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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 17 Nov 1999

Vol. 161 No. 2

Order of Business.

The Order of Business is No. 1 and No. 20, motion No. 16. On No. l, the Planning and Development Bill, 1999, Committee Stage (resumed), will be taken today.

Business will be interrupted from 1 p.m. to 1.45 p.m. No. 20, motion No. 16, will be taken from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

There is no difficulty with the Order of Business as outlined by the Leader of the House. May I take it that business will be terminated at the end of Private Members' time?

In the context of what is happening in Northern Ireland we have all been in positions where we believed we were close to a final agreement but the final settlement proved elusive. While we do not want to anticipate, the omens are very good. The good wishes of all sides of the House are with those taking part in the process. In the event of a successful outcome, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on Northern Ireland soon afterwards? We all have been very patient and realised that talking would not be particularly helpful.

Will the Leader of the House also arrange for a debate in the near future on immigration policy? I am not raising this issue to score points against the Government. It is doing so itself effectively, but the problem is bigger than any of us realise. It is a new problem for most of us and will require much deep thinking on the part of all members of the community. A non-contentious debate on the matter would be very much in the public interest.

We had a very useful debate last week on the Shannon and its waterways. The Minister understood that it was a way of moving forward to look at the issue of legislation and the establishment of a Shannon river council. There are extraordinary improvements and developments in the North. In the Good Friday Agree ment and the agreement of 18 December 1998 one of the areas chosen for closer co-operation through an implementation body was the inland waterways. The Government should at least announce a plan indicating how it might approach the establishment of a Shannon river council in the context of the North-South arrangements arising from the Good Friday Agreement. It should be dealt with separately or as part of an integrated package. There is a need, now more than ever, for an open debate on the North-South and east-west arrangements envisaged by and outlined in the Good Friday Agreement and the agreement of 18 December 1998.

I fully support Senator Manning's call for a debate on immigration which should be extended to include labour force needs and issues far beyond queuing outside the Department concerned, which in itself is appalling. There are huge issues involved which need to be looked at from the widest possible perspective.

I propose that we take No. 19 before No. 1 to allow the Bill in question to be printed. I echo Senator Manning's remarks on Northern Ireland and welcome the progress being made daily in the talks. I congratulate the participants involved for adopting such a positive approach. While we do not want to pre-empt the outcome by having an early debate, the Leader of the House should think seriously about making time available in the next two weeks to give us an opportunity to discuss the issues involved.

On the request for a debate on immigration, it is best not to look at the issue in an emotive fashion but to examine the broader issues. On the one hand, there are asylum seekers and, on the other, economic refugees whom we have never considered despite our long history as economic refugees in virtually every developed country in the world. The Leader of the House would do well to give us the opportunity to have a full debate on immigration.

It is bizarre that the Taoiseach has to intervene with the Turkish Prime Minister to have a football match shown on our national television. That should not happen.

We are straying from the Order of Business.

I am referring to it as a matter of national importance. It is almost like the Charge of the Light Brigade with us riding in to try to save the day. This matter should be resolved between the two sides because it is a two-legged affair – a match took place in Dublin and a match is to take place in Bursa in Turkey. National television stations and UEFA should have prior criteria to allow such matters to be resolved without the most senior members of Government having to make long-distance phone calls in an effort to resolve them.

On the last point, the fact that RTÉ is being asked for $3 million to televise the event in Bursa is relevant. A point has been arrived at where one cannot tolerate the price.

There is £40 million in the national development plan.

Senator Costello would be the first to point out, if it were taken out of the national development plan funding, that there was another needy area requiring the money.

On the issue of Northern Ireland, I agree with Senator Manning that we all hope there will be a positive outcome. I thought the contribution by RTÉ this morning on "Morning Ireland" was not particularly helpful in that it seemed to want to arrive at a situation where Sinn Féin or the IRA would say that the war was over and to know what would be the result if that did not happen. The people interviewed were right to point out that it was a step by step process. We hope it will lead to a permanent and lasting peace on the island and wish all the participants well in their efforts to resolve the situation in Northern Ireland.

As to the immigration issue, a Chathaoirligh, it would be useful if these matters were discussed here. It is understandable, given that there are two parties in Government, that there should be different emphases. It is a complex and difficult issue, and it is not at all surprising that people have different views. There are differing views within parties on this matter. It would be helpful if these issues were debated fully in the House. We will have an opportunity to do that at some stage in the near future when the Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Bill comes before us. Apart from that legislation, it would be useful to discuss it. We must ask ourselves fundamental questions about the nature of our Christian society, our national experience and the fact that Irish people had to seek jobs and homes all over the world at particular stages in our history which, thankfully, are past. We will be confronted with difficult questions about our attitudes on race. That has been an easy matter for us in the past but it will become more difficult. These issues need to be addressed. Senator O'Toole is right to say that the broader question of labour force needs must be included in that context.

During the summer, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform produced a very intelligent document on the victim support charter, dealing with how the rights of victims could be addressed and how the various statutory authorities might come together, particularly in relation to victims. My reasons for requesting a short debate at some stage in relation to it are twofold.

Last Friday week in Booterstown a family was traumatised when they were held overnight in their home by raiders. They have since left the house, never to return. That is a terrible tragedy. There is enormous publicity when a new state-of-the-art prison is opened. No one would deny that prisoners are entitled to certain basic rights but these state-of-the-art prisons would make the Dorchester appear as if it needed refurbishment, yet victims of crime are not given proper treatment after an attack. Perhaps the Leader would arrange a debate on a document which did not get the full publicity it deserved.

I express my concern at the enormous find off the west Cork coastline of drugs worth approximately £15 million. This again denotes that the south-west coastline seems to be a gateway to Europe for serious drug traffickers. I praise the Minister for recent legislation which imposes enormous penalties on drug traffickers, but a task force should be set up in the south-west region combining the Customs and Excise and the Garda to examine this problem. Over a number of years huge amounts of drugs have been intercepted coming into the west Cork coastline area and despite the heavy penalties being imposed, that problem is continuing. I would like the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform or the Minister of State, Deputy Cullen, to examine this problem, which I raised before in this House. Garda stations in that area such as those in Schull and Bantry are totally outdated and something should be done to modernise them. When a murder occurred in this area about two years ago, a suspect had to be taken 60 miles to the nearest Garda station to be interviewed. That is not acceptable. I urge the Leader to allow a debate on this important matter.

Having regard to the debate which took place here yesterday and comments from the Opposition benches on the refugee and asylum seeker problem, as a member of the sub-committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights, I had reason to visit the office in Lower Mount Street and to my amazement everything was orderly and there was no panic. I wondered if I had visited the right office. I realise a debate will be held on this issue and I will contribute to it on the basis of the observations I made this morning between 8.45 and 9.45 a.m. There was no indication of the enormous problems and hype that has been publicised—

Those are points which can be made during the debate.

I accept that but it is important to make that point.

I want to ask the Leader what, if anything, the Government has done to mark the Year of the Elderly? As far as I am aware, no gesture of significance has been made. Will the Leader tell the House the plans the Government has in this regard?

Will the Leader indicate if it would be possible to arrange a debate on an issue which is causing much concern and public debate, namely, the intention of the Irish Medicines Board to designate certain herbal products as medicines which will require a prescription? We all agree there is a need for safety and also protection against false claims, but there is also a school of thought which suggests that conventional medicines and drugs are being overused and abused. Many people rely on these herbal products and believe they have been exceptionally successful, but they will now have to pay perhaps several hundred per cent more than they now pay for these products. This House should have a debate on that matter.

Will the Leader arrange for a debate on the prevention, detection and treatment of cancer in the public health service? Most Members are alarmed by the increase in the number of people dying of cancer, some of whom are very young. It is time we had a logical and rational debate, with the Minister in attendance, to see if we can improve the prevention, detection and treatment of this disease. I support Senator Ó Murchú's call for a debate on herbal medicines. There is a need for a debate on the relative merits of traditional and alternative medicines. A number of Senators, including myself, have benefited from alternative medicines.

Mr. Ryan

I second Senator Costello's amendment to the Order of Business that No. 19 be taken before No. 1. This issue is of fundamental importance if we are to do something about the housing crisis. I move a further amendment to the Order of Business that No. 20, motion 4, on asylum seekers, in the names of Senator Norris and myself, when we were in the same group, be taken after the Bill is given a First Reading and before No. 1.

I am sure all Members received the same letter yesterday from the Carers Association outlining the extraordinary practice by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs of disqualifying people from the carer's allowance. Medical experts in the Department are refusing this allowance to these people, notwithstanding the views of their GPs that those they are caring for need that care. Will the Leader invite the Minister to the House for a debate on this issue or inquire of him what is going on and whether his Department is interpreting the law differently from the Minister in terms of the assurance he gave? Penalising carers is about as brutal as one can get.

I support the comments made by Senator Ó Murchú. The Irish Medicines Board belatedly came to its own defence in today's newspapers but failed to explain why some of these products are more dangerous in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe, as no other European country has banned them. This raises the suspicion that the board is acting at the beck and call of international pharmaceutical companies. All the problems of patent and copyright arise once these products come under the aegis of such companies. This is a profoundly important issue.

I again wish to refer to the Telecommunications (Infrastructure) Bill.

A Senator


Mr. Ryan

If I made a speech the Senator would know about it.

Would Senator Ryan know about it?

Mr. Ryan

Some weeks ago the Leader informed the House that it is not proposed to proceed with this Bill at present. I do not agree with some of the provisions of the Bill but no one would disagree that the country needs a telecommunications infrastructure of the highest international standard if we are to continue to be successful in information technology. Not proceeding with the only legislative proposal to facilitate this objective, which includes the proposal for service providers to collaborate and co-operate where possible, is an abandonment of a fundamental part of the strategy the country is supposed to have. Why is this Bill being delayed? Is it being delayed because four Independents in the other House do not like some aspects of it? Is the country yet again being held to ransom by four Independents who have no interest in telecommunications infrastructure?

What about the Senator's previous incarnation?

Mr. Ryan

Regarding the drugs find referred to by Senator O'Donovan, while no doubt it is good that large quantities of cannabis have been found, I have a problem with State resources which do not seem adequate to prevent young people of 13 years of age from buying alcohol and which seem completely unable to prevent young people aged six from buying cigarettes, both of which kill thousands of people every year. We seem to have enormous resources to deal with a drug which, while it may not be good, so far has killed nobody in the State, to the best of my knowledge.

Senator Ryan is making points which would be more relevant to a debate on substance abuse.

Mr. Ryan

I ask for a debate on tobacco and alcohol, the drugs which are most abused and which kill more people than all the other drugs put together.

Finally on a point of information, those who wish to watch this famous match can re-orientate their satellite dish to get Turkish television where it is being broadcast without encodings. They can turn down the sound and listen to it on the radio.

The Senator is deflecting the argument.

Will the Leader ask FÁS to come before the House to provide a full statement on their philosophy and role, recognising that they were established to deal with unemployment, including the long-term unemployed? Many educational institutions today are dealing with long-term unemployment and life-long learning. I wonder if we are getting value for money and what role FÁS has in the context of current thinking. This is an old hobby-horse of mine. I am not satisfied we are getting value for money in relation to the philosophy and role of FÁS.

How lucky we are to have such a wise Cathaoirleach as I think he is called upon to exercise the judgment of Solomon on occasion, particularly on the contentious issue of people making speeches on the Order of Business. I note there were some squeaks of "Speech" from the other side of the House. My distinguished colleague, Senator O'Toole, informs me that there is nothing whatever in Standing Orders to prevent a speech on the Order of Business, but that it has to be on the relevance of the particular item. He said a search of the historical record will disclose that Senator Dooge once spoke on this point in accordance with Standing Orders for 45 minutes.

I remind the Senator that in addition to Standing Orders the House is governed by precedent. Of course the Chair has to exercise the judgment to which the Senator referred.

That is why I was assisting the Chair in my humble way by pointing to the precedent created by Professor Dooge.

I thank my colleague, Senator Ryan, for moving motion No. 4 which is in both our names. Yesterday I indicated we would be moving this motion and putting it to a vote. We did not do so yesterday because we had not given sufficient notice, but we did serve notice yesterday so there will be a vote. I will say nothing further about it.

I also support the various Members who have referred to placing herbal medicines on prescription lists. I remind the Leader that I raised this issue two weeks ago and he gave an undertaking that there would be a debate on the matter. Perhaps this morning he will follow it up by giving a date for that debate which he has already promised. We all know it is ridiculous to have to get prescriptions for camomile and rosemary. One can make an infusion for one's hair with rosemary – it obviously does not work. Next it will be necessary to have a prescription to use herbs from one's garden. It is nonsense.

I will not make a speech, but I would like to draw the attention of the Leader to something of great concern, namely the opening of the new Aldi supermarket which has decided to sell milk for human consumption which it imports from another jurisdiction at a reduced rate. It did not look for quotes from local suppliers or dairies.

The Senator should talk to the Tánaiste, Deputy Mary Harney, about that.

After reading today's newspapers I am concerned that it is as easy for them to undercharge when they can label another item and overcharge by as much as £6.30. This is criminal. I bring the Leader's attention to this matter and ask him to investigate it and take whatever action is necessary to deal with this criminal action by this new supermarket.

I ask the Leader to use the status of his office to support the Taoiseach in his efforts today to ensure that the Ireland-Turkey soccer game is televised. This is an unprecedented situation. I hope the Leader will convey his views to the Turkish ambassador who entered the political arena last week when the Turkish team was here. Because of the topicality—

This matter has already been raised on the Order of Business and I ruled in relation to it.

I am aware of that. This issue should receive the full support of this House because of its topicality. I am sure the Cathaoirleach would be delighted if the match were televised. My colleagues will be glad to know that my friend and colleague, Gabriel Egan, will be doing his usual efficient job on Radio 1 this evening.

I was surprised to hear Senator Norris, a long-standing Member with wide experience, say he depended on his Independent colleague to keep him abreast of Standing Orders. Perhaps it is time Members were circulated with a copy of Standing Orders so that we could all be aware of what they contain.

I support Senator Ormonde's call for a debate on FÁS, even though I disagree with what she said. FÁS is an organisation facing drastic changes due to the current employment situation. There is a need to refocus it. However, it is an organisation that plays a valuable role with local communities and local authorities around the country.

I support Senator Quill's call for a debate on health issues. We should deal with health prevention measures. Much that Senator Ryan raised could also be dealt with in the same debate. There is a need to focus Irish society and ensure it is working towards prevention rather than the costly investment required for cures.

With regard to herbal medicines and the medical profession, I ask the Leader to arrange an early debate. I know we will deal with the national development plan tomorrow. Anti-competitive practices are a major obstacle to the implementation of that plan and in other areas. I have talked here before about the legal pro fession and their restrictive practices. This could also be said of the medical profession and the construction industry. There is a need in Irish society to ensure that European laws and the competition laws on our Statute Book are fully enforced. The success of our economy will depend on how well we achieve that.

I am pleased that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy John O'Donoghue, met William Geary yesterday and acknowledged the services that he rendered to the State. I am sure all those who highlighted this case on the Order of Business over many days were also pleased. I welcome this, as I did yesterday evening in another forum.

Senators Manning, O'Toole, Costello and Dardis called for a debate on Northern Ireland. I have spoken privately to leaders of various groups before the start of Seanad meetings on various mornings. I thank them for their understanding and co-operation in relation to the sensitive position in which we find ourselves as legislators regarding debates on the North. I hope when this issue is brought to a successful conclusion we can have the Taoiseach in the House and have an opportunity to express our views on the North in the not too distant future.

Senators Manning, O'Toole, Costello, Dardis and O'Donovan called for a debate on immigration. Time will be allowed over the coming weeks for a debate. Senator O'Toole called for a debate on the Shannon waterways, particularly the North-South waterways, as part of the Good Friday Agreement. This is a good idea. The debate last week was worthwhile as the serious condition of Lough Ree has implications for tourism in the midlands. I will allocate time for the debate suggested by Senator O'Toole, hopefully before the Christmas recess.

Senators Costello, Ryan and Mooney expressed concern that Ireland's soccer match this evening is not being televised. I will act on Senator Mooney's suggestion and telephone the Turkish ambassador as soon as the Order of Business is concluded. The Taoiseach is due to speak at noon to the Turkish Prime Minister and he is flying to Turkey this evening where he will meet the Prime Minister in person. I am reminded of the Bill recently brought before the House by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. This controversy proves that the issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The quicker the better that legislation is enacted.

Senator Costello wishes No. 19 to be taken before No. 1, to have the Senator's Bill printed. As a gesture of co-operation, I have no difficulty with that. However, I fail to see the logic of it since most of the Bill's provisions are relevant to the Planning and Development Bill currently before the House. I am sure the substance of the Senator's Bill could be put before the Minister in the form of amendments on Committee Stage of the planning Bill today. However, I will agree to Senator Costello's proposal for the Order of Business. This is not to be taken as a precedent but as a co-operative gesture.

Senator Cosgrave drew attention to a report for the victim support charter. I agree with the sentiments he expressed and will allocate time for a debate on it with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The family to whom he referred found itself in a dreadful position, one which no family should have to endure. The State should be highly supportive of families who undergo such trauma.

Senator O'Donovan highlighted the need for the Government to take action on drug smuggling on the south-west coast. There was a £15 million drug seizure there this week, which is mind boggling to say the least. I will convey his views to the Minister, particularly with regard to updating the Schull and Bantry Garda stations. This is the least that could be done to assist the security forces in the area, which appears to be a gateway into the country for the drug barons.

Senator Coghlan sought a debate to mark the Year of the Elderly. I agree to that. The achievements which have been made for the elderly can be discussed in that debate and I look forward to the Senator participating when it occurs.

With respect, all I need is Government action, not a debate.

Senators Ó Murchú, Quill, Ryan and Walsh asked for a debate on the Irish Medicines Board and herbal, traditional and alternative medicines. I will arrange for a debate prior to the Christmas recess. Senator Quill also sought a debate on cancer. I have been asked privately in recent months by a number of Senators if it would be possible to hold such a debate. I will allocate a full day for a debate on this subject and I will ask the Minister for Health and Children to attend. Cancer is the worst killer disease to affect this country and its incidence is, unfortunately, increasing. We all know many people who have been taken by the disease.

Senators Ryan and Norris moved an amendment to the Order of Business regarding No. 20, motion No. 4. I note Senator Norris threatened to put this matter to a vote yesterday, but I was not notified of that at the time. If it is agreeable to Senators and if it is possible, I will try to facilitate their request during the next two weeks.

Senator Ryan asked when the Telecommunications (Infrastructure) Bill would come before the House. When I inquired about this, I was told it would not come before the House at this time. I have no further information on the matter.

Senator Ryan called for a debate on tobacco and the abuse of alcohol which cause killer diseases. We can have a debate on that at the earliest opportunity.

I have a sense of hearing the train coming down the tracks when Senator Ormonde addresses the House because I am sure she will request a debate on the problems experienced by FÁS and its achievements to date. I can allow time for a debate on the achievements of FÁS and the long-term plan for it. FÁS made a major contribution to rural areas, large towns and cities by keeping people at work, keeping their spirits and retraining them when the rate of unemployment was as high as 16%, 17% or 18%.

Senator Kiely called for an urgent debate to highlight the sale of milk at a low price and the high prices charged for other items by a new supermarket chain. I will convey the Senator's concerns to the Minister.

Two amendments were proposed to the Order of Business and I will deal with them in the order in which they were raised. Senator Costello proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That item 19 be inserted before item 1." The Leader indicated he is agreeable to the proposal. Does the Senator wish to press the amendment?

Yes, I do.

Amendment put and agreed to.

Senator Ryan proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That item 20, No. 4 be taken before item 1." Is the amendment being pressed?

Mr. Ryan

In light of the Leader's generous agreement to have a debate on the matter in the next few weeks, I do not wish to press the amendment.

I will be watching.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Order of Business agreed to.