Dáil Éireann - Volume 592 - 17 November, 2004

Order of Business.

12 o’clock

  The Taoiseach: It is proposed to take No. 14, motion re Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, the Mahon tribunal; No. 25, the Road Traffic Bill 2004, Second Stage (resumed); and No. 26, the Disability Bill 2004 Second Stage (resumed). It is proposed, notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, that the proceedings on No. 14, including amendments thereto, shall, if not previously concluded, be brought to a conclusion after 65 minutes by one question which shall be put from the Chair and which shall include only amendments accepted by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and the following arrangements shall apply: the speeches shall be confined to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and to the main spokespersons for the Fine Gael Party, the Labour Party and the Technical Group, who shall be called upon in that order and who shall not exceed 15 [876] minutes in each case; Members may share time; and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government shall be called to make a speech in reply, which shall not exceed five minutes. Private Members’ business shall be No. 36, Consumer Rights Enforcer Bill 2004, Second Stage (resumed), to conclude at 8.30 p.m.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Is the proposal for dealing with No. 14, motion re Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters and Payments, agreed?

  Mr. Gilmore: Just before we began, a revised Order of Business was circulated which includes reference to the question that will we put by the Chair. It states that it shall include only amendments accepted by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and that the following arrangements shall apply.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Is that in regard to the tribunal of inquiry?

  Mr. Gilmore: Yes, it is. I have tabled two amendments to the Government’s motion. Will those amendments be accepted by the Minister? If they are not to be accepted, it appears that the order presented to us does not permit for the separate taking of those amendments. Will the Taoiseach clarify whether the two amendments which I have submitted will be accepted by the Minister?

  The Taoiseach: I am not aware of the amendments the Minister will accept. That is a matter for the debate.

  Mr. O’Dowd: Fine Gael has two amendments down and I support Deputy Gilmore in his request.

  Mr. Sargent: If there is an attempt not to take amendments, that is unfortunate. Following discussions between the parties and the Minister, it should have been clear that it was insufficient to look for ways of shortening the inquiry without putting changes into the planning process that would take away the conditions which created much of the problem in the first place. Those conditions are still in place as land speculation is still providing enormous temptation for corruption. We should address the issue in a holistic fashion rather than trying to close down the tribunals, which is the impression.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Given the many hours the Mahon tribunal and its predecessor spent in addressing these issues, my concern is that we are being asked to make a substantive change in the course of the hearings of the Mahon tribunal in one hour and five minutes. It is not an adequate time to address the substantive motion presented by the Minister and it will certainly not allow us to address the amendments that other Deputies [877] have tabled. The Technical Group will only have five minutes to offer our views. That is too restrictive as this is a very important matter. The Government should reflect on this by extending the time to allow for a proper debate.

  Mr. Gilmore: I am in a difficult position as a result of the Taoiseach’s reply. The Taoiseach does not know whether the Minister will accept the amendment I have tabled and we are being asked to agree to a procedure under which those amendments would not be put separately to the House in the event of the Minister not accepting them. That procedure is not acceptable to the Labour Party. If the Minister does not intend to accept the amendments, we want an opportunity to put those amendments to the House so that it can decide them.

  The Taoiseach: Unfortunately, I cannot help the Deputy.

  Mr. Rabbitte: The amendments should be taken in the normal way.

  The Taoiseach: Does the Deputy want to put the amendment at a particular time?

  Mr. Howlin: At the same time.

  The Taoiseach: I am happy to do that.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Is it agreed that the amendments will be taken before the final vote?

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Does that mean there will be an extension of time to address the issue properly or are we still restricted to 65 minutes?

  The Taoiseach: There will be no change in the time limit.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I again appeal to the Taoiseach because the time limit is much to restrictive.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Is the proposal, as amended, agreed?

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: No.

Question, “That the proposal, as amended, for dealing with No. 14 be agreed”, put and declared carried.

  The Taoiseach: The apparent murder of Margaret Hassan is a sickening and shocking crime. Since Margaret was abducted, her husband and her family have endured enormous distress, which is compounded by the horrific news of the past 24 hours. I have already had sympathy conveyed to Margaret’s husband, Tahseen, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, spoke to Margaret’s sister, Dierdre. As the House is aware, I met Tahseen and [878] Margaret’s brother and sisters, Michael, Dierdre, Geraldine and Kathryn, who have shown immense resilience, dignity and determination since Margaret’s capture. She was abducted four weeks ago. I am sure I reflect the unanimous view of this House when I say that our thoughts and sympathies and those of the Irish people are with them at this time.

I also extend my sympathy to Margaret’s colleagues in Care International who worked tirelessly for the Iraqi people over many decades. I thank all the people in Care International who have kept so closely to us for the past four weeks. We have had daily contact with them and their many aid workers and staff in trying various initiatives. Tahseen Hassan told the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs that he greatly appreciates the assistance of the Houses of the Oireachtas over the past four weeks. He asked that I inform the House that as soon as it is appropriate for him, he would like to come to Ireland to thank the House and all the people for their assistance.

The family is obviously devastated. This is the worst news they could possibly get. They have tried to be brave over the past few weeks. I thank everyone with whom we had contact, including the Jordanians and the Egyptians who also tried everything they could, as did various members of the media in the area. Those responsible for taking Margaret Hassan’s innocent life stand condemned in the eyes of all people of goodwill throughout the entire international community. I sympathise with Margaret’s family and friends in Kerry, Cork and Dublin and in the UK and with her and Tahseen’s friends in Iraq. This end is enormously sickening.

If it is as it seems, as members of her family accept it is, they have one remaining wish. They would like somebody somewhere to have the decency to allow her to be returned to her family so they can bid her farewell. That is all they ask. It does not seem too much for the House to ask that those who have not listened to us over the past four weeks might listen to this last request.

  Mr. Kenny: I join the Taoiseach in this series of short statements. This is a black day for the people of Ireland and Iraq and for humanity itself.

The world is a much poorer place following the passing of Margaret Hassan who demonstrated low-key compassion for her fellow man and had an unfailing belief in the capacity of the human heart. Many people who knew her well summed her up well when they spoke of the quiet and courageous way in which she went about the serious business of affecting people’s lives. In a million small ways, Margaret Hassan touched and changed the lives of an estimated 17 million people in Iraq over 30 years. She rejected what she considered to be the inhumanity of the sanctions against the Iraqi people and the inhumanity of many aspects of the war against their country. [879] That savage inhumanity has led to her apparent murder.

When Margaret Hassan was born in Holles Street, a stone’s throw from this House, her parents could not have imagined the fate that awaited her. They could not have anticipated the inspiring way in which she led her adult life in Iraq, thousands of miles from Ireland.

In a newspaper today, Robert Fisk has asked “Who killed Margaret Hassan?”. I regret that all of us might be responsible if we have failed to address the injustice, inhumanity and intransigence which are part of the Palestinian crisis, which is the crux of the Middle East problem. The tinder box of Gaza and the West Bank is fuelling violence and hatred throughout the Middle East, whether we like it or not. It is time for the European Union and the global community to commit to resolving the Palestinian crisis once and for all.

Margaret Hassan converted to Islam. The prayers at her funeral will ask for forgiveness for our living and our dead, those who are present and those who are absent, for our young and our old, and for our males and our females. On that occasion, we should interpret the word “our” as applying to all of us — Muslims, Christians, those of any religion and none — who are part of what has been shown in recent months to be the fragile community of man.

I do not doubt that during her life in Iraq, Margaret Hassan would have been aware of the Sufi mystic Rumi. Perhaps his words are most appropriate as I offer my deepest sympathy to her husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, and her broken-hearted family in Ireland, Britain and her beloved Iraq:

Why cling to one life till it is soiled and ragged?

The sun dies and dies

squandering a hundred lives every instant.

God has decreed life for you and

He will give another and another and another.

Go ndéanfaidh Dia trócaire ar a hanam dílis agus go mbeidh sí ar suaimhneas na síoraí go deo.

  Mr. Rabbitte: It appears that Margaret Hassan has been, killed by those who were holding her. I join the Taoiseach and Deputy Kenny in deploring this heinous crime. On behalf of the Labour Party and on my own behalf, I would like to offer heartfelt sympathy to Margaret’s husband and the Fitzsimons family, including her three sisters and her brother.

Margaret Hassan devoted her working life to the people of Iraq for 30 years. She opposed sanctions and the war in Iraq and worked for the people of that country. For more than ten years, she headed up one of the most important agen[880] cies, Care International, which provided therapeutic feeding, clean water, medicine and hospital services to those who desperately needed them.

It is clear that no possible purpose can have been served by the murder of Margaret Hassan. The cause of the people of Iraq has not been served in any way by the sacrifice of her life. All that has happened is that a good person, who was a friend to the people of Iraq and selflessly worked for that country’s most vulnerable citizens, has been savagely murdered for no reason and no purpose.

My colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, met Margaret Hassan and described her on a number of occasions as one of the most extraordinary women he has ever met. He said in an interview last night that when he met her in January 2003, before the most recent war, she was preparing contingency plans for the distribution of food. Her dedication to the people of Iraq was total, according to Deputy Higgins. He argued that her death is all the more devastating when one considers the tenacity and courage she brought to her adopted people. Our thoughts must now be with the heartbroken family she has left behind.

  Mr. Sargent: The reported death of Margaret Hassan, which affects and shocks us all, defies any reasoning. More than anything, it brings home the futility of violence. It reminds us of the danger of dabbling in war, although that is a wider debate. It has often been said that although it is easy to start a war, it is difficult to win the peace. It is irresponsible to dabble in a war that is supposed to be in the national interest of the country in question. I believe that the death of Margaret Hassan is an effect of that.

Our thoughts are with Margaret Hassan’s brother, Michael, and her sisters, Deirdre, Geraldine and Kathryn. We should recall her quiet and unassuming self-sacrifice and selfless generosity. She worked in Palestinian camps in the 1960s, living with and supporting refugees. She moved to Iraq in 1972 after she met her husband, Tahseen Ali Hassan, in London. She converted to Islam and became fluent in Arabic. I think her immense dedication to her work, coupled with her intense privacy, is worthy of sainthood. She will be seen as a martyr to many people.

I have read reports about children who have benefited from Margaret Hassan’s work. It has often been said that Iraq’s children haunted her. One report mentioned that she called the children of the embargo “the lost generation”. Half the people of Iraq are below the age of 15. Margaret Hassan was childless, but she cradled many children who were stricken with Iraq’s myriad of illnesses. That such problems have reached epidemic proportions since 1991 is linked to the destruction of water facilities and the use of chemically toxic and radioactive depleted uranium weapons. One could feel her passion to protect Iraq’s children as her own. She told Robert Fisk despairingly that there will be a second gen[881] eration of lost children as a result of current events.

Margaret Hassan leaves behind a reminder that cannot be ignored. Care International’s last project, which was completed at Margaret Hassan’s instigation, was a rehabilitation unit for patients with spinal injuries. In a poignant demonstration in support of an honorary Iraqi, some of the unit’s patients painstakingly wheeled themselves into the street to hold up banners pleading for her release. She was the quiet, unassuming and determined best friend of Iraq. If ever there was an ambassador for Ireland who demonstrated what is best about the essence of Irish generosity, it was Margaret Hassan, who epitomised that spirit with her outreach work and her efforts to bring peace to the region. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam uasal.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I join the other party leaders in the House and all Deputies in extending sincere sympathy, on my own behalf and on behalf of Sinn Féin, to the husband and family of the murdered Irish-Iraqi aid worker, Margaret Hassan. Her cruel captivity and death serve no cause. Her dedicated service to and embrace of the Iraqi people for over 30 years only emphasises the outrage of her murder. An opponent of the US-British invasion of Iraq, Margaret Hassan represented the overwhelming mass of Irish opinion. We have lost someone of whom we can be justly proud as a people. Her death demands a re-evaluation of this State’s shameful assistance for and association with the US-led war in Iraq, not in response to her murder but because it is the right thing to do and because it is what Margaret Hassan would have wished. Ar dheis Dé go raibh sí.

  Mr. J. Higgins: Perhaps I might, very briefly, on behalf of the Independent Deputies——

  An Ceann Comhairle: There is unfortunately no provision to facilitate every Deputy who wishes to speak on a statement. Only a member of each party in the House is entitled to speak under Standing Orders.

  Mr. J. Higgins: I am in a slightly different position since the Independent Deputies have asked me to say a few words.

  Mr. Healy: The Independent Deputies have asked him to speak.

  An Ceann Comhairle: The Chair does not wish to enter into confrontation over this matter. The tradition under the Standing Orders of this House is that the leader of each party is entitled to speak on a statement.

  Mr. Healy: The exception proves the rule.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Many Members have indicated that they would like to speak on various [882] statements that came before the House. It is not possible to facilitate every Deputy, and the Standing Order is quite specific.

  Mr. J. Higgins: No one else is offering and it will take only 20 seconds.

On behalf of the Independent Deputies, I wish to extend our solidarity to the family and co-workers of Margaret Hassan and the thousands of Iraqi people who marched to demand her release and condemn absolutely the barbarism of that small, ultra-reactionary element in Iraq that uses the methods of kidnap, beheading and torture. That they claim to inflict them as a result of the barbarity of the actions of the US military does not justify them.

Resistance to occupation is absolutely justified, but slaughter of the innocent never is. We should remember — I hope that Irish people do so this morning — that they do not act on behalf of a majority of Iraqis any more than, 30 years ago, the Shankill butchers or those on this island who visited a similar fate on, for example, Mrs. Jean McConville, did not act in the name of the Irish people either.

  Mr. Kenny: In addressing the House yesterday regarding the appointment of a director for the Health Service Executive, the Taoiseach said that the person in question, Dr. Aidan Halligan, is due to take up the top job in Britain. I understand that there is no truth in that. Perhaps the Taoiseach might like to correct that if he was misinformed that Dr. Halligan was to take up that office.

  The Taoiseach: The position does not come up until next year.

  Mr. Kenny: I am aware of that.

  The Taoiseach: He is the favourite for the job.

  Mr. Kenny: As I understand it, he might be the favourite in some people’s eyes.

  The Taoiseach: He is the favourite for the post in Britain.

  Mr. Kenny: Yes, but I believe that he has no interest in it.

When does the Taoiseach expect to introduce the National Roads Authority Bill to update the legislation governing that organisation? I believe that it is due for publication in 2005.

  The Taoiseach: The national roads infrastructure Bill is being drafted but will not be ready until well into next year.

  Mr. Rabbitte: If the Taoiseach knows that Dr. Halligan is the favourite for the job in Britain, did he not know that before he offered him the job here? Are there any imminent plans to appoint a chairman to the Aer Lingus board?

[883]   An Ceann Comhairle: That does not arise on the Order of Business.

  Mr. Sargent: As winter conditions worsen, I would like to ask the Taoiseach about the energy (miscellaneous provisions) Bill. Ireland has the worst winter mortality in the EU owing to poor housing conditions. The Central Statistics Office, CSO, has stopped producing statistics for electricity generating stations’ output.

  An Ceann Comhairle: If the Deputy has a question on legislation, I will hear it, but we must move on. It is almost 12.30 p.m.

  Mr. Sargent: There is energy illiteracy in this country. Will the Government take it seriously?

  The Taoiseach: Early next year.

  Mr. Stanton: The Taoiseach spoke of the need to introduce legislation to deal with people in nursing homes who have been required to pay money, possibly illegally. Has there been any advance on that, and when might we see it, if at all?

  The Taoiseach: Not yet.

  Mr. M. Higgins: Will the Taoiseach explain the difficulty regarding the diplomatic relations and immunities (amendment) Bill, which addresses a constitutional issue that arose from 1967 legislation? It has been on the Order Paper for a very long time, yet no time has been specified to take it.

  The Taoiseach: The heads of the Bill were approved on 9 November, and the legislation will now be drafted.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Regarding the revenue Bill to update the legislative basis of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners, no publication date has been indicated. Does the Taoiseach have any further information on that promised legislation?

  The Taoiseach: Decisions relating to that Bill and its publication will be considered in the context of the timing and availability of the report of the Moriarty tribunal.

  Ms Enright: I have asked the Taoiseach several times about people working with children and vulnerable adults. He said that the outcome of legislation would be dependent on North-South Ministerial Council negotiations. A very good system is up and running in Northern Ireland. Since they have their system, can we not proceed with ours? When will the register of persons considered unsafe to work with children come before this House?

[884]   The Taoiseach: As I previously stated to Deputy Enright, a cross-departmental working group reported to the Minister on proposals for the reform of vetting of employees by the Garda, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, has now appointed an implementation group to advise on the necessity for legislation. I will make the point that we could possibly proceed without waiting for the North-South Ministerial Council.

  Mr. J. Higgins: The Taoiseach said at the weekend regarding promised legislation that people in relationships other than official heterosexual marriage should be accommodated in certain aspects of their lives by changes in the law of this State, and I agree. When will he introduce legislation to that end?

  The Taoiseach: The issue is being considered by both the Law Reform Commission, which has produced an initial report, and by the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women’s Rights. When those reports have been issued, the question will be examined.

  Mr. O’Dowd: What about the proceeds of corruption Bill promised in the Fianna Fáil manifesto to fight white collar crime and corruption in the public and private sectors?

  The Taoiseach: I believe that it has now been incorporated into the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill 2003, which is currently before the Seanad.

  Mr. Broughan: Does the Taoiseach intend for the electricity Bill to be brought to the House before the market opening? Would he arrange a time for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, to address——

  An Ceann Comhairle: That does not arise on the Order of Business.

  Mr. Broughan: He is the Leader of the House and can organise such things. Might it be possible for the Minister to give the House an account of his ongoing discussions with Eircom and An Post?

  The Taoiseach: The heads of the electricity Bill have been approved and the legislation has been drafted, but I do not have a date for its presentation.

  Mr. Boyle: Does the Government intend to introduce legislation on any proposal to change the status of either of the two remaining building societies that remain mutual?

  The Taoiseach: The heads of the building societies (amendment) Bill to amend the provisions of the Building Societies Act 1989 have [885] been approved by the Government, and the legislation should be published this session, although I do not know when it will come before the House.

  Ms Cooper-Flynn: I asked the Taoiseach last week about No. 55 on Tuesday’s Order Paper. Has he had an opportunity to consult the Whips and will there be a debate on the matter given that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, met a delegation from the Council of the West to discuss the underspend in the Border, midland and west region?

  The Taoiseach: I have asked the Whip to examine the possibility of a debate on that.

  Mr. Stagg: There is no chance.

  Ms McManus: There is a great deal of concern about the health Bill, which was agreed at Cabinet yesterday. Members have not received a copy of the Bill. Given that the HSC will be established on 1 January, what is the timeframe for the debate? When will it begin? When will there be a proper debate?

  The Taoiseach: I gave the dates for the debate last week. I think it will be taken on 22 November. The Bill was cleared yesterday.

  Ms McManus: Will it be 22 November? Does the Taoiseach know?

  The Taoiseach: I will ask the Chief Whip to confirm the date. I read the dates last week but I do not have the notes.

  Ms McManus: That is why I am asking.

  An Ceann Comhairle: We cannot have a debate on this now.

  The Taoiseach: The Bill was cleared at Cabinet yesterday and I will confirm the dates later.