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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Feb 2005

Vol. 179 No. 4

Order of Business.

The Order of Business today is No. 1, Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Bill 2002 — Committee Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of the Order of Business until 1 p.m.; and No. 2, statements on the future development of An Post, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude not later than 4.30 p.m. with the contributions of spokespersons not to exceed 12 minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed eight minutes and the Minister to be called upon to reply not later than five minutes before the conclusion of statements. There will be a sos from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

Does the Leader agree that there is something menacing and threatening about the IRA statement issued last night? It is clear from it that the IRA still has not gone away despite the fact that it initially called a ceasefire more than ten years ago and that in 1998 the people North and South voted for the Good Friday Agreement and called on both Governments to implement it.

I will make three suggestions which I hope will be helpful to the Government. I ask the Government to consider reconvening the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. This could bridge the current gap in the peace process by allowing all democratic parties on the island to come together and state unequivocally what is required of Sinn Féin-IRA before the process can go further.

I ask the Taoiseach to make a statement in the next day or so stating unequivocally that the concessions both Governments were prepared to grant IRA-Sinn Féin before Christmas, including the early release of the killers of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe and a measure concerning those who describe themselves as "on the run", will be removed immediately from any possible discussions or negotiations with Sinn Féin-IRA. Does the Leader agree that a genuine debate among all politicians is required on the proposition that one grouping, a minority of the people, can hold the entire peace process to ransom because it is not prepared to move just yet? That position is not tenable in the long term and a debate, such as that held in the House last night, is needed.

On a positive note, we learned yesterday that a summit will be held in Egypt next week between the new Palestinian President and the Israeli Prime Minister. Given the interest of Senators in the conflict in the Middle East and the interest in the peace process here, the House should wish those talks well. I hope all the parties can again re-engage with the two-state solution to the problem in the Middle East.

During the debate last night I stated I felt grossly uncomfortable with the motion, even though I agreed with everything in it, and argued that we should look forward. We should not over-react to yesterday's statement. Sinn Féin has found itself in a cul-de-sac and like any cornered animal it is looking for a way out and trying to win back ground lost since the previous juncture. The decision to take an offer off the table is a perfectly predictable move to which there should not be an over-reaction. We should not respond by saying, "Woe is us".

Far from the Taoiseach producing a definitive, irreversible, irrevocable statement, it is far better for him to say nothing at this point and work instead behind the scenes to determine how we can move the process forward. Last night I argued that the way to do this — I may be wrong — is to build at community level and in civic society to try to reconstruct political engagement over the next 18 to 25 months.

The necessary hard talking has taken place and the other side has given its reaction. That phase is over and everybody who speaks from this point onwards should have a proposal which will bring us closer to getting the peace process back on the rails. We must continue to remind ourselves that a ceasefire is in place and the leaders of Sinn Féin, however much we have criticised them, have made considerable progress. I do not speak for them, having been one of their greatest critics, but we need balance in this debate if we are to move the process forward. It is time to draw breath and examine where we will go next.

During all the negotiations in which I have participated in the past 17 years, the involvement in society of people with special needs or of different ability has been a major issue. The private sector needs to match the public sector in ensuring that at least 3% of the workforce are people from such a background. I ask the House to recognise the award given to Senator Quinn last night for giving the lead in this area in the private sector. It is a major advance and the Senator is entitled to have it recognised. I hope he will continue to focus his energies in that direction and will not feel a need to top the poll in the next election. He has done well.

I join my colleague, Senator O'Toole, in his expression of good wishes to Senator Quinn. As regards Senator Quinn's poll-topping, I would not mind a little redistribution.

While Senator O'Toole is correct that restraint is necessary, it is difficult. It must be clearly stated by all of those who accept there is only one way to pursue politics that no one is doing us a favour by maintaining a ceasefire. We did them a favour by offering them a way out and the door is still open to them to find a way out of the cul-de-sac in which they find themselves. Beyond that, I do not propose to take up Senators' time discussing the nonsensical rhetoric of the IRA statement to which we have become accustomed.

I will relate a lovely positive little story from Belfast about St. Mary's Training College camogie team, which is training at night in Linfield Football Club's training ground. This is the other side and we should celebrate little changes such as this which would have been inconceivable 20 years ago. We should give them more prominence as the way the world is going and let others catch up.

On an unrelated matter about which I read in a newspaper this morning, what is the position regarding ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, which regulates all research carried out on embryos, etc? The article cited the immortal statement by the Department of Health and Children that the convention is under continual review. Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe with no legislation on this area. Senator Henry raises this issue regularly. We are leaving ourselves wide open to unscrupulous researchers using Ireland as a base. To pretend that because some of the issues addressed in the convention are a little difficult to grapple with, it is somehow better to have no regulation, is to leave us wide open to all sorts of abuses. Will the Leader ask a Minister why the convention has not been ratified?

I join previous speakers in raising the IRA statement. Every speaker has said something of value with which I agree. Senator O'Toole described the statement as predictable and argued against an over-reaction at this stage. The Senator is correct. I would like to quote a paragraph of the statement. It reads:

The IRA has demonstrated our commitment to the peace process again and again. We want it to succeed. We have played a key role in achieving the progress achieved so far. We are prepared, as part of a genuine and collective effort, to do so again, if and when the conditions are created for this.

But peace cannot be built on ultimatums, false and malicious accusations or bad faith.

The IRA should look at its own statement because everything is in that paragraph. I do not want to get into a slagging match with the IRA because it is not the time for that. However, the positive in that statement is that it has said it wants the peace process to succeed and mentioned that it would make an effort, so it is a time for reflection. Both Governments have made it clear that the ball is firmly in the IRA's court. We know the issue and on what it must reflect. When it does so, I have no doubt both Governments will meet it half way and, indeed, the Irish people will embrace it. We want this to succeed and stories such as that relayed by Senator Ryan show the positive side. That is what we want. We should not overreact. There should be a period of reflection for everyone. Hopefully, when the IRA analyses that paragraph and looks in the mirror, we will be able to get everything back on track.

In regard to the P. O'Neill statement and the point made Senator Minihan regarding reflection, I support Senator Brian Hayes's call to encourage the Government to reconvene the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation if it would help that period of reflection.

I presume the so-called Quigley report is available. A debate has been requested on the awarding of Government public relations contracts. Will it take place when we know what the Standards in Public Office Commission is going to do in this regard? Perhaps the Leader will comment on that issue.

Will the Leader inform the House whether the €50 million of public money spent on e-voting is now likely to be written off? Will she outline the Government's policy on the Hanly report and its possible implementation? Is the story we heard this morning that it has been permanently shelved true? I would appreciate if the Leader could give us some information on that or, if not, perhaps she could arrange for the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children to come to the House to discuss the matter.

In regard to Northern Ireland, I agree with Senator Minihan that there should be a period of reflection. Taking up the point made by Senator Ryan, encouraging educational institutions and sports bodies is the way forward and is a great way to bridge the gap. Caution is required in respect of Northern Ireland.

We are about to launch an awareness campaign on the referendum on the EU constitution. I would like to think the Seanad will play a leading role in debating that issue, particularly since this House has spoken on many occasions about its importance in reaching out to the public. Will the Leader take a lead and perhaps begin the debate in this House in the near future?

I support Senator Brian Hayes's suggestion that the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation be convened only if the purpose is to provide a forum where the contending parties in the North could have an opportunity to meet on the margins because otherwise, it is just a talking shop and would not do any good. If, however, it provides an opportunity for these kinds of off the record discussions, it probably would be serving a very useful purpose.

When I heard about the IRA statement, it reminded me of the famous quote, "The IRA hasn't gone away you know". I am afraid it has not and that is a central part of the problem. I was very interested and heartened, in a way, when I heard Senator Mansergh on Radio 1 this morning being very clear and firm in what he said. If I remember correctly, he made the point that Sinn Féin would not come within an ass's roar of participation in democratic government until it resolved this problem of the lingering military associations. The question of criminality is central to this issue. For a long time I felt there would be a difficulty when the armed conflict ceased, that it would be very difficult for people involved in the glamour, emotional excitement and, indeed, the financial profits from operating on the margins of society, to draw away from that into the dull, routine life the rest of us lead. There is a problem of the kind of "Mafiaisation" of the IRA.

Then came the denial that Jerry McCabe's murder was part of an IRA operation. However, it claimed it when it turned out that the people who committed this clearly criminal act where members of the IRA. I said at the time that I felt it was defining itself by that incident into a form of criminality. We recently had the very unpleasant spectacle of Sinn Féin representatives, including young women, saying the killing of Jean McConville was not a crime, so murder is not a crime if committed by members of the IRA.

That makes me worry when I see the IRA's statement saying it will not be quiescent. What does that mean? During the period it describes as quiescent, there have been punishment beatings which is a very bland phrase to cover the mutilation of young people by shooting bullets into their wrists, knees, feet and so on. We are entitled to ask that this stop. I suppose the birth of democracy is always painful. If one is to take an optimistic view, this is just another painful spasm and one hopes that real democracy will be born out of it even among these people who appear to have set their faces against it.

Will the Leader arrange a debate next week on the proposed relocation of the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum to a site close to the new prison? The Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, said at a public meeting in the area that no consultation on the location of the prison had taken place before the decision was made. Yesterday, I met Mr. Michael Ringrose, chief executive of People with Disabilities in Ireland. He said the siting of the hospital in the same complex as a prison, if allowed to proceed, would generate stereotypical perceptions of people with mental health difficulties.

Every day when travelling to and from the House, I pass the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum and there is certainly no sense of criminalisation. I know the people in it have committed misdemeanours of various degrees but they are mentally ill, so it is a sensitive matter. Yesterday, I heard from the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children that a Cabinet decision had been made that this would go ahead, but a Cabinet decision was also made on the Hanly report. This relocation should be considered again by the Cabinet.

The Irish College of Psychiatrists, the Mental Health Commission, the Psychiatric Nurses Association of Ireland, Aware, the Samaritans, relatives and care groups at the Central Mental Hospital and Schizophrenia Ireland are totally opposed to the relocation of the hospital to a site in close proximity to this prison. We all know conditions in the Central Mental Hospital are appalling. Mr. Ringrose said economic pragmatism — and if I may dare say so, right-wing politics again — seem to prevail over the dignity of people with disabilities. As the hospital is close to the Luas line, it is now realised that it will fetch millions of euro if sold for housing development. A very short-term view is being taken. If that decision is implemented, it will have serious consequences for future generations.

I agree with Senator Brian Hayes's remarks on the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. I also agree with the views of Senator White on the Central Mental Hospital and its proposed relocation. She raised a very valid point.

I refer to the report of the Central Bank published on Tuesday on the general level of indebtedness. It would be apt if the Leader could ask the Minister for Finance to come to the House at some early opportunity to discuss the report which contained important and serious information.

I also wish to raise the issue of employment inspectors. A situation has come to light in recent weeks involving the exploitation of immigrant workers from eastern Europe in the construction industry. There are more dog wardens than employment inspectors in this country. In light of the obvious negligence in this case, it is important that this issue should be discussed as a matter of urgency.

I too would like to see the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum replaced. There are difficulties with having such a facility on the same site as a prison. I hope all those who say it should be replaced but not alongside a prison would welcome it in their own area.

Hear, hear.

There is much evidence of the NIMBY syndrome on this issue. I have a certain amount of sympathy with the Minister who says one may as well have one facility instead of two.

I wish to associate myself with the comments of Senator Ryan regarding Linfield Football Club, which has taken much stick over the years. It is a small gesture but a civilising one and it is helpful to recognise it as such.

I support Senator Ormonde in her request for debates in the Seanad in regard to the EU constitution. This is an important issue with which Irish people must engage. There must be a major programme of public information and explanation of what is a complicated issue. The Seanad is the perfect place for such discussion.

The survey published yesterday by the Irish Primary Principals Network has frightening implications for primary education. Some 75% of the 850 principals and deputy principals surveyed indicated a sense of hopelessness. Many also admitted to suffering from stress and exhaustion. It is a serious issue for education at that level when so many principals admit to a feeling of hopelessness.

Serious concern was expressed by those who responded to the survey in regard to the workload endured by principals. Few of them have an official office and only 50% have some secretarial assistance. Respondents indicated increasing bureaucracy and requirements under the new special needs legislation, as particular difficulties. These concerns relate to the dwindling number of teachers applying for the post of principal. This is a serious concern. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Science to take immediate action to alleviate the workload endured by principals and to allay their fears and concerns as indicated in the results of this survey?

Will the Leader consider an early debate on health issues? In this session, it is important that the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, should have an opportunity to outline her policies, particularly regarding the Hanly report. This should be a definitive statement on the future of the health services, which hopefully will not be based on that report.

The incidence of the mixture of public and private facilities in hospitals creates major difficulties. I am aware of a public patient who was sent to the radiology department of Portiuncula Hospital, a public hospital for which I had the pleasure of signing the purchase contract on behalf of the Government.

There were many signatures in those days.

This medical card holder was sent a bill for €71 for a dexa scan which should be free under the public health service.

Is Senator Leyden anxious to have a debate on this issue?

That is correct.

Now is not the time for such a debate.

I appreciate that but wish to finish my point. There is also a charge for mammograms in Portiuncula Hospital. Such services should be free in a public hospital.

Hear, hear.

The hospital was purchased for £11 million. We are paying for the equipment, the CAT scans, the nurses and the accommodation,——

Now is not the time for this debate.

——yet a medical card holder was billed for €71. I told her not to pay it.

It is evident the cracks are growing deeper within the Government parties——

Senator Bannon should speak on issues appropriate to the Order of Business.

——particularly in regard to areas of policy. The evidence is here today——

The Chair has instructed Senator Bannon to speak on matters relevant to the Order of Business.

——and I advise Senator White to put down a motion of no confidence at her next parliamentary party meeting in regard to the delivery of services in the north County Dublin area.

That is not relevant to the Order of Business.

Will the Leader invite the Minister for Finance to the House for a debate on the rural renewal scheme that expired in December 2004 and which was successful in six or seven counties in the BMW region? Many smaller villages were unable to avail of it because the proper infrastructure was not in place, including sewerage and water schemes and so on. This was a worthwhile scheme which brought much business, employment and development into the region by way of tourism and infrastructure. A debate on the issue would encourage the Minister for Finance to extend the scheme for a further two years, a move that would be of significant benefit to that region, especially the small villages.

I called for a debate when the mid-term review of the BMW region was published last year because there was evidence of a significant underspending of funds. A debate is required and I was given some encouragement by the Leader in this regard. However, I am still waiting.

One can appreciate all the concerns expressed here today about the state of the peace process. Those concerns are all genuine and each has a different emphasis. However, it is unthinkable that the peace process should unravel at this stage. It is badly damaged and frayed at the edges but not beyond repair. It is important for us all to focus on solutions in the future. Too much time, hope and persistence has been invested in this process for it to fail at this time.

I empathise with Senator O'Toole and the parameters which he has set down. There are times when one cannot see the horizon but one knows it is still there. There is not a person on this island who is not aware that the human spirit can be dulled and oppressed by major setbacks. This is no less true in the case of the peace process. We have seen the pendulum going back and forth but must keep in mind the progress that has been made. All parties could face each other around the table, ask difficult questions and be straight in their answers. In such a way a final solution can be found. That is still my hope for the peace process.

There is only one minute remaining and three Senators are offering. I will accommodate those three but no more.

I endorse the comments congratulating Senator Quinn on his most recent award. At a time when people with disabilities are still struggling for a measure of equality, it is gratifying to know there are people like Senator Quinn in business. I read last week about a pub in Temple Bar in which there was a toilet door marked for disabled use but behind which there was nothing but a wall. With that type of cynicism still in our midst it is gratifying to observe the behaviour of people such as Senator Quinn.

I ask the Leader for a debate on the mobile phone market in this country. It is widely acknowledged, including by the regulator and the EU Commission, that Ireland is paying one of the highest average costs per user in Europe. The mobile telephone companies here are heading towards profits of €1 billion per year. It is accepted that where competition is in place the cost to the consumer reduces by approximately 25%. It is within our control to insist that these companies allow competition into the marketplace. We analyse the fine detail of other matters for very small amounts. Here is an opportunity to create employment and save the consumer huge amounts of money. It is time that the regulator was given teeth.

Like other Senators I would welcome a debate on the future of the health services. We should compliment the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, on the speed with which she has grappled with some of the very serious issues in her new Department. We should not get hung up on labels or terms for the future as it is all about the delivery of service. In the case of County Clare it is about the upgrading of the hospital, spending the €20 million that has been promised for some time and retaining the accident and emergency services in the hospital on a 24-hour basis. We should not have a tit-for-tat argument as to whether we proceed with the recommendations of the Hanly report. Let us move away from the labels and consider the people and the services that need to be delivered.

Senator Brian Hayes, the Leader of the Opposition, raised the statement made by the IRA last night. He asked the Government to consider reconvening the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, a matter he referred do in his speech during yesterday's debate in the House. He also asked that concessions already announced should be withdrawn and he sought a genuine debate as to how one grouping could prevent progress. Reconvening the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation makes sense in that nobody wishes that a vacuum should continue. While I have not spoken to the Taoiseach, I understand from the media that the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach spoke of trying to engage in a range of activities, which would get us through a particular period until after the British general election. While I will convey the Senator's idea to the Taoiseach, I would anticipate that they are already discussing the matter, which makes sense. I do not agree with parsing and analysing the statement by P. O'Neill; I believe we should all shut up about it. In that regard I agree with Senator O'Toole in that to do otherwise would only give further oxygen to those concerned.

Senator Brian Hayes also raised the summit to be held in Egypt next week between the new Palestinian President and the Israeli Prime Minister, which is a sign of great hope. Senator O'Toole congratulated Senator Quinn on running an ability rather than a disability campaign. I was interested to learn that when recruiting employees the interview is called a talent interview, which is correct because everybody has some talent. Clearly Senator Quinn's firm has sought to bring this talent out.

Senator Kett also raised this matter and he would know and appreciates the importance of a positive attitude towards people with a disability. It is greatly to be welcomed that against a commercial background, Senator Quinn has over the years seen fit not alone to give the best produce to people, but also to see behind the facade and to seek to give people with ability an opening in his stores.

Senator Ryan referred to the IRA statement as nonsensical, with which I agree. He lauded that St. Mary's Training College camogie team is now training in Linfield's training ground. I found that information startling and wonderful. He asked why Ireland had not yet ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. I will inquire about the matter.

Senator Minihan echoed what Senator O'Toole said about the IRA statement in recommending that we should not over-react to it. Senator Coghlan asked about the Quigley report. I understand it is in the Oireachtas Library and can also be accessed on the Internet. However, copies were not placed in our pigeonholes, which is what the Senator meant. He asked when we might have a further debate on the Hanly report. I will see if the Tánaiste will be able to attend the House. I am sure she would be willing to do so.

Senator Ormonde cautioned about the North and also raised an important point, which I had also considered. Perhaps we should hold a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to start an awareness campaign on the referendum on the EU constitution with a view to considering the use of this Chamber for that purpose. With your permission, a Chathaoirligh, we might consider doing that.

Senator Norris spoke about the IRA statement and the painful spasms that everyone is undergoing in this process. Senator White spoke about the proposed relocation of the Central Mental Hospital to the site close to the new prison. I believe that wherever it is located some people would object. The proposed site extends to 150 acres, which is an enormous site. While there will be proximity, the prison and hospital will not be cheek by jowl and will have separate entrances.

It will have a psychological effect.

Various groupings have sincerely indicated they did not wish it to be there. While I have not been inside it, looking from the outside at the Central Mental Hospital, I have no doubt of the need for proper facilities. The hospital will have no connection with the prison. Huge money was paid to buy the site and the location makes practical sense. However, the Senator has made her point clearly.

Senator John Paul Phelan referred to the Central Bank report suggesting that we are all living slightly beyond our means.

It sounds like déjà vu or Groundhog Day.

While this is not alarming, the general level of indebtedness has increased. He asked for an increase in the number of employment inspectors.

Senator Maurice Hayes agreed with various comments about the North and also agreed with Senator Ormonde's request for an awareness campaign on the European constitution and for this Chamber to be used. We are ideally sited with the right background. We will try to establish an agenda for such work.

Senator Ulick Burke spoke about the primary school principals. I found that to be a very defeatist survey. While clearly it was correct, if they are all exhausted and feel hopeless I would wonder about the children under their care. Principals are held in great respect and I do not know why they should feel so hopeless and exhausted. At the same time I can understand the difficulty of running a big primary school bursting with children who have loads of energy. I found the survey very defeatist when I read the report of it.

Senator Leyden asked for a debate on health issues with the focus on the mixture of public and private facilities in hospitals and what one must pay in a public hospital. He also referred to the advice he gave a constituent. Senator Bannon spoke about the rural renewal scheme. The Finance Bill will be published today. The Senator indicated that some small villages were unable to avail of the scheme, which has been a great success. Much has been spoken and written about the matter. We will see what the Finance Bill produces.

Senator Ó Murchú spoke about the current state of the peace process, which is badly damaged but not beyond repair. He expressed the wish that everybody would sit down and talk.

Senator Hanafin called for a debate on the mobile telephone market, which he has asked for on several occasions. We will endeavour to hold such a debate shortly.

Senator Dooley asked for a debate on the delivery of health services. He said we should move away from using handles or names such as the "Hanly" report, etc. That is a sensible comment. He would like a good debate in the House on the matter.

Order of Business agreed to.