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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Apr 2003

Vol. 172 No. 8

Order of Business.

The Order of Business is No. 1, National Tourism Development Authority Bill 2002 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 12 noon; No. 2, Data Protection (Amendment) Bill 2002 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] – Report and Final Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and conclude not later than 1 p.m.; No. 3, statements on crime, to be taken at 2 p.m. and conclude not later than 5 p.m., with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 15 minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed ten minutes and on which Senators may share time; No. 4, Local Government (No. 2) Bill 2003 – all Stages, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, to be taken at 5 p.m. if No. 3 has not concluded earlier, and to conclude not later than 6.30 p.m. There will be a sos between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.

As a distinguished former member of the Cabinet, the Leader is no doubt aware that last year the Oireachtas passed an Act allowing for the establishment of an ombudsman for children, some four years after the original Bill was published and eight years after the idea was first mooted. Notwithstanding the Minister for Health and Children's difficulties in his hand to hand combat with the Minister for Finance and the fact that his mind is probably elsewhere, will the Leader ask him when the office of the ombudsman for children will be established since the post has not yet even been advertised? It is important that this office be established as soon as possible, particularly in the light of the 1998 UN report which rapped this country across the knuckles for not doing so and the 2001 Supreme Court decision which limited the role of the Judiciary in intervening in child welfare issues.

It is important that an independent voice for children be established. The law is in place but it is not being enforced and the Minister for Health and Children should appoint someone as soon as possible.

Opposition Senators tabled an amendment on Report Stage of the Bill to which Senator Hayes refers seeking a commencement date for that appointment. The then Minister of State responsible, Deputy Hanafin, gave us an absolute assurance that there was no need to do so because the post would be operational as soon as practicable after the Bill was passed. On that basis, this side of the House agreed to withdraw the amendment in good faith. There was a lengthy debate on the matter and we made the point that when a commencement date was specified on previous legislation, such as the Education Bill, it ensured that things happened.

There is often decent and genuine opposition to issues and decent people have taken different views from mine on the Nice treaty, trade unions and other issues. They protested and went about their business. However, they are often new to the business of protest and are unaware – unlike those of us who are used to it – that they can be hijacked by small groups of people who change their name with every single new opposition grouping. They begin as anti-Nice treaty, then they become anti-war and then anti-Shannon stop-over – whatever is most appropriate at the time. They are simply Trotskyites who are trying to do something. This is hugely important.

Things have happened outside the gates of the House which are worrying to all of us but we need to look at it from all points of view. The Garda Síochána agreed to allow the lapse of the constitutional requirement that there be no demonstrations within a particular distance of the Houses of the Oireachtas on the basis of agreement with leaders of demonstrations. I was there at 7.30 p.m. and there were decent, honourable people protesting in a way with which many Members of this House would agree.

Two things need to happen. We should not see everybody in the same light and people who are protesting should not need to feel that they have to defend people who acted dishonourably, if they acted dishonourably. I am being careful with my words because I did not see and do not know what happened. The result, however, is a strong requirement and responsibility on us to welcome opinion and opposition. It is hugely important.

One of the good things about this anti-war movement is that it has encouraged participation in political and public life by young people who had no such involvement previously. It is important to encourage people to voice their views and to do so in a way that is appropriate to all sides so that all arguments are respected.

Will it be possible to have a debate on the concept and meaning of collective Cabinet responsibility? I read this morning's Irish Independent with interest. We seem to be witnessing open warfare between the Minister for Health and Children and what he euphemistically describes as the Department of Finance. I will not test the Chair's patience by citing the Minister but either the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Health and Children should come to the House to explain the Government's position on the health service.

Clearly, there are two views at present, the view of the Minister for Finance, which prevails, and the view of the Minister for Health and Children, which obviously has been ignored to such an extent that he is provoked to speak publicly about the degree to which he has apparently been marginalised. The Government is ramming through a fundamental review of the Freedom of Information Act to facilitate, it says, the business of Government. When it cannot do what it is constitutionally obliged to do, which is to govern together, we need to hear who is in charge. Let us hear about what is happening from either the Minister for Finance or the Minister for Health and Children because we now have two different views from two senior Cabinet Ministers.

And not a punch has been thrown.

There is a PD too.

They are Ministers for the good times, not the bad. They cannot hack it.

The Senator should make his point about the Order of Business.

I have made my point. The problem is that the Progressive Democrats have the Department of Finance as well as the other two Departments—

Conclude on that point. What is the Senator's next point?

They punch above their weight.

—but nobody in Fianna Fáil noticed. There is a PD fifth columnist inside Fianna Fáil and he is the Minister for Finance.

Has the Senator another point?

Senator O'Toole raised last night's incident. I was not there but there is something that should be explained. The Cathoirleach will recall that about two years ago some of the Dublin taxi drivers took great exception to a Government decision. They camped outside this House for about three days in an intimidating fashion. They also camped outside Dublin Airport for the same length of time and forced everybody to carry their baggage about 200 yards beyond the roundabout. There was no intervention by anybody. Protesters should not block the exit from Leinster House but the response seemed to be urgent, immediate and over the top. I doubt that we needed riot police outside Leinster House last night. I did not feel threatened.

The Senator was not there.

I simply want to know the criteria that are used for these decisions.

In the 13 years I have been a Member of this House I have not experienced an incident outside the gates as threatening or as serious as the one that occurred last night. The gardaí acted responsibly and with considerable restraint. We have to thank them for ensuring that Members could leave the House in safety to drive home.

I will always defend the right of any citizen or group of citizens to protest within the law outside Leinster House. I agree with Senator O'Toole that over the years there has been a progressive erosion of the cordon sanitaire, if one can use that term, around the Houses. When the farmers' rights campaign took place in the 1960s, the nearest they could come to the Houses was the corner of Merrion Square at the Mont Clare Hotel. Over the years that has changed and I do not object, but perhaps we should look again at how protests are conducted. I also agree with Senator O'Toole's point that certain people seem to be able to change their colour, like chameleons, according to what protest is taking place, infiltrate it and try to run it. The gardaí acted properly and responsibly in the circumstances and anybody who was here last night would confirm that.

A report is being published today on the rail service. Can that report be debated in detail by the House? It is a comprehensive report and it would be appropriate for the Minister for Transport to come to the House to debate the issues it contains.

I agree with the comments of Senators O'Toole and Dardis about last night's incident. I was there for an hour and a half and saw what happened. It was reminiscent of a fascist display rather than a pacifist display. The group had obviously been infiltrated by rabble, some of whom had a considerable amount of military experience not long ago in this country when they wrought havoc. What took place was nothing other than naked thuggishness. I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Dardis that the gardaí acted with commendable restraint in the face of terrible taunts and gross provocation. They did their job commendably. It was disgraceful that Members seeking egress from the House had to retreat into the House under Garda protection. It is intolerable and cannot be allowed to happen again.

I support the request made by Senator Dardis for a debate on the strategic rail review. The report was commissioned by the Leader of the House when she was Minister. It is appropriate that the report be debated by the House as quickly as possible. It is an important document and the Seanad should have a detailed discussion of it and have its observations noted by the Government in advance of any decisions being made.

With regard to No. 27 on the Order Paper, I thank the leaders of the various groups in the House for their support for this motion, which calls for a ceasefire in the Middle East between Palestine and Israel for the period of Holy Week and Easter. Perhaps the Leader of the House would convey the wishes of the House to the appropriate governments for consideration. The motion could be taken from the Order Paper if it is agreed by the House without debate.

There is no procedure to allow that. It is on the Order Paper.

Yes, and it has been signed by the leaders.

It must be included in the Order of Business.

It can be conveyed to the appropriate governments.

If the Senator wants the motion moved, he must propose an amendment to the Order of Business.

I do not wish to do that.

We will support the Senator.

Never let it be said that the midlands let the Senator down.

It is important that we keep a sense of proportion about what happened last night. I saw some but not all of it. There was some mild inconvenience where people were delayed for an hour or so but that is all. There was some shouting but no violence. Perhaps people of minority views are taking control of it. That is because there is a vacuum and leadership is not being given by the main political parties. They should be involved in some of these protests. If not, they abdicate responsibility and it will be left to those who are seen to be on the fringe. That is the problem. The vast majority of the people last night were perfectly decent and respectable. They included 60 year old women, people in wheelchairs and so forth. Let us have a sense of proportion and bear in mind what provoked this, the use of cluster bombs by the British and United States forces on civilian targets. That should be known.

I thank the Leader for having given us the opportunity to debate this matter yesterday, and for her own dignified speech as well as the excellent contributions by everyone else who spoke. We should continue to have these debates but it is also vitally important that the main political parties should become involved in demonstrating concern about this matter.

This is especially the case when we see Al-Jazeera television, on which many of us have relied for some kind of a balanced and objective view, being attacked by both sides. Two of Al-Jazeera's reporters have been kicked out of Baghdad and the service has now withdrawn from the city. The Sheraton Hotel in Basra has been targeted by the United States with missiles because there are satellite dishes there. That is disgraceful and we should maintain a sense of proportion in that regard.

Will the Leader draw to the attention of the Minister for Education and Science the evidence in a trial that led to the conviction of two young men who brutally assaulted in an unprovoked way an unfortunate and decent young man and killed him? The comment made was, "There's a queer from Knocklyon, let's get him." I do not think there is anything to suggest that this young man was gay but that shows us some of the attitudes involved. It is terribly important to get some kind of message into schools that this kind of outrage against a minority group is intolerable.

Earlier in the week I asked the Leader to make time available after the Easter recess to discuss transport. Such a debate is now more urgent than ever, especially in view of the publication today of the strategic rail review. Moreover, the director of traffic in Dublin, Mr. Owen Keegan, has questioned the Minister's policy for a metro and he said that traffic congestion has been overestimated. A key player, Mr. Keegan – who is an unelected official – is now stating what future policy should be, against the policy of the Government.

Hear, hear. Well said.

One year into office, the Minister should lay down what he intends to do. I hope he will attend the House for a debate as quickly as possible.

I note that tenders are being sought for the new Government jet to leave us looking posh when we take over the Presidency of the EU. This is great hypocrisy because at the same time elderly people around the country are waiting for their—

Do you have a question?

Yes, I have. Elderly people are waiting for the essential repair and disabled person's grant but because of bureaucracy on the part of the Government and the Department of the Environment and Local Government—

Senator Bannon should put the question. I am calling Senator Feeney.

I am asking the Leader to invite the Minister for the Environment and Local Government—

Resume your seat, Senator.

I am asking the Leader to invite in the Minister.

Resume your seat.

The man from Abbeyshrule.

I have a question for the Leader.

Resume your seat, I said. You are not listening to the Chair.

I have a question for the Leader.

I am calling Senator Feeney.

I have a question for the Leader.

Resume your seat. You had a question but you would not ask it.

I have a question for the Leader in relation to the elderly.

Resume your seat.

I have a question for the Leader.

Resume your seat and have some respect for the Chair.

Do I not have a democratic right to ask the Leader a question?

Resume your seat. I am calling Senator Feeney. You have to respect the Chair.

That is shameful and disgraceful, a Chathaoirligh.

Resume your seat. I call Senator Feeney.

I would like to join—

On a point of order, all Members of the House are entitled to put questions to the Leader.

Yes, but the question was not being put.

And every Member of the House—

My ruling is not going to be questioned.

I asked the Senator to put a question but he would not do so.

I am asking—

My ruling is not to be questioned. I am calling Senator Feeney.

Sir, in respect of a colleague of mine—

I am calling Senator Feeney, please.

Sir, with the greatest respect, a colleague of mine has put a question and he is entitled to be heard like everyone else.

He refused to put the question.

I will not have colleagues of our party being put down by one side of the House. I would ask that the question be put.

Are you questioning my ruling, Senator Hayes?

No. I am saying that all Members have equal rights.

Right. I asked him to put a question and he refused. I call Senator Feeney.

I join other Senators in condemning what happened outside Leinster House last night. Driving in this morning I listened to Pat Kenny's radio show. He was interviewing a Roman Catholic priest who was at the protest last night.

Do you have a question?

Yes. I would ask the Leader to pass this on to the relevant authority. The priest said this was the seventh protest he had attended. He said the rest of them were all very peaceful and quite enjoyable but yesterday there was a small group of militant people who provoked, jeered at and joked about the younger members of the Garda Síochána in particular.

Do you have a question for the Leader? Other Senators are offering.

I am asking the Leader to pass on a message to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to say congratulations and well done to the members of the force last night. They certainly played a blinder and looked after us very well.

As Acting Chairman yesterday I was fortunate to listen to the debate on Iraq. The refreshing contributions of Senators reflected the diversity of thinking on this issue.

I saw the footage last night and having been a Member of the Oireachtas since 1989, it is the first time I ever saw gardaí with Alsatian dogs inside the gates of Leinster House. There is no doubt that it was quite intimidating. It does not behove Members of the Oireachtas to mingle with people like that who are protesting outside the gates. If anything, it contributes to confrontation. In this morning's newspaper, I saw a photograph of a Member of the Oireachtas being carted away from the protest.

We are not discussing that now.

I was reminded of Shakespeare's words, "Me thinks he doth protest too much."

On a different note, the Leader may recall that on a previous occasion I mentioned the special savings investment scheme. I recognise that many people who participated in that scheme took a gamble because it was linked to shares or unit trusts. I am concerned about those people because the financial situation has changed. They thought they would make profits of 25% over the period during which they contributed but if they want to pull out of the scheme now there is a 23% penalty. Some fresh thinking is required because, while people entered the scheme from a savings and investment point of view, circumstances have changed due to the financial situation. Perhaps the Leader could convey that to the Department of Finance which should be sensitive to the situation.

Will the Leader ensure that we can have a continuing debate on Iraq during the course of this brutal war that is taking place? I did not contribute to the debate yesterday but I wish to compliment all those from both sides of the House who did. As the Leader said, there was consensus, which is what we want to achieve on this issue. We should have such a debate on a weekly basis so that we can all be more or less united on the issue.

I agree with Senator White on the need for an ongoing debate on Iraq. I welcomed yesterday's debate on humanitarian aid but it is important to debate the war itself and the need to end it as soon as possible.

In relation to the anti-war protest, I was not there and I do not really know what happened. I sympathise with the Garda Síochána's dilemma and I also sympathise with the peaceful protesters. This highlights the need for a Garda ombudsman to deal with grievances in an open and transparent way.

I ask the Leader for a debate on the report of the liquor licensing commission. We will have a debate on crime later today but we need a focused debate on the commission's report before legislation is brought to the House on foot of that report.

I wish to refer briefly to the matter raised by Senator Morrissey. We have great civil servants but we do have people who believe that because they are members of what is known as the "permanent government" they can take unto themselves powers they do not have. It is their business to implement policy, not to determine it.

Are you seeking a debate?

I most certainly am because a clear line must be drawn between reserve and official functions concerning policy. Some people in officialdom do not know the difference.

The Senator is still having a go at the Ombudsman.

Over three years ago, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, announced that decentralisation involving over 10,000 jobs would be introduced into areas that had not previously benefited from it. So far, however, nothing has happened. Towns throughout the country are waiting for and urgently require such decentralisation to take place. I call on the Leader to have an urgent debate on the lack of decentralisation.

I join others in commending the Garda Síochána for the tremendous restraint they exercised last night. I spoke to a number of Members who, when trying to exit the front gate, found the protesters extremely intimidating. I cannot speak personally about that matter. It is my view and that of others that there seem to be subversive elements frequenting protests which otherwise would be peaceful and in which people have a democratic right to participate. I ask the Leader to note that the Garda Síochána acted with commendable restraint when faced with the subversive elements to which I refer.

I wish to refer to comments made during the week on the alleged lack of relationship between the Department of Education and Science and the Laffoy commission. Following inquiries I made, I am of the opinion that it would helpful if we had a debate, at the earliest opportunity, on the issues that were raised in the House. That might clarify matters and set the record straight.

The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Brian Hayes, raised, as he has done previously, the matter of the need to appoint an ombudsman for children. I inquired about that matter on the previous occasion, but I do seem to have received a reply. It is four years since the legislation in question was passed. I note the United Nations report castigated us for not having such an ombudsman. The appointment of a person to the position is the responsibility of the President, but she must be presented with the name of a candidate before she can proceed in that regard. It is a long time since this matter was raised initially and the making of this appointment is now a matter of great urgency. I hope that I will have a report before Tuesday next.

Senator O'Toole made the point that when this matter was debated in the House, an amendment was tabled to have a commencement date in respect of the activity provided for under the legislation, but that did not happen. Ministers are wary of agreeing to commencement dates because they would be tied to them, but that is sometimes not a bad position in which to be.

Senator O'Toole also wondered if protests were being hijacked by some people who are anti-everything. We all welcome the right of people to protest. It is part of our democracy that one has a right to express different opinions, to march and to strike. Most of these rights are enshrined in the Constitution. I enter by the Merrion Gate and there were 12 protesters outside it when I was leaving last night. I thought we would not have to go through what others had to go through, but that was not the case. The protest at that gate was not intimidatory, but that was due to their being so few people there.

From what I have been told, it seems that the protest at the Kildare Street gate was intimidatory. Managing such a protest is a matter of judgment for the Garda Síochána, which is entitled to ensure that the law is upheld. However, we have a right to go to and from our place of work, namely, the Houses. If Members cannot leave this place of democracy at a late hour – I saw on television that a committee sat late last night – that is wrong. Protest should not extend to stopping people from leaving their place of employment.

Senator Ryan asked about what was happening to collective Cabinet responsibility. There is always tension between a Minister for Finance and colleagues in spending ministries. I am aware of that because I had responsibility for such ministries. The Minister for Finance wants to keep the various budgets in order and the Ministers with responsibility for spending ministries want to expand projects, make improvements to benefit everyone and provide good services. There is, therefore, bound to be tension between those Ministers. The Senator asked if the relevant Minister could come before the House. Does he want them to come together or separately?

I do not know whether they are talking to each other.

They are talking.

They are sending e-mails.

I cannot foresee circumstances in which they would come before the House to explain—

I would like to know which one of them is relating Government policy.

That is a matter for collective Cabinet responsibility.

Senator Ryan also asked whether the riot police were needed last night. I do not know, but the Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform will be in the House today and the matter can be raised with him. He is open to taking questions and giving answers. I reiterate my comment that Members are entitled to go to and from their place of employment. Senator Dardis referred to the right of people to protest, with which we would all agree. He also stated that gardaí work in a conscientious manner, which is correct. Senator Higgins said that the members of the Garda acted commendably and that what happened last night was intolerable. It is intolerable that one cannot go to and from one's place of work in peace. I accept that protesters have a right to protest, but they do not have a right to stop Members leaving the House.

Senator Dardis requested a debate on transport, while Senator Leyden called for a debate on the strategic rail review. I would very much like the latter debate to take place. I noticed that it is not mentioned in the foreword to the report that I commissioned the review.

No, it is not a shame.

It is a shame – credit where credit is due.

It is not really a shame. We should not go overboard.

It shows that there is a split in the Government.

We appreciate the Leader.

I have never seen a review that did not attribute credit to the person who commissioned it.

It is disgraceful.

It is not an outrage, nor is it a shame. If anything the House has shown me how to maintain a sense of proportion.

Senator Leyden also asked that we deal with the all-party agreement. We will have to clear the protocol for that. I hope we can do that and that we can take such a motion next week, without debate.

Senator Norris referred to the disturbance at the front gate last night as being minor. Everyone has different views on that. I am sure the Senator would agree that it is necessary that people should be able to leave their place of employment—

Yes, but it is a tragedy that there were riot police present and it is a pity that photographs were taken of gardaí wearing crash helmets. I am sorry it happened.

Members of the Garda are in a better position to judge what is required in such circumstances.

They were there for the Sinn Féin—

Senator Norris also talked about there being a wrong attitude towards the gay community, with which I agree. There are civics classes given in schools which deal with those issues. The Senator asked that the Minister for Education and Science take note of what has been said on this issue.

Senator Morrissey called for a debate on transport. He also queried the fact that an unelected official is setting out policy, when that should be done by the relevant Minister.

Senator Bannon began to talk about—

The plight of the elderly.

The Leader should be allowed to proceed, without interruption.

—the Government jet and his distaste about proposals in that regard.

It is a matter of embarrassment.

The Senator is not allowed to speak when the Leader is replying to the Order of Business.

I am embarrassing the Cathaoirleach.

I hope the Senator will withdraw that remark. He is not embarrassing me.

I withdraw it.

Senator Feeney said there was a small group of militants among those who protested outside the front gate last night. We can discuss that issue when the relevant Minister comes before the House later today. Senator Finucane also mentioned the protest and referred to the fact that Members of the Oireachtas mingled with the protesters. That led to a frisson in terms of the encounter and it did not help in regard to what was happening.

Senator Finucane also asked that the Department for Finance examine the provision under which people who, through hardship of one kind or another, could be penalised in respect of their SSIAs. I have asked the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, to examine that matter since the last occasion on which the Senator raised it.

Senator White sought a continuation of the debate on Iraq. We will keep that in mind and hopefully we could have one before the Easter recess. Senator Tuffy also raised the matter of Iraq and the anti-war protest and she recognised that people have a right to protest.

Senator Tuffy also referred to the Liquor Licensing Commission. The Minister will be in the House later to discuss under age drinking, excessive drinking and the development of superpubs, which will make for an interesting debate.

Senator Glynn requested for a debate on transport. He said that we should outline clearly what is the reserve function in respect of policy-making and implementation. Different people implement policy, but I agree with him that putting foward policy is the responsibility of Government.

Senator Feighan called for a debate on decentralisation, which would be useful. He and others have called for such a debate before and I will try to arrange it for the last week of the session if we can get the relevant Minister.

Senator Fitzgerald referred to the events of last night and the Laffoy commission, which other Senators, including Senator Ryan, also mentioned. By chance I met the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science, who said it had re-engaged with Ms Justice Laffoy and that the matter was progressing.

After 18 months.

Order of Business agreed to.