Seanad Éireann - Volume 184 - 21 June, 2006

Order of Business (Resumed).

  Mr. Norris: I share my colleagues’ concerns about the extraordinary rise in house prices. There is a middle class investment in this matter and a paradox in that many people are quite pleased by the situation. The aeroplanes going to central, eastern and southern Europe are chock-a-block with Irish speculators who will make the situation just as bad in Budapest and elsewhere as it is here. We must bear this in mind.

  Mr. O’Toole: Hear, hear.

  Mr. Dardis: Cyprus.

  Mr. Norris: Absolutely. The Senator is 100% correct. It is wonderful that he is awake. He must visit this side of the House. We have often exchanged pleasantries across the floor of the House.

I compliment Senator Morrissey on his courage in suggesting that we should have a debate on housing and the relevance of councillors and the planning situation. The Senator is a brave man, but I guarantee that he will not meet with unqualified approval from that side of the House or even certain sections on this side. I will not hold my breath for that debate, but I will support the Senator when he calls for it.

I will also support my colleague, Senator Ryan, who raised the issue of the situation in the Middle East. I would welcome a debate on, for example, [324]the implications of the EU-US summit currently taking place and the statements of representatives of the Government on this matter. In particular, I wish to remark on how Mr. Bruton appears to have caught the American infection, that is, his linguistic system has suffered some corruption.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator should not——

  Mr. Norris: I am asking a question. On the wireless this morning, Mr. Bruton mentioned combatants taken in battle in reference to the inmates of the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp. Will the Leader contact the Department of Foreign Affairs and ask our representative, Mr. Bruton, to explain to the people in which battle a taxi driver was taken off a street in Afghanistan? He should let us know what these battles are. Let us start talking realistically and have some real language.

  Mr. Ryan: Hear, hear.

  Mr. Norris: Senator Ryan is fully correct in respect of what may be termed asymmetrical diplomacy in the Middle East. Yesterday, three children were massacred, but we have done nothing. We have never operated the external association agreement, including its human rights protocols, in its entirety.

I welcome that the Government, through the Minister for Education and Science, has indicated there will be consultation with young people and their representatives on the age of sexual consent. This is an important matter that should be discussed calmly and clearly. I agree with The Irish Times, which today stated “Criminalising sexual experimentation by young people will not however, ensure abstinence. And it is wrong for the Legislature to create a criminal offence and then expect the law officers of the State to ignore it.” The Irish Times is completely right, as this is a tangled mess. As elected representatives, we should try to untangle it.

  Mr. Brennan: Recently, much has been said about the importance of the national census. Will the Leader discuss with the appropriate authorities the issue of the non-return of 300,000 forms where enumerators could not gain admittance to households or collect forms? What action has been proposed regarding the missing data?

  Mr. Bannon: We need the truth in respect of the Mullingar General Hospital, which services counties Longford and Westmeath. This issue has been prolonged time and again and the debacle that is the hospital’s future has lasted for almost two decades. Ten or 11 years ago, we were promised that the hospital would be upgraded to a standard acceptable by the people of those counties. When I was a member of the Midland Health [325]Board almost a decade ago, £60 million was ring-fenced for the development of the hospital’s facilities, but this figure was recently reduced to €14 million.

The people of counties Longford and Westmeath want the truth concerning the future of their hospital. Progressive and ambitious young doctors are leaving the area to advance their careers, as they have not been provided with enough job security to remain in Mullingar. This is a serious matter for the people in the midlands and elsewhere who access the hospital.

11 o’clock

On the cost of housing, it is important to free up zoned land around our towns and villages. Such would be necessary to provide additional houses for young people who want to get on the first rung of the housing ladder. Nationally, we are facing a situation where, ten years ago, land was zoned by local authorities and large developers purchased it, but they have not yet started developing it.

Despite what was said by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on the change in planning guidelines, we need more flexibility for planning in rural areas. Those changes have not happened.

  An Cathaoirleach: There will be a debate on the subject, Senator.

  Mr. Bannon: Very little has happened in rural Ireland and we need more flexibility.

  Mr. Leyden: Senator Bannon will be delighted that, due to the work of the Government——

  An Cathaoirleach: On the Order of Business, Senator.

  Mr. Leyden: ——a live feed of this sitting is being transmitted to all local radio stations. I am sure Shannonside Radio and Northern Sound are delighted because, due to the work of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, we are able to make direct contact with the public. I would like terrestrial stations, such as RTE, TG4 or Sky TV to provide television coverage of both Houses of the Oireachtas. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and we are working towards that end. I call for a debate, involving the appropriate Minister and the Minister for Finance, because there are financial implications, on full-time broadcasting of both Houses of the Oireachtas and all the committees, throughout the day, so that people are made aware of the work being done. They are already aware of our work from the worldwide web and Senator Norris will be delighted that his words were heard throughout the world.

  Mr. Ryan: The whole world is watching.

[326]  Mr. Norris: Why are they not watching Senator Leyden?

  Mr. Leyden: The Leader expressed her personal desire that proceedings in this House be broadcast live and I hope it will come to fruition.

I join other Senators in condemnation of the Israeli Government for the slaughter of the innocents in Gaza, where three children have been murdered in the past 24 hours and a family was wiped out while spending a day at the beach. Someone must shout “Stop” to these acts. I ask the Leader of the House to resume the debate on No. 16, statements on the current situation in the Middle East, before the summer recess. We are standing idly by as the Israelis wipe out the Palestinians and it is about time we, as an independent republic, took a more proactive lead in the matter.

  Mr. Ryan: Hear, hear.

  Ms O’Meara: I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on health issues before the House adjourns for the summer. Health is the most important issue we can debate but it includes so many facets it is difficult to pin down. The House should review two reports published recently, though one of them not in full, namely, the Tribal Secta reports on the delivery of hospital services in the regions. Some of the material was reported by The Irish Times but not in a coherent fashion. I believe the findings of the reports have been suppressed because they do not chime with current Government policy, particular on the delivery of acute services. That policy, which is very clear from the report published on the north east last week and on which I called for an urgent debate, is to centralise services and downgrade smaller hospitals. The report reveals that large hospitals, rather than smaller ones, will deliver acute emergency services, which was confirmed by Professor Drumm at a briefing with Oireachtas Members this morning. If that sounds familiar to Senators I remind them that this was the policy recommended in the Hanly report and the Fitzgerald report and is certainly the policy of the current Government. It will mean that 26 general hospitals around the country will lose vital emergency services and it must be debated in this House.

  Labhrás Ó Murchú: All human life is sacrosanct and such a belief is the bedrock of civilised society. Any deviation from that position opens the floodgates for unspeakable atrocities. Murder is murder, even if it carries an official tag.

  Mr. Ryan: Hear, hear.

  Labhrás Ó Murchú: What happened to the three Palestinian children was official murder. If we do not take a stand on this, we undermine society itself. The danger is that remaining silent [327]will be taken as acquiescence in such criminality. It is absolutely vital for all civilised people, particularly those in the democratic sphere, to stand up and be counted. We can be certain that tomorrow or the day after exactly the same thing will happen again. Young children will have their lives snuffed out at the whim of some official or government. Will we, as a Government which has been so lucky, stand silent and allow that to continue?

I am not happy with the current intervention in the Middle East because it suggests that a wedge is being driven between sections of the Palestinian people which has all the ingredients of a potential civil war. Is that being done on purpose?

  Mr. Norris: Yes, of course it is.

  Labhrás Ó Murchú: Are people endeavouring to create such a position? If that is true then the whole world will suffer as a result.

  Ms Terry: I wish to raise the level of customs duty charged on gifts coming into Ireland from the US. I understand why duty is charged on goods bought by an Irish person from the US, but it is unacceptable for somebody in the US who sends a gift with a value of in excess of €45 to a family member in Ireland to be so charged. What can a person buy for €45 today? I bought clothes for my grandchildren in the US and posted them. They were the wrong size so they were returned to me to replace with clothes of the right size. They were valued at €200 but even though they were marked as gifts I was charged more than €50 to accept the returned goods. Customs officials were not to know that I had bought them in Ireland, sent them to the US and that they were returned, but I was told that any gift with a value of over €45 that comes into Ireland from the US is subject to customs duties. Many of us have friends and relatives living in the US who wish to send gifts to people in Ireland and do not know that customs duties will be levied on items over the value of €45. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, needs to review that situation. I do not know if the same rules apply to gifts from other countries — they probably do — but having endured the experience of receiving goods from the US I feel the threshold must be increased to an acceptable level.

  Mr. Hanafin: I support the call of Senator O’Toole for the Government to consider using the postal service, working with the Communications Workers Union, to ensure the electoral register is properly maintained. It is obvious that postal workers could do such a job as an addendum to their current work and they should, of course, be paid appropriately. We could also use technology to process details of returned mailsh[328]ots. They could be sent to the franchise section of each council for somebody to check a person’s details. It is a targeted approach to ensure the electoral register is correct.

I also support those Senators who raised the situation in Gaza, in particular the terrible murder of three children. I am a supporter of Israel and its right to peacefully survive and thrive, and will continue to be so. Israel was born out of the camps of Europe, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Ravensbrüch and Dachau, when people who had no other place to go congregated in Israel and formed a new state with a parliamentary democracy. Given such a history surely they realise it is not those who inflict the most but those who suffer the most who eventually prevail.

  Mr. Feighan: I support the call for a debate on the escalating costs of housing. Some issues have been resolved and the affordable housing scheme and the facility for councils to acquire up to 20% of suitable land have certainly helped. However, we must examine the role of health boards. It is now more lucrative for an investor to rent an apartment or a house to somebody on welfare than to a professional couple. The health boards are driving up the cost of housing and while it is not the main driver, it is part of the problem and must be investigated. The health boards and community welfare officers are dishing out vast amounts of money which is contributing to the escalation in house prices.

I concur with Senators who criticised what happened to the three Palestinian children. This House must send out a message that murder is murder. There have been many car and suicide bombs in Iraq resulting in horrific casualties. It is very worrying that one of Saddam Hussein’s defence lawyers was abducted and murdered. There is a worry that there is a death squad in the interior Ministry. If that is the case, it is wrong. This House should send out a message that whatever happens in Iraq, members of the government there should not be involved in the establishment of a death squad. This is a very serious allegation and the House should ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to investigate it and find out what exactly is happening.

  Mr. Mooney: I share the condemnation of the murder of the innocent children. As seems to have been indicated, we need to strike a balance. We must remember the Palestinian Government is dedicated to the obliteration of the state of Israel which is, after all, a democratic state in an oasis of totalitarian regimes.

  Mr. Ryan: That is a gross oversimplification.

  Mr. Mooney: The Government, through the EU, is correct in supporting the efforts of President Abbas who, as the House will know, is about to embark on a referendum to establish statehood.

[329]We should also be aware that Ireland has a very proud role in supporting the Palestinian cause going back as far as the late Brian Lenihan who, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, broke away from the European consensus in calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state when it was not the popular thing to do. At the same time, this Government has always taken a very even-handed approach. Such an approach is even more important in the context of the current crisis because while we are now talking about the last atrocity, horrible and all as it is, it is inevitable that Hamas will strike against innocent civilians in Israel.

(Interruptions).

  An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s point has been adequately made. We cannot debate it.

  Mr. Mooney: I support Senator Leyden’s call for the resumption of statements on Palestine. As some Senators will know, this House has a long tradition of debating Palestine and the Middle East on a regular basis. It is incumbent on the Leader to ensure there is regular debate on the Middle East so that this House can put forward its point of view because the Irish position is a credible one in both Israel and Palestine.

  Mr. Bradford: I support the call for a fuller debate on the Middle East peace process. Since there are so many issues which need to be addressed during that debate, it should take place at the earliest possible opportunity. One or two colleagues raised the issue of the ongoing carnage in Iraq. Yesterday, as a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, I was very interested to hear from elected Iraqi parliamentarians because we hear all sorts of comments from various commentators on the situation in Iraq. The Iraqi people have democratically elected a Parliament and some of the parliamentarians from across the political spectrum in Iraq met us yesterday. They are genuinely trying to chart the way forward for their people and country and they need our full support and understanding. I look forward to a broader debate on the issue.

I refer to the plan by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to build a new high security prison on Spike Island. This is the cause of grave concern in the locality. The local community is not concerned about the building of a new prison and has suggested other local alternatives but it is concerned about the plan to build a bridge to the island and of ruining the island which is a jewel of Cork Harbour. The plan is strongly opposed in the Cobh and east Cork area. Many people in Cobh believe Spike Island should be declared a national heritage site because of its history and tradition. The last thing we want is the building of a new high security prison on the island. Will the Leader ask the Minister to come [330]to the House at the earliest possible opportunity to debate this plan? Apparently, it is part of his overall prisons policy but deep reflection is a required and, hopefully, a reversal of policy.

  Mr. J. Walsh: I endorse what Senator Terry said on the duty free limit. The limit of €175, whether for parcel post or for somebody coming through a duty free shop, is far too low. In this day and age, it should be increased to at least a four figure sum.

Will the Leader arrange a debate on the ongoing tribunals and, in particular, the need to refocus and perhaps channel some of the remaining modules through commissions of investigation which would be far more expeditious and fair? When the Leader is arranging the debate on Gaza, will she also include the recent atrocity at Al-Hadithah? Such appalling war crimes must be debated and exposed. In many ways, this underscores the correctness of the views expressed by President Chirac and the French Government at the outset of the invasion of Iraq.

  Ms O’Rourke: Senator Finucane, the acting Leader of the Opposition, raised the issue of the cost of housing and asked if there was a way forward. He spoke about the study which was conducted and what has arisen from it. He also raised the issue of the gun murders, which are horrific. Every morning when one wakes up, one hears of more murders. We know the omerta principle applies within the circle of those engaged in crime. Since the 1990s, as a result of murders and the investigation of crimes, the biggies were taken out. However, now the smaller players have become the biggies, so the cycle continues. It is quite frightening. Hopefully, the Criminal Justice Bill will be taken in the House before the end of the session, so we will get a chance to debate those issues.

Senator O’Toole pointed out the contradictions in housing. He is right there is exultation over the price of houses among those living in expensive ones. However, as somebody said to me, that is all very well but one cannot realise their value since one must have a roof over one’s head. I am talking about people with large houses.

The Senator also spoke about the electoral register and the Communications Workers Union being willing to play a role in correcting the electoral register following negotiations. My postman changes every three months so I do not know what good that would be. Postmen are moved about——

  Mr. O’Toole: They call to every house every day.

  Ms O’Rourke: Yes.

  Mr. O’Toole: They know who lives in every house.

[331]  Ms O’Rourke: In the days when postmen stayed a while on one’s beat, they knew people. People would often talk about who had moved into such a house and so on. Postmen have on the ground knowledge and I am sure it is a suggestion which could be worked through. Senator Hanafin concurred with that suggestion.

Senator Ryan asked who might be in the Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway races. I will not be; I have never gone to them.

  Mr. Ryan: I know that. The Leader is a woman of great discretion.

  Ms O’Rourke: I am not interested in horses or in those who go to watch them.

  An Cathaoirleach: That is not relevant to the Order of Business.

  Ms O’Rourke: Is it not? I believe it is highly entertaining.

  Mr. J. Walsh: We do not have printing machines.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Leader to reply on the Order of Business.

  Ms O’Rourke: Those two gentlemen paid their dues.

  Mr. Ryan: When they were caught. The alternative was to go to prison so they had to pay.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Leader to reply without interruption.

  Mr. Leyden: What about the printing machines?

  Ms O’Rourke: That was so long ago.

  An Cathaoirleach: The Leader to reply without interruption.

  Mr. Ryan: I refer to the sad case of the three children who were killed in Gaza.

  Ms O’Rourke: The three children who were killed in Gaza is a sad case. A crime against children is heinous. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has been open and consistent in his condemnation of what he sees as Israeli atrocities.

The HSE was also referred to and I see nothing wrong in seeking value for money, it is both an old-fashioned and a modern tenet. Shoppers seek value for money every week. I am glad to tell the House that the tender for Longford-Westmeath General Hospital is going out today. It will be back in four weeks and the work will commence after that.

  Mr. U. Burke: Does Donie know that?

[332]  Ms O’Rourke: He is in the US.

  An Cathaoirleach: That is definitely not relevant to the Order of Business.

  Mr. Finucane: I would say the Leader would not mind if there was a permanent representative out there.

  Mr. Coghlan: On a one-way ticket.

  Ms O’Rourke: Urgent work is going ahead in Longford-Westmeath General Hospital. The Department of Finance is right to look for value for money. If one is going to invest large amounts of money, there should be a proper explanation of the value to be obtained from such an investment.

Senator Morrissey raised the matter of the Railway Procurement Agency and sought a debate on public transport. As he said, if the Luas can work viably, why not the buses? In a small country, trains will never be economically viable because one needs vast distances and large passenger numbers, as in Canada, to make rail transport profitable.

The Senator also asked where are the real criminals who would not agree to rezoning or providing houses at a reasonable cost. There will be some debate in this House if we get going on that. I look forward to it very much.

  Mr. Norris: Let us have it.

  Ms O’Rourke: Indeed.

Senator Coghlan raised his hardy annual, or hardy daily, which is the Great Southern Hotels group. He referred to the paintings therein, which have gone to de Veres for valuation. I cannot see those hotels being sold. There is a lot of mouthing going on about them but I do not know if they will ever be sold. It is like a perennial story with no ending.

Senator Mansergh mentioned Professor Drumm, who did not talk about privatisation. I thank Professor Drumm for the breakfast but I could not hear anybody who spoke there. It was all very low key. Senator Mansergh also said there was a zero subsidy figure for Luas and the RPA, which is great. The dear husband of one of our Senators — I am giving no names — is the chairman of the RPA.

  Mr. Norris: Is he the one who did not know how long the underground was, how much it cost or how much tax was paid on it?

  Dr. Mansergh: It is a brilliant success.

  Ms O’Rourke: It is so interesting because everyone hated the Luas until the day it ran and then everyone loved it. One can see all the faces of passengers looking out when the Luas comes along. Thank God something worked out.

[333]  Mr. Finucane: How right the Leader is.

  Ms O’Rourke: Senator Norris sought a debate on housing and house prices. He also mentioned the US-EU summit meeting in Vienna. I would be very suspicious of all that. He also referred to the age of sexual consent and said it was correct to seek young people’s views. I would have my own views on that, however.

Senator Brennan raised the non-return of 300,000 census forms. The forms are supposed to be collected from people’s homes so I do not know why that has not happened in certain cases. The collectors are paid a fee on returning the forms. It is a civic duty so everybody should have filled out the forms for collection.

I am sure Senator Bannon is glad to know that the tender for the Longford-Westmeath General Hospital is out today. The proper tender will be accepted in four weeks.

  Mr. Bannon: It has been slimmed down.

  Ms O’Rourke: I am sure he is delighted with the good news for the hospital. As regards the cost of housing, I agree with the Senator about freeing up zoned land. Equally, however, no matter what explanatory guidelines are issued, the biggest question facing anyone dealing with people is planning in rural areas. One cannot obtain one-off planning. There are three or four weeks before validation is issued. The day before the eight weeks are up, an applicant will get a letter seeking information, which adds on another four weeks. Applicants then receive another letter seeking more information. It is a disgrace. I am convinced that planners get up every morning and say, “How many refusals can I issue today?” They then go about issuing them. It is an amazing process.

It does not matter to whom one goes in a local authority, it is a clear case of putting obstacles in the way of anyone who applies for planning permission. An ordinary young couple seeking planning permission must undertake a hazardous trek at the end of which they cannot obtain permission. I do not know what is going on. Michael Davitt said the land of Ireland was for the people of Ireland. He may have had his ideology but it is certainly not working out now. It does not matter if one is the son, daughter, sister or brother of the man or woman who owns the land, one will not get planning permission. It is a crisis. Our lives are dominated by people who cannot obtain planning permission.

Senator Leyden wants us all to be on Sky Television. I suppose it is all right if it was interested. The BBC has a channel for the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which is what I thought Senator Leyden was getting at.

  Mr. Bradford: Lord Leyden of Castlecoote.

[334]  Ms O’Rourke: Castlecoote is a nice place. I know where it is. I have been in it several times.

  An Cathaoirleach: We will not discuss it now.

  Ms O’Rourke: Senator O’Meara raised the report on regional hospitals and the delivery of services. She indicated that certain facts were suppressed concerning what is in the report.

  Ms O’Meara: We want the full report to be published by the Department or the HSE.

  Ms O’Rourke: The full report rather than taking pieces out of it.

  Ms O’Meara: Yes.

  Ms O’Rourke: Senator Ó Murchú said that human life is sacred and referred to the “official murder” of three Palestinian children. He asked if a wedge was being driven between the Palestinian people. Of course it is, leading to civil war and a diminution of their own efforts to govern themselves.

Senator Terry said that anything which attracts over €50 in customs tax is returned by the US postal service. I suppose her point is that the limit should be raised to €200 because the current limit has not kept pace with today’s monetary values.

Senator Hanafin expressed his approval of the idea of seeking the support of the Communications Workers Union, through negotiations, to ensure that the electoral register is kept up to date. He also raised the targeted mail-shot, to which he has previously referred. In addition, the Senator mentioned the events at the Jabaliya camp in Gaza.

Senator Feighan referred to housing and welfare rental costs but the HSE pays the going costs of rents. He also raised the terrible murder of those Palestinian children. Senator Mooney sought a balanced debate on that matter. I am sure all debates strive for balance but it is very hard to be balanced when children are murdered in a camp.

  Mr. Ryan: Hear, hear.

  Ms O’Rourke: It is hard to say “Let’s have a balance” in that situation. Of course, Hamas will fight back.

Senator Bradford sought a debate on the carnage in Iraq. He met some elected representatives of that country here yesterday. I was not able to attend that meeting but they need our support.

Senator Bradford also referred to the plan to build a high security prison at Spike Island. There was always a detention centre there but he is talking about a high security prison. May I suggest to the Senator that in advance of the House debating the Criminal Justice Bill, he might raise the matter on the Adjournment? It would be a good topic for an Adjournment debate. I can under[335]stand the reservations people would have about that matter.

Senator Jim Walsh supported Senator Terry and suggested that the tribunals be dealt with in a more explicit and targeted way.

Order of Business agreed to.