Before I call the Leader, I wish to inform the House that an usher, Jim Kelly, who has given service of 31 years to the House, will retire next week. As this is his last day in the Seanad, I wish him a very happy retirement.
Order of Business.
I join the Cathaoirleach in paying tribute to Jim Kelly, whose face is well known to Senators. Whether we are in turmoil or a calm frame of mind, the ushers are unflappable and serve us wonderfully.
The Order of Business is No. 1, a sessional order to address the problem arising from Senators being allowed to make only one contribution on the effect of all amendments made to a Seanad Bill substantially amended in the Dáil, which many Members find too restrictive. Having considered the matter, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges proposed a new procedure to allow a Member to contribute once on the subject matter of each grouping of amendments made by the Dáil when they return to the Seanad. The House will be able to monitor how the change is enforced; and No. 2, Oil Pollution of the Sea (Civil Liability and Compensation) (Amendment) Bill 2003 – Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude not later than 1 p.m.
I join the Cathaoirleach and Leader in wishing Jim Kelly every success on his retirement and thank him for the work he has done in the Houses during his time here.
One of the outcomes of last night's benchmarking debate, of which there are probably many, was the Minister for Finance's complete turnaround in adopting the position of the Fine Gael Party that the work of verification groups should come under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. What order will the Minister make or will there be a change in the legislation to provide for full disclosure of the discussions that take place within the verification groups? The public has a right to know what is going on behind closed doors.
Last week a Mr. Ross – I understand he is no relation to the illustrious Member from Trinity College – took a case to the Equality Tribunal regarding age discrimination after he was refused a quotation from a car insurance company. Does the Leader agree that there should be a thorough investigation of the insurance and pension industry to ensure that this age discrimination, which was shown to have occurred in the case before the Equality Tribunal last week, is not evident in other areas of this sector? Mr. Ross is to be congratulated on the stance he has taken on behalf of the many elderly people in this country. He was rightly awarded compensation and I congratulate him on that. I also congratulate the Equality Authority. It has been the recipient of a considerable amount of flak in the years since its establishment but it supported Mr. Ross in bringing his case. He took on the big guys and he won. Many pensioners owe him a debt of gratitude for that.
I congratulate Fine Gael on its major victory last night in getting access to material which was publicly and freely available anyway.
That should be acknowledged. I have raised the issue of rail transport in recent days. The Shannon Airport group has produced a new survey on the viability of what I refer to as the Sligo-Galway-Limerick line and what the group calls the Ennis-Limerick line. The Seanad discussed this issue previously in the context of the viability of the airport because both subjects are inter-linked. If there is to be a new and fresh future for Shannon Airport, it will happen through freight development taking place parallel with development in passenger traffic. It would be useful to have a debate on that report. The report might only deal with one county in the country but this issue has huge implications for decentralisation, infrastructure and so forth. This is the type of subject we should discuss more in the Seanad.
Perhaps the Leader would arrange a debate on this issue with a view to ensuring that this line, which should go from Sligo, through Galway, Ennis and Limerick and on to Rosslare, is kept firmly in our sights. It would be a worthwhile debate. If we cannot get the Minister for Transport to attend, we can discuss it without him.
I join the tributes to Mr. Jim Kelly. I found Jim to be friendly and helpful, as are all the ushers. They play an important role in terms of guiding Members around the House and helping us with our work. I wish Jim well on his retirement.
This morning I listened to an interesting discussion about the Seanad and Seanad reform on the Marian Finucane radio show. However, the only group in the Seanad that was not represented on the panel was the Labour Party, which was strange for a programme that prides itself on balance.
We have no control over that.
Yes, but this relates to an issue I wish to raise on the Order of Business. I telephoned the station to complain about the lack of balance but my comment was not aired in the programme.
The issue I wish to raise is one that does not appear to have been raised during the discussion on Seanad reform. It is the importance of the relationship the Seanad has with local government. Many people have suggested, in the context of Seanad reform, that the Seanad take on the role of monitoring European affairs. However, it is important that we maintain and strengthen our link with local government. Most Senators are elected by county councillors and many councillors have also been Members of the Seanad.
With the loss of the dual mandate I fear, as do many Deputies and Senators, that because we are no longer practising councillors we will lose that monitoring role in terms of raising problems with local government and may lose sight of the importance of local government, reform that is required and so forth. It is important that the Seanad maintains its link with local government in any proposed reform and in its debates. Pending Seanad reform, we should consider some way of structuring a link with local government because it is most important. At the end of the day, councillors are the representatives who are closest to the general public.
I join in the tributes to Mr. Jim Kelly and wish him well on his retirement. He has been a fixture in the Houses for a long time and, like all his colleagues, is a most efficient and dedicated servant. We are fortunate to have people of his calibre looking after us.
I, too, was surprised that the Labour Party was not represented on that radio programme. With regard to the wider issue of Seanad reform, the most appropriate option is to wait for the sub-committee to produce its report and to have that report fully debated in the House. Several Senators have made submissions to the sub-committee and those submissions are welcome. We have also heard from the General Council of County Councils and the Association of Municipal Authorities. The best approach is to wait until the draft report is available and to debate it then.
The other issue I wish to raise, the Middle East, was raised yesterday but it should be raised again today in view of the fact that more American soldiers have been killed in Baghdad. If the debate on the Middle East were to include the situation in Palestine, Israel and Syria along with what is happening in Iraq, it would cover all bases. Obviously, there is serious disquiet that the territory of a sovereign state was breached by the Israelis in a retaliation strike following the atrocity of the suicide bombing in Haifa, in which people from across the communities who were enjoying themselves together were blown to bits. There is also the wider question of the UN mandate in Iraq, how that should be exercised and the role of the Security Council in this regard. These issues are worthy of debate in the near future.
The Intergovernmental Conference meets next week and one of the issues before it is the draft constitutional treaty. The Government will have an input into that but, given the fact that the forum for Europe has produced a summary of the treaty and that the draft treaty is available, it would be useful for the Seanad to examine the treaty in the weeks after the Intergovernmental Conference and give its views. One of the suggestions for Seanad reform is that the Seanad would have a more meaningful role with regard to European matters.
On many occasions I have been given the opportunity to raise the provision of a radiotherapy unit for the Limerick area. The expert review is out today and I am disappointed that Limerick is not included as one of the locations for such units. There are about 1,500 cases of cancer each year in the mid-west region, of which 750 require radiotherapy. It is contrary to the principle of palliative care to have people travelling long distances for radiotherapy. The review is a retrograde step for a population of 350,000 which, according to international standards, would justify having two linear accelerators based in that location. I hope this matter will be reconsidered in the context of the long awaited health reform document on future advances in the Limerick area.
It is particularly regrettable because a charitable organisation was prepared to provide the equipment and capital resources for the facility. All that was required from the Department of Health and Children was the provision of staffing resources.
I join Senator O'Toole in calling for a debate on rail infrastructure in the mid-west region. It is of particular importance at present given the changes that are envisaged for Shannon Airport, the necessity to ensure the future of that airport as a gateway to the mid-west region and its importance for tourism. An important element of that will involve building a rail link from Shannon Airport to the Ennis-Limerick line and feeding into the western rail corridor. The Western Development Commission has put much effort into the development of that corridor. A debate in this House on infrastructure to assist and inform the work of the Western Development Commission would be timely.
I join in the tributes to our friend and usher, Jim Kelly, who has changed position over there. I am surprised that my colleague, Senator O'Toole, who is usually very much on the ball in such things, did not raise the matter because I saw it written on his Order Paper. However, he was having so much fun with hisbadinage about Fine Gael that it slipped his mind.
Sorry, Mr. Kelly.
He has asked me to say that he really did want to pay a warm tribute to Jim Kelly and he has asked me to do that on behalf of the Independent Senators. I am extremely glad to be able to do so because he is known and greatly appreciated by all of us for his wry, laconic sense of humour, which I in particular will greatly miss. One begins to feel old when all the familiar faces start to disappear and we are left isolated on our little reef. However, we will be joining Mr. Kelly soon. Retiring is a wonderful thing. I have done it several times and it is always very good for one's health and well-being.
I wish to raise one or two other issues. The first is No. 13, motion No. 13 on Tibet, which is a rather long technical motion in the name of the Independents. I note that the President is currently in the People's Republic of China. She is being given a very effusive welcome and I know that she will acquit herself, and represent us, very well. However, it is most important that the question of China and Tibet is discussed in the House because there has been unacknowledged slippage without any reference to Parliament. This State's position is clearly that we do not recognise the aggressive incorporation of Tibet into the People's Republic of China. I do not think it appropriate that there be slippage in the area without consultation with both Houses of the Oireachtas.
I listened to what Senator Tuffy said about connections with the people through local government and local authorities. That is important, but I am glad that we eventually took the bit between our teeth and removed the dual mandate because it strengthened this House. I know that it was painful for some of my colleagues, but it was a good thing. However, I still think that Senator Tuffy is right that we must maintain as strong links as possible with the grass roots.
I support Senator Dardis's call for a debate on Iraq and the Middle East. No weapons of mass destruction have been found, as the Leader of the House, among others, very clearly pointed out during the important debates that we had in the run-up to the war and during it. It is astonishing to me, having just come back from America, to see the way in which the American people are fed pap about it. The level of debate was made clear to me when I read the remarks of one of the people involved in preparing this important report, where they acknowledged that they had been unable to find weapons of mass destruction which were described as "shiny, pointy things". That is the level of debate one has in the United States. People are kept in ignorance and 70% still believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for—
The Senator can raise all those points when we have the debate.
Must I wait till then?
The Senator has adequately made the case for a debate.
In that case, perhaps I might use one other argument in support of Senator Dardis. I believe very strongly that the debate should be extended to take in the question of the Israeli approach to these matters. It is very important that this House says something very clearly to the Israeli people, who are our friends, and to their Government, which is behaving so disgracefully. It is an outrage that a Cabinet Minister, Ehud Olmert, should call publicly for what he described as the "liquidation" or "elimination" of Yasser Arafat, who was elected as the representative of his people. The last time I heard those kinds of remarks, they were made in a German accent and, in a civilised country, no one should be allowed to remain in Cabinet having said such a thing.
I ask the Leader for a debate on stem cell and embryo research. As I understand it, there is currently no legislation governing the area, although I believe that Senator Henry tried to introduce a Bill on it some time ago. It is an exciting area, which I understand shows great possibilities for the eradication of illness and disease. It is also frightening and has implications in the philosophical, psychological, sociological and moral domains. We can never stifle the search for scientific truth and in this Chamber we should be absolutely capable of debating it. We need not wait for any reports from commissions, councils or anywhere else. We should debate it as soon as possible. In that way, when we need to present legislation, we will at least be informed and able to do so.
Yesterday in the other House during a debate on a Bill introduced by Deputy Gilmore on capping land prices, the Taoiseach, when pressed, committed himself to the notion that we would have to have a referendum on the issue if we wished to do so. I ask the Leader when the Taoiseach intends to hold the referendum.
I also pay tribute to Jim Kelly. When I first came to the House, he was very nice and helpful in showing me the layout and I wish him every happiness in his retirement.
I support Senator Tuffy's proposal that we maintain strong links with local government. Now that the dual mandate has been abolished, it is extremely important that those links are maintained. I feel very strongly that we should not lose our links with the grass roots. One does not get the feel of being in touch with the real public in either of the Chambers here. It is very important that we talk to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government so that sections are introduced about maintaining links in that regard with the Seanad. The councillors are our electorate, something we should never forget.
I reinforce what Senator Dardis said. As the Government spokesperson on European affairs, it is timely that the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, is invited to give us an update on the progress report on the draft constitution. This is a very important time in Europe's history and for Ireland too, particularly since we will be moving into the Presidency in a few months. It is very important that we connect with the public and let them know in simple terms what is going on. There is no place better than this Chamber to develop that role. It should also be part of the reform of the Seanad.
As some of the other Senators present have called for a debate on transport, I ask the Leader if she will organise a specific debate on transport in the Dublin area. As we have seen and heard over the past week, the Minister does not seem able to keep in touch with the grass roots regarding other organisations and units which provide public transport in the Dublin area. Given the fact that continued development is bringing many thousands more houses to the area, if something is not done very quickly about the provision and delivery of public transport, this city will grind to a halt. I therefore ask the Leader to arrange that specific debate as soon as possible.
I would not like to let the first week of a new session go by without once again reminding the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of the need to deliver the promised 2,000 gardaí, since we are in the run-up to the budget. It is still clear out there on the streets that we need additional gardaí. I remind the Minister once again of his promise.
I ask the Leader to request the Minister for Health and Children to come to the House for a debate on the cancer report, perhaps in the context of a wider debate involving the Hanly report and other documents. I generally support that report. I am sorry that Senator Finucane is not here. It is not out of sympathy for his very heartfelt plea for Limerick, but simply because one cannot pluck oncologists out of the air. We will be very lucky if we manage to develop four cancer centres for the country in the next five to ten years. I support Senator Lydon's request for a debate on stem cell research, which carries huge ethical and other connotations. I support Senator Dardis in asserting the vital importance of a debate on the report of the Convention on the Future of Europe. It is important that the Seanad should establish itself as an important locus of debate for that.
If Members will indulge me for a moment in a small personal matter, the other day we paid tribute to former Senator Louis Walsh and in my pride in the achievements of a fellow Ulster man I had a slight rush of blood to the head of the sort which caused me last night to confuse the senatorial representatives of the holy and undivided Trinity. I paid tribute to Mr. Louis J. Walsh, who was an even more distinguished man.
From Magherafelt. He is inUlysses.
He was even more distinguished than I explained but he was the father of the Senator. I only mention it now in case the family would have been hurt in any way by my apparent ignorance. It is quite clear that the former Senator was hugely distinguished also and a worthy son of a distinguished father. I am glad to pay tribute to him and to be associated properly with the other tributes.
A couple of weeks ago, I represented the Joint Committee on Health and Children at a meeting on stem cell research and therapy in London and I would be grateful if the Leader would arrange a debate on this issue. I fully support Senator Lydon's comments. The media has concentrated on embryonic stem cell research but huge advances are being made in adult stem cell research and treatment, as well as in the use of foetal blood stem cells. These will be non-controversial areas in this country and we should try to put a great deal of effort into research there. We should also work on bringing forward legislation in Europe. An EU directive has been introduced asking all member states to bring in legislation in these areas and to contribute to the European debate on this matter. The issues involved relate particularly to quality control. One remembers we eventually had to have the Lindsay report, which examined quality control in blood transfusion, so we should try to get working on this as soon as possible.
It will be very difficult for us if treatments in embryonic cell research prove to be very effective against conditions like Parkinson's disease or spinal injuries, as our constituents will demand such treatments in this country. What will our reaction be then? We should look at this ahead of time before we have afait accompli on our hands.
Many local authorities are approaching the time for estimates and budgets again. This is an appropriate time for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to come to the House to debate local government funding. Such funding is inadequate, particularly when one considers that a very small section of the community – the business sector – seems to pick up the shortfall, as it will have to do for benchmarking when the time comes.
This area needs to be reviewed in a detailed debate because while the business community can afford to pay its share, and a little more than its share, it cannot be expected to pay for all. That is what has been happening in every local authority area, with inordinate percentage rises in rates and contributions in recent years. I would appreciate an urgent debate on this matter.
I support Senator MacSharry's call for a debate on local government funding and I wish to be associated with the kind tributes to Jim Kelly, which are richly deserved. I am glad the Minister for Finance will bring some level of transparency to bear on the benchmarking process, as he announced here last night.
Will the Leader indicate which Bills will be initiated in the Seanad in this session? She may not know off the top of her head but she might tell us next week which Bills are involved and when they are likely to be taken.
I support the calls for a debate on Iraq and I suggest a separate debate on Palestine as these are enormously different issues. The debate on Iraq could deal with the demeaning of the United Nations by the United States Government. I came back from the United States on Monday but while there I attended a function at which George Bush senior spoke. During the function he said he supported his son totally on the war in Iraq but only 20% of those at the function applauded him. Many of them were senior Republican supporters and from my experience in the US, thinking Republicans are absolutely embarrassed by George W. Bush. If Dr. Howard Dean gets his act together, as the only Democrat who opposed the war in Iraq he will have an opportunity to defeat George W. Bush who is an embarrassment in the United States.
Senator Norris is correct. The average American person does not see the carnage in Iraq but the thinking people who read magazines and newspapers saw that last weekThe New York Times called George W. Bush a buffoon.
I support calls for a debate on the western rail corridor but the debate should cover the overall way the rail services are used in Ireland. The Limerick-Ballybrophy and Rosslare-Limerick lines are not being used and that is part of a wider debate.
I support calls for a debate on stem cell research, about which I feel particularly strongly. Huge benefits may accrue from such research; for example, yesterday we learned that Dr. Robin Ali of the University of London had successfully used a vector to transfer a gene which may assist in preventing Parkinson's disease and other diseases. This is very positive but I am wary of a situation which could arise in which gene therapy would be used for cosmetic purposes, a situation with other resonances. Dr. Henry alluded to the fact that there is no need for embryo research when adult stem cells and bone marrow cells can be used. I note a trend in Europe to describe two types of embryo – those used for research and those used for other purposes, which is a very dangerous development as it ascribes a lesser value to one type of embryo.
The value of stem cell research cannot be lost on us, but we must be very careful and always ascribe to the embryo the dignity it deserves.
Senator Brian Hayes laid claim to a conversion on the part of the Minister for Finance. I do not know about that but it was refuted by Senator O'Toole.
Keep the money coming and Fine Gael can claim all the victories it wants.
It was a sparkling debate with great contributions all round and was well worth the time given to it.
Senator Hayes mentioned Jim Ross, the man who brought his age discrimination case to the Equality Tribunal. I fully applaud that and remember thinking "Well done" when I read about him getting his compensation, which was miserable enough. The point was made, however, which was important and that opens the way for other actions in that area. Nothing is surer in life than that we will get old – if we live that long – and Mr. Ross's action was wonderful. I thank Senator Hayes for raising the issue.
Senator O'Toole mentioned the western rail corridor, saying it should lead on into Ennis and down to Shannon. I will get the report on this matter and hopefully we will use that as a debating point the week after next.
Senator Tuffy mentioned Marian Finucane's radio show. The researcher for the programme telephoned me a week ago and again about three days ago. I told her that there was no Labour Party representative among the people she mentioned. Yesterday, a person in my office telephoned her again to let her know that the make-up did not include Labour. I mention this because we are working in an all-party way in the reform committee. However, ultimately, one cannot dictate who people include, but two telephone calls were made about it.
I agree with the Senator about retaining local government links. Regardless of Seanad reform, some mechanism should be found to formalise the links. Senator Dardis made it clear that the Seanad reform report will be debated in the House and there will be a debate on the Middle East, which is necessary. Senator Ormonde mentioned the Committee on European Affairs and asked for a debate on the draft EU treaty and the draft Convention. We hope that debate will take place the week after next.
In response to Senator Finucane, the radiotherapy report will be available this afternoon. It seems that they have settled on the centres of excellence where the work is to be done, but we hope to have the Minister for Health and Children here soon for an omnibus debate.
Senator Dooley also sought a debate on railway infrastructure and noted that it would greatly enhance access to Shannon for people and freight. Senator Norris called for a debate on China and Tibet. He also agreed with Senator Tuffy's point about local authorities.
Senator Lydon asked for a debate on stem cell research, an area on which Senator Henry did valuable work in the House some time ago. There appears to be a general belief that we should return to this topic. Senator McCarthy raised the cap on land prices. An all-party committee on the Constitution, headed by Deputy O'Donovan, is examining that whole matter.
Will there be a referendum?
The Senator asked if there is to be a referendum, when it might be held. If there is to be a referendum, the Taoiseach told me that he hopes it would coincide with the local and European elections. However, that is only if it comes to that point.
Senator Ormonde referred to strong links with local government and authorities. She also asked that the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, be invited to the House. We have invited the Minister of State and we hope he will attend.
Senator Terry asked for a debate on transport in the Dublin region. She also referred to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform's promise of 2,000 extra garda. However, the Minister said that the extra gardaí will be recruited during the lifetime of the Government.
Senator Maurice Hayes referred to the radiotherapy and Hanly reports. He echoed the request for a debate on stem cell research. He also corrected the record on the late Senator, his very illustrious father, in a very elegant manner. Senator Henry also asked for a revival of the debate on stem cell research.
Senator Dardis informs me that the European directive has been examined by the scrutiny sub-committee of the Committee on European Affairs which referred it to the appropriate committee.
Senator MacSharry raised the issue of funding for local government. He is correct that councillors all over the country are talking about it and the provision of essential services. However, until the Estimates are announced, it would be difficult to have a debate on it because, until then, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, will be fighting his corner. However, I will bear it in mind for the future.
Senator Coghlan wishes to know what Bills will be initiated. We hope to have the Bill relating to pregnancy that we debated on Second Stage—
That is right. It relates to protection for pregnant workers. It is hoped to take Committee Stage of that Bill the week after next.
The Criminal Insanity Bill, which was raised yesterday, seems to be in a morass. There are hundreds of amendments, so the entire Bill is being looked at again. I do not know what will be the outcome.
Senator White raised the issues of Iraq and Palestine while Senator Hanafin raised the issues of rail transport and stem cell research. He pointed out that the issue of human embryos is separate and he also referred to gene therapy.
Yesterday evening, the debate on the benchmarking motion tabled by Fine Gael was extended by 15 minutes and many good contributions were made. It was suggested to me that I was wrong to allow an extra 15 minutes. I refer Members to Standing Order 42, which allows a time extension on a non-governmental motion once it is moved from the floor and the sitting Cathaoirleach agrees to it. I mention this to clarify the matter. I would not willingly operate against Standing Orders.