Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Have the Greens lost the plot?

On Tuesday the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon visited Leinster House. He met with myself and other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee for about 40 minutes. He gave a wide-ranging address, outlining the major geo-political issues as he sees them.

Picture 260
UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon with members of the Oireachtas

I used the occassion to bring up the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi's ongoing captivity in Myanmar, and also of the Karen people on the Myanmar / Thai border area. I stayed with a Karen hill tribe on the Thai side of the border earlier on in the decade, so I am aware of the hardship that they are enduring. The Secretary General answered that for democracy to have any credibility in Myanmar the junta there must free all political priosoners and engage in meaningful dialogue with the ethnic groups.

I spoke on several debates last week, including the Defamation Bill - the Blasphemy sections were particulary contentious. When it came to the vote the members in the House entered the Chamber, the doors were locked and the vote was taken.

The opposition won 22 - 21. However, the government whip, Diarmaid Wilson, then asked for a "walk through vote". This means that each Senator has to walk through the lobby, as opposed to the normal electronic vote from the member's seat. When a walk through vote is called the doors to the chamber are reunlocked. This allows any members who missed the original vote to enter the chamber.

With the doors opened I went out into the chamber ante-room to see if the government whips were having any success in raising the absent members. While there I noticed that a Cabinet member had come along. I overheard some of his language, which was certainly not very parliamentary. It appeared that he was less than happy with the lost vote!

Of course the inevitable happened and along came a Green knight to save the day. Senator Deirdre de Burca had missed the original vote but entered the chamber once the doors were opened and voted with the government to include Blasphemy in the Bill.

With the vote tied at 22-22 the Cathaoirleach cast his deciding vote for the government and hence the Bill now contains the Blasphemy section.

I still haven't got my head around the reasoning behind having a walk-through vote. I asked several senior members of the House for a rationale but no-one was able to provide a coherent answer. I couldn't find anything in Standing Orders. It's something we should think about getting rid of during the Seanad reform process.

It was a bit much though to see the Greens come riding to the rescue on this of all things. It's not exactly core party policy for them. Senator Dan Boyle mentioned that he thought that the section should be reviewed in the short to medium term, something that Minister Ahern ruled out straight away. I don't see why they went along with this.

I know that a lot of rank and file Green members are upset at this latest turn of events. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if many of them start to have a serious think about the performance of their party in government. I share a hell of a lot of their agenda on green issues, but a line in the sand has to be drawn when it comes to core principles and their parliamentary members seem unable, or unwilling, to see that.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Civil Partnership Bill is a first-step

The long-awaited Civil Partnership Bill was finally published by the Government. I spoke about it in the Seanad on Tuesday. I see it as a first step along the way. It provides for rights in relation to Power of Attorney, Next of Kin and inheritance. It doesn’t deal with issues in relation to tax matters or social welfare matters. The government has said that these will be dealt with separately in the next Finance Bill at the end of the year. We will keep the pressure on to make sure they deliver on that.

What it doesn’t address is the issue of children and adoption. That’s something of a disappointment and no doubt we (the Labour Party) will have to address this when we next get into government. Overall the Bill received a mixed reaction. Some campaigners were upset, arguing that “you can’t have a little bit of equality”. Personally I am surprised that the government has even gone this far. For a party that has filleted the Equality Authority I am surprised that they have even started down the road. I thought that they would kick this to touch.

It’s nearly the end of the Dail & Seanad session and as a result of that there are many piece of legislation that need to be completed. We sat into the evenings on a few occasions during the week and I fully expect that we will be doing so again in the coming week. Unfortunately, if legislation is too rushed then mistakes can be made, so that’s something we have to particularly watch out for.

On Tuesday I spoke on the Criminal Justice Surveillance Bill, and on the Broadcasting Bill, On Wednesday I spoke on the Local Government Charges Bill. All of the media pressure managed to convince the government to change their mind on the Mobile Home charges, a decision I welcomed – I had tabled an amendment in relation to this. I also made the point that the money raised from the Bill must not be seen by the government as an excuse to reduce its funding in local authorities. I also made the same point the next morning on LMFM radio.

Some people pointed this out as an example of how the Seanad serves a purpose as a check on legislation, to allow changes, amendments and corrections to be made to draft Bills. I felt that the instance here was an exception, rather than the rule. It was more because the legislation was rushed that the Minister had to make amendments, rather than a desire by him to involve Senators in the drafting of the legislation.

On Thursday I brought up the issue of the new EPA report on Sewerage plants. It shows that there is chronic underinvestment in sewerage plants and that further work needs to be done in training and upskilling of workers within the plants. I called for the Minister to use his authority to improve the situation. Only one County – Longford – fully complies with EU Standards.