Seanad Éireann - Volume 155 - 07 April, 1998

Order of Business.

Mr. Cassidy: Before we start the Order of Business, on behalf of all Members of this House and on my own behalf and that of the Fianna Fáil Party, I wish to express sympathy to our Taoiseach on the death of his mother. I wish to pay tribute to Mrs. Julia Ahern who passed away on Monday morning last. It is particularly sad that her death should occur as the Taoiseach leads his team and joins with other leaders to negotiate an [3] historic agreement to replace an era of dissension and destruction with one of peace and prosperity.

Julia Ahern and her late husband, Con, represented that generation of Irish men and women who bridged the gap between our independence and our emergence as a confident, successful, sovereign member of the European Union. Not by even the wildest lapses of imagination could these heroes of our early years have foreseen just how successful we as a nation would become. What they did see and understand was the importance of passing on a set of values to their children and their children's children. They had a love of learning, strong religious belief, an appreciation of our language, culture and traditions, a burning desire to see all the children of the nation treated equally, a love of the land and landscape, a delight in sporting achievement and a firm belief that by positive political action we can achieve our national objectives.

That is the legacy they successfully passed on to this generation. Like many thousands of mothers and fathers of that generation, these two proud people from west Cork raised their family in Dublin and devoted all their lives to the betterment of their children. The great advances of their family are testament to their efforts and the strength of their beliefs. Mrs. Julia Ahern took great pride in the achievements of all her children, not least her youngest child, the Taoiseach. She was a warm woman of forthright views who advised her son in moments of great importance in his political life. Today we salute her for her sacrifice, her commitment and her great spirit which made her so many friends and admirers. We join all our colleagues in offering to her family our deepest condolences at this sad time. In expressing our profound sorrow at her passing, we reaffirm our commitment to doing for this generation what she and her contemporaries did in their efforts to hand on intact these essential religious and cultural values which inspire our beliefs, and our relentless pursuit of peace on this island. Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a hanam.

Today's Order of Business is items 1 and 2, item 1, Report and Final Stages. The contributions of spokespersons on item 2 should not exceed 20 minutes and those of all other Senators should not exceed 15 minutes.

Mr. Connor: On behalf of my colleagues, I wish to be associated with the expression of sympathy to the Taoiseach on the death of his mother.

We agree to the Order of Business. In light of the hoped for conclusion of the Northern Ireland settlement talks on Thursday, the outcome will have to be discussed in the Oireachtas as soon as possible. Will the Leader ensure, if there is to be a debate in the other House during the week of April 21, there will also be one in this House and the Taoiseach or Minister for Foreign Affairs will attend and report on the agreement? Members will then have an opportunity to debate the issue.

[4] Mr. O'Toole: On behalf of the Independent Members, I extend our condolences to the Taoiseach and his family.

Three times in recent weeks I have raised the need to have a debate on house prices. Today's business newspapers hail and congratulate the First National Building Society which will give £1,000 to people who will vote for demutualisation. The last time that type of carry on was seen here was on the Act of Union when people were promised £1,000 to vote in a particular way. There is a great need to discuss this issue even though every politician has had a word to say about the price of houses. That sum of £1,000 will be paid for by young couples buying homes on the price of their mortgages or by those trying to save a deposit, on a reduction in interest rates. It is time we got stuck into this issue. The Government should make every attempt to make tax breaks available to people so that it would be tax efficient to do business with mutual companies. RTÉ should be congratulated for showing the other side of the argument on today's one o'clock news.

Politicians should have a voice on this. We are courageous enough to talk about how difficult it is to buy houses but we should now point our fingers at where the problems lie. Today's announcement will raise the price of houses. This issue should be debated soon as every week that goes by will be a week too late. Politicians should not just shed crocodile tears. I do not blame people for taking the £1,000 offered to them but the other side of the argument should also be put. This £1,000 is nothing to be celebrated as it is a cause of worry for young people trying to buy houses.

Mr. Costello: On behalf of the Labour Party, I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the Taoiseach on the death of his mother, Mrs. Julia Ahern.

I welcome the publication of the draft proposal by Senator George Mitchell on the peace talks in Northern Ireland. The House should express its support for all the participants who have stayed in the talks despite the difficulties involved. We should urge a continuing spirit of generosity as we come to the final stages in making an agreement. It is too terrible to think of what the alternative might be if an agreement is not reached after 30 years of violence, mayhem and murder in Northern Ireland.

Will the Leader arrange for a debate at an early stage on the report of the National Minimum Wage Commission? We debated this issue last week and the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment indicated during the debate on National Irish Bank that she would be happy to come back into the House to debate this report.

Mr. Dardis: On behalf of the Progressive Democrats I would like to be associated with the vote of sympathy to the Taoiseach and his [5] brother, Deputy Noel Ahern, on the death of their mother. It is our hope and prayer that the Northern Ireland peace talks will conclude successfully this week, that the work of Senator Mitchell and all concerned will be fruitful and that we will have a settlement to which all on the island can subscribe. It will be important for this House to discuss a settlement when and if it arrives; we will have to do so anyway as the constitutional referendum arising from a settlement will be the subject of debate in the Houses of the Oireachtas. This may be one way of dealing with this issue which the Leader might consider.

I support Senator Costello's call for a debate on the report of the National Minimum Wage Commission. Perhaps we could have such a debate after the recess.

Dr. Haughey: I would like to be associated with the Leader's words on the untimely death of a great lady, the mother of the Taoiseach and our Leader. She was a great woman who reared an exemplary family and we now have an exemplary Leader. Our sympathies go out to her family at this difficult time.

The current peace process in Northern Ireland is probably unique in the history of this State. As Front Bench spokesperson on Northern Ireland, I wish Senator Mitchell every success. I congratulate all those who took part in this difficult and delicate process. In particular, I congratulate the Taoiseach who has so delicately and skilfully brought the people and the Government to the edge of a settlement to this dreadful situation.

Mr. Burke: On numerous occasions I have asked for debates on finance and the sale of State assets, such as the ICC, ACC and TSB. I have also called for a debate on changes to the structure of local authorities. I have not had success in either call. Will the Leader ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come into the House at the earliest opportunity to discuss the changes in local authorities before he makes any decisions? I have a document produced by the Department of the Environment and Local Government following a seminar. The document is called Focus on Strategic Policy Committees and the keynote address was given by Senator Quinn who is not a member——

An Cathaoirleach: We cannot discuss that document. The Senator is in order to ask for a debate on the matter but not to discuss a particular document.

Mr. Burke: This is most important. I have asked for a debate on numerous occasions. Local authority members are elected and we are elected to this House by local authority members. If there are going to be changes in the financing and other structures of local authorities it is only right that we would have a full debate on the matter in this House. I attended a meeting of Mayo County Council last night and I want to assure the House [6] that members of Mayo County Council are not at all enamoured of the changes which are due to take place.

An Cathaoirleach: The views of the members of Mayo County Council are not a matter for the Order of Business.

Mrs. Ridge: The views of Roscommon County Council members are very important.

Mr. Burke: The views of Mayo County Council members are taken into account when people are being elected to this House. Prior to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government making any announcement in regard to these changes, I urge the Leader to have a full debate in this House.

Mr. Lanigan: Over the past number of weeks, various Members have rightly attacked banking and financial institutions. However, we should also consider the insurance business in Ireland, in particular life assurance and the pressure which was, and is still being, exerted on people to take out life assurance policies.

In 1985 I received a letter from the Insurance Corporation of Ireland setting out the projected maturity fund of a policy — it stood at £159,177; at present the actual maturity fund stands at £47,000. Had I been foolish enough not to check out the matter, nobody from the ICI would have approached me about it. The ICI was amalgamated with Prudential Life and was subsequently taken over by the Irish Permanent to become Irish Progressive. The biggest robbers in the country are people who sell pension policies.

An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has made his case.

Mr. Lanigan: We should hold a debate on the life assurance industry. A reduced annual pension of £19,388 or a lump sum of £39,000 was offered by the policy to which I referred. In fact, the reduced annual pension stands at £133 per month, or less than £1,500 per annum, and the tax free lump sum becomes £8,000.

An Cathaoirleach: It is not in order to debate this matter on the Order of Business.

Mr. Lanigan: The life assurance industry is ripping off people who are now approaching old age, who will find themselves without the necessary means for survival and will be unable to obtain medical cards. The banks have ripped people off to a certain extent but the life assurance industry also has a lot to answer.

An Cathaoirleach: The Senator has made the case for a debate.

Mr. Lanigan: The major rip off is being carried out by the insurance industry on poor people who [7] took insurance companies at their word when they guaranteed them an income at the age of 65.

An Cathaoirleach: The matter is not in order on the Order of Business.

Mr. Lanigan: I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence. I hope a debate will take place in this House.

Mr. Bohan: Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Science to consider school opening hours? Anyone driving around Dublin since the schools closed for Easter will have noticed the way traffic has been flowing freely. As all other avenues of easing the traffic problem in the mornings have been exhausted, perhaps the Minister could do something to solve the problem.

I drive into the city from the southside and normally experience bottlenecks but traffic has been flowing freely there for the past couple of days. The Minister should consider delaying school opening hours by one hour while people travel to work. I do not think this would adversely affect children's education.

An Cathaoirleach: It is not in order to discuss the Dublin traffic on the Order of Business. There are other ways the Senator can raise these matters. I recognise this is important and that is why I am suggesting it might be a suitable matter for a motion or an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Bohan: I am simply asking the Leader to ask the Minister to consider the matter.

Mr. O'Toole: Why not close factories, shops and farms? Why stop at the schools? Why pick on the children?

Mr. McDonagh: It has nothing to do with the children. Mothers going to work are the cause of the problem.

Mrs. Ridge: I am afraid there is very little Easter spirit about today. I support Senator O'Meara's motion on the Adjournment. At St. Vincent's Hospital women congregate as early as 7 a.m. to await the opening of the clinic at 9 a.m.

The Leader promised the full support of his side of the House when the child pornography Bill comes to the House. I note that the Bill contains no reference to what is known as “aural sex”, the abuse of children on the telephone. The Minister has mentioned the question of pornography on the Internet. Will the Leader ensure that my amendment relating to this salacious practice is supported?

Mr. Callanan: I join in the expressions of sympathy extended to the Taoiseach and the members of the Ahern family on the death of their mother. Coming from west Cork, I know Mrs. Ahern as Julia Hourihan. I know her friends [8] and extended family. Mrs. Ahern epitomised all that is good in Irish people. She was kind, generous and noble and she reared her family well. She never lost touch with her roots in west Cork. She returned there at least twice a year and most of us met her on those occasions. I spent an evening with her and some friends last August in a place called Templemartin and she enjoyed and took part in the songs, stories and music that night. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.

Mr. Coogan: To be helpful to my colleague, Senator Burke, we have tabled motion No. 18 regarding local government reform, particularly regarding SPCs and the equalisation fund. In view of the recent announcements by the Minister and the concern being expressed by local government members, will the Leader allow a debate on this question during Government time and Private Members' time? This would facilitate Members on both sides in bringing this matter forward.

Ms Leonard: In view of the recent release of a paedophile offender in Britain after serving only half his sentence and in view of the ease of movement between our two countries, will the Leader bring to the attention of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the urgent need for a register of sexual offenders?

Mr. McGowan: Will the Leader arrange for a debate on the various forms of EU funding? Every voluntary organisation is demanding the retention of Objective One status for part of the country but no one has drawn a line on the map defining the area to retain Objective One status. It would be helpful if the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment came into the House for a debate on this matter.

I support the call for a debate on Northern Ireland. It was encouraging that the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body unanimously agreed a motion supporting Senator Mitchell's proposals and the efforts to reach a settlement. Members from all parties in Britain and Ireland supported the motion. I am hopeful that there will be a settlement and immediately after the proposals are published I hope we have a debate.

Mr. Coghlan: Dare I mention the words Pretty Polly? In view of the expectation of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment that everything will be in place by Easter, I ask the Leader if we can expect a formal announcement by Thursday.

Mr. Cregan: Over the past few weeks Members have been complaining about financial institutions, including insurance companies, banks and building societies. It is imperative that we have a discussion soon because it is an urgent matter and no one is happy at present.

Two other Members mentioned local authorities. No one has come to the House to explain [9] the restructuring of local government but, judging by the report of the seminar held in Dublin Castle on 8 February, everyone else has been informed. Local government is particularly important to first time house buyers, who were mentioned by Senator O'Toole. In the 1960s, local authorities provided first time buyers with facilities which no financial institutions were prepared to provide. When will we have a discussion on what is happening outside the House?

Mr. J. Doyle: When I raised the issue of house prices some time ago I was called a political opportunist but now it seems to be on everyone's lips.

Mrs. Ridge: Terrible.

Mr. Dardis: They are all opportunists now.

Mr. J. Doyle: The Government will receive the Bacon report shortly. Will the Leader provide time to debate the report as soon as the House returns after Easter?

Mr. Cassidy: Senators Connor, Haughey, Costello, McGowan and O'Toole expressed best wishes for the success of the talks, for Senator George Mitchell's initiatives and to the various leaders and groups who will be participating in the coming hours and days. I join in those wishes. A prayer might not go astray over the next day or two and if agreement is reached it will be a terrific cause of celebration at Easter.

Senator O'Toole, Senator Doyle and Senator Cregan mentioned house prices and I will facilitate the House by having a debate immediately after Easter. Senator Costello called for a debate on the report of the National Minimum Wage Commission; we debated his motion a few weeks ago and if he had waited we could have discussed all the views on the subject.

Mr. Costello: The report has probably been published because of the motion.

Mr. Cassidy: I will allow the Senator time to express his views after Easter. Senator Burke, Senator Cregan and Senator Coogan called for a debate on finance; I have discussed this with the Minister for Finance and he will come to the House during the first week after the recess for a debate on banks and financial institutions.

All Members probably concur with Senator Burke and Senator Cregan that we should ask the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to come here to discuss the mooted changes to local government. The Minister will be here tomorrow and I will note the presence of those Senators who are interested in local government activities.

Mrs. Ridge: That is unfair, it has nothing to do with it.

[10] Mr. Cassidy: I will consult the Minister and arrange to have a debate on this matter at the earliest opportunity. The majority of Members owe their seats to the electorate of local government representatives and there should be a full attendance at tomorrow afternoon's session.

Senators Lanigan and Cregan requested a debate on the serious crisis in the insurance industry, particularly the part of it which relates to life assurance. I will discuss this matter with Senator Lanigan, a former Leader of the House, following the Order of Business to see how I can facilitate his wishes.

Senator Bohan tabled a proposal on education. This morning I had a similar experience to the one outlined by the Senator. It was pleasant to be able to commute freely to Dublin from my home. I did not travel from the south side of the city, I drove from Castlepollard, County Westmeath. There is food for thought in the Senator's proposal. As Shakespeare said, “To discuss is not to agree”, and this matter requires discussion. I will afford time for a debate on the Senator's proposal.

I note Senator Ridge's comments on the Child Pornography Bill and I will pass them on to the relevant Minister. I hope progress will be made in respect of her wishes.

I will pass Senator Leonard's request for a register of sexual offenders to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Members will agree that the Senator's suggestion is good.

Senator McGowan requested a debate on Objective One status for the part of the country where he lives, which has an urgent need for assistance. The current discussions on this issue will probably copperfasten the claim that Connacht and Ulster will require Objective One status for the next ten years. The effects of the Celtic tiger have not been felt in those regions and I support the Senator's call for a debate.

Senator Coghlan inquired about the Pretty Polly plant. The Tánaiste would be delighted to receive a telephone call from the Senator in respect of that matter and I am sure she, or the Minister with responsibility in this area, will enlighten him regarding the current situation.

Mr. Coogan: On a point of clarification, did the Leader state that he would allocate Government Private Members' time for a debate on local government finances?

Mr. Cassidy: I will allocate as much time as the House requires when the Minister is available to deal with this matter, which is dear to my heart. I would not be a Member of this House were it not for the support of local authority members.

An Cathaoirleach: The Leader has replied and that concludes the Order of Business.

Mr. Connor: On a point of information, we have been notified that there may be a change to tomorrow's business. Will the Leader indicate if [11] there will be a change in the time for commencement of tomorrow's business?

Mr. Cassidy: The House will sit at 2.30 p.m. tomorrow to allow everyone who wishes to do so to attend the funeral of Mrs. Ahern.

An Cathaoirleach: We are not going to have a debate on that matter now. The time for the House to sit again will be decided on the Adjournment this evening.

Mr. Burke: The Leader misled the House when he stated that——

An Cathaoirleach: The Leader has replied and the Order of Business is concluded.

Mr. Burke: I do not agree with the Order of Business.

Question, “That the Order of Business be agreed to”, put and declared carried.