News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Wednesday 22nd July 2015

Michael McDowell calls for radical Dáil shake-up

MacGill Summer School: Former tánaiste says next ceann comhairle by secret ballot.


Kevin O’ Malley, US ambassador to Ireland, and his wife Dena, with former tánaiste Michael McDowell SC and Dr Joe Mulholland, director of the Patrick MacGill Summer School at the opening in Glenties, Co Donegal on Sunday night

Former tánaiste Michael McDowell has called for urgent “now-or-never” change before the general election that would see the next ceann comhairle elected by secret ballot and not chosen by the incoming government.

Mr McDowell, a former minister for justice and attorney general, called for a number of radical changes to the Dáil and Seanad when giving the opening address of Patrick MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, last night.

He said the window for making the changes was narrowing fast and warned that if they were not agreed before this Dáil term comes to an end, then they would never happen.

Delivering the John Hume lecture, Mr McDowell said that Irish democracy was dysfunctional and the present system did not make the Executive or the government accountable to the Oireachtas.

“If the Standing Orders relating to the election of ceann comhairle are not changed now before the election,” he said, “the next ceann comhairle will inevitably be on the say-so of the next incoming government and, as present, on the basis of a whipped party vote.

“That office cannot continue to be a consolation prize for a disappointed would-be minister. It cannot remain in the gift of the incoming government, to be bartered away as part of the spoils of electoral victory between those who share ministerial power.

Pro-active champion

“Dáil Éireann, as our ‘House of Representatives’, badly needs an elected Speaker who is in reality, and is seen to be, wholly and unambiguously mandated and empowered to act as the pro-active champion of each and every single one of those elected TDs in vindicating their twin constitutional functions: firstly, of holding the executive power to democratic accountability and, secondly, as legislators,” he said.

To achieve that would require a free and secret ballot, he said, as happens in Westminster, where the perception of the Speaker is as a wholly independent office holder, with no ties to the government of the day.

He said the independence of the ceann comhairle could extend to him or her giving discretionary speaking preference to TDs who attend and participate in debates, rather than those who arrive in to read a script.

“It will become a mark office of State, reflecting the constitutional tripartite separation of powers,” he said.

A secret ballot

Mr McDowell also said that the chairs and vice-chairs of Oireachtas committees should also be elected by secret ballot, with each new holder giving, and being given, assurances on security of tenure, impartiality and independence.

“We badly need committees that will hold ministers to continual and effective scrutiny,” he said.

The proposals were practicable and achievable, he said.

“I am not aware that any party has opposed or would oppose such changes. On the contrary, a number of these proposals have received expressions of support in principle from a wide variety of elected politicians and commentators, including the Constitutional Convention . . . which deserves at least some recognition for some of its efforts.”

Mr McDowell said that such changes were anything but “populist gimmickry”.

Referring to his own experience as a backbench TD, attorney general, minister and tánaiste, he said: “When I was not an office holder, the culture and procedures of the Dáil prevented me and my colleagues from holding the Executive to adequate account.

“When I was an office holder, the same culture and procedures prevented me and my colleagues from being held to adequate account.

“In both circumstances, the result was seriously wrong and damaging.”

Michael D Higgins warns climate failure will lead to:

‘The destruction of life’


President speaking at ‘Summit of Consciences for the Climate’ in Paris

President Higgins speaking to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan during the Paris Summit of Conscience for the Climate.

A failure to respond to the “scientific reality of climate change” may lead to the “destruction of life on our planet”, President Michael D Higgins has told a climate change conference in Paris.

President Higgins is addressing the “Summit of Consciences for the Climate” organised by President François Hollande.

The purpose of the day-long conference is to raise consciousness of the threat posed by global warming, in the run-up to the COP 21 UN conference on climate change, which will be held in Paris next December.

Speakers at Tuesday’s conference are an eclectic and colourful mix ranging from an astro-physicist to the former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. They include religious leaders from all the world’s main faiths.

President Higgins said we must therefore “unequivocally reject the position of those who would obscure the scientific reality of climate change in their protection of any narrow and short-term self-interest. The first ethical test is in accepting that there can be no compromise with truth”.

“ Ours may be the final generation with the opportunity to effectively respond to the now urgent effects of climate change,” President Higgins said. “This year thus marks a defining moment for the future of humanity. In this year 2015 we will decide on what must be a shared universal response to climate change – and on a practical agenda for action.

We will also this year decide on what should be sought as ‘development’ in the wake of the Millennium Development Goals, in response to global poverty and increasing global inequality.”

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – eight targets introduced in 2000 aimed at halving extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and halting the spread of HIV-Aids by 2015 – will be replaced by Sustainable Development Goals.

“The political and technical decisions that are to be made over the coming months may be complex, but ultimately the great challenges of our time are ethical and intellectual in their nature.”

The President said humans “must acknowledge that the human causes behind climate change have identifiable historical contexts, grounded in forms of development and industrialisation that were based on the exploitation of fossil fuels, with an assumption of infinite growth.

“Would it not be the greatest of all human achievements if we were to succeed in delivering the benefits of science, the shared wisdom, instinct and intuition of diverse cultures, and the products of reason and faith; and in delivering all of these through new, balanced models of development, ecology and society?”

Irish Government sidesteps increasing charges for residential care

Long-term sustainability of Fair Deal scheme remains to be seen, given demographics


Minister for Social Care Kathleen Lynch said Government would seek to generate efficiencies from administrative reforms in the Fair Deal nursing homes scheme.

The Government has sidestepped the potentially explosive issue of increasing charges for people in long-term residential care. However, it remains to be seen how sustainable the Fair Deal nursing home scheme is in the long run, given demographic pressures.

The review of the scheme has forecast that the number of people it would have to support will rise by about 9,000, to 33,000, by 2024.

Over that period the number of people older than 65 will rise by about 200,000, to 802,000, while those older than 85 will increase by nearly 30,000, to just under 96,000.

The cost of long-term residential care is financed by a combination of direct State support under the Fair Deal scheme, costing nearly €1 billion a year, and contributions from residents based on their means, whether this be pensions, other income or assets. The average contribution amounts to about 25 per cent of the cost of care.

Minister of State for Social Care Kathleen Lynch immediately indicated that the Government had decided not to adopt any of the options set out in the review for increased contributions to pay for future long-term care. Instead, the Government would seek to generate efficiencies from administrative reforms.

Additional cost of €49m

The Department of Health said that, by 2018, it was projected that the number of people benefiting from the Fair Deal scheme would grow by up to 1,126, at an additional exchequer cost of €49 million over the three-year period.

However, the review also made clear that after that point the numbers covered were expected to accelerate.

Meanwhile, private nursing homes operating the Fair Deal scheme are pressing for reforms in the funding model to recognise what they see as the true cost of care. Such a review might look at allocating funds based on a resident’s needs, rather than a simple capitation payment.

The cost of the scheme is not the only problem facing the Government in the area of long-term care. Private investment in the nursing home sector is certainly not running at the levels of the past, while the State sector is facing challenges in some areas in meeting standards set by the regulatory body Hiqa.

The review pointed out that while the average weekly cost in a public facility was nearly €1,400, the figure for a private or voluntary centre was just under €900 at the end of last year. While it was likely that residents in public units might have higher care needs, the review said costs in these centres “appear to be in excess of what applies in private centres”.

Minister Noonan promises property tax freeze expected for 2017

Noonan pledges ‘no sudden shocks’ as Cabinet meets in Lissadell House Sligo


A property tax frieze, adoption rights and future budget cuts are topping the agenda at Lissadell House for the final cabinet meeting before the summer recess for the government. Harry McGee reports.

The Government has committed itself to an effective freeze in property tax when the next revaluation occurs in 2017.

As the Cabinet prepared to meet in Lissadell House, Co Sligo on Wednesday Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said there would be no sudden shocks for property owners in terms of increased property taxes.

When homes and properties were given valuations in 2013, the Government gave a commitment that the tax would remain unchanged until 2017.

Mr Noonan said that since the valuations were done, property prices in Dublin have increased by 40% and around 20% in the rest of the country.

“I am not going to be in a situation if we are back in Government get into a situation where there is a huge jump in the take on property tax.

“We are examining ways of keeping the tax take about the same as it is now.

“What I am committing to the people in advance is there will be no sudden shocks in advance of the property tax.”

Mr Noonan said the report by Don Thornhill of his examination of this issue will be made public closer to the Budget. At the same time he undertook that there would be no sharp increases in the tax.

He was speaking in advance of the last Cabinet meeting of the year in Lissadell House.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and most Ministers arrived by bus at the historic Co Sligo house after midday and were greeted by the owners of the house, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy, as well as five of their seven children.

Tánaiste Joan Burton, who had an engagement in Sligo, arrived a short time later for the meeting, saying she was very glad to be a female Minister at the former home of Constance Markievicz, the first female Member of the Dáil and the first female cabinet minister.

The main items to be discussed at Cabinet are:

  1. A memo on the latest budgetary situation brought by Mr Noonan;
  2. A memorandum on a new childcare policy brought by Minister for Children James Reilly; and
  3. A new Bill allowing adopted children the right to trace their parentage, also brought by Dr Reilly.

Speaking in advance of the meeting, which is the last before the summer recess, Mr Noonan said the economic recovery was becoming deeper and was extending to more of the population.

Mr Noonan said that the income tax situation was good and that the April forecasts of €1 billion of additional taxation was now being revised upwards to €1.5 billion .

He said that “because of fiscal rules it does not give us any additional budget space” and he was still working on the basis that the adjustments in the budget would be between €1.2 billion and €1.5 billion.

However, he said the Government deficit for 2015 was now being projected at 2.3 per cent, lower than earlier estimates.

He accepted there would be a health over-run for this year but said it would not be anywhere near €1 billion, as has been predicted in some quarters.

Minister for Communications Alex White told reporters that Labour’s budgetary priorities were to bring in a budget that was “fair and ensure we spread the opportunities across the society in a fair way.”

Humans may be able to live on Moon in the next decade:

A study says


According to a Nasa-funded study, humans may be able to live on the moon in a little more than a decade from now. The study outlines a plan to again take human missions to the moon, media reported.

The announcement was made on July 20 – the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew’s first steps on the lunar surface – The Verge reported.

The, study, undertaken by NexGen Space LLC, lays out a detailed roadmap for when and how to take the next step for a landing.

A robotic return to the moon could happen as soon as 2017, if Nasa were to adopt the plan right away. Rovers would scout the lunar poles for hydrogen in 2018 and prospecting could begin by 2019 or 2020.

Robotic construction of a permanent base would begin in 2021 in anticipation of landing humans on the moon later that year, it said.

The study said the space agency can do it all within the existing budget for human spaceflights. The way for Nasa to do this is to adopt the same method that it is using for re-supplying the International Space Station – a public-private partnership with companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK or the United Launch Alliance.

SpaceX currently charges Nasa about $4,750 (roughly Rs. 3,02,300) for every kilogram of supplies sent to orbit aboard its Falcon 9 rocket, far less than the cost by the Apollo-era Saturn V ($46,000, or roughly Rs. 29,27,530 per kilogram) or even the space shuttle ($60,000, or roughly Rs. 38,18,350 per kilogram).

While the study does use SpaceX’s next generation rocket, the Falcon Heavy, as an example in its plans to get to the moon, SpaceX claims the Falcon Heavy will be as cheap or cheaper per kilogram than the Falcon 9.

Nasa is already planning to go back to the moon with its next generation rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), but there are no plans to land.

By using commercial partners, Nasa could reduce the number of planned SLS launches from 12 to around three, reducing the cost of the programme while still developing the technologies necessary to support it, the study said.

The study was vetted by a 21-person independent review team made up of former members of Nasa’s administration, members of the commercial spaceflight community and four former Nasa astronauts.


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