Seanad Éireann - Volume 157 - 08 December, 1998

Order of Business.

Mr. Dardis: Today's Order of Business is item 2, The Radiological Protection (Amendment) Bill, 1998, Order for Second Stage and Second Stage; and item 3, the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund Bill, 1998. I propose that we take all Stages of the latter Bill today. In each case, I propose 15 minutes for spokespersons and ten minutes for other speakers. Speakers may share time.

Mr. Manning: The Order of Business is agreed to. I have no difficulty taking all Stages of the George Mitchell Scholarship Fund Bill which is straightforward legislation. The sooner it is on the Statute Book the better.

Will the Acting Leader make inquiries with the Department of Foreign Affairs in the case of Professor David Lowry, which was reported in yesterday's newspapers? Professor Lowry is a graduate of Queen's University and an academic lawyer of some distinction. However, things have not gone very well for him because he has been held in prison in Lisbon for the past year where he faces fraud charges. For a full year after his arrest he was not charged and it appears the case will drag on indefinitely.

I know it is not appropriate to intervene in the judicial affairs of any state, particularly a friendly foreign one, but this case does give cause for concern. Professor Lowry is being held in a small cell with 12 other people. There is strong prima facie evidence that there may well have been a miscarriage of justice in this case. Obviously, we cannot make any judgment on that, but a number of leading authorities say that this may be so.

One way or the other, Professor Lowry has been held in fairly appalling conditions for a very long period. Will the Acting Leader ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to inquire from our embassy staff in Lisbon if they would investigate the circumstances of the case, which could be conveyed to us if there is cause for concern? All I am asking in this case is that this person be at [850] least given access to a speedy trial rather than being kept indefinitely in fairly appalling conditions.

Mr. O'Toole: The Order of Business is acceptable and the time allocation for speakers seems to be in order.

I wish to raise some more local matters with the Acting Leader. It is time we gave a signal to the rest of the world that we have grown up as a society and have become a bit more civilised. Given that we are entering the season of good will and all that goes with it, we should as a nation accept that we are old enough to decide how long we want to stay out and at what time we want to return home, as well as how much we want to drink and when. The licensing laws in this city and country are antediluvian. The lack of a taxi service for people to get home is equally bad. It is time we started deregulating some of these areas which are creating a safety hazard for many people during this season. The Acting Leader should raise with the Government the deregulation of the licensing laws and the arrangements for transportation, including taxis and hackneys, which nobody understands. These arrangements are leading to unsafe habits among road users at night. People are taking a risk when driving as others are standing out in front of cars fighting for taxis. People do not know where they are going and the Garda Síochána is being used as a force to put pressure on the Government to change the licensing laws by embarrassing publicans and everybody else. I would ask the Acting Leader to look at those matters if he would not mind doing so.

Mr. Costello: I congratulate Senator O'Toole for organising a very fine lobbying session for politicians this afternoon. I wish him and the INTO well in their campaign for better facilities, resources and pupil-teacher ratios.

Item 19, motion 25, on today's Order Paper calls on “the Minister for the Environment and Local Government to obtain an independent assessment of the health effects of microwave transmitters being erected on masts throughout the country”. People from Donegal to Wicklow and Kerry, and their public representatives, are concerned about this issue. It will not go away despite the reassurances given by the different companies which are seeking to erect microwave transmitters on these masts. The fact they are located beside Garda stations, which are close to community facilities, makes them more suspect in people's view. I ask the Leader for an early debate on this matter.

Mr. Coghlan: There is increasing concern about masts. In Killorglin there is a mast within 50 feet of the national school. Every time a child has an unexplained illness, and there have been a few, there is heightened concern among parents, teachers and the public. I join with Senator Costello in calling for a debate on this issue. The [851] Leader should ask the Government if there is definitive information on these potentially hazardous objects which are being erected throughout the country and, if not, urgent steps should be taken to obtain it.

Mrs. Ridge: I ask the Leader to arrange for an urgent debate on child care. We have all heard about the Celtic tiger. However, the Celtic tigresses, or young mothers, are furious at the lack of provision of child care facilities and meaningful tax relief in the budget. That applies to both women working inside the home and those who put their children into care outside the home. I ask the Leader to ask the relevant Minister to attend to this matter because it will not go away.

Mr. Norris: Item 19, motion 34, states:

That Seanad Éireann expresses its concern at the continuing difficulties being experienced by asylum seekers and refugees in this country and requests the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to give an explanation to the House.

Members on all sides would agree this is a serious matter. It was raised in The Examiner and taken up by other newspapers with the suggestion that officials in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform were trying to flush out and expedite the deportation of asylum seekers. That is worrying. It is a peculiar time of the year to start doing it. They have not received the Christmas message in any substantial form. In the absence of the full implementation of the Refugee Act, it is worrying that officials in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform are the first point of contact for asylum seekers when they are being interviewed. This is grossly unfair and is not good practice. It would be welcome if the Minister came into the House to give an explanation.

I was interested in what Senator Manning said about Professor Lowry. I am aware of this case. I understand Professor Lowry is ill and has received the support of an important professor of the law of evidence, a type of forensic expert. It is worrying that someone should be held in prison for such a long time without being charged. It may turn out that he is innocent and then he will have suffered a serious penalty. However, one hesitates to get involved in these matters, particularly before the trial takes place.

I concur with what my colleague, Senator O'Toole, had to say about drink. Of course grown up people should be allowed drink whatever they like as long as it does not land on my doorstep. I hope when we have a proper liberalisation of these laws we will also scrutinise the grossly immature behaviour of Irish people, particularly Dubliners. We could waterski down O'Connell Street half the evenings around this time of year. I find this behaviour absolutely disgusting, barbarous, [852] unsanitary and I do not see why we have to put up with it.

Finally, Senator O'Toole is correct about taxis and that there should be deregulation. It is nonsense to see queues of people and no taxis. We also see the specially adapted invalid taxis for wheelchairs and we know that while they are parked at a taxi rank at St. Stephen's Green they are refusing to take people with wheelchairs. We need to examine the entire system. I was due to take part in a programme for RTÉ. They sent a taxi for me at 6 p.m. but it arrived at 6.35 p.m. which was beautifully calculated so I could miss the first half of the film I was supposed to review. That experience has given me a particular edge with regard taxis.

Mr. Bohan: I would like to reply to Senator O'Toole's suggestion of deregulation of the licensing laws. I agree with him that there is a problem with taxis at the moment. However, while a person may have to wait two or three hours for a taxi I have never witnessed anyone having to wait more than two minutes for a pint of stout. Since public houses can accommodate almost 140,000 people, there is no need for deregulation of the licensing laws. They are too free at the moment.

Mr. Norris: Too many pubs in Dublin have vintners as representatives.

Mr. Bohan: The licensing laws are being looked at and I am sure any problem that is discovered will be dealt with.

An Cathaoirleach: Before calling the next speaker on the Order of Business I will take this opportunity to welcome Chief Anyuoaka, Secretary General of the Commonwealth and his party. On my own behalf and on behalf of Seanad Éireann I extend to your a most sincere welcome to this country. I hope you will find your visit to Ireland to be both interesting and successful.

Mr. Connor: I, too, welcome Chief Anyuoaka, Secretary General of the Commonwealth and his delegation. Perhaps it would be in our interest to join that organisation.

First, I agree with some of the sentiments expressed by Senator O'Toole on the licensing laws. I, with Senator Bohan, was a member of a subcommittee which carried out a very comprehensive review of our liquor licensing laws and we presented a voluminous report to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. We made very worthwhile recommendations but there has not been any action on them since. Will the Acting Leader raise this matter with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform? We would like to see legislative changes brought about as a result of our hard labour.

In light of events in London surrounding the detaining of General Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, and the dilemma now faced by Mr. [853] Jack Straw, British Home Secretary, there is no proper legal framework to enable people like Pinochet who have accusations made against them to deal with them on an international stage. However, Ireland agreed to the setting up of an international criminal court in a UN sponsored agreement in Rome last July.

We freely agreed to this. We need to enact legislation so that Ireland can ratify its membership and participation in an international criminal court. Some 120 countries signed that agreement, but seven or eight countries, including the United States, did not. It needs to be ratified by 60 countries in order to come into force. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on behalf of this House to ensure the legislation to allow Ireland ratify participation in this convention is enacted as soon as possible? This would be simple legislation, similar to that which was enacted a couple of weeks ago to govern the ad hoc committee set up to allow war criminals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to be brought before the ad hoc court in the Hague. This country should take the lead in this regard. We should be one of the first countries to lodge papers of ratification on the basis that these Houses have passed the necessary legislation.

As spokesperson for the Opposition on such matters, I assure the Leader there will be no opposition to this as long as the legislation meets the requirements. This legislation could pass all Stages in one day.

Mr. Bonner: I support Senator Costello's request regarding the matter I raised last week. I have my own opinion on health hazards in this regard. However, I am more concerned about what happened and the necessity for a large Garda presence. Consultation resolves most problems but there was very little consultation in this instance. There should be local consultation regarding these masts.

Will the Leader ask the Tánaiste to address this House on the unfolding events in Fruit of the Loom? There have been problems there for two or three years. The workforce heard yesterday on the local radio station that they were about to be laid off for three or four weeks. There are many rumours circulating that this may be the beginning of permanent lay-off. It is not good enough that as late as this morning workers have still not received official notification of lay-off. The factory in Dungloe closed over a week ago, yet the labour force have not received a redundancy offer. This is an abuse of employers' power and a very sad day for labour relations. The Tánaiste should make a statement on the matter in this House.

Mr. Quinn: I will withdraw my request for a debate on the euro. The reason for this is that I had the opportunity to go through the plans for the changeover drawn up by the changeover panel. I congratulate the panel for the work it has done. There are only 23 days to go before the [854] first steps will be taken towards this changeover. A debate will be necessary at some stage, but not immediately.

The Leader should not accede to the request for a debate on General Pinochet. I was unaware of the information made available to us by Senator Connor recently. I have no love for the former Pinochet regime. However, I am concerned about us debating the possibility of putting someone in jail for crimes committed. The delicately balanced peace in Chile could be upset by action taken in this part of the world. There is now peace in the North. If some of those who committed crimes in the past 20 years, and who are now allowed to walk free, were arrested in South America and it threatened the fragile peace in the North, we would not be in favour of it. We should find other means of handling this. Perhaps the suggestion by Senator Connor is the correct way rather than debate it here and give rise to problems elsewhere in the world where there is a fragile and delicately balanced peace.

Mr. Dardis: Perhaps we are talking about the lawful consumption of pints in the early hours of the morning, paying for them in euros and going home by taxi.

Senator Manning raised the matter of Professor Lowry and it was also mentioned by another Senator. I am not familiar with the case but naturally I will bring the Senator's concern to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. As the Senator stated, it would not be appropriate for us to intervene in the legal process of another State but we would be concerned about any infringement of Professor Lowry's human rights or basic rights. I will ask that that be conveyed on our behalf.

Senator O'Toole, Senator Bohan, Senator Norris and Senator Connor made reference to the licensing laws. I understand the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is at an advance stage in the preparation of legislation to deal with this issue and that should come before us in the new year.

The Dublin Chamber of Commerce stated this morning that 90 per cent of their firms were waiting for a considerable period for taxis when they ordered them. I sympathise with what the Senators said in that respect. I understand Dublin Corporation made some advances yesterday evening in dealing with the issue.

Mrs. Ridge: There is a good Lord Mayor.

Mr. Dardis: It is wrong that people should have to wait in the rain late at night to get home even though I would be prepared to share a taxi to RTÉ with Senator Norris.

I am also pleased to note that the great tradition of socialists dining in the Shelbourne Hotel has continued to the present day. I am sorry I could not be there.

[855] Mr. O'Toole: Nothing is too good for the working classes.

Mr. Dardis: Senator Costello and Senator Bonner raised the matter of the microwave transmitters. I realise the matter is on the Order Paper as a Private Members' motion and we could see if time could be devoted to discussing it. I would agree strongly with Senator Bonner that there should be consultation at local level on these matters. It would be entirely inappropriate to have a large, heavy handed Garda presence where protests take place before these masts are erected.

Senator Ridge will be aware that child care is a complicated area. The Minister for Finance indicated as much in his budget speech and said he is awaiting the report of the working group on it. I hope there will be progress when that happens.

Mrs. Ridge: Will we have a debate on it?

Mr. Dardis: We will if we can make time for it.

Mr. O'Toole: I compliment the Acting Leader on a new answer.

Mr. Dardis: I share Senator Norris's concern at the way asylum seekers might be treated. It would be totally contrary to the traditions of this country that people who come here in unfortunate circumstances would not be dealt with humanely and sympathetically. From that point of view, I would share the Senator's sentiments. I will raise the issue with the Minister to see if something can be done.

I agree with Senator Connor that we should have legislation on the international criminal court as soon as possible and I will also contact the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on that matter. It is worth recording that we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. Within that context, I am sure it would also be appropriate to consider that matter.

The Fruit of the Loom issue, which was raised by Senator Bonner, is something about which all the Members of the House would be concerned, particularly the way in which the workers appear to have been treated — they did not know what was taking place and they have been getting a drip feed over a period. It is wrong that they should have been dealt with in this way and that 1,200 people should be laid off for three or four weeks coming up to Christmas. I will contact the Tánaiste to see if she would be able to come to the House to discuss the issue.

Senator Quinn mentioned the euro. Senator Connor mentioned General Pinochet. I note the motion on the Order Paper regarding General Pinochet. This comes back to a Portuguese issue. Traditionally we do not interfere with the legal process in another EU member state. I understand what Senator Quinn is trying to achieve and he is correct. Irrespective of what the crimes might or [856] might not have been, and they seem to have been very serious, we must be aware of the implications for those living in the country in question before we say anything which might affect them.

Order of Business agreed to.