Tales from the Upper House

In what may be the last Seanad, Galway senator

Fidelma Healy Eames writes a weekly blog on the happenings in Ireland’s Upper House.

Welcome to autumn. Two weeks ago we saw the Houses of the Oireachtas returning after the summer recess. The Fine Gael Think-In the previous week in Galway city served to adequately focus the mind. Not that there was nothing to do during the recess. Constituency issues, not least the horrendous Galway city traffic and the roundabouts/ lights saga kept politics to the forefront. Still, being back in Leinster House is a completely different gear.

Last Sunday started with a trip to Brussels as a member of the EU Affairs Committee. I learned about the huge amounts of work the EU and its institutions do, unbeknown to most. The overwhelming view in Brussels is that Ireland’s problem was not its economy but its banks. Unlike Greece, we are a model child. You could visibly see the concern on Catherine Day’s face (the most senior civil servant in the European Commission and Irish to boot ) when she spoke about the EU as a dysfunctional family. She acknowledged that the way Ireland is taking its responsibility seriously is the only way forward for a functional European family. The major concern of course is Greece. My worry is that a Greek default could unravel so much of Ireland’s hard labour. This recession now three years on has been hard on us. Cuts are difficult, but families who have lost jobs and young people to emigration know a different pain.

Irish people in the EU continue to shine. Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn gave us a great welcome. She is a veritable tour de force. With a budget of €55 billion, she thrives on her portfolio. She recently announced nearly €7 billion to kick-start innovation through research under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research. Irish companies and institutions she reassured us are on top of their game when drawing down funding. I was delighted to learn that with the help of Enterprise Ireland, individuals can also benefit from research and innovation funding.

Seeing the rumpus surrounding the presidential nominations, in the Senate on Thursday’s Order of Business, I asked the Minister for the Environment to examine the nomination process. We say the office is above politics, yet it is completely reliant on political parties or groups thereof, nominating a candidate. The process needs change. In addition to the political route, people should be given a voice on the issue of the presidency at the nomination stage.

Tough decisions continue. To some surprise Minister Rabbitte, announced that the Government would be selling a minority stake in the ESB. As an Irish person, I don’t take any pleasure in this sale but it is necessary under the terms of the agreement with the Troika - an agreement foisted on us as a result of years of disastrous economic policies. Still, I would prefer to see an Irish buyer for the state's electricity supplier.

With this in mind and cognisant of the amount of savings in the country, I proposed in the Seanad that the Government facilitate the setting up of a syndicate fund to enable Irish people to bid for/ buy the ESB. Instead of just being a cash cow, a fund of this nature could enable us to invest in the ESB and keep it in Irish hands. As well as stimulating an interesting Facebook exchange, my proposal received cross-party support, that is, except for Sinn Fein! Minister Rabbitte has already shown interest following an informal meeting. I have since submitted a formal proposal to both himself and Minister Noonan.

During Thursday’s Order of Business I called for an urgent debate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs on Irish-China trade relations. Earlier in the summer, I attended a conference on same in the Institute of European Affairs. The attendance included both people from China looking to do business with Ireland and Irish entrepreneurs looking to do business with China. China has $2.85 trillion dollars in foreign reserves ready to invest! With at least 100 people present, there was palpable excitement in the room. However, I was shocked to learn that Ireland has no bilateral trade agreement with China and this adversely affects Foreign Direct Investment into Ireland. The point was clearly emphasized that trade missions in and of themselves are not enough.

Similarly, Ireland represents a unique opportunity for China. As the only English-speaking country in the Eurozone we can be China’s gateway into Europe. Inter-country relations are critical though. Without a bi-lateral trade agreement, vital FDI is lost to countries like the UK, France and Germany which are more focused and targeted. At a time when 450,000 people are out of work, we must look seriously at the potential that China could offer. I am working on a Galway approach to this issue and hope to be establishing in the near future a China-Ireland taskforce that can take a local lead on this issue and attract much needed investment to our shores. A series of meetings is planned.

And so to home, only to learn of the overcrowding crisis at UCHG. On Saturday evening I visited the A&E with my 11-year-old daughter where I met with patients and staff. Our hospital, though a designated centre of excellence, must not be allowed choke. It always seems to be on a knife edge. This is not reliably safe for patient or practice. I am grateful to the staff who spoke with me. I await a meeting with the Minister for Health.

'Til next week . . . take care. Have a great weekend.

Senator Fidelma Healy Eames,

Spokesperson on Social Protection and member of EU affairs committee.

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