result of alcohol abuse in the Sheedy case that the judges have lost their jobs and nothing else. Let us be honest about it. Let us put the blame where it should be and enact strict laws on alcohol abuse.

Senator Farrell should not pre-empt the debate he is seeking.

I support Senator Manning's call for a debate on fire safety and the upgrading of the regulations. On numerous occasions I have called on the Leader of the House to ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to provide extra resources for planning offices and there is a connection between fire departments, planning departments and building regulations. Extra resources are needed by local authorities not only to process but also to police planning applications and fire safety certificates. I again call on the Leader of the House to ask the Minister to provide necessary resources to the local authorities to process and police planning matters.

I agree with Senator Ryan's point about the cost of Ryanair flights, particularly for the handicapped. We must strongly make the point about the general cost of flights, particularly those of Aer Lingus. One must consider the cost of flights from Cork with Ryanair, Aer Lingus and the cosy cartels between particular groups. If we are to have a debate, it would be most unfair to mention one particular airline, that is Ryanair, which has opened up the right to fly for everybody, including the handicapped, because people could not afford flights previously. I ask the Leader to get clarification from the Minister. For instance, a flight from Shannon to Dublin costs £82 return. Comparison needs to be made between the charges of Aer Lingus and those of Ryanair. One can travel from Cork to London with Ryanair for £29. I am not carrying the flag or lobbying for anybody in particular and I will not do so. We are the people who paid billions, not just millions, to Aer Lingus over the years but it was spent wrongly. Let us have a constructive debate on the cost of all flights from this country.

An ideal opportunity arises for the Government and particularly the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, to provide the necessary planned investment for the development of regional airports in the context of the National Development Plan and the recent report of the ESRI on strategic investment which can economically benefit the State.

Are you seeking a debate on investment in regional airports?

Yes, I ask for such a debate and that the Minister should be invited to bring forward a development plan for the regional airports as a long-term strategic investment over the next few years.

Senator Ryan raised the question of the declaration of interests by Senators and although it is not the role of the Chair to interpret legislation, I will make an exception in this case out of courtesy to Senator Ryan. The position is that if a Senator proposes to speak or vote in proceedings in the Seanad and that Senator has actual knowledge that he or she or a connected person has a material interest in the subject matter of the debate, then the Senator is obliged to make a declaration of interest before or during the course of his or her contribution. Of course, if the Senator in the declaration of interests to the Clerk of the Seanad has already registered that interest or declared that registerable interest, then there is no longer an obligation to make a declaration during the debate. That is the position for the information of all Senators.

I agree with Senators Manning, Costello, Ryan and Burke who expressed their concerns and views regarding Mr. Fitzsimons's announcement which was the highlight of early morning on the national radio stations. I know a good deal about this particular industry. One cannot be too careful. As legislators, we must take extremely seriously the dangers of which he warned. I will allow time for this at the earliest opportunity.

Senator O'Toole and Senator Costello expressed their views on former Mr. Justice Hugh O'Flaherty and I will convey them on to the Minister.

Inquiries were made about the telecommunications Bill. I will find out when this will be before the House. Senator O'Toole inquired about the education Bill. It is hoped to have this Bill enacted by the summer recess.

Senator Costello and Senator Bonner called for a debate on Northern Ireland. I will allow time for this. Senator Costello also stated his views on the sentencing of drug offenders. He made a valid point and I would be only too pleased to have a debate on this also.

Senator Ross and Senator Finneran raised the point, which the Cathaoirleach just clarified, about the registration of interests of lobbyists and of people who might have a personal interest in various legislation. The Cathaoirleach correctly clarified that for the House.

On a point of order, the Cathaoirleach did not clarify that. He clarified it as regards Members. Is that not correct?

That is correct.

What he said had nothing to do with lobbyists.

I understand that the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service is considering this and I presume it will report in the coming months. I will make inquiries regarding this and come back to the Senator.

Senator Norris, Senator Ryan and Senator Farrell expressed their concern about the lack of coverage by the national newspapers of debates in the House. It so happens that we are meeting the editor and managing editor of the largest daily newspaper after the Order of Business. The Leaders of the House are concerned that this matter should be address. We have had discussions with other people in the media and I hope we will have progress to report to the House at an early stage.

Senator Norris requested that the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, come into the House to make a progress report on the Luas project. I will convey this on to the Minister and see if we can arrange it.

On Senator Quinn's concerns about driving tests, I understand everything possible is being done by the Minister and the Department in this regard but it is finding it difficult to recruit the required number of testers although the Department has advertised on a number of occasions. The number of provisional licence holders at 29,000 is far too high. As soon as testers can be found and trained, the Department will try to eliminate the existing backlog.

I take Senator Quinn's point about the millennium bug and I will convey it to the Minister. I fully agree there is need for a debate on the mat ter. With regard to his point about the figures for the National Development Plan 2000-2006, the House has always debated national development plans and it will do so on this occasion also. I agree that now is an ideal opportunity.

Senator Ryan called on Ryanair to stop exploiting handicapped people travelling on their planes and Senator Cregan complimented Ryanair for the magnificent job it has done in making air travel affordable for most people on the island. I said previously that Ryanair was the greatest tourism promotion body any nation could have.

Is the Leader declaring an interest in the company?

I take Senator Ryan's point and will pass on his views to the Minister. The point about Senators' interests in the Bill on copyright and other Bills was covered by the Cathaoirleach.

Senator Bonner spoke about the investigation into the tragic murders of Rosemary Nelson and others in the North. I will pass on his views to the Minister. I will also pass on Senator Coghlan's views on Bord Pleanála decisions.

Senator Farrell called for a debate on alcohol abuse. There were 7,000 first time admissions to Irish hospitals in 1997 of people suffering from alcohol related diseases. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association and I hope to make two hours available for statements on the PTAA's achievements in the last week of May before the association's big day in Croke Park on 30 May.

Senator Burke called for additional funding for local authorities in view of the increased demands placed on planning offices because of the economic boom. I agree with the Senator's sentiments. I also concur with Senator Chambers' request that the Minister for Public Enterprise come into the House to debate the points he raised.

Order of Business agreed to.