An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The House has agreed that, for the duration of the Covid emergency, the rapporteur's report of the Order of Business will be taken as read.

It has been agreed by the Committee on Standing Orders and Dáil Reform that, for a trial period of three weeks, a single question shall be put on the business arrangements for the week. Where a member of a party or group objects to the Order of Business, no further contribution may be made by any member of that party or group on the Order of Business. Any objection shall not exceed one minute. The Government shall make a single response to the objections that shall not exceed three minutes. Are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed?

Not agreed. The annual impact report from Women's Aid was published today and the findings are absolutely shocking and devastating. Contact with the service has increased by more than 40% since last year. A number of reviews, audits and so on due for completion in the near future will inform the new national strategy for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. I accept this cannot be included for business this week, but we need statements and a debate on this matter before we rise for the summer break. I invite the Government and everyone else to support that what was published this morning is shocking stuff.

On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I am seeking time for a debate on the serious warnings by the Irish Postmasters' Union of the inevitable collapse of the post office network and up to 200 branch closures in the near future if the Government does not intervene. We have had report after report and investigation, but the Government is not supporting the network. It is directing business away from the post offices, all of which are sole traders. We badly need a debate on this matter. We are told that by July, 875 postmaster-operated offices will face a challenge due to a reduction of 20% in income. Nobody can sustain that. They have come to the fore, as always, and played a gallant part in fighting Covid and helping people in the spirit of ní neart le cur le chéile, the meitheal. We cannot continue to refuse them support or aid. We need a serious debate in this House regarding the future of our post office network.

I agree that the report from Women's Aid on domestic violence and sexual and gender-based violence is particularly worrying. It illustrates the wide-ranging negative impact the pandemic has had on all aspects of our society. The Government would be willing to accommodate a debate on that report before the summer recess. The Women's Aid report shines a light on domestic violence and on how the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. We would be willing to facilitate such a debate.

In respect of the postmasters, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, and others in government have been very focused on that issue, including the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Heather Humphreys, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton and others. I do not believe the issue was raised at the Business Committee. I do not think anyone sought a debate on this matter at the Business Committee. I will revert to the Chief Whip to see if something can be facilitated in that regard, not for this week, but next week.

Is the business, as proposed for this week, agreed?

Question, "That the proposal for dealing with this week's business be agreed to" put and declared carried.

I call the leader of Sinn Féin, Deputy McDonald. She has one minute.

Back in May 2017, Sinn Féin brought forward a motion in respect of the national maternity hospital. At that time, and since, very serious questions have been raised about the ownership and governance of this new national facility. I am absolutely astounded that four years later we do not have a straight answer from Government in respect of ownership of this new national maternity hospital. I put it to the Taoiseach that it would be unthinkable that hundreds of millions of euro in public money would be invested in a hospital that was not fully owned by the State. I put it to him also that the Religious Sisters of Charity must be asked, as a matter of urgency, to transfer freehold ownership of that site lock, stock and barrel to the State with no strings attached. I further put it to the Taoiseach that any question, licence or mechanism that would open up any prospect of so-called ethos intruding on the provision of healthcare for women and neonates must be roundly rejected.

Can the Taoiseach confirm for us that we will have a full transfer of it to the State urgently?

I cannot confirm that right now. This has been a long saga, as the Deputy knows. It was first announced in 2013 that the new national maternity hospital was to co-locate with St. Vincent's University Hospital. Since then, there seems to have been a protracted dispute between the two voluntary hospitals. Kieran Mulvey facilitated mediation in 2016. That mediation agreement was published. None of this should be new to people. References were made to leasing and so on, as was well known at the time. When the State is investing in and building a hospital, it should ideally own it. The State will own the hospital but there is an issue with regard to the freehold of the site. The Minister for Health will be engaging with stakeholders in that respect. Planning permission for the hospital was secured in 2017. Enabling works were carried out with regard to the car park and pharmacy. This is all public knowledge. The Minister will now engage with the St. Vincent's Healthcare Group and the Religious Sisters of Charity on the issue of ownership. There is no question of the ethos being in any way influenced by any religious organisation.

I would like to tease this out a little bit further because I did not get much from the Taoiseach's answer to Deputy McDonald. To be honest, the Taoiseach did not answer the question. The Taoiseach keeps saying that this is going to be owned by the State. If that is the case, why is the Minister going to talk to the Sisters of Charity? A deadline will have to be set at some stage. Does the Taoiseach accept what his Tánaiste said a few days ago, which is that we may potentially have to look at a new site? Or will the Taoiseach set some sort of deadline for these negotiations so that they do not evolve over a long period of time? The Labour Party and I have suggested three months. If not, the land will have to be acquired by way of compulsory purchase order, CPO. We have to deal with this one way or the other. The Taoiseach cannot just stand up and say that it will be owned by the State when we all know of the issues regarding ownership of the land and governance. These issues go hand in hand. We need to own the land. The Taoiseach should either set a deadline or acquire the land by way of CPO.

Is Deputy Kelly serious about a CPO? How long does he think that would last?

It should have been done years ago.

We all need to get real now.

I suggested a CPO in 2017.

The project was announced in 2013. Yes, ownership is a key issue but I do not believe in any shape or form that the governance will be influenced by any religious organisation. Those who have been involved with that aspect of the project have been very clear about that. We would not tolerate it. All services legally provided in the State will be facilitated in this new hospital. However, I do have an issue. When the State invests, the State should own it from then onwards but that is not where we have arrived at.

Absolutely. We are depending on the Pope.

This situation has arisen as a result of the two hospitals being co-located----

This has been going on for a decade.

-----and the imperative that women in this country get modern healthcare provision. While fantastic work is done in Holles Street, the situation there is not optimal. We all know that co-location is the optimal situation.

This could go on forever.

The Taoiseach has just told Deputy Kelly to get real. The Taoiseach has to get real. The women of Ireland will not accept a maternity hospital that does not provide the full complement of healthcare services we need. The Taoiseach has said that he does not believe the governance is an issue. Is he aware that at the moment one cannot get IVF treatment or sterilisation procedures in St. Vincent's University Hospital? Why then does he believe that will change in the maternity hospital? There has been absolutely no indication from the Government on what safeguards it will put in place because there are no safeguards that can be put in place. The Catholic Church will not allow terminations to occur on land it owns. It is time for the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the Government to get real. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again. We just cannot afford to do it and women will not allow it to happen.

Let us be fair here. The Deputy should not put words into my mouth. The Minister for Health has inherited this situation and is dealing with it. First of all, there has to be stronger public interest on the board. The current structure in terms of the membership of the board is not satisfactory. Second, in my view, when the State is investing, the State should own. Third, I am simply saying to the Deputy that those who have been involved in the negotiations to date are absolutely adamant that there will be no influence by any religious ethos and, in particular, the Catholic church or the Sisters of Charity will have no influence - good, bad or indifferent - whatsoever in terms of this national maternity hospital. They are very clear about that.

They are pulling the wool over your eyes, Taoiseach.

There is an ownership issue in terms of when the State is investing such substantial sums of money. It will own the hospital but it will not, as it currently stands, own the site itself and that is a problem.

On the same issue, it is extraordinary that within five days the national discourse on this has utterly changed. In recent years I have asked the Taoiseach; the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly; the Minister of State, Deputy Butler; and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about this issue and on each occasion I have been assured that I can move on as there is nothing to be seen or worry about. However, when I asked the Tánaiste about it last Thursday, he reinforced the absolute need for the State to fully own and control the new national maternity hospital. We welcome the fact that the Government will not oppose the motion to be proposed by the Social Democrats tomorrow but the arguments over the costs and the legal complexity involved in the land deal cannot deflect from the essential goal of a fully State-owned, State-run and State-controlled national maternity hospital. Will the Taoiseach respond to the statement of Dr. Peter Boylan that this issue is a test of the State's resolve with regard to who owns critical health infrastructure built with public funds? If we do not do it now, then when? What was Sláintecare all about? Why did the Taoiseach and his Ministers repeatedly assure the House there was no problem with this, given that the Tánaiste differed with them last week?

I certainly cannot recall giving the Deputy any assurance about anything because the Government has not signed off on anything in relation to this. It is a pity that the issue was not raised on Leaders' Questions because the shortness of time to reply on the Order of Business does not allow one to give a more comprehensive account. As far as I am concerned, there is one very significant issue here, which is the safety of women in particular in terms of building a modern maternity hospital. I have often been struck by the fact that we have only managed this in one location, which is in Cork, where we have a modern maternity hospital with a neonatal facility. Everyone agreed way back that we should have co-location in terms of optimal best outcomes for women in particular and that is why the original idea of the national maternity hospital co-locating with St. Vincent's Hospital arose. I do not think people want to unwind that idea of co-location and that creates its own context for this. That said, nobody wants, in this day and age, a national maternity hospital built by the State to be influenced by any church.

I thank the Taoiseach.

It should not be. It should be out of the question.

I thank the Taoiseach.

We are clear that will be the case.

Five Deputies have asked about this issue. The Taoiseach has not given us an answer.

Time is up, please.

Previous Ministers have given that assurance, to be fair. The previous Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, gave that assurance to the House on repeated occasions. The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly is giving that assurance.

The time is up.

We are clear on that aspect of it. There are certainly issues around the ownership of it and the representation of the State on the board. Those are issues that have to be addressed because of the level of State investment involved and the consequences for accountability as a result of that investment.

If the issue of ownership is addressed, so is that of control.

I raise the important issue of the volunteers who have been working so hard in mass vaccination centres and Covid testing facilities all over the country. These are very fine people who, last March, signed up for what they thought was going to be a couple of months, but a couple of months has turned into a couple of years. Has thought been given to how the State will recognise the significant contribution these people have made during this time of national crisis? For instance, could a very small honorarium be considered so that they are not out of pocket? Alternatively, a framed certificate signed by the President could be provided to each of the volunteers or a reception could be arranged in Áras an Uachtaráin or in Leinster House for the volunteers and their families to mark their significant contribution. I know it means a lot to them because they are very special people. Many people talk about volunteering but these people have actually done it.

I thank the Deputy very much indeed for that thoughtful presentation. We will initiate and ensure the State does formally recognise the work of Covid volunteers.

I have met many of them in the vaccination centres. The vaccination programme has been unprecedented and very professionally operated, with more than 3.5 million doses now administered. It is an extraordinary achievement so far and we have a long way to go yet. We are highly appreciative of the important work where volunteers across the country have participated in the test centres and vaccination centres. I noted the very moving testimonies of Covid vaccine volunteers recently published in The Irish Times. I thank them all. We will explore and work with the Deputy and others in terms of devising the best mechanisms to recognise this outstanding act of volunteerism in the time of our country's need.

I return to the sad and scandalous closure of St. Brigid's hospital in Carrick-on-Suir. The Taoiseach told me in this Chamber four months ago that he would meet with Councillor Kieran Bourke and his Fianna Fáil colleagues in Tipperary County Council, the following morning if necessary. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, met with district councillors from Carrick-on-Suir ten days ago and she put the question to them whether they would put any of their loves ones in the hospital. A petition is being organised by Councillor Bourke and the volunteer and staff team in his full-time office to ask the people of Carrick-on-Suir, south Kilkenny, east Waterford and surrounding areas whether they would put their people into this respite hospital, including for palliative care. I know, before it comes back, that the answer will be 1,000% "Yes".

In view of this impending petition and the overwhelming support for the hospital, will the Taoiseach meet with Councillor Burke and the others, as he promised? They are his colleagues in the Fianna Fáil Party. Will he meet with the action committee, the wonderful doctors and nurses there and the members of the community who have put so much work into fundraising and everything else for the hospice beds and rooms? It is an excellent facility and it ill behoves the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, to say it is about health and safety issues when it is not.

In fairness, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is a very sincere, genuine, diligent and hard-working Minister, who, generally speaking, does everything she possibly can to help Deputies across the House with issues. She travels the length and breadth of the country to try to resolve issues of this kind.

It is on her doorstep.

Her commitment cannot be questioned in that regard and nor can her desire to seek a reasonable and effective solution that can be executed and actioned. As I said before, I will meet with Councillor Kieran Bourke and his team. I do not have an issue with that and I will check with my office in terms of the logistics of it. I know Deputy Cahill and others have been in touch about it as well.

I listened with interest to the Taoiseach's response earlier in regard to the Common Fisheries Policy and the Government's attitude towards the review of the policy that is coming up in the next year or so. He said he wanted to reset the relationship with Europe in respect of the review of the CFP. How is he actually going to reset that relationship? I believe, and the truth of it can be seen, that Europe stole access to fishing from us as we were negotiating to join the European Union. Is that the relationship the Taoiseach plans to reset, or is he going to go cap in hand to reset the relationship by saying, "Sorry, we were not bold boys and we did not do anything wrong." I wonder which relationship the Taoiseach is going to reset when he goes there.

It is a relationship that we, as a country, have to rethink in terms of the European Union. Deputies would have complained about the penalty points. Europe has held back €25 million from our seafood funding. I am making the point that it has held it back because we are the last country to sign up to basic frameworks.

It got more than €100 million from us.

We cannot just keep going on the attack-----

-----without more constructive and, in my view, strategic thinking around how we position the Irish fishing industry for the future. That is my point and it is why I want an ongoing dialogue with the industry.

We need to acknowledge the past.

We can all stay in our particular positions and keep firing out the same sorts of assertions and so on while not achieving a whole lot. The issue around the control plan is a further example of that. It is easy to blame the Department and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. I acknowledge that the authority needs reform and its members know that themselves. However, that in itself will not solve the issues.

The time is up.

We need to discuss the issues with the Deputy and others.

Can the Taoiseach find out for me when works will commence on the railings of Carlow Courthouse? I have been consistently on to the Minister and the Office of Public Works to see when they will begin but I have, as yet, received no answer. I understand the project is happening in phased stages. This is an issue that requires transparency regarding its timeframe.

The repeated deferral of the start date is unacceptable. The courthouse was built nearly 200 years ago. It is right in the town centre. I have been raising the issue for years now. It is not like I am only coming to the Taoiseach after a short time. It has been going on for years. Even in my time as a Senator, it was meant to be done. It is unacceptable. I ask the Taoiseach to get some answers on the matter. I would greatly appreciate it.

I will pursue the issue with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, and try to get this sorted once and for all.

I am sure that the Taoiseach will agree that the incident involving Danish footballer, Christian Eriksen, ten days ago was very distressing to watch. It reminded us all how such tragic events can occur in everyday life. It can happen to anybody.

In the course of my work, one of the issues that is raised frequently is the lack of supports for community groups that provide defibrillators. I acknowledge, in particular, that the sports capital programme, along with other funds, provides assistance in the purchase of defibrillators. However, more could be done to help with the upkeep and replacement of parts such as batteries, pads and glass. Defibrillators are vital pieces of equipment in our communities. I ask the Taoiseach to seek to determine whether greater supports can be put in place to help maintain these vital pieces of equipment in our communities throughout the country.

I thank the Deputy for raising what is a most important issue. We were all shocked at the scenes and we were absolutely delighted that Christian Eriksen came through. The events illustrated both the fragility of life itself and the importance of first aid, first responders, defibrillators and how what can be perceived to be one of the most difficult of circumstances can be retrieved.

I certainly will give thought to what the Deputy said. There has been very significant provision of defibrillators through hard work by volunteers and community groups the length and breadth of the country. The Deputy has suggested a more structured support initiative that would support the provision of defibrillators and other facilities. The maintenance of them is an issue on an ongoing basis.

I wish to raise with the Taoiseach the fact that massive wind turbines are still being built across the country. They are up to 600 ft in height and are being built on sites very close to dwellings. They are being built using outdated 2006 guidelines that were designed to cover small turbines of less than 50 m in height. The way things are going, the Laois and Offaly area will soon become the wind turbine capital of the country. That is not an argument against wind turbines or wind energy.

I have been chasing the issue for ten years with five Minsters and three Governments. Some of my colleagues have also raised the issue. There are still no guidelines or protection for rural dwellers.

I brought forward two Bills on wind turbine regulation. I asked members of the Taoiseach's party to support them in the House. Only last week I received a reply to a parliamentary question that I submitted on the issue, which could have been written eight years ago. It stated: "My Department, in consultation with DECC, is endeavouring-----

Thank you, Deputy. Time is up. We cannot go into this now.

-----to finalise and publish the revised Guidelines as quickly as possible." The problem is that the Government is closing the barn door when the horse has bolted.

Deputy, please. The time is up.

I am almost finished. We need proper regulations. We saw what happened with Wild West-style development with housing and we are still dealing with the economic consequences of that. I appeal to the Taoiseach to ensure that wind turbine guidelines and regulations are put in place. When will we see that being delivered?

I have spoken to the Minister on the matter. I understand that they are being prepared and finalised. The Minister stated that he expects to have them-----

They have had eight years.

I know well. That is why I asked the Minister and checked up on where they were. He said they are being finalised.

I wish to highlight a new report on the Atlantic rail corridor, specifically the Galway-Mayo rail link. I welcome the Bradley report, which forecasts a very favourable economic outlook in respect of the reopening of the old rail corridor between Athenry and Claremorris. Unlike other reports before it, the extensive on-the-ground and field research presents a favourable cost-benefit ratio, which demonstrates a positive economic return to the region. The report mentions the opportunity offered to County Mayo with a potential additional 23,000 tourists per annum travelling on the proposed rail link.

The findings of the Bradley report should now feed into the strategic rail review being undertaken on an all-Ireland basis. Will the Taoiseach commit to reviewing the findings of the report and, hopefully, put into action a project which will strongly promote balanced regional development for the Atlantic economic corridor?

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, in the context of the national strategic rail strategy, has included the western rail corridor, particularly the Athenry and Claremorris project, within that overall strategic review. All Oireachtas Members, particularly those from Mayo and Galway, will be interested when we have the results of this review. I will certainly keep a close eye on it. The Minister is anxious to be facilitated but obviously he is waiting. This all-island strategic review has only commenced and we have to wait for the outcome of that to inform decision-making.

I refer the Taoiseach to an article published in the Irish Examiner in 2017 which estimated that in the region of 23,000 homes, that is, houses and apartments, were vacant in County Cork. I could bring the Taoiseach to many towns and villages in west Cork in my constituency which have a vacancy rate of more than 50% for many on-street houses. It is even worse again when it comes to those over-the-shop premises where a higher percentage are vacant.

In fairness to the Taoiseach, he said that the provision of housing is our No. 1 priority in government. Part of the answer is staring us right in the face. If we can bring on-street and over-the-shop vacant premises into the market, be it private or social housing, we will go part of the way to solving the housing crisis.

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

The Taoiseach estimated we need 40,000 units per year. Such a move would also reinvigorate and revitalise town centres. Can we have a concrete plan to tackle that issue?

It is a fair point. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, in the context of the housing for all strategy, will be making provision for the restoration and the bringing back into use of houses currently idle and vacant in rural areas and in towns. The town centre first policy of the Government's programme will also dovetail with that objective, as well as providing resources to incentivise conversion of over-the-shop premises for accommodation purposes.

Every single avenue to provide additional units of housing must be explored. Those identified by the Deputy are obvious and clear which should be pursued.

I have been contacted by numerous publicans over the past few weeks, not just in Drogheda but in my entire constituency, who obtained section 254 licences for outdoor dining. They have been told by local authorities that alcohol cannot be consumed in these areas under the liquor by-laws, however. I have contacted the local authorities for clarification. They said it is up to the Garda to interpret and enforce the by-laws. I contacted the Garda chief superintendent's office in Louth to be informed the Garda will continue to enforce this current legislation, including the intoxicating liquor laws and any amendments made as they arise.

Publicans, as the Taoiseach knows, have put much money and effort into ensuring their facilities will be able to cater for outdoor services. The Government told us this is going to be an outdoor summer.

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

Publicans are on their knees.

Time is up, please.

When will the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, sign the statutory instrument to correct this anomaly? The question is not if but when. She has known about it for a couple of weeks.

Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.

Weeks are passing by and businesses are on their knees. When can we expect that statutory instrument to be signed by the Minister?

The State has supported outdoor hospitality through grants, restart grants and so forth. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage gave supports to local authorities for the pedestrianisation of streets, along with the provision of facilities in various streets across the country. Outdoor hospitality has reopened very well and it has gone down very well. That needs to be acknowledged. The Garda has displayed commendable discretion to date.

The Minister has indicated that she will bring forward a regulation to deal with this, which will happen as soon as it is ready.

That concludes Questions on Promised Legislation.

I must say it is very disappointing to see so many Members who have a total disregard for the rules of the House, and for the minute that is laid down, and who routinely ignore requests from the Chair to desist, regardless of who is presiding. It is the height of bad manners at the very least.