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Meanwhile… back at the Seanad… June 9, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in back at the Seanad.
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Another trying week at the Seanad… who says they do nothing? They sure generate their fair share of news stories. But the balance was curious, split between Gaza and Clontarf and a holiday home… and with dissent amongst the Independent Senators on the former issue.

Still, if you want to be reminded of something interesting and useful skip the rest and scroll right to the end! [Thanks by the way to the person who pointed out some extra gems that I’ve folded in]

Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Information Zoom Several national and international events have taken place over recent days which need to be debated in this House and should be reflected in our work and on the Order of Business. We have seen the shocking and worrying pictures of the Israeli military boarding a flotilla of ships delivering aid to the people of Gaza and Irish citizens in international waters effectively being kidnapped, as described by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I welcome the Leader’s statement that the Minister will be in the House tomorrow to debate this important topic.

In that context, one issue is distracting from the important attention these issues deserve and causing significant public concern and that is the expenses of one Member of the House, Senator Callely. That has led to reasonable questions being raised and I would like that Member to be afforded the opportunity to explain the circumstances surrounding these reports. Will the Leader make time available for a statement by Senator Callely on these matters? It is related to our work and such a statement should be addressed to the House. Will the Leader respond to that request and make time available in order that we can send a clear message from this House on these matters?

Yes, a Senator had…troubles… and his colleagues weren’t slow to point this out…


Senator Joe O’Toole: Information Zoom I thank the Leader for responding to the request for a debate on the situation in Gaza and it is appropriate that it take place tomorrow in order that the Minister can contribute on this two days in a row.

I concur with everything Senator Fitzgerald said. It is regrettable that Senators were in the public eye all over the weekend for all the wrong reasons again. The Cathaoirleach and I are well aware of our code of conduct. Under Article 15 of the Constitution, of which every Member has a copy, we are required, among other things, to ensure we maintain the integrity of the office and of the Seanad and to foster and sustain public confidence in the Seanad. I want to be absolutely fair, to respect all of the House’s procedures and the law and to acknowledge the fundamental importance of the assumption of innocence in our democracy.

I am not rushing to any conclusions about anything but it is, nevertheless, crucial to the image of our Parliament and, in particular, to this House, that we deal with and dispose of any breaches or apparent breaches of our code of conduct. I do not want to rush to judgment. I cannot answer a question as to the personal circumstances of any Senator and I cannot answer the question as to where a Senator lives. All I know about where a person lives is I have recourse to the Electoral Act which provides that where a person is registered to vote is where a person is normally resident. That is required by law. I cannot go and have no intention of going beyond that.

An Cathaoirleach: Information Zoom I remind Members that the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, as amended by the Standards in Public Office Act 2001, provides a legislative framework for dealing with any contraventions of the legislation by a Senator or any complaint made about a specific act of a Senator. Therefore, the Seanad has no function in the matter at this time.

Senator Alex White: Information Zoom Would the Cathaoirleach please clarify for the record whether the Committee on Members’ Interests has any role in relation to this matter? As my colleagues have said, it is a matter of serious urgent concern. …

I agree. It is an urgent matter. A meeting of the committee should be arranged at the earliest possible date in order that it may be addressed in that forum.

On the debate which the Leader has arranged for tomorrow evening, I welcome the fact that we are to have a debate on the situation in Gaza. All reasonable persons would agree that what occurred yesterday morning was most shocking and a despicable act, an attack on a humanitarian mission in international waters. I believe it was an illegal act, carried out with excessive and grossly disproportionate force. I cannot understand how Israel which seeks the support and respect of the international community can stand over the statement made yesterday by an Israeli army spokesperson to the effect that, “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” Anybody who believes that has virtually placed himself or herself beyond the potential for having a reasonable discussion on what should pass for acceptable action at international level. It is vitally important that there be an independent inquiry into what occurred. I do not accept what I heard an American spokesperson say today, that it was within the bounds of the Israeli Government to conduct such an inquiry. That clearly cannot be the case in order for the international community to have any confidence that an independent inquiry which is urgently required will take place, not least given the presence of Irish citizens, the safety of some of whom we are still not certain about. I urge the Minister for Foreign Affairs to continue his vigorous response to what occurred yesterday. He should press for an independent inquiry to be held immediately at international level.

And the government side was no less eager to engage…

Senator Niall Ó Brolcháin: Information Zoom I very much welcome and endorse Senator Alex White’s comments. What happened yesterday in international waters near Gaza was absolutely despicable. I knew people on some of the boats, including Senator Daly who is in the House today. He was on one of the boats going to Cyprus.

I call for debates on two other issues, one of which was raised with me in the last few days, that is, rents, both commercial and domestic. A number of people have contacted me — I am sure they have also been in touch with other Members of the Oireachtas — about the very high rents still being demanded for many high street premises and housing units across the country, as a result of the enormous amounts spent and, in some cases, gambled by landlords towards the end of the housing boom. There is an overhang, as a result of which perfectly viable businesses are going to the wall because they cannot afford to pay the rents sought or the rates charged on their premises. We need to look at methods to alleviate the situation for small businesses in terms of the rents being levied by landlords.

I refer to comments made by previous speakers about expenses. A full debate at the appropriate committee is important, but the position of the Green Party has always been that we should move towards having a system of fully vouched expenses which would obviate the need for any such discussion.

Although curiously FF members of the House were somewhat more reticent about their colleague… and therefore more exercised by Gaza.

Senator Ann Ormonde: Information Zoom I welcome the fact there will be a debate tomorrow night on the assault by the Israeli military on an aid convoy on its way to Gaza. There is no doubt about it — it was an act of war. It will be interesting, therefore, to have that debate tomorrow.

Will the Leader ask the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Peter Power, to come to the House before we break up for the summer to outline the up-to-date position on the moneys allocated to developing countries and how such moneys are spent or misspent? I refer to countries in which human rights are not respected, there is no freedom of speech and torture is widely used. Should we pump money into countries in which human rights are not respected? A debate on the issue is necessary. I refer, in particular, to reports I have read on the position in Uganda in which torture is widely used and there seems to be no relationship between governance and the agencies working with Irish Aid. It is very important that we debate the issue.

And…

Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Information Zoom I have had reason to criticise Israel for its brutality. On several occasions we have been able to point to specific incidents when it targeted civilians and massacred women and children, about which we were told there would be an inquiry and that action would be taken, but that was the end of the matter. The state of Israel used Irish passports in its murderous deeds, against which many Members of this House stood up and spoke out. Again, we expected action to be taken but we got none. The massacre this week of the humanitarian aid workers is a terrorist act. If any other country committed the same act, it would be immediately dubbed a terrorist rogue state. It is vital at this stage, in addition to calling for justice in this case, that we also call for humanitarian concern and justice for the thousands suffering in the Gaza Strip. Those who seek to help them are murdered. As an independent state we must take a stand on the issue. It is also important that America turn its rhetoric into action because no other country can influence Israel. The arrogance shown by Israeli spokespersons is unbelievable. To compare in some way an iron bar to a weapon of mass destruction defies all credibility. At this stage, independent inquiries would lead nowhere because they would be forgotten until such time as Israel recognises the international conventions it has breached time and again. If the international powers and community do not do this, they may never again talk about human rights and the rights of independent countries because it will be shown clearly that there is a club operating in that regard.

The next day we were treated to statements… Senator Quinn had a most interesting one to make (ironically sharing his time with David Norris).

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information Zoom I thank Senator Norris for allowing me to share his time. Like all Members of the House, I agree with the Minister’s expression of sympathy for those who have died. I support the Minister’s final remarks in which he called for an impartial, credible and transparent investigation that conforms to international standards. I do not support him when he asks “Who now could possibly argue that preventing this cargo from reaching Gaza was so important?”. I suggest that anyone who thought it should reach Gaza was not thinking straight. I am told that for the last five years, Israel has been subjected to at least 10,000 bombs and rockets from Gaza. Did anyone really expect a democratic country like Israel to allow a flotilla of ships to come in and go straight to Gaza without any inspection? I do not think that was possible.

Senator David Norris: Information Zoom There was inspection.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information Zoom Does anyone believe these ships could be allowed to land in Gaza? Does anyone believe it was not acceptable to offer to accept the ships into an Israeli port, to examine them and to transport them into Gaza?

Senator David Norris: Information Zoom I am leaving in protest.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information Zoom There are some goods that will not be allowed.

Senator David Norris: Information Zoom This is a disgraceful contribution.

Acting Chairman (Senator Maurice Cummins): Information Zoom Senator Quinn, without interruption.

Senator David Norris: Information Zoom I am ashamed of my colleague, Senator Quinn.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information Zoom Those goods that are not allowed in include cement, which could be used——

Senator David Norris: Information Zoom It is a disgrace.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information Zoom That is the reason they do it. If one has put up for many years with bombs being dropped and children being killed, it is not reasonable for one to be asked to allow ships to come in without inspection. Would anyone allow that?

Deputy Micheál Martin: Information Zoom No one has said that.

Senator Ann Ormonde: Information Zoom No.

Senator Feargal Quinn: Information Zoom The situation in Gaza seems to be disastrous and terrible. The people are running short of food and the other things they need to live, but they do not seem to be running short of guns and bombs. Hamas seems to be able to get these goods into Gaza, but it is unable to get food into Gaza. It is quite reasonable and rational to point that out. I say that as someone who is horrified about what happened. I do not understand the force that was used.

People have criticised the use of force in international waters, but I am old enough to be reminded of an incident that occurred in 1962 when I was on my honeymoon. It is probable that no one else here is old enough to remember it. Russians with loaded ships were heading towards Cuba in international waters but President Kennedy told them not to go any further. He told them to stop, just as Israel told the flotilla not to go any further in international waters. Fortunately, Russia agreed at the time to turn back. The Americans said they would not allow the Russians to land in Cuba with whatever was on board their ships. I see a similarity between what happened then and what is happening now. Israel said the flotilla would not be able to land in Gaza. It asked those involved to land in Israel and to allow inspections to take place so that the goods could be taken into Gaza.

I disagree with what has happened. I believe the investigation that will take place into these horrific killings will be fair. Regardless of where it takes place — I assume it will take place at UN or EU level — I am sure it will be impartial. I hope the investigation will consider the possibility that the flotilla could be accused of coat-trailing, to use an old term. In other words, they may have been acting in the hope of causing a scandal and embarrassing Israel. I am no defender of Israel in this situation, but I believe it would be irrational and unacceptable to expect the Israelis to allow uninspected ships to go into Gaza after they have been bombed continuously and suffered many deaths over many years. I believe we need a balance. That is what I would like to have in this debate.

Well, let’s just say that that was not a popular contribution. And for a sense of that consider Pearse Doherty’s most measured response…

I completely disagree with the comments of my colleague, Senator Feargal Quinn. They were akin to what we could have heard from the propaganda machine of the Israeli authorities. It was unlike Senator Quinn. I agree with many of his views but some of his comments took me by surprise.

And by the way, where on earth was Eoghan Harris that he wasn’t able to contribute to a debate on an issue surely close to his heart?

Meanwhile, all this talk of human rights allowed for some very curious pronouncements:

Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Information Zoom From the first day I came into the Seanad, other Senators and I have endeavoured to provide advocacy on behalf of people who suffer abuses of human rights. Where possible, I have endeavoured to give a voice to those who have no voice, particularly prisoners of conscience. I have always believed we should tread warily on the individual conscience. After all, conscience is what distinguishes us as human beings. We must all answer at the bar of our own conscience, rather than somebody else’s conscience. Therefore, it is an uncomfortable prospect for me that at some future date, as a result of legislation in which I have acquiesced, I may have to speak in this House on behalf of Irish prisoners of conscience. The Civil Partnership Bill 2009 provides that a person can lose his or her job or be imprisoned, and that churches and other bodies can have their property commandeered. I do not think that is right in a country that has upheld traditional values down through the centuries, often in the face of oppression and misrepresentation. I do not think it is right that people who in good conscience believe they are upholding the same values should be subject to such a penal code. Many people in Ireland will see this as an echo of the dreaded penal laws. It cannot be correct.

Senator David Norris: Information Zoom Does Senator Ó Murchú also support discrimination against black people and Jews?

And guess who came to town?

Visit of Northern Ireland Delegation

An Cathaoirleach: Information Zoom Before I call the next speaker, I am sure Members of the House will wish to join me in welcoming Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley and Baroness Eileen Paisley to the House. On my own behalf and on behalf of my colleagues in Seanad Éireann, I extend a very warm welcome to them.

What the hell they made of all this is anyone’s guess…

Senator Paschal Donohoe: Information Zoom I would like to respond to the point made by Senator Ó Murchú. I understand that everyone should act in accordance with his or her own conscience and agree that the matter should be debated. The law we are talking about is not a penal one. It seeks to give a degree of recognition to people’s sexuality and love for each other, over which they have no control and in which they have no choice. If we are to move forward in this country, we have to accept that the law is the law. State officials are expected to implement the law in performing their roles. Regardless of the area of public life we are talking about, surely we have learnt the lesson that if we give people the ability to opt out of implementing the law, we will do so at a great cost to us all.

Senator David Norris: Information Zoom Well said.

Senator Paschal Donohoe: Information Zoom Surely that applies in this case as well.

I agree with Senator Glynn’s observation that it is a beautiful morning. When I heard the birds tweeting away as I walked to the House, I was reminded they are not the only ones who tweet.

Senator David Norris: Information Zoom Senator Boyle was tweeting away.

An Cathaoirleach: Information Zoom Does the Senator have a question for the Deputy Leader?

Senator Paschal Donohoe: Information Zoom Yes. The Deputy Leader owns the deadliest pair of thumbs in Irish politics.

Senator Dan Boyle: Information Zoom The Senator should not sell himself short.

Senator Paschal Donohoe: Information Zoom I wish mine were so deadly.

An Cathaoirleach: Information Zoom Come on. That is not a question to the Deputy Leader.

Senator Paschal Donohoe: Information Zoom I am working up to my question.

An Cathaoirleach: Information Zoom I would appreciate it if I could hear the question.

In conclusion…David Norris pointed out something not insignificant…

Senator David Norris: Information Zoom I welcome the fact that the Government has withdrawn the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill. It was a disgrace. Two hundred amendments were tabled to it in the Dáil and it was also attacked in this House. It contained serious human rights violations and probably was unconstitutional. In an act of extraordinary political effrontry, the Government sought to continue in office, by name, someone who had been discredited in the appeals tribunal. I am very glad the Bill has been withdrawn and would like the Leader to tell us when the matter will be brought before the House in a proper and decent form.

Will the Leader tell us when the Government will become the last in Europe to ratify the Aarhus Convention? I am very concerned at the statements of Sr. Majella McCarron who said yesterday that the right of Irish citizens to a fair trial and due process was being prejudiced, particularly in the Corrib gas field dispute in the absence of ratification of the convention.

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