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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 May 1999

Vol. 159 No. 10

Order of Business.

Today's Order of Business is Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 22, motion 31. On No. 1, Committee and Remaining Stages shall be taken today. On No. 2, Second Stage shall be taken today, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 20 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes. On No. 3, all Stages shall be taken today, with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes and those of other Senators not to exceed ten minutes. Senators may share time on Nos. 2 and 3. No. 22, motion 31, shall be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and business will resume thereafter, if not previously concluded.

I have one small problem with the Order of Business which I am sure can be sorted out. It is not wise to limit speakers to ten minutes on Second Stage of a major Bill.

It is not ten minutes.

The Leader said speakers other than spokespersons would have ten minutes on the Education (Welfare) Bill. We can discuss it later if he wishes, but it is not wise to limit speakers to ten minutes on Second Stage. That is unduly restrictive. Perhaps the Leader will propose a change before the Order of Business concludes.

There was a disturbing outcome to a recent appalling court case when a man who had pulled off the fingernails and toenails of a four year old girl was sentenced to four years' imprisonment. This is another example of a grave inconsistency in sentencing in courts. A man who featured prominently in the saga of abuse in Kilkenny was sentenced yesterday to just four years' imprisonment for appalling crimes over a long period. Such inconsistencies are happening on a weekly basis.

I raise this issue, because, while conscious of the separation of the courts and the Legislature, laws are made and the sanctions to be imposed are laid down in these Houses. I know there must be discretion and that judges must be given scope to take all relevant factors into account. However, there is also a need for consistency. If we are getting it wrong in terms of the sanctions we lay down, we need to discuss that. However, it may well be that there is a serious inconsistency in sentencing practice as carried out by the courts. In that case, it is a job for the Judiciary to examine its conscience and practices on the matter. There is serious disquiet about a range of cases in recent times where the inconsistency in sentencing has baffled many ordinary people. Perhaps the Leader could make time available for discussion on that matter, possibly after the local elections.

As a member of the Church of Ireland I was appalled to hear the discussion at the Church of Ireland Synod. Perhaps we could have a debate on Northern Ireland in the context of Drumcree. It seems astonishing that the people involved in the synod do not know the Bible. Church of Ireland members are supposed to know the Bible. A weak, bland motion was passed asking people, among other things, to respect the integrity of the Church of Ireland. However, they are commanded in the Gospels to love their neighbours as themselves. Loving their neighbours does not consist of forcing themselves through areas where they are not supposed to go. The Church of Ireland Synod should go en masse to Drumcree and sit in the church if it is an open invitation and take up places which are rightfully theirs and not those of the Orangemen. They should invite the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Dr. Eames, to give a sermon on what is written in the Acts of the Apostles, where Jesus Christ is invited and incited by his disciples to go through Samaria, where the people do not want him, and he refuses to go because he knows he is not welcome. If people want to follow the example of Jesus Christ, they should read the Acts of the Apostles, do what he did and not cause offence. The example could not possibly be clearer. The Archbishop of Armagh should be in that church surrounded by his synod preaching to the heathens on the hill.

I would be loath to intervene in any way in the activities of any church, but the Church of Ireland has a role to play in the present impasse at Drumcree. The politicians, the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have been working day and night to try to resolve that impasse. There have been welcome developments by the politicians locally, the First Minister, Mr. Trimble, and the Garvaghy Road residents. I support the request to the Leader for a debate on Northern Ireland. As the marching season approaches, the impasse still remains and it is important that everybody makes their voice heard if they can be helpful.

I support the call by Senator Manning to get some response on the inconsistency in sentencing in the courts. As the Cathaoirleach will be aware, I raised this on many occasions, particularly with regard to sentencing for drugs offences where there seems to be a considerable anomaly in the range of sentences vis-à-vis the seriousness of the offence.

I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, why we cannot receive an annual report on sentencing in the courts. Last week saw the publication of the report of the Director of Public Prosecutions on the number of cases he put forward for prosecution and the grounds on which that was done. Previously this had not been permissible and the DPP had never been accountable. I do not see any reason that we should not have a similar report from the courts on sentencing. Perhaps the Leader of the House would bring that to the attention of the Minister.

I have been amazed and disappointed to hear the figures which have been released today by the Episcopal Commission on the number of people emigrating. Last year 21,000 emigrated from the Republic. This is two thirds of the number who emigrated in the worst days of the 1970s and 1980s. I ask the Leader to request that the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, come into this House and explain why the emigration figures are so huge. We had been given the impression by the Government that the trend of emigration had been reversed, that instead of there being an outflow there was a substantial inflow of people and that the Tánaiste is recruiting between 10,000 and 12,000 European immigrants. Now we find that the level of emigration is nearly as high at a time when the Celtic tiger is at its strongest as it was a decade or two ago when the economy was on its knees.

We are all Europeans now.

I call for a debate on the reasons for the level of emigration and the measures the Tánaiste proposes to take.

There is free movement of labour within the EU.

Last week on the Order of Business the proposed downgrading of the blood transfusion services in Cork was raised by Senator Ryan. He asked that the Minister should come into the House to outline Government policy on this issue. I repeat that call. Medical opinion is Cork is universally agreed that if testing is taken out of the centre there, lives will be put at risk. This is not scaremongering; it is the reasoned opinion of senior medical people. The emergency services in Cork have been well tested on two occasions, the horrific Buttevant rail crash and the Air India crash off the Cork coast. The services responded magnificently on both occasions, partly because a sufficiency of blood was donated and tested on the spot and was, therefore, ready for use. Anything which would change a system which has proven itself would be a significant downgrading and would put lives at risk. This is a serious issue and I urge the Minister to come into the House to allow us to put our case to him.

I ask the Leader to convey my concern to the Ministers for the Marine and Natural Resources and Foreign Affairs about the sinking of the fishing vessel from west Cork, the Oileán Cléire, off the coast of County Clare. Just over a year ago, a young man from Bere Island was lost in a similar incident. Some large vessels ram much smaller Irish vessels either deliberately or accidentally. It was a miracle that no lives were lost in the recent incident.

It is time we had a proper debate on this issue. The Minister for Foreign Affairs should make an appropriately strong protest to the French Government on this matter. In the age of modern technology, we should not allow our fishermen, who have a difficult task to perform, to run the risk of having their vessels rammed by careless or criminally negligent skippers who put big trawlers on automatic pilot. The matter requires urgent attention.

I attended the World Meat Congress in the RDS yesterday and was struck by the huge gulf which exists in the thinking of people involved in the business in America and those in Europe. It revealed the threat which exists to our future trade relations if we do not find a way to bridge that gap. I ask the Leader to draw the importance of good representation in Europe by our new commissioner to the Government's attention. There is a danger that a new commissioner may be selected for political reasons rather than to ensure we have a strong voice in Europe.

It is interesting to note that Commission President, Mr. Prodi, has appointed has appointed an Irishman as his chef de cabinet. We have the ability to influence people and we will lose it if someone is appointed for the wrong reasons. Now that the Irish economy is no longer totally in our own hands we need a strong voice. What is right for Germany may not necessarily be right for Ireland.

I heard Deputy John Bruton refer to the amount of money traffic chaos in Dublin costs annually. The Government plans to spend a great deal of money to address the problem in the future. Money was set aside for the provision of taxis with disabled access, yet disabled people are unable to get such taxis to stop for them. Competition in the taxi area would, I believe, be very beneficial in addressing the traffic problem. It would ensure that disabled and other citizens would be able to use bus lanes.

Will the Leader invite the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment into the House to discuss the future of community employment schemes and their employees throughout the country? A reduction of the number of schemes is being planned and it is important that we discuss the matter in the House. There is a large social element involved in these schemes, which make a major contribution to many aspects of life throughout Ireland. Participants in the schemes receive a great sense of achievement from providing services to their communities. We should look at the whole-time jobs initiative. That scheme will end soon and we must examine what will follow it.

Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to come into the House to discuss crime and the increased number of public order offences in our towns and cities? While statistics show that crime levels are falling, people do not feel safe in their own homes or walking the city streets. We should examine the manner in which Garda resources are used in cer tain cities. In Galway, while crime levels are falling, the number of gardaí is not being increased. Statistics are being used to measure need and that is the wrong way to base our manpower planning.

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the financing of local government? Some county councils have recently drawn down funding for which they have not carried out work. Local authorities are forced to carry out such actions, which are open to abuse, because funding is not adequately maintained at an earlier stage.

I have asked repeatedly for a debate on radon levels. Has the Radiological Institute of Ireland completed its report? If so, will that report be brought before the House?

I direct the Leader's attention to last year's European Declaration on Epilepsy. Epilepsy has profound physical, social and psychological consequences for those who suffer from it. The Heidelberg declaration points out that there are now 6 million people in Europe who suffer from epilepsy and with appropriate treatment, three quarters of sufferers could lead normal lives free of seizures. The Irish Epilepsy Association is anxious to alert the public to this condition and the Seanad could play an important role by discussing the matter. It will be down to resources but there is a feeling that this matter is not being treated as urgently as it should be. I call for a debate on that declaration and urge that we take account of the views of the Irish association.

Mr. Ryan

I agree with the remarks made by Senator Quill about the Blood Transfusion Service in Cork. A letter in The Irish Times this morning signed by 44 of the medical staff of Cork University Hospital makes the valid point that the BTSB does not have a good record of quality assurance. To do anything, therefore, to undermine public confidence would be very serious. I ask the Leader to raise this with the Minister and ask him to talk about it here.

It may be true that flows of people into and out of countries is part of the European experience, as my colleague Senator Costello remarked, but it is a sad fact that the proportion of Irish people in prison, in psychiatric hospitals and sleeping on the streets in Britain is well out of proportion to the number of Irish people living there. To a degree we push our social, economic and educational problems out of the State and they end up in hospital, in prison or on the streets in Britain. Those who are leaving are those who are least equipped to travel.

I urge the Leader to allow us to debate the issue which Senator Quinn raised. I am concerned that the World Trade Organisation is getting out of control. It is becoming an arbiter on issues which are of profound health concern and making decisions which consistently favour the United States. This is a fundamental issue. Experts in the EU are convinced that beef which has been developed using hormones is a danger to human health. The United States thinks otherwise and the World Trade Organisation is presuming to arbitrate on that issue. It is a serious issue and it calls into question the whole structure of international trade.

Will the Leader allow a debate on the quality of the road surface in urban areas? Those of us living in urban areas are victims of what I have frequently described in this House as corporate welfare, namely, that every utility provider is allowed to dig up roads as it suits them. The normal practice should be that they reinstate the road to its previous condition but that never happens. Not a single road in Cork city has been restored to its condition prior to the utility providers coming along. Either they will not spend the money, in which case we are subsidising these utilities, or the local authorities are reluctant to enforce it, in which case we are subsidising them yet again. It is yet another hidden subsidy in respect of people who are supposed to be participating in the market economy. It is corporate welfare and it is destroying the road surfaces of every town and city.

I remind the House that the 25th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings has just passed. Will the Leader allow time for statements on the matter or suggest some other way in which it might be appropriately remembered? The loss of life on that day was the largest in the 30 year period of the troubles. There is widespread public suspicion that British forces colluded in that atrocity. I hope other Members of the House will join me in seeking an inquiry into this matter, which those who have been bereaved have sought for many years.

I want to raise also the bombing in the Balkans. Everybody in this House endorsed NATO's efforts to bring to account Milosevic and his regime for the ethnic cleansing in which they were involved, but nobody intended that we would provide a blank cheque for the bombing of innocent civilians.

Mr. Ryan

Hear, hear.

It is appropriate that a neutral country such as Ireland should condemn the wanton loss of life wherever it occurs and regardless of in whose name it is being perpetrated. I hope the Leader will allow time on an appropriate occasion for Members to voice their opposition to the events in the Balkans.

Will the Leader ask the Minister of State to address the concerns of people with a disability about accessible transport? These people say they are being denied the ability to educate themselves, work or travel freely within their own communities. They protested outside the gates yesterday on this matter. If we are serious about integrating these people into mainstream society, we should look after them and provide accessible transport.

I want to impress on the Leader of the House the importance people place on the social welfare service provided by An Post. As the Government is about to publish a White Paper on rural development, I want to highlight the importance of that service to the people. I welcome the Government's decision to examine the structure of the service in terms of its obligations at European level and I hope it will have a positive outcome on the service for those living in rural areas.

Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on the obnoxious weeds Act and the Control of Dogs Act? We are dependent on agriculture for a living, certainly in rural communities, and farmers have experienced many difficulties in the past years. The obnoxious weeds Act was stringently enforced some years ago but, regrettably, many of our beauty spots are marred by dock, thistle, ragwort, etc. If people think I am fooling myself about this issue, the answer will be blowing in the wind a few months from now when thistle and other seeds will be scattered everywhere.

The Control of Dogs Act has not been suitably enforced. A number of counties have dog wardens but the law is not being enforced adequately. The most docile domestic canine pet can become a killer in the company of other dogs. Will the Leader make time available to discuss these two Acts and perhaps the relevant Minister could come to the House?

I support Senator Kett's comments on people with disabilities. Most, if not all, local authorities provide parking spaces for the disabled. It is regrettable that able bodied motorists park in these spaces. Local authorities are negligent in this regard, for example, many pavements do not have ramps to provide easy access for wheelchairs. We should debate these important matters in the House.

I support Senator Walsh's call for an inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I also agree with speakers who called for the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to come to the House to discuss the issues which has arisen concerning rural post offices. Senator Chambers pointed out that these post offices have provided great service and are an important part of the fabric of rural society.

We have gained much from membership of the EU but many matters have arisen in recent years which are being forced upon us. It is time to call a halt. When discussing competition we must consider that the banks have a monopoly on many services which could be provided by post offices. Post offices may not be a major issue in large cities and towns but they are an important part of rural society. Last week the Minister issued a statement which I thought resolved the matter but it is back on the agenda this week. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come to the House to clarify this issue which is of grave importance to rural communities?

In response to Senator Manning, I propose that contributions of spokespersons on No. 2, Second Stage, shall be 20 minutes and 15 minutes for all other speakers. Senators may share time.

I will make time available for a debate as called for by Senators Manning, Costello and Cox who expressed horror at the inconsistency in sentencing for major crimes and called for the House to debate the issue in the presence of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I will also make time available for a debate on crime as called for by Senator Cox. Senator Manning raised the horrific case involving the removal of a child's toenails and fingernails. I agree with the Senator that the sentence handed down in this case does not seem fair or just. I will make time available for this debate after the local elections.

I will pass on to the Minister the views expressed by Senator Norris regarding the Church of Ireland Synod and Drumcree. Senator Costello and others raised the emigration statistics. About ten or 12 years ago, 44,000 school leavers emigrated every year because they could not find employment. For the past three years 40,000 people have been returning. It is not right or fair that someone from Castlepollard who returns to London after spending the weekend at home should be included in the emigration statistics. People who work in Northern Ireland and who come home for the weekend should not be included in those figures either. Ireland is a member state of the EU and people travel to European destinations to work on a weekly basis and return home. Much of this is possible thanks to Ryanair.

Mr. Ryan

Not if they are in a wheelchair.

People can spend the weekend at home and watch their team winning the All-Ireland under 21 championship and such events.

Senators Quill and Brendan Ryan asked that the Minister come to the House to discuss their concerns regarding the blood transfusion service being moved from Cork. I will allow time for this debate and I will discuss the matter with the Senators following the Order of Business.

Senator O'Donovan called on the Ministers for the Marine and Foreign Affairs to make the strongest possible protest to their French counterparts regarding the sinking of the Cork fishing vessel. I will convey their views to the Ministers.

Senators Quinn and Brendan Ryan called for something to be done as a matter of urgency regarding the meat industry in Europe and the world trade fair which is taking place at present. I will convey their views to the Minister. I will also pass on the views of the Senators regarding the plight of the disabled and their call for taxi and public transport accessibility. This is a complex matter. I have spoken to people involved in the taxi business and I understand that wheelchair accessible taxis have been handed back to the financial agencies which financed their purchase because there was not sufficient demand for their services. I agree with Senators Kett and Glynn in their call for more facilities to be made available for people in wheelchairs and those with other disabilities. I support any measures that can be taken to make it possible for these people to obtain employment in all areas. I will allow time for this debate.

Senator Cox called for a debate on community employment schemes. I will make time available for this debate before the end of the session.

Senator Coogan called for a debate on the financing of local government. I will allow time for this debate. Senator Ó Murchú called for a debate on epilepsy. I will make time available also for this debate.

Senator Ryan called for a debate on the state of the roads in County Cork. This is a matter for the local authority.

Senators Walsh and Bonner asked for statements to be taken in the House on the 25th anniversary of the Dublin bombing. I will consider this for the Order of Business tomorrow morning. Senators Chambers and Bonner called for a debate on the post offices. Under EU regulations, large public sector contracts must go out to open tender. This matter is being examined by the Government. There are complex legal and business implications which require in-depth examination and evaluation before a final decision can be reached. The Government is in contact with the Office of the Attorney General regarding the legal implications which may arise in this regard. It is Government policy to maintain the network of post offices. This has been the policy of all Governments in the past. I agree with the sentiments expressed by the Senators that the demise of post offices would be death knell of rural Ireland. This will not be allowed to happen but we must also bear in mind EU regulations.

Senator Glynn asked for a debate on the obnoxious weeds Act and Control of Dogs Act. I will convey his views to the Minister.

Order of Business agreed to.