Today's Order of Business is No. 1, Twenty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2001 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken not earlier than 11.15 a.m.; No. 2, motion re information to be issued to voters in connection with the referendum on No. 1, to be taken without debate; and No. 3, motion re the Referendum (Ballot Paper) (No. 4) Order, 2001, to be taken without debate.
Order of Business.
The Order of Business is agreeable. I thank the Leader for deferring the commencement of No. 1 to facilitate the spokesperson from this side of the House.
No. 1 raises a trivial but perhaps important issue. We are being asked today to discuss the Twenty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2001. As the 22nd amendment is not now to be made, how can this amendment be the 24th? That may appear trivial but Bills have been found unconstitutional by the courts in the past on points such as this. I am sure the Minister will provide an answer in this regard.
I understand this matter is the subject of an amendment and can, therefore, be discussed during the debate on Committee Stage of the Bill.
I wanted to give my colleagues prior warning of the matter. Members will be aware that there is far more likelihood of the matter being covered by the press at this time than later.
I am sure everybody welcomes the fact that the leaving certificate and other examinations are to go ahead as planned. We hope there will be no further distractions of the kind experienced by students over the past year. We are all aware of how stressful examinations can be and perhaps when this year's papers are being marked, the stress and disruption which students have had to endure through no fault of their own will be taken into account by the examiners.
I would like to raise a point arising from the type of examinations we have in place. Everybody will agree our examinations are fair, beyond reproach and have full credibility, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it is unfair to examine a student on six years' work over one short period of time. We should ask the Minister for Education and Science if he is examining other methods such as continuous assessment, project work or whatever, in order that students are not faced with an all or nothing test over a short period when they may not be at their best for reasons of stress or otherwise.
A seminar is taking place this week on a subject dear to some Members, namely, the media and libel law. One speaker at the seminar stated that our libel laws are more draconian than those which operated in eastern Europe during the worst days of the Cold War. Be that as it may, I also wish to draw attention to the fact that a criminal case cannot go ahead today because of the antics of newspapers yesterday. Apart from other factors involved, newspapers know the law, they know they have transgressed and that they made it likely that this trial would not go ahead. They have a serious case to answer in this regard.
In addition, the Irish Examiner has today reported that a man committed suicide before a post-mortem or inquest has been held. We are prepared to engage in debate with the media which are crying out for reform of our libel laws. However, we would draw to their attention their excesses which make it difficult to have a serious discussion about meaningful reform of those laws.
I assure the House and my post-primary colleagues in the ASTI that the INTO and the TUI will ensure in the benchmarking process that the needs of secondary teachers are well and properly protected. I regret that the ASTI is not part of that process, but I would not want anyone to think that the other two trade unions will take advantage of that fact. The ASTI can rely on us to look after its needs and we hope to do so.
I wish to raise yesterday's report by the OECD on the economy. Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come into the House to explain the role played by the Irish ambassador to the OECD in these matters? Reports by the OECD in recent years have not reflected Ireland's needs. Yesterday's report made a demand concerning interest rates contrary to the interests of the economy. What kind of political input do we have into the operation of the OECD? It is unacceptable that our ambassadors do not seem to be having any impact or influence. The OECD takes a potshot at Ireland whenever it wishes. It is never right, but it always gets the headlines. People forget that it has been wrong when it comes up with the next piece of drivel. I would like the Minister for Foreign Affairs to explain to the House how we are interacting with the OECD and take questions on the matter. The OECD is an important international body into which we have little input. It is time we made it move in our direction rather than always being at the receiving end of what it has to say.
I welcome the ASTI's decision that it will not take further action regarding State examinations at the end of the year and its indication that such action is unlikely to form part of any industrial action in the foreseeable future. The other side of the coin, however, is that the ASTI has rejected the Labour Court's proposals which specifically referred to the benchmarking process. As it has opted out of that process, it will not be overjoyed by the fact that the INTO and the TUI will protect its interests when it has said "No" to that process on a number of occasions.
It has friends in court.
Will the Leader of the House convey to the Minister for Education and Science that this is, perhaps, the time to hold out the olive branch now that there has been a softening of the ASTI's position? The Minister should recognise that, as trade unionists, ASTI members are entitled to reject a process. He would wish the ASTI to take part in the benchmarking process, but it is entitled to reject it. Once ASTI members reject that process they are entitled to a response from the Minister regarding their industrial needs and the campaign on which they are embarking.
They have had that three times already.
Rather than relying entirely on his past statements, the Minister should take some action before the next ballot on future industrial action in the autumn.
I also wish to raise the tax amnesty announced by the Revenue Commissioners. The question is, when is a tax amnesty a tax amnesty and when is it not a tax amnesty? Everyone has recognised that this is a tax amnesty for bogus offshore account holders and that anyone who admits over the next six months to having such an account will be treated differently and more leniently than if he or she had gone through the normal procedures adopted by the Revenue Commissioners. This is a dangerous course of action given the current climate.
Yesterday the Leader of the House promised a full day debate on the matter and I would not wish that debate to be pre-empted on the Order of Business.
I will not pre-empt it and will heed your wise words, a Chathaoirligh. We should have a full debate with the Minister for Finance to see what role we might have in the matter. The Taoiseach stated publicly that we have no role and that it is entirely a matter for the Revenue Commissioners. I do not accept that view.
I support the calls for a debate on the report of the Ombudsman. While I welcome many aspects of the report, I take issue with the Ombudsman's views on Galway County Council's policy regarding written replies to public representatives. I also take issue with his comments on would-be county councillors. Will the Leader of the House allow time for a debate on the matter?
I agree with Senator Manning's comments on the behaviour of the press and wish to raise an issue of relevance to the subject. Will the Leader of the House draw to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the practice whereby newspapers print a photograph, name, occupation and practically the full address of an accused person? An example of this practice could be seen in one of yesterday's newspapers. This is wrong and constitutes a form of punishment before a decision has been reached regarding guilt. This practice is not acceptable and the law should be amended to make it illegal for newspapers to publish photographs, occupational details and general addresses of such people. There is still a concept in this country of the presumption of innocence with which newspapers are doing away. This should be stopped. Will the Leader of the House draw this matter to the Minister's attention and ask him to bring forward an amendment?
Senator Norris has raised an important issue which this House and the press should treat seriously. This is a small country and the difficulties faced by families, relatives and accused persons have to be taken into account before a national newspaper devotes a quarter page to someone accused of a crime. People may be found guilty, but there must be a presumption of innocence. Newspapers have a responsibility in this regard.
The House should address Senator Manning's comments on the education system, including those on the assessment of students. The Senator has worked in the education system for many years and will have a better knowledge of it than most Members. Six of my children have passed through it and the method of examination requires adjustment. That is not to suggest children have been harmed by it, but change to the system should be considered. We should debate the control of examinations because it seems children were being held to ransom in the past few months by a group which legitimately sought additional pay. One must ask why pupils were the ones who could have been harmed most. The workings of the examination system need to be reconsidered. I agree with Senator Manning. Perhaps the Leader will explore the possibility of our initiating the debate to see what direction we should take for the benefit of children in future. The House could be the place to do that.
As ever, Senator Manning raised some pertinent matters and I fully support his views. In common with everyone on all sides of the House, I am glad the ASTI has lifted its threat to the immediate examinations and that such a threat is unlikely to be used as a weapon next year or in future. That is how I understood Charlie Lennon's best guess on the matter from having listened to him on the radio.
Senator Manning's point is meritorious, as Senator Lanigan said, especially because of the disruption caused to students. Some of them are more likely to suffer exam fright as a result of feeling they are not fully prepared. I hope the examiners will take that point on board this year. It is a pity we cannot have some system of continuous assessment. Senator Manning made a good point and I hope the Leader conveys it to the Minister and that examiners are so instructed.
Regarding possible changes in the libel laws, there is a huge contradiction in that the media want reform but there have been many instances recently where they have made huge errors of judgment which have caused court cases to collapse. They have a responsibility but it must be asked whether they seek legal advice for all stories. There were 16 commission proposals regarding possible reform of the libel laws. Perhaps it is time for the House to debate those or perhaps the Leader will invite someone from the Government to make a statement on the current position of those proposals.
Will the Leader speak briefly about the Government's policy on the appointment of tax exiles to State boards, other positions of trust within the State and honorary positions such as consul?
May we have a debate on policing in rural Ireland? I listened to an interview on the national airwaves with a candidate with aspir ations to be elected to the Lower House of the Oireachtas and it concerned me to hear him support vigilante behaviour in north Kerry. He felt that, in some cases, the Garda was unable to patrol certain areas and instil law and order there. He also openly admitted that an increase in the number of gardaí would not be effective in improving policing in rural Ireland. A debate on rural policing would be an ideal opportunity for us to show our support for the Garda and the contribution it has made to the State since its foundation.
I agree with my esteemed colleague, Senator Manning, regarding the press. I found myself quoted in a newspaper even though I never gave an interview to it. The article stated: "Senator Ridge said". Regarding what Senator Norris said about the presumption of innocence, regrettably, the media in Ireland today never presume politicians to be innocent, and that is disgraceful.
A matter which concerns me greatly, and I ask the Leader to be fair about this, is what has happened to the Local Government Bill. I found myself in a dreadful position recently because a whispering campaign is ongoing against Fine Gael Members of the Oireachtas to the effect that we are delaying passing of the Bill because we wish to retain the dual mandate. That is a lie and I wish to nail it as such. It is disgraceful that this was put abroad about Fine Gael Members of the Oireachtas because it appears the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, and his Independent colleagues, cannot get their act together. We are not going to be blamed for something which is not our fault. I am not in favour of the dual mandate and have said so to every councillor I know. What is being said is not right and that should go on record.
I join Senator Manning and others in calling for a re-examination of the libel laws. It is time there was a press council. For too long reporters have hidden behind sub-editors who have hidden behind editors, with no responsibility being taken. As Senator Ridge said, there is a presumption of innocence on the part of the press which is completely at variance with the presumption of guilt which appears to attach to anyone involved in politics.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Public Enterprise to discuss with the House the position regarding infrastructural development for aviation, especially the role of airports outside Dublin and the lack of balance between those and Dublin Airport? The latter is turning into an industrial monster, with 2% of gross domestic product generated on site, 8,000 people directly employed on site and more than 12,000 indirectly employed in the immediate vicinity. It appears traffic is being added to traffic and the place is creaking. It is very near capacity and is certainly at capacity in terms of the lead-in time for the planning process required. Local residents experience a traffic jam in the sky over their houses which can be done without. Will the Leader ask the Minister to attend a debate in the House and state what plans she has for the future?
I support Senator Leonard's call for a debate on the Garda and the excellent job it does, especially in the north Kerry area. I was very disappointed by the amount of media attention Mr. Martin Ferris received about vigilante groups in north Kerry. It could not be further from the truth. If Mr. Ferris wants to form a vigilante group and is in the mood for returning stolen items, he should return some of the bodies of missing people and give them back to their loved ones.
A question for the Leader.
For the same man to seek the release of the murderers of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe under the Good Friday Agreement is nothing short of disgraceful. We should have a full debate in the House to see who is entitled to be released from prison under the Good Friday Agreement. I would not support the release of murderers under the guise of republicanism. I seek a full day's debate on the subject and a vote of confidence in the Garda and in the excellent job it does, especially in north Kerry. The last thing we want is vigilante groups. The next development will be knee-capping and whatever else after that. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot have the ballot paper in one hand and the armalite in the other. The people will not stand for that. I seek a full debate on this issue because it is important. A vote of confidence in the Garda will have to be given.
I am seeking a debate with the Tánaiste before the summer recess on bringing industry to rural areas. While the Tánaiste says that is her Department's current policy, something drastic will have to be done if rural areas are to survive. In my constituency, there are four vacant factories in Listowel. The area is deprived of industry so we should have a full debate on the matter. A debate on decentralisation would be opportune because I also want to see some Departments transferred to my constituency.
I support the call for a debate on the media which seems to be getting out of hand. Judges have had to throw out cases because trial by television and the media generally is preventing fair trials in court.
It appears to be open season for attacking people who are dead and gone. It is scandalous that we cannot allow them to rest in peace, but nothing can be done because dead people cannot be libelled. The situation has gone haywire and some legislation will have to be introduced to curb that kind of thing. The deceased are entitled to rest in peace.
I also support the call for a debate on infrastructure. We hear much talk about the west seeking more industry but it cannot absorb any more due to insufficient power supplies and roads. The money is there to provide such facilities but, unfortunately, objectors are holding up everything. Legislation should be introduced whereby objectors would have to pay a hefty fee to object to planning developments. Far too many objections are being made by people who are not involved, including strangers who have holiday homes here. They are objecting to residents building family houses, road developments to the west and rural electricity supply schemes. This carry-on cannot be allowed. We welcome visitors but we cannot have them objecting to the way of life in this country.
I support Senator Leonard's call for a debate on policing in rural areas. The Leader should also provide time for a debate on publicly-funded housing schemes. Perhaps the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and urban renewal, Deputy Molloy, will attend the House to discuss this matter. I am thinking of the welcome growth we have seen since 1990 in the provision of social housing by voluntary housing associations which have done a super job. They have developed along two lines, first, we have seen the phenomenal growth of large, nationwide housing associations that are well known and, second, in some areas we have seen local community-based housing associations established. That is typical of what is happening in County Kildare. The issues of tenant purchase and rent have been evolving also. We now find that some of the large nationwide associations are opposed to tenant purchase schemes for local voluntary housing associations. At present, they stand accused of building not just houses but also empires. The issue needs to be debated.
Senators Manning, O'Toole, Costello, Lanigan and Coghlan expressed their views on the ASTI's decisions. I welcome the fact that the junior and leaving certificate examinations will go ahead with the full support of the entire teaching profession. I wish everyone well. Both sides in the dispute have gone through a difficult time and everyone is pleased that these exams are to take place. I hope negotiation, consultation and communication will be the order of the day so that there will be no further strikes. I hope that a resolution to the problem will be found in the not too distant future.
Senators Manning, O'Toole, Farrell, Norris, Coghlan, Ridge and Glennon called for a full day's debate on libel legislation. Some of the contributions by Senators on the Order of Business this morning were alarming, to say the least. A press council or commission should be established immediately. In recent years, despite calls for press restraint in the House, the situation has been deteriorating rapidly. I will arrange a debate on this topic in the coming weeks. Everyone will have to be courageous, however, both in this House and in the Lower House, in addressing this problem. The rights of the citizen are certainly being eroded. Jumping to conclusions before cases are heard in court is something we must view with great concern. I will request the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to attend the House as a matter of urgency for a full day's debate on this matter.
Senator O'Toole called for a debate on the OECD report on the economy. He also stated his concerns about our ambassador to the OECD. I will arrange time for such a debate and will also pass on the Senator's views to the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Senator Costello called for a debate on finance and matters relating to the Revenue Commissioners, and I will arrange time for that. Senator John Cregan called for a debate on the Ombudsman's report. I have already given a commitment for such a debate. It is something which many local authority members are concerned about, and Senator Cregan has voiced their concerns.
Senators Leonard, Dan Kiely and Ó Fearghailcalled for a debate on policing in rural Ireland. They fully support the Garda Síochána, as we all do in this House. I will have no difficulty in making time available for such a debate.
Senator Ridge inquired about the Local Government Bill and explained her party's position on it. The position of all parties on this legislation is the same. In the main, we represent local authority members and are honoured to do so. I have no difficulty in making time available for a debate on the legislation. I am confident that the Bill will be passed by the House before the summer recess. As I said before, I do not want Senators making holiday arrangements for July because we intend to sit an extra week or two, if necessary, so that we can pass this legislation and have it enacted before the summer recess.
We, too, want to enjoy our summer holidays. Senator Glennon mentioned the infrastructural development in the aviation business and expressed strong views on Dublin Airport. We are all aware of the great work that is being done there, in particular by Aer Rianta. We are also aware of developments at Heathrow and we are now at approximately 60% of the growth capacity for Irish carriers using that UK airport. I take Senator Glennon's point and I will pass his views on to the Minister for Public Enterprise later today.
Senators Dan Kiely and Ó Fearghail called for a debate on the IDA's commitment to investment in rural areas and to decentralisation, as well as rural investment generally. Senator Farrell pointed out the planning difficulties involved in that while money is available for rural areas, lack of infrastructure or planning objections can pose difficulties to development. Something will have to be done to short circuit this matter because the Celtic tiger may not be around forever. Rural areas in particular must have their fair share of economic development, otherwise some of them will become a wilderness. In ten or 15 years' time, as the census figures demonstrate, many parts of Ireland will be depopulated if we do not do something about investment there. Half the population of the country will be living on the east coast, while fewer people will be living in the west, south and north-west. Under the new proposals we hear about in local authorities, the poorest part of all is the midlands area. We must take the opportunity to make such investments. The south-east is an area that also needs to get its fair share.
Bearing that in mind, we should have a debate on the national development plan before the end of this session to ascertain how these issues can be addressed. Senators can make their views known to the Minister on the basis of their experiences in their constituencies and discuss how they can be improved. Senator Ó Fearghail requested a debate on housing and I have no difficulty providing time for this.