Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re Business of Seanad, to be taken without debate at the conclusion of the Order of Business; No. 2, Student Support Bill 2008 — Second Stage, to be taken at the conclusion of No. 1 and adjourn at 5.30 p.m., if not previously concluded, on which spokespersons may speak for 15 minutes and all other Senators for ten minutes and Senators may share time, by agreement of the House; and No. 36, Private Members' motion No. 18 re water restrictions, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. and conclude not later than 7.30 p.m.

Can the Leader confirm when the Finance Bill will come into the House? Is it the case that the Bill will not reach the House until 24, 25 and 26 February? That is quite a delay.

Today, many families are feeling the impact of poor decision making by the Government. They see their incomes slashed and their social welfare payments cut. They hear about huge rises in VHI premia, which is of serious concern to so many families. There are increased numbers of trolleys in accident and emergency departments and families are having appalling experiences. Along with this, we hear more and more about information that was made available to the Taoiseach and which he did not put on the record of the Dáil or explain. This raises serious questions for those hard-pressed families, who are paying the price of bailing out the banks, about the Taoiseach's political judgment and the decisions he has taken. For example, one hears of a dinner at which the Taoiseach was told by Anglo Irish Bank directors that the NTMA had concerns about that bank and would not place money on deposit with it. In common with many other Members, I recall that when Deputy Kenny and others raised these questions in the Dáil, they were told by the Taoiseach that he treated the questions with contempt. He should have put this information on the record and explained the reason he supported Anglo Irish Bank in the manner he did given the information that had been brought to his attention. I do not believe the Green Party needs a Sherlock Holmes to find out what was going on. The question is how much more will the Green Party tolerate, given the kind of information that has entered the public domain in recent days. People have been expressing concerns about Anglo Irish Bank for some years and the Taoiseach, who was Minister for Finance, appears to expect the people to believe he was oblivious to concerns on the part of the NTMA about Anglo Irish Bank. Members should discuss this issue in the House today and I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to the effect that Members have a debate on the interaction of the NTMA with the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach in the run-up to the introduction of the bank guarantee scheme.

I support what Senator Fitzgerald has said. There is a large problem here, which is not so much about the detail of what happened between Seán FitzPatrick and the Taoiseach. It is about the fact that the chairman and former chief executive of a rogue bank should have such easy access to the Taoiseach. This happened not once or twice but three times and, as I believe Senator Fitzgerald noted, the dogs in the street were barking about Anglo Irish Bank before Mr. FitzPatrick's first such encounter with the Taoiseach. One knew there was something dodgy about Anglo Irish Bank, even if one could not put one's finger on it at the time, yet the person who was head of that bank at one stage could pick up the telephone and have a conversation with the Taoiseach when the latter was in Malaysia. Moreover, he could have a golf game with the Taoiseach for seven hours and could meet him and ask him to dinner to meet all his fellow directors. One must ask the reason this happens and the fundamental problem is that the country has been governed to a large extent in recent years by a group of cronies. While I do not wish to be personal about this, the Taoiseach undoubtedly is one of those cronies. Moreover, he has cronies surrounding him and not just in the Cabinet. He and the Cabinet have cronies in the banks, among developers, in the regulator's office and in the Department of Finance.

We are taking questions to the Leader now, not hearing political speeches.

Why not? It is the first day.

Yes, I have a fundamental question for the Leader.

The Leader would not allow a debate on a subject such as this although I asked many times for it, especially concerning CIE. When Members debated a Bill on cronyism, it was voted down. Funnily enough, it was voted down by the Green Party, which placed exactly the same Bill before the Dáil.

Cronyism is practised by all sides and not simply by Fianna Fáil. I wish to ask one further question. I do not understand and perhaps someone can explain to me the reason the finance Bill must go through both Houses before an election is held. We do not. It is complete and utter nonsense to suggest this is necessary. It is camouflage and is a smokescreen being put forward by the Green Party to provide it and Fianna Fáil with more time. Moreover, since this morning's Cabinet meeting there is talk that the general election will not be held until April. This is a con trick being carried out on the electorate. The two parties are playing a little game, in that the Climate Change Response Bill and other Bills apparently are being dangled in front of the eyes of the Green Party. However, it will not get them until the finance Bill is secured and as a result, the Government is waiting for something to turn up. There is no reason the finance Bill should be obliged to go through both Houses. An election could have been held by now had the Green Party been genuine about it, and the finance Bill could have had precisely the same timetable as it does at present. It is a ready-made convenient excuse. I ask the Leader to answer why we cannot have the election now and deal with the finance Bill afterwards.

On that issue, will the Leader indicate the plans for the coming weeks? Whether the election is as soon as 10 March, April, May or, as somebody said to me earlier, June, we are entitled in this final session to some clarity from the Leader as to the likely timetable of legislation in the House. There is talk about the finance Bill coming before the House at the end of February. Can we have a list of Bills it is intended to bring before the House between now and when the Green party will finally clear off the pitch? It is not much of a demand. I ask Senator Boyle to write a list and let us see it so that we can have some understanding of where we are. I ask for such an indication from the Leader as early as possible. It would assist us all.

Is the Leader aware whether it is intended to hold the referendum on children's rights on the same day as the general election? Has the decision be made? It has been intimated by the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, in recent days. Does the Green Party have a view on that? Does the leading party in Government not accept it is more important to have that referendum than a rushed referendum on the future of this institution on the same day as the general election?

I second Senator Fitzgerald's proposal for a debate on the matters she raised, which are of considerable moment and importance. The issue of easy access has been raised as a concern for people in recent days. I agree that easy access is a question of some concern, but while it is important I do not agree it is the most important issue. For months and months in 2008 there must have been exchanges and contact between the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, the Central Bank, the regulator and Anglo Irish Bank.

It would be extraordinary if such contacts were not made. We know that as early as March 2008 the bank was sliding. Even though I am very critical of the Government I cannot believe there was no contact about it. We know the Taoiseach took a telephone call on the weekend of St. Patrick's Day. There are many questions concerning whether he followed up on that. He said he would raise the issue with the Central Bank. Did he ask the Central Bank or the regulator after the meeting on 21 March what happened at the meeting? He must have taken an interest. It would be a dereliction of duty if he did not. Fianna Fáil sometimes seems to think that an independent regulatory system is a way of hiding away from making decisions. It is not; having independent regulators is an important, prudent way of doing business. It is not an excuse for the Government to say it has nothing to do with it.

For months in 2008 there must have been contacts. It points to the real failure of the Houses to have a genuinely robust examination of what the Government was doing and saying, what inquiries it made and what concerns it expressed to the regulator and the Central Bank throughout 2008. The issue I have in regard to the golf outing is not easy access, which is wrong and should be criticised. Why, as Deputy Pat Rabbitte said in recent days, is it believable that the Taoiseach, who spent a day with the head of a bank that was going down the toilet in July 2008, would not ask him a question on how things were? It beggars belief. If he did not ask him, why not? He must have asked him. The Taoiseach and the Government must have known what other people could see was happening in 2008. I do not buy the contention that nothing was said throughout the period in question. I would be critical of the Taoiseach and the Government if nothing was said. Something must have been said. Those questions deserve to be answered in the context proposed by Senator Fitzgerald.

I ask for the indulgence of the Cathaoirleach to note the passing this week of a great Irishman and party colleague of mine, Mr. Joss Lynam. He was a terrific sportsman who led his first expedition as far back as the 1940s. He was still climbing in the late 1980s after he had a coronary bypass. He was a fantastic example and a great Irishman. We should note his passing this week.

When my party made an announcement on 22 November last about its continuation in government, it laid down a number of principles that need to be adopted in the run-up to the general election if proper stewardship is to be handed to an incoming Government. We referred to the need to oversee the talks that were ongoing with the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. We said that a budget needed to be introduced and, subsequently, a finance Bill had to be seen through to its completion. Nothing has changed. It is not a smokescreen. The time required has been shortened by the earlier commencement of this session's business in this House and the other House and will be shortened further by the earlier publication of the finance Bill and the speedier progress of that Bill through both Houses. That is an indication of the seriousness of our intent. I assure Members who expressed concern about legislation which has been prepared over the past three years that it is well advanced. We hope and expect it can be passed. If that does not happen by the time the finance Bill is passed by both Houses, it will not change the decision we took on 22 November last. I want to be quite clear about that. There has been a great deal of mischievous comment about our participation, or otherwise, in government. I expect the progress of the Bill to be completed some time towards the end of February. It is the constitutional prerogative of the Taoiseach to decide when the election will take place and how long the campaign will be. Such matters are not in the hands of Members of this House.

So much for an election in January.

Other matters, such as cronyism and crony capitalism, have also been raised. Senator Ross was slightly mischievous when he spoke about my original public appointments Bill and the public appointments Bill he introduced in this House. I agree that this area needs major reform. There is cronyism outside the area of public appointments and it will continue regardless of the method of public appointments used in this country. I accept that questions need to be answered. There will be a debate on the matter in the other House. The responses given to the questions asked will be examined carefully. We need to move away from the idea that any contact between political and business interests can only be considered in the most negative light. There is a lack of proper safeguards, legislation and codes of conduct. That is one of the reasons we hope to introduce legislation dealing with corporate donations before we leave government. For all the reasons I have mentioned, my party is right to stay in government until certain events happen. We are being responsible by seeing through our programme of work.

Why did the Taoiseach not previously disclose his contacts with Anglo Irish Bank? I ask the Leader to address the matter. The Taoiseach was asked numerous questions on the matter in the Dáil on many occasions. What did he have to hide? The links now evident between the former Minister for Finance and current Taoiseach and Mr. Séanie FitzPatrick and others in Anglo Irish Bank seem incredible. As the Leader plays golf——

So does the Senator's party leader.

——he will be aware that it takes at least four hours for those who play golf quickly to go around a golf course.

He is a very good golfer.

It will have taken them at least four hours to go around the golf course, before they had dinner afterwards. The Taoiseach has said he did not broach the subject of the problems at Anglo Irish Bank with Mr. Seán FitzPatrick and Mr. Fintan Drury, who is a former member of the board of Anglo Irish Bank. It is incredible. The ordinary people of Ireland know it is incredible. It smacks of a culture of cronyism that there are such links between those in various high offices, who caused this economic crisis. We have often called for transparency and full accountability in this House. We are certainly not seeing it. If there was transparency and accountability, the Taoiseach would have come out with this when he was asked questions in the Dáil. He did not do so.

I draw the Leader's attention to last weekend's tragic events at the Trident Hotel in Kinsale. Carbon monoxide, which is a deadly gas, has claimed the lives of many citizens. I spoke some time ago about the exposure of people to radon gas, which is also deadly. Carbon monoxide, like radon gas, is a silent killer. I ask the Leader to make time available for a debate on these two deadly gases, which are claiming lives here on a regular basis. The Leader should ensure we have such a debate. The Government should provide for mandatory measures to require public buildings, including guest houses and schools, to install carbon monoxide alarms. The debate should be widened to cover exposure to radon gas. As parliamentarians, we need to legislate to ensure people are aware of these silent killers and take measures to ensure more people are not killed by them.

Why is reform of Seanad Éireann not on the agenda for this session? Nothing concentrates the minds of Senators more than the gallows or guillotine, which is what faced us up to a few weeks ago but for the timely intervention of Senator Boyle, chairman of the Green Party. Has the Leader examined in detail the report produced by the sub-committee on Seanad reform chaired by former Leader and Member of this House, Deputy O'Rourke and other Members and former Members, including Senator O'Toole, former Senator Dardis and Deputy Brian Hayes, on the reform of Seanad Éireann which states that Seanad Éireann makes a useful contribution to the democratic life of the State and that the savings achieved by its abolition could be achieved by other means? The report also refers to the effect on joint committees of the abolition of the Seanad and so on.

Mr. Noel Whelan also made the point that in reality a single Chamber would only enhance the Executive's dominance of our politics.

Britain, France, Germany, the US, Canada, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands and Japan have two chambers.

Is Senator Leyden seeking a debate on the matter?

Are we really in such bad company in that regard? We should have a debate on this matter. Will the Leader say whether this House has adopted the sub-committee's report on the reform of Seanad Éireann?

The Labour Party has proposed the sensible idea of holding a full debate on a review of the Constitution in terms of the Presidency, the Dáil and so on the light of current developments. It is not just the Seanad alone that should be part of that review. It is a simplistic suggestion to abolish just Seanad Éireann, which is an important House. I am opposed to the abolition of this House, which I have always respected. When Minister of State, the responses I received in this House to legislation which I brought before it were often better than those I received in the other House. Great contributions were made by Members who are here today and who know what I am talking about.

Is the Senator seeking a debate on the matter?

I want more than a debate. I believe the Leader should table a motion that this House adopt the report of the sub-committee on Seanad reform as part of the policy of this House for the future. We must reform or be abolished. I believe reform is the right way forward. I believe that the Members who form the next Government will come to the realisation that this House intends to remain. Mark my words, this House will survive the next Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition Government.

This is a rather sombre return of Seanad Éireann for a number of reasons, one of which, as referred to by Senator Leyden and in respect of which I would like to say a few words, is the future, if there is one, of this Chamber. Another reason is the extraordinary collapse of the Government, which is what has happened. The Government has collapsed. I have the greatest regard and respect for my colleague, Senator Boyle, and the Green Party which has had a positive impact in a number of ways on Government policy, which I, like many other citizens, appreciate. To suggest that the Government is handing over stewardship, however, raises the question of the kind of stewardship it was because the country is in a calamitous situation, which I do not believe anyone can deny, as a result of decisions taken by the government, primarily in the financial area. I do not accept that a proper handing over of stewardship will take place. A series of intractable and difficult problems will be handed over to the incoming Government which I believe will be able to handle them. Although this will take great courage and a great deal of time, I believe the people will ensure the Government does so.

I also respectfully disagree with Senator Boyle — I know our friendship will survive what I am going to say — that it is the prerogative of the Taoiseach to call the election. Were the Green Party to leave government at any point——

——the Taoiseach would have no choice but to call an election because the plug would effectively have been pulled on a Government in a state of collapse. A new Government would then be required.

On a new Government, it is important that is what we get. It is hoped in this regard that there will be generous support from those who will have to leave government and from their supporters. What we need is unity.

I would like to raise a question that may appear peripheral and perhaps even of slight consequence, but I do not believe it is. Every year coming up to St. Patrick's Day, there is a row about people going on junkets, whether the country can afford it and so on. It is extremely important in these perilous financial times that we are represented abroad but the Government is in a state of collapse, it has no moral authority or mandate and the poll figures are devastating and likely to get worse. Would it not be appropriate to recommend that Her Excellency, Dr. Mary McAleese, our President, should represent Ireland in Washington on St. Patrick's Day? I would like the Leader to give an opinion on this.

How about the Senator himself?

That would set a precedent for future years.

No interruptions, please. Senator Norris should put questions to the Leader.

At least it is an offer I take seriously, as I take this House seriously.

It should not be just President McAleese. I had the pleasure and honour of, and I took pride in, seeing her address a few hundred hard boiled business people in Texas and she had them in the palm of her hand. That is the kind of thing we want. I do not care from what political complexion this comes but it would be appropriate if we are to engage in this exercise of sending emissaries abroad to bring much needed investment back that they should not just be drawn from the Government. Leading figures from the Opposition must and should be included. I will not name them because that would be invidious but we all know there are people who could represent the incoming Government and the Ireland that will rise from the ashes if they were sent abroad in this manner.

The Senator has made his point.

There should be a debate on the situation regarding the banks and the contacts with senior members of the Government, particularly the Taoiseach — that was an astonishing revelation and I agree on this occasion with Senator Alex White. If the question of the dreadful situation at Anglo Irish Bank was not discussed, why not? It suggests that, over a period of many hours, this of all subjects, which every other person in the country was discussing at the time, was scrupulously avoided, as it was at the other social occasions. That certainly raises questions about the honour and credibility of the Taoiseach. One of the most interesting things is this information came apparently from Mr. Seán FitzPatrick. In drama, it is not always what is said, it is who says it. With regard to the Taoiseach's situation, to paraphrase the Marquess of Queensberry, I do not say that he is the thing but he has the appearance of it. He has an appearance that must be clarified because it has the clear appearance of acting without the kind of honour we expect.

I support Senator Leyden on the question of the Seanad. I am saddened to come back to the House to find that apparently every political party has spoken about the abolition of the House in one way or another. I regret this but I would, of course, as a democrat, support any call for a referendum. The people must decide but, following the McKenna judgment, it is a requirement that the people should be fully informed of both sides of the argument. The debate can be held here. There must also be the publication of a booklet and I suggest that the House's achievements, which are very often unrecorded in the media, should be listed and the full justification for Seanad Éireann should be published in it. However, the House would only deserve to survive if it were reformed. It is a question of either scrap it or reform it.

The Senator has made his point.

One has to do one or the other. Senator Leyden asked whether the Government supports the O'Rourke report. I am happy to provide the answer, which is "No". How do I know that? On the first day I returned to the House I tabled a motion on it and the Government side of the House voted against it.

The Senator has made those points.

Senator Leyden has the answer on that issue.

We should have questions to the Leader on the Order of Business, not Second Stage speeches.

I am putting a question to the Leader. I am asking him to——

The Senator has asked him many questions by now.

Yes, and that is the specific function of the Order of Business, particularly on the first day back when there are no time limits, as I am sure the Cathaoirleach is aware.

I respectfully suggest that we should not accept the proposed Order of Business. There should be a debate on No. 1; it should not be passed without debate.

Does the Senator propose an amendment to the Order of Business to that effect?

No, I do not propose an amendment. I simply point out that I will oppose the Order of Business on the grounds that we should discuss No. 1.

I am aware that many colleagues in the House are close to county councils.

The Senator is not leaving enough time for other Members to make their points.

There is plenty of time.

The Senator should not abuse the time.

I look forward to a full debate on these matters, which are important. I also look forward to this House being treated with respect and to Members using this session to earn and deserve that respect. Nonsense and cat-calling will certainly not get the respect of the people.

I join my colleagues, particularly Senator Leyden, in calling on the Leader to provide a progress report on Seanad reform. Furthermore, as this is our first day back for business in the first quarter of 2011, the Leader should outline the business of the House for the first quarter. We should know the structure for addressing that business now. In addition, as I have stated repeatedly over a considerable period, such a structure should accommodate a regular debate on topical issues. Although I am tired of making this request, I ask the Leader to indicate what progress he has made with the other group leaders in the House in agreeing such a structure for debate in the Seanad. Will he also give us a briefing or report on Seanad reform? If he cannot provide that reply today, will he provide me with a written response in the next couple of days? I look forward to receiving it.

Will the Leader arrange a debate on health issues, particularly the HSE service plan for 2011? I have a particular interest in the agreed provision of services for the elderly with regard to long-stay accommodation and personal care packages. I am also anxious to know the expected impact of the shortfall in the number of junior doctors in hospitals and how it will affect the provision and delivery of services.

On a sad note, I believe the country is united with the GAA family in offering condolences to Michaela's husband, John, and the Harte family on the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Michaela. I pay special tribute to Mr. Mickey Harte on the moving and courageous media interview he gave yesterday.

The family requested that they be given time and privacy.

Will the Leader invite the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House for a special debate on the grave fears regarding 497 jobs in Quinn Direct in Cavan and a further range of jobs that depend on them? As we speak, the administrators of Quinn Direct are in the process of——

That will be raised on the Adjournment and I presume if you contact Senator Wilson, he will afford you some time.

Yes. As I speak, the administrators of Quinn Direct are in the process of selling it. What has happened to the deal proposed by the board of the company? That deal would have saved the taxpayers money and saved the jobs. It is crucial to maintaining the business in that area. Why is the deal no longer on the table? Will the Minister explain that? I want the Leader to give us assurances that every conceivable effort is being made at the highest level to preserve the jobs of the young people in Cavan. They need these jobs. The entire economy of that region is at risk. The lives of people there are at risk. It is a crisis. I appreciate your indulgence, a Chathaoirligh, but it is an absolute crisis for that community.

A Heathrow Airport slot costs many millions of euro for any airline. It is a very valuable asset and each airline guards it very carefully. With that in mind, I am very conscious that we have a unique slot in the diary of the US President, which is on St. Patrick's Day. It is a slot we hold in many cities with Irish connections, be they in Canada, the US, the UK, Australia or New Zealand. This is almost unique. I call for a debate in this House so that there is an objective and reasonable response to members of the Executive, which is the Cabinet, going to different countries to promote Ireland. No matter who is in the Cabinet, it is always good for Irish business to have Irish Ministers going abroad on St. Patrick's Day. I request the Leader to have a debate on that issue, because it seems to be a question in this House.

I also suggest a debate on the economy. It appears that the American economy is picking up. There was a 0.4% decrease in unemployment in December 2010. The business mood, the stock market and the price of commodities are all on the up and up. Now that the Japanese have agreed to purchase Irish bonds, we have an opportunity to go back to many other countries that might buy Irish bonds and tell them that we have a guaranteed market for our bonds, but that we will sell them to these countries at a lower rate, as we did previously and as the NTMA did previously. Instead of paying 5%, we could pay 4% for our bonds. It is time for us to have a debate on the economy, which appears to be on the up and up. We are like a cork on the ocean, and the ocean seems to be getting calmer.

I echo the calls by Senators Fitzgerald and Alex White for a debate on the links between the Government and bankers in the wake of the revelations about the Taoiseach's contacts with Mr. Seán FitzPatrick. It stinks of cronyism. As Senator White pointed out, the real question is why they did not speak about Anglo Irish Bank and about its well known problems in the early months of 2008. That is a worrying question. Senator Norris suggested that they were avoiding the subject deliberately for some reason. However, the clear implication people are drawing is that the relationship between them was so close that they could talk about other things and that Mr. FitzPatrick had such a level of access to the Taoiseach that they did not need to discuss specific matters of business. We know they had discussed them previously following a telephone call on St. Patrick's Day in March 2008. This shows us that the actual Galway tent may have been abolished, but the virtual tent of cronyism remains within the culture of the ruling party in the Government.

We are talking questions to the Leader on the Order of Business. Many of those questions will be answered in the Dáil.

That is the real worry and that is why people are so angry about these revelations. We need to have a debate about this and about the real story on the fateful night when the blanket bank guarantee was agreed. This has had a large part to play in our economic crisis.

I call on the Leader to arrange a debate on the role of religion within the State in the context of a debate on constitutional change. Senator Leyden mentioned Labour's proposals for a convention on constitutional change, which is long overdue. It is time we reviewed the Constitution to see what is no longer relevant to the needs of a modern, pluralist republic. Such a debate in this House would be appropriate in spite of the short time we may have available to us and it would be appropriate to have a debate on religion in public life.

We need look no further than the dreadful situation in Pakistan, where we have seen the offence of blasphemy used to persecute an unfortunate, semi-literate woman and mother from an impoverished village. She has been prosecuted for blasphemy and the prosecution has already led to the assassination of a senior Pakistani politician. We are seeing considerable political unrest as a result of the presence in their law of the offence of blasphemy, designed so broadly that it can be used in a political way.

Similarly, we need a debate on the presence here of the offence of blasphemy that the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, insisted on pushing through this House and the other House on foot, he suggested, of a constitutional imperative. We must examine the constitutional provision on blasphemy and ask whether an offence of blasphemy is relevant or necessary in a modern republic.

I echo the words of Senator Alex White in paying tribute to Joss Lynam, the mountaineer and pioneer who continued to be so active long after ill-health and old age and who brought many people to a more active lifestyle. Also, I pay tribute to another person and party colleague who died over the Christmas break, Dr. David Nolan, the former medical correspondent ofThe Irish Times.

We are not getting into votes of sympathy on the Order of Business.

If we spend the next few months debating the date of the general election and raising partisan political issues, we will do a real disservice to the Seanad and I am sorry to see this happening. The other side may or may not be in Government following the election. With regard to the issue of the Taoiseach meeting people, if the suggestion from the other side is that Ministers should be cocooned in their offices with exposure only to the permanent government in the public service, I guarantee the House that it would not reflect best policy formulation, as distinct from meeting people in the public who are involved at the coalface in business. There should be no criticism of this. It is a fair observation to make and a fair question to put when policy formulation is adopted as to the basis for it and that is what the debate should be focused on.

I wish to make a point in reply to the comment made by Senator Bacik that the blanket guarantee in some way led to the current economic crisis. We should have a debate on this because I have heard this peddled by Opposition spokesmen who are either economically illiterate or mischievous. They should stand up what they are saying. The fact about the guarantee is while it was wide, the subordinated bondholders have been badly stung and the shareholders have been stung. The discussions with the EU may or may not lead in the future to a situation regarding the senior bondholders. Unless they are talking about the deposit holders being scorched as a consequence of the banking crisis — if they are, they should come out and say that — there is no further area that could have been hit with the guarantee. People need to face up to the component parts of the guarantee and what they would not have supported and this must be done openly and honestly. There is far too much populism. I saw it in the past and I criticised my party when we abolished rates.

Senator Walsh was right.

I criticised the Labour Party when it abolished water charges to try to save Deputy Joan Burton's seat. It did not even succeed on that score. We are making decisions which we perceive to be popular with the public which are undermining the State. Now we are getting into auction politics with the Seanad without supporting and backing up the situation.

Questions, please.

Will the Leader arrange an early debate with regard to the atrocities that have been committed throughout many countries over the Christmas period and in the lead-up to Christmas? In Nigeria, a total of 32 people were killed and more than 70 were injured. Prior to that, 86 people were killed in Jos and Maiduguri, Nigeria, by Muslim extremists, an event already referred to by Senator Bacik. In Pakistan 47 people were killed with more than 100 injured while in Iraq, two people were killed and more than 12 injured and in Egypt, 21 people were killed and more than 100 injured. Up to 80% of these were Christians.

Senator Walsh should not forget Arizona.

I would like those who purport to be in favour of human rights to make the same defence of our Christians who are being murdered across the globe.

If that is directed at me, I would be happy to oblige.

Will the Leader arrange for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to attend the House for a debate on the recent Italian proposal that countries which fail to protect their Christian minorities should be deprived of EU aid?

On 23 February 2010, I raised the issue of the relationship between the Taoiseach and Seán FitzPatrick of Anglo Irish Bank. I was shouted down in the House and the following day the Taoiseach went on "Morning Ireland" to suggest I raising this question was contemptible. Later in March, Deputy Enda Kenny raised a simple question as to whether there was a discussion with Anglo Irish Bank as to its systemic importance to the economy. The Taoiseach also found this question contemptible and of no relevance. The fact is these questions are very relevant and now the chickens are coming home to roost. It is obvious at this stage that the Taoiseach, Seán FitzPatrick and Fintan Drury, a director in the bank, were as thick as thieves and Anglo Irish Bank and Seán FitzPatrick were determining the country's banking policy for which we are now paying the price.

The Taoiseach talked about inferences being drawn from these meetings with Mr. FitzPatrick. We were asking about the facts, however. If the Taoiseach had given the facts and admitted to these meetings, we might be clear as to what inferences can reasonably by drawn. The Taoiseach has, however, been as evasive on this issue as his predecessor, Deputy Bertie Ahern, was on other matters on which he was questioned. Using such a comparison brings us to the Washington factor.

Before the last general election was called, we had to wait for the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, to have his outing in Washington and address Congress there. While the country is in a serious financial and economic crisis, we have to wait again for a Taoiseach to go to Washington. The issue with the calling of the next election is to get past the 17 March outing for the Taoiseach to Washington.

A question for the Leader, please.

Matters are too serious for that to be allowed to happen. We are losing valuable time to get the economy right. We have much rushed and emergency legislation in this House, yet the forthcoming finance Bill cannot be passed more quickly than is proposed by the two Government parties. The Green Party has a big responsibility in this. It is indulging the Fianna Fáil-led Government in the protracted and deliberate delay in the passing of the legislation.

After a certain radio interview, the Taoiseach was portrayed somewhat cruelly on the Jay Leno show.

Questions for the Leader, please. What is the Senator's question?

That was an embarrassment not only to the Taoiseach but to this country.

This is a Second Stage speech.

We are not getting involved in this now. The Senator must be constructive on the Order of Business and ask questions of the Leader.

We cannot risk another appearance by the Taoiseach on the Jay Leno show.

I think the show used a photograph of the Taoiseach.

We need to address the issues we have in this country. I do not believe we should protract the passing of the finance Bill and instead we should get on with the general election.

I have made a New Year's resolution to be positive this year.

Senators

Hear, hear.

The Senator should come over to this side of the House.

The Senator is always positive.

(Interruptions).

Did I hear a squeak?

No interruptions, please.

I would like all politicians to be positive this year whether in government or in opposition. In this House, we seem to have got into the habit of automatically talking ourselves down. We must look forward to the good things. There are success stories even in the very tough times, just as there are failures in the good times. There are many success stories we might seek to highlight. In that context, let us see if it might be possible to be positive as well as realistic.

I wish to cite an example which came to my attention in recent days. I refer to an advertisement relating to the "Malaysia My Second Home" programme which I saw on television and on which I sought some additional information. Since 2003, the authorities in Malaysia have had a system to encourage people such as wealthy tourists to buy second homes there. As a result of the existence of the programme, some 13,000 people have been encouraged to purchase second homes in that country. There is no cost relating to this programme because those who avail of it are not allowed to work in Malaysia, they obtain ten year visas and must spend a certain amount on money on the homes they purchase.

A large number of homes in this country are not currently in use. I accept that many of these dwellings might not be attractive to wealthy tourists. However, we must look beyond the normal way of doing business and see if we can identify a means by which business might be attracted to Ireland. Encouraging people to buy second homes here is just one example of what we could do in this regard. Many Americans have strong links with Ireland and a large number of them would like to have homes here. If we made the position sufficiently attractive, I am sure they would buy homes in this country. Under the system which obtains in Malaysia, those from abroad who purchase second homes there do not pay duty on their cars, are not allowed to work in the jurisdiction but receive tax benefits in certain areas. This system appears quite attractive.

I spoke to a person from Spain recently who commented that half of all Americans claim Irish descent, while the other half wish they were in a position to do likewise. I do not know whether that is true. However, it is apparent that an opportunity exists in the context of solving our problem with regard to empty houses and providing the construction and tourism industries with a timely boost.

The Cabinet met this morning to discuss the legislation with which it is proposed to deal during the current session. I hope it included in the list the Construction Contracts Bill 2010. I understand the list will be forthcoming later in the day and I am of the view that we will be obliged to work on it. There is a positive attitude among Members in respect of doing certain things so let us ensure that such things are done.

I welcome everyone back to the House for the new session. It would be useful if the Taoiseach named the date on which the general election will be held. I understand there is a rumour doing the rounds today to the effect that Fianna Fáil is seeking a June election.

Does the Senator have——

(Interruptions).

Senator Healy Eames to continue, without interruption.

It would be of assistance if clarification were provided in respect of the matter to which I refer.

Is Fianna Fáil seeking an election in 2013 or 2011?

During the Christmas period, everyone suffered as a result of the disastrous damage done to the domestic water supply in the immediate aftermath of the cold weather. We do not know whether there will be a repeat of the water shortages experienced in recent weeks in the near future on foot of further bad weather. It is a shame that half of our treated water is being allowed simply to leak away. There is a proposal to spend €500 million——

The Senator can make those points when this matter is debated during Private Members' time.

——on water metering. Will the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government indicate the likely cost of putting in place a fully functioning water supply system? Water is a most precious resource and should not be allowed to leak into the ground.

The second matter to which I wish to refer relates to CIE. To be fair, Senator Ross has raised this issue on many occasions. I am in possession of a written reply in which it is indicated that CIE will not service certain routes in Galway. This is despite the fact there is a demand for such services on such routes. I am in possession of a list of the names of 149 people who are seeking to have a bus service made available on one short route. CIE has indicated that it is losing money. That company is in receipt of a State subsidy of €290 million. It is a semi-State body and will not allow its directors to come before the Joint Committee on Transport to answer questions from Members. Why is that the case? What is going on? Why is there not accountability to the Houses in respect of every penny paid out by the State?

Why is there not full disclosure? Is this merely a repeat of the Cowen-Anglo Irish Bank story? Let us have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It appears that CIE is hiding a number of shady practices and that it is also placing its employees' jobs at risk. I am seeking an answer in respect of this matter and I request that the Minister for Transport rather than the Leader provide a written reply in which it is indicated why there is no insistence that representatives from CIE should come before the Joint Committee on Transport to provide information in respect of the money given to that company by the taxpayer.

I raise the issue of the Hunt report on higher education. We waited two years for this important report which makes the point that it will cost another €500 million to have a functioning higher education system that we can be sure will deliver quality education, which this country will heavily rely on if we are to be part of the so-called smart economy. I will become cynical about the abuse and overuse of that word unless we are serious about the issue. Education has been a major asset in making sure we have been able to compete, and we must do something about it.

There are many positives in the report, which must be debated in this House, but I am very disappointed about one issue. The report states that in the next 20 years the scale of some smaller institutions should be examined in terms of mergers. We need to examine that issue much sooner. I met a lecturer on the train today. Currently, there are eight colleges in this country delivering——

Questions to the Leader, please. Does the Senator want a debate on education?

——graphic design courses. That is ridiculous in a country with a population of 4 million. We have three colleges currently delivering architecture. Why is the Government not pushing for the centre of excellence model? The current model may appear to be convenient for families and students but it is not sustainable in terms of money and also in terms of quality. Ultimately, it is quality education outcomes for which we must strive.

The Minister will be here in 20 minutes.

The National University of Ireland, Galway is mission driven and aspires towards excellence in its core areas. That same model is what should be insisted upon by any Minister for Education and Skills who wants to put quality first.

I ask the Leader for a debate on the Hunt report, a written reply on the cost of the water supply system and a written reply from the Minister for Transport on the reason CIE is not accountable to this House and to the taxpayer.

Following from what many colleagues have said I ask the Leader to confirm and outline in his response the way he sees the sittings of this House continuing in this session. Will the House sit on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays? Will it sit on a Friday? What Bills does he envisage the House will deal with? Is it the Leader's understanding, as has been stated here, that this House will have the finance Bill before it in the final days of February? I would like to hear the Leader specifically on that point.

Regarding the corporate donations Bill, will that be a Seanad or a Dáil Bill? When does the Leader intend that Bill to be before the House, and other Bills also because other matters have been referred to? Possible extensions of time for this session have been hinted at also. Is it envisaged that other Bills will come before the House? I take it the Leader, as the conduit between this House and the Government, would have some information on that and we would be grateful if he would impart that information here today.

Whatever about the details of what may have been discussed in the discussions at Druid's Glen between various people, what is clear is that people had access not just to the Taoiseach but to other Ministers in this Fianna Fáil-led Government when it might not have been appropriate. That is the point at issue.

Is the Senator looking for a debate? What is he looking for?

No. I am coming to a question, a Chathaoirligh, and I beg your indulgence in that regard. Your forbearance is always very much appreciated.

I would appreciate it——

I do, too well.

Brevity is my middle name.

I would appreciate questions to the Leader.

I am coming to it. The Cathaoirleach is putting me off my drift.

I would not like to do that but I would like the Senator to put questions to the Leader.

I have always believed that Dr. Michael Somers was right in his view on not placing deposits with Anglo Irish Bank. We all had our own views — perhaps we did not express them to a great extent — and we may have made mistakes in investing in other financial institutions but some of us never went near Anglo Irish Bank. I always believed Dr. Somers was correct. A serious point in that regard, however, is that the National Treasury Management Agency invested €40 million at a crucial point but Dr. Somers said he did that under pressure, and the reason for that pressure was never revealed. We never got an explanation as to what was the cause of that pressure.

I am sure the Leader will enlighten us but now that the financial resolutions have been passed in the other House it is not necessary for the finance Bill to come before this House, as has been pointed out by Senator Alex White or another Senator. There is a four month gap allowed in that regard. The finance Bill is not essential. I know the Green Party is making a virtue of necessity in that regard——

The Senator should come to the point.

——but it is not necessary. I ask the Leader to refer to that when replying.

I support the calls for a debate on the Hunt report. It is an important document and I would like to hear the Leader give a commitment on that also.

I have a number of questions for the Leader. Senator Quinn called for more positive attitudes in the Seanad and elsewhere in politics for this session. It contributes to the positivity when we are not under the same pressure to get the question out to the Leader.

Would the Leader agree that St. Patrick's Day is an important day for Ireland each year——

——and while it may be an excellent idea that the President of Ireland would be present in a significant capital on that occasion, it is the one day of the year when we should not be quibbling about our Ministers going abroad and representing us, particularly at such a challenging time for the country?

An idea we should examine — I do not know if the Leader would agree — is putting together some kind of international representation committee across the two Houses of the Oireachtas whereby people who are particularly versed in either languages or particular issues relating to countries would be involved in those visits. It is not enough just to have Irish people present in these countries, but Irish people who will put the best foot forward, get the message across and engage with different political systems and cultures. I ask the Leader for his view.

I welcome the Labour Party's document on penal reform. It is very welcome that the Labour Party, if it gets into government, and that is not guaranteed, intends to bring in alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders. Ireland will be before the United Nations next year. Would the Leader agree that it is a scandal that St. Patrick's Institution is used for the detention of underage persons and that that is something on which this country has serious questions to answer? Would the Leader agree also that it is a scandal that at any time there are more than 540 prisoners accommodated in Mountjoy Prison and that overcrowding, rising violence and demeaning physical conditions put Ireland in the dock and not just the persons who, as a result of being in the dock, find themselves in prison? Will he agree that we have to reform our prison system to create alternatives to custodial sentences for non-violent offenders and that we would honour the dignity even of prisoners within the prison system, and be seen to do so, understanding that is part of the way in which we will rehabilitate people? It must be part of our prison system that we seek to rehabilitate and not just to punish.

I ask the Leader also to facilitate a debate on the current controversy about the Taoiseach's contacts with Seán FitzPatrick. I note and agree with what Senator Alex White said about easy access. He makes the point that is not the primary issue here, although he notes in passing that it is not acceptable that there would be such easy access to politicians. I recall an occasion, when Deputy Ruairí Quinn was Minister for Finance, that the Labour Party held a fund-raiser and access to the Minister for Finance was one of the carrots used to tempt people to the event.

It was £100 a head.

It is important that all parties recognise——

(Interruptions).

We are taking questions to the Leader. We are not discussing access to Ministers.

Seán FitzPatrick did not have to pay for his access.

The rest of us are paying for it.

Is it all right if the access is paid for?

I did not say that.

That is what Senator Bacik was implying.

Senator Mullen is in possession. We are taking questions to the Leader.

I am asking questions of the Leader and I am very careful to do so. The distinction is a fair one, but it points up the issue that politicians on all sides have feet of clay on this issue of access. This is something we ought to remember and I think the Leader might agree.

The Student Support Bill is ordered for today. One of the issues not directly dealt with in the Bill, but which we must face and which the House should discuss, is the question of student loans. The Labour Party, having made a misstep in abolishing third level fees without fully thinking through the consequences of that measure in terms of social equity, now appears to support a loan scheme, as long as there are no fees up front.

We never said that.

That is an issue we ought to debate.

On a point of order, Senator Mullen is misrepresenting what the Labour Party clearly said.

That is not a point of order.

I am disappointed to discover that the Labour Party does not see the merit in a student loan scheme provided students are not required to pay fees up front.

We are taking questions to the Leader. The Senator has made his point.

The Leader might agree that we must be aware that some people from lower socioeconomic sectors may be debt averse and must be cushioned from the risk of participation in third level education.

It is good news that the legislative programme for this term includes, as Senator Quinn has pointed out to me, the Construction Contracts Bill. Does the Leader agree that the Senator is to be congratulated on his initiative in bringing forward this legislation? If the Bill becomes law——

We are not having Second Stage speeches.

——this will be the first time in 40 years that a Private Members' Bill from the Seanad will have been enacted. Does the Leader agree that if there had been more examples of such legislation and Government had supported more private legislation over the years, the Seanad might not be as low as it is in public esteem?

What about the Registration of Wills Bill that I introduced?

I will conclude by asking the Leader to communicate, through Senator Boyle if necessary, with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, on the following. A number of months ago, the Minister took issue with a member of the Catholic hierarchy who communicated a viewpoint on the Civil Partnership Bill. The Minister said he thought the era of church interference in politics was over. When challenged on his opposition to church figures having a voice in politics, notwithstanding the fact that the previous year the Government had been anxious to see church leaders express a view on the Lisbon treaty, he said that even if he agreed with what they said, they should not communicate political ideas in this way. Will the Leader ask the Minister why he takes a different view when the head of the Church of Ireland is involved? When the retiring Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Reverend John Neil, accused the Green Party of having been corrupted and cited the party's turnaround on the use of Shannon by the US military as an example of power tending to corrupt, it is interesting to note that the Minister did not question the right of the Church of Ireland archbishop to express such a view. In fact, the Minister engaged with the archbishop. He expressed his great disappointment, described the comment as ill-judged and a grave insult and went on to say that, as leader of the party that probably had the highest proportion of Church of Ireland members in its ranks, it was with particular disappointment that he noted the comments. Why is it the Minister's view that Catholic Church leaders have no——

The Senator's time is up. He has made his point.

I am finishing, but this is important. I am asking the question of the Leader and I want an answer, via him, from the Minister. Why is it that Catholic Church leaders have no right to express a view on a political issue but a Church of Ireland leader is to be engaged with? Will the Leader ask the Minister if this is not an example of old-fashioned bigotry?

This week, hundreds of thousands of people will have opened their pay packets and found that they have been decimated financially and are being forced to pay for the sins of the Government. I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Health and Children to the House. She has been absent and silent on the question of VHI fees. The company has imposed fee increases of between 15% and 45%. I call on VHI to postpone this fee increase. I ask the Leader to join me and other Members in calling on VHI to postpone this ridiculous fee increase. Many customers, elderly and of all ages, cannot access VHI or get information from the company. They are worried about their premia and health insurance coverage.

Will the Leader, as a golfer, explain to me, who does not play golf, how the Minister for Finance, over a four to five hour golf game and a three hour dinner, could not mention the bank's business? He could not even ask how business was going, whether they were busy or quiet, how the bank balance was and how they were getting on. Is the Leader telling me that in his job as a music impresario, if he goes out playing golf, he never mentions his clients or how their record sales are going?

That is not relevant to the Order of Business.

Would he not ask whether they had any contract coming up or whether they were telling him they had no gigs? Would he never mention business?

What amendment is Senator Buttimer proposing?

I propose that the Order of Business be amended in order that the Minister for Health and Children would come to the House today to debate the proposed VHI premium increases.

Do Fianna Fáil Members, the Taoiseach and members of the Cabinet expect the ordinary people to believe that one can play golf for four hours and have dinner for three hours and not mention business? Do they take us for complete fools? Senator Ross is right. A cosy cartel is running the country. They have no respect for any of us. Senator O'Reilly mentioned the Quinn Group and the need for action in Cavan.

We can list a litany of people appointed to State boards. The Cathaoirleach's ruling on the Adjournment debate is a perfect example of what I am saying. The matter I submitted was not allowed because the Minister is not responsible for the matter I raised. The problem is that the Government is responsible for nothing. It accepts no responsibility for anything.

What is the Senator's question?

Does the Taoiseach expect us to believe that Seán FitzPatrick never said to him that he was in trouble or that the Taoiseach never asked him how he was getting on? The Leader plays golf. Is he telling me he never mentions business on the golf course? As someone who does not play golf, all I hear is that the 19th hole is the place to do business.

The Senator has answered his own question.

The 19th hole is the place.

I ask the Green Party Members to return to the Chamber to explain to Members——

Who is or is not in the Chamber is not relevant to the Order of Business. The Senator should put a question to the Leader on the Order of Business.

I ask the Leader, through the Green Party Members——

The Senator should ask the Green Party Members, through the Leader——

I thank the Senator. I ask them to come into the House and explain this in simple terms. The people seek an election. They wish to run the Government out of town and it is a given that they seek change. Can Members be informed when the election will take place?

The weekend's revelations on the involvement of the then Minister for Finance and present Taoiseach with Mr. Seánie FitzPatrick are quite disturbing. This was a time when there were many significantly unfortunate developments, not least the collapse in the share price of Anglo Irish Bank on St. Patrick's Day in 2008 that now is known as the St. Patrick's Day massacre. However, the Taoiseach never put into the public domain his contacts with Mr. Seánie FitzPatrick or the fact that he spent an entire day in the latter's company at a very turbulent time for the bank. As the extent to which Anglo Irish Bank has all but collapsed the economy and has almost collapsed the entire European currency is now known, it is very serious that the Taoiseach withheld such vital information regarding meetings, telephone calls or both. What is he hiding?

Yes, that is the point.

If he was not afraid of having met Mr. Seánie FitzPatrick and having not discussed the business of the bank — which is stretching credibility to a new limit — why did he keep this information to himself?

Does the Leader agree that in the interests of transparency, honesty and the country's good fortunes, the Taoiseach should make himself available for interview by the Garda Síochána, which is investigating the hookery and crookery that went on in Anglo Irish Bank? There now is a link between Fianna Fáil and Anglo Irish Bank and if the Members opposite thought the figure of 14% revealed in last weekend's poll was bad, the next poll will be much worse.

The Senator should direct specific questions to the Leader.

We have a Taoiseach whose head is in the sand.

While anyone could make a Second Stage speech here, the Senator should confine himself to questions to the Leader.

Will the Leader arrange for the Taoiseach to come before this House to explain to Members the full extent of what he knew in respect of Anglo Irish Bank, when he knew it and who else he was rubbing shoulders with in the upper echelons of Anglo Irish Bank? Does the Leader agree that had the Taoiseach any self-respect, in the best interests of the country he should present himself to his local Garda station for interview by the Garda Síochána?

I second Senator Buttimer's amendment to the Order of Business in respect of VHI. It is disgraceful to have increases of up to 45% and it is unsustainable for many families.

Thousands of young graduates and craftsmen are being forced to emigrate on a daily basis because of the present lack of work and opportunity in Ireland. A recently broadcast television programme showed the sad images of parents who were heart-broken to see their children obliged to emigrate and to seek work abroad because of the failed policies and recklessness of the Government in respect of economic management. It now appears as though the Government intends to drag out this session and its own life span for as long as possible. I note Senator Coghlan asked whether, as now appears to be probable, the Finance Bill will come before this House in the last two weeks of February. What people seek is to see the back of the Government as soon as possible. It is disgraceful that it is trying to drag out this session from week to week to enable it to remain in office. Although people talk about the Green Party pulling the plug, it may be necessary for Fianna Fáil to pull the plug on the Green Party, as the latter is so entrenched in government. The country needs a new Government fast. The people need hope and new policies to get people back to work. How soon will the decent thing be done and an election be called to give people the chance to elect a Government?

I concur with Senator McCarthy, who struck the nail on the head when he discussed the issues surrounding the famous game of golf between the Taoiseach and Mr. Seán FitzPatrick. It was not simply a meeting between two friends or a meeting between a businessman and a politician. It took place in a context, namely, in the aftermath of the collapse in the share price of Anglo Irish Bank, the bank of which Mr. FitzPatrick was such an integral part. Moreover, it took place at a time when that bank was lending money to individuals to buy shares in itself to prop up its share price, which is an illegal activity. It is beyond belief to suggest that such a meeting could take place in which the Taoiseach and Mr. FitzPatrick did not have a discussion regarding the position of Anglo Irish Bank. I join other Members in asking the Leader to suggest that the Taoiseach might avail of an opportunity in this House to explain his connection to Mr. FitzPatrick. I refer to the connections of that day and others that may exist between leading people within Fianna Fáil and those who were in charge of Anglo Irish Bank because ultimately, the decision to bail out that bank has brought the country to its present position.

At the time, Members were informed that Anglo Irish Bank was of systemic importance. Many Government people believed that if Anglo Irish Bank could be supported, the difficulties faced by Allied Irish Banks in particular were not as severe as they subsequently have proven to be and that it would not be necessary to invest the money to recapitalise that bank. However, because so much already has been invested in Anglo Irish Bank, the State effectively has been undermined. I do not often disagree with my neighbour, Senator Walsh, but I was a bit shocked at his barefaced cheek in suggesting in this Chamber that the Opposition — I believe his particular target was the Labour Party — was undermining the State. It beggars belief to listen to a Fianna Fáil Member criticising the Opposition for undermining the State, as its Members have managed successfully to do that themselves in recent years. I will not listen to lectures from him or from anyone else on that subject.

I join colleagues in seeking a full debate with the Minister for Health and Children in respect of health insurance and the announcement by VHI of the forthcoming huge increase in its premiums. I also join Senator Healy Eames and others who have asked for a full debate on the Hunt report, which was published yesterday. It is a strategy for the future of third level education and is an interesting document. While much of the media coverage has focused on its findings in respect of fees and loans, it also outlines a future nationwide system of universities of technology. I note the institutes of technology in the Dublin region already are considering a form of strategic alliance for the establishment of a Dublin university of technology. In common with colleagues on all sides of both Houses, I have long supported the concept of a university for the south-eastern region. Such a university, based on the Waterford Institute of Technology, the Institute of Technology, Carlow and the Tipperary Institute, would bring major benefits to my native region and I seek such a debate as soon as possible.

I agree with Senator Mullen's suggestion on a cross-party committee on who should go where for St. Patrick's Day. While this sounds like a good idea I will, as always, go to Graiguenamanagh for St. Patrick's Day. It is where the best parade in the south east is held every year and I invite everyone to attend.

There is a great one in the south west as well.

I wish everybody a happy new year. I ask the Leader for a debate on health. Hospitals in Roscommon, Portiuncula and Mullingar, which is an important regional hospital, have had their budgets savagely cut. Consequently, people have been on trolleys over the Christmas period. The staff in Mullingar regional hospital are doing a tremendous job but there is palpable fear about what was rumoured — it was only a rumour — that the accident and emergency department would be closed. That is not the case in Portiuncula or Roscommon. I have received numerous phone calls from people who are worried that accident and emergency departments will be closed.

Another accident and emergency consultant is needed in Mullingar regional hospital and it is necessary to open the 41 beds that have been closed in order that we do not have the appalling situation whereby people have to sit on chairs and do not even have a trolley. I compliment the staff in Mullingar regional hospital for the remarkable job they do. It is one of the top three performing hospitals in the country and is doing a tremendous job.

I agree with my colleagues who have called for a debate on VHI when the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, is in the House. Why was the report on it not published before it made savage cuts and burdened our older people? They are living in palpable fear of not being able to afford health insurance. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to discuss hospitals in the midlands and VHI charges. I want the report on VHI to be published before it introduces increased charges.

I agree with my colleagues who called for a debate on the increases in VHI charges which many people who avail of its services have seen over the past week. We should have an early debate on that. It is causing concern to many people.

I want to refer to the state of our roads and the cold weather before and during Christmas, and the difficulties associated with that. I refer in particular to my local authority area which was not able to access salt from the national supply which was to be provided by the National Roads Authority. As we all know, the NRA ran out of salt prematurely because it did not foresee the cold weather. I want a debate on this issue because it was disgraceful that the NRA did not link up with Met Éireann and have the salt supplies which were required all over the country pre-ordered and pre-stocked instead of waiting for supplies to come in and local authorities such as mine having to revert to using sand and grit on the roads instead of salt. We do not know when the cold snap will come back. It may return in a number of weeks or the end of the year but we do know it will return at some stage.

As a result of the frost and snow and salt and grit being used on the roads many of the national primary, secondary, regional and local roads across Donegal have been torn apart. We need additional funding to be made available by the NRA to local authorities. It is not fair. We can blame local authorities for their misgivings and shortcomings but they have to be provided with the resources to repair the roads. The roads on the islands, such as those on Tory Island and Arranmore, have been torn apart. I ask the Leader to have an early debate with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, and if possible the chief executive officer of the NRA, Fred Barry — I do not know if it is possible to bring him into the House — on the issue. I hope such a debate can take place next week before the weather changes again.

We have a very famous man in Donegal called Michael the postman or the weatherman. I spoke to him at a constituency clinic last night. He suggested that the snow could return towards the end of the month. We should have a debate before that happens.

Before I come to the Order of Business, I acknowledge the sad passing of former Senator John Doyle on 29 December 2010. He will always be remembered as one of the finest hurlers of his generation. His love of the GAA was matched by his concern for his county, country and community of Holy Cross. His legacy on the field of play is there for generations of hurlers to admire. He won eight all-Ireland medals for his native County Tipperary in the 1950s and 1960s. He also won 11 National League medals, an achievement which will never be equalled. He was player of the year in 1964. He formed part of the formidable Tipperary full-back line, which we all knew at the time was Hell's kitchen, of Maher, Carey and Doyle. He was possibly one of the best backs I have ever seen in my life. After he finished his playing career he became interested in politics and served as a Member of Seanad Éireann from 1969 to 73. He was also a member of North Tipperary County Council. I offer our heartfelt sympathies to his wife Anne, sons Johnny and Michael and daughters Collette, Margaret, Anne-Marie, Sandra and Liz. I thank the Cathaoirleach for representing the Seanad at his funeral after Christmas which was a sad time for everyone concerned.

Senators Fitzgerald, Ross, Alex White, Coffey, Norris, Coghlan, Mullen, Buttimer, Cummins, Boyle, Bacik, Regan, Healy Eames, McCarthy and Phelan inquired about the finance Bill. It will come to the House immediately after it is concluded in the Dáil. It is due to be published next week and we can expect it in due course.

The Taoiseach made a statement on the concerns expressed by many colleagues today. I have always known him to be a very honourable and decent man. One could not find a more decent friend or man to represent anyone in any constituency in the country than the Taoiseach. He has covered the matters of concern in which many people were very interested in his statement and is now answering questions from party leaders in the Dáil.

Senators Alex White, Callely, Quinn, Coghlan and Mullen called for a list of the business we will conduct. There will be a huge amount of legislation coming before us for consideration before the election and I will read it into the record of the House tomorrow. A copy from the Chief Whip is in all Members' pigeonholes. I am pleased the legislation which was promised is going ahead.

I congratulate Senator Quinn for his patience and understanding in regard to an urgent Bill which he sponsored. I will do anything I can as Leader to help him. The Cathaoirleach has done everything he can to facilitate the Bill. It is to be hoped it will be passed by the Dáil before the election is called.

Senator Alex White asked whether the referendum on children's rights will be held on the same day as the election or some time this year. I will revert to the Senator tomorrow.

I join Senators Alex White, Bacik and others in expressing my sympathy on the sad passing of Mr. Joss Lynam.

Senator Coffey spoke on the dangers of radon gas and carbon monoxide. I sympathise with the terrible bereavement in the south east which he outlined. I will have no difficulty with having a debate on the issue if time is available. I see very few debates taking place between now and the election because we will have to deal with a lot of legislation.

Senators Leyden, Norris and Callely referred to reform of Seanad Éireann. As I said recently, there should be an urgent review of the public sector and political reform should be included in that. I take on board the many suggestions which were made. We all made our proposals to the Minister and are awaiting developments.

Senators Norris, Hanafin and Mullen spoke on the importance of having our country represented in the capital cities of the world on St. Patrick's Day. It is a unique opportunity, as Senator Hanafin said. All of the agencies, including Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and Bord Bia, are blessed to have this window of opportunity, especially in the United States. It was great to see the reports in this morning's newspapers to the effect that exports in the sector which Bord Bia covers have increased by 11%. It is an example of the success of the time spent promoting our country during the St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Long may it continue. Regardless of the Government that is in place and the Ministers who are available, we need to support the good work of our agencies in increasing export opportunities.

Senator Callely called for a debate on health issues. He outlined many areas, particularly the area of care for the elderly. I will endeavour to ensure the Minister for Health and Children comes to the House to debate the serious concerns of Members about the various health issues that have been raised on the Order of Business.

Senator O'Reilly spoke about Quinn Direct. The Cathaoirleach rightly pointed out that this issue will be raised by Senator Wilson on the Adjournment. I discussed it with Senator Wilson and the Minister, Deputy Smith, during the Christmas recess. We were keen to examine various ways in which we might help. It is a serious concern in our area. The success of the Quinn Group, which is a huge employer, is a shining example of what can be done. It has done outstanding work in creating employment in our area. We are doing everything we can, as Members of the Oireachtas, to help to sustain those jobs.

Senator Hanafin asked me to arrange a debate on everything relating to the economy. I will have no difficulty in doing so, time permitting.

Senator Bacik referred to the role of religion in our schools and highlighted blasphemy issues. I can pass on her call to the Minister.

Senator Walsh called for a debate on the many atrocities that took place over the Christmas period. Senator Alex White referred to last weekend's events in Arizona. At a time when poor people are dying of cancer and so on, it is very difficult to understand all these terrible atrocities that are taking place. I will pass on the strong views of Senators on these matters on to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. If it is possible to leave time aside for a debate on them before we break up for the general election, I will have no difficulty in ensuring it takes place.

I wonder when the election will be held.

The Senator's guess is as good as mine. Senator Quinn emphasised the need to be positive. He pointed to the success of the "Malaysia My Second Home" initiative. He suggested we should target our friends in the United States in that context. He also referred to the success of our exports, which I have mentioned. I will pass on the Senator's strong views to the Minister.

Senators Healy Eames, Coghlan and Phelan spoke about the Hunt report which deals with issues that have been outlined in the House. It is right and fitting that we should ask everyone to support the report. We should do everything possible to ensure our work, especially our printing, is done in Ireland. When we are setting up websites, for example, all the work should be done in Ireland, where possible. We should all try to lead by example in this area, if that is a possibility.

Senator Mullen referred to alternatives to prison sentencing. He criticised the use of St. Patrick's Institution for the detention of juvenile prisoners and referred to the reform of the prison sentencing system. I fully support what he said. We had a very good debate on the matter late last year. I support the Senator's request.

Senator Mullen also mentioned the Student Support Bill 2008, which will be discussed in the House this afternoon. The Tánaiste is ready to come into the House for the debate and is waiting to do so.

Senator Mullen also responded to comments made by the Minister, Deputy Gormley. I agree with the Senator that church leaders should be allowed to express their views freely. I have always fully supported church leaders of all faiths. They should be allowed to address and lead their congregations. That is what they are there for. I fully support that. My local parish priest in Castlepollard, Fr. Moore, gave a very strong sermon on this subject last Sunday.

He must have a Seanad vote.

Leaders of political parties, faiths and churches should continue to enjoy the freedom of speech they need to lead their flocks.

Senators Buttimer, Cummins, McFadden and Ó Domhnaill called for an urgent debate on the VHI increases. I fully support their call. I am giving the House a commitment that I will endeavour to have such a debate take place urgently. I have been a customer of VHI for a long number of years. All I can say to my fellow customers is that they should shop around. I regret to say that long-standing and new customers of VHI have been placed in a position in which they will have to shop around. They no longer have a choice. It is as simple as that.

Senator McFadden asked for a debate on health issues. She referred specifically to local hospitals such as Portiuncula, Mullingar and Tullamore hospitals.

I referred to the hospital in Roscommon as well.

I join her in congratulating Mr. Trevor O'Callaghan, who employs 777 people at the Midland Regional Hospital in Mullingar. The staff of the hospital provide an excellent service. It is the second or third best hospital in the country on the basis of its efficiency and its standards. Long may that continue. I know the Minister for Health and Children appreciates the achievements of the Midland Regional Hospital. I am proud to be from the area, to say this is my hospital and to point to the results being achieved by Mr. O'Callaghan and his team.

Senator Ó Domhnaill spoke about the state of the roads. I am surprised this topic was mentioned by just one Senator in the House. Over the past five or six weeks, it has been the most pressing problem we have faced. I compliment Senator Ó Domhnaill on bringing it to the attention of the House. The National Roads Authority has a serious duty. I will contact the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, in advance of his visit to the House next week to see what can be done to ensure this matter is debated and discussed in the House. The winters are becoming more difficult. The weather is very difficult, to say the least of it. Our roads are being damaged by the severe frost and by temperatures of as low as -15°, the likes of which we have never seen in our lifetimes. It is a new challenge. I fully agree with Senator Ó Domhnaill's request that additional funding must be made available to local authorities for national primary and secondary roads. I support the Senator's call for the Minister for Transport to come to the House to tell Members what he will do to meet the new challenges of recent months, which are being faced by local authorities and by public representatives, who are answerable to the public.

Senator Fitzgerald has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That a debate on the interaction between the National Treasury Management Agency, the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach in the run-up to the introduction of the bank guarantee scheme be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 23; Níl, 28.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Cannon, Ciaran.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Norris, David.
  • O’Reilly, Joe.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Prendergast, Phil.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • White, Alex.

Níl

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Carroll, James.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Dearey, Mark.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Brien, Francis.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Malley, Fiona.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Maurice Cummins and Alex White; Níl, Senators Niall Ó Brolcháin and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.

Senator Buttimer proposed amendment No. 2 to the Order of the Business, "That a debate with the Minister for Health and Children on the increases in premiums announced by VHI be taken today." Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 22; Níl, 28.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Cannon, Ciaran.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • Mullen, Rónán.
  • Norris, David.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Prendergast, Phil.
  • Quinn, Feargal.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • White, Alex.

Níl

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Carroll, James.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • Dearey, Mark.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Mooney, Paschal.
  • Ó Brolcháin, Niall.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O'Brien, Francis.
  • O'Donovan, Denis.
  • O'Malley, Fiona.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Walsh, Jim.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Jerry Buttimer and Maurice Cummins; Níl, Senators Niall Ó Brolcháin and Diarmuid Wilson.
Amendment declared lost.
Question, "That the Order of Business be agreed to", put and declared carried.