Statement by the Taoiseach

Ar son gach uile Chomhalta den Teach seo, ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur romhat, a Thaoisigh, ar ócáid do chéad aitheasc i Seanad Éireann mar Thaoiseach. Tá deis againn inniu an caidreamh idir tusa agus an Seanad, atá ann ón uair a d'fhreastal tú ar dhíospóireachtaí anseo mar Aire, a athnuachan agus a dhaingniú.

On behalf of all the Members of the House I welcome you on the occasion of your first address to Seanad Éireann since you achieved the office of Taoiseach. We appreciate the fact that you have taken time out from your very busy schedule to be here today. I am sure that your time here this afternoon will be time well spent and that the discussion with Senators will help to inform your own perspectives on the many difficult issues which fall to be dealt with by you and your Government. Your presence in this Chamber will be seen by Senators as a mark of the respect that I know you have always had for this House. I am sure it will be the first of many such occasions.

I now invite An Taoiseach to address Seanad Éireann.

I thank the Cathaoirleach. I am delighted to speak to the House today on Lá Fhéile Bhríde, St. Brigid's Feast Day, a date which also marks the first day of spring.   In pagan times today was known as "Imbolc" – a time for making plans and renewing strength. Today’s speech, on my first occasion here as Taoiseach, is inspired by these themes.

Instead of providing Senators with an account of the business of Government, telling them how well the economy is doing, and how we are facing the challenges of Brexit, housing and health care, issues on which they are already well informed, I want to share with them some thoughts on the renewal and reform of Irish politics.

Sometimes we have to step back a little to see how much things have really changed.  Seven years ago when Fine Gael - the party I lead - came into government with its then partners in the Labour Party we proposed a new approach to politics and proposed to do politics in a different way. This was a promising a new departure in the day-to-day running of political life. At that time we talked about a democratic revolution.  To some it might appear that those promises have not been fulfilled, or at least not fully fulfilled. The truth is that many things have changed for the better in our new politics.  "Old politics" had its charms but it was a much less palatable vintage. Three Oireachtas reform packages were introduced by the Government between 2011 and 2016 and the vast majority of these reforms have proven their worth and have been retained. As it happens, some of these reforms have made the business of minority Government easier than might otherwise have been the case, even though they were not introduced with this in mind.

I shall outline for Senators some of the reforms introduced in that five-year period. A secret ballot for the election of the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil was introduced. This ensures that the Ceann Comhairle is a creature of the House and not of the Government. I believe we should do the same for electing the Cathaoirleach of this House, as soon as a vacancy arises or the next time around. Another reform allows for the allocating of Oireachtas committee chairpersons on the basis of proportionality. In the past almost all committee chairpersons were from the Government parties. Committees, therefore, were controlled by Government also.

We have linked the funding of political parties to the number of female candidates in general elections.  That has made a real difference to the composition of both Houses. We still have a long way to go to have gender parity. Further reform is the pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills. This has opened up the law-making process like never before, and involves politicians before a Bill is drafted and published. When taken, this is a major transfer of influence and power away from civil servants and Ministers to parliamentarians.

We have also allowed Deputies an opportunity to bring their Private Members’ Bills to the floor of the Dáil and Seanad, more of which have been enacted in the last five years than the 50 years before.  These include legislation to ban fracking and an end to the ban on opening pubs on Good Friday, which was signed into law by the President this week. Those are just two examples; there are many more.

The people, perhaps in their wisdom, decided not to extend the remit of Oireachtas inquiries. While we did put forward the idea, the people also decided not to lower the minimum age from 35 for election to the office of President. I am aware that this level of reform was perhaps, for many, a case of a lot done but more to do.

Following the 2016 general election, a Dáil reform committee was established and it recommended a further package of reforms, which I shall outline. A Business Committee chaired by the Ceann Comhairle sets the Dáil agenda.  It is no longer set by the Government, but that has not stopped Deputies asking me almost daily to allocate time to debate a particular matter. A budget committee empowers the Oireachtas to play a more meaningful role in the budget cycle. An independent parliamentary budget office has been set up. There is greater use of all-party committees to seek consensus on the best way forward, such as the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services, chaired so well by a Member of this House, Senator Ó Céidigh. There has also been an expansion of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser. There is an end to the use of the guillotine in debates and more time is made available to the Opposition for Private Members' business.

Some of the reforms have had unforeseen consequences, including the disproportionate speaking time for smaller parties. This can often make it difficult for Government backbenchers to have their say. There has also been a significant reduction in Dáil time available to the Government to pursue its own legislation. I believe, and I have said before, that a rebalancing is needed in this regard. I also believe that the significant increase in the number of Private Members' Bills now being published without any form of prior scrutiny or quality control is a cause for concern for all of us. There are currently more than 100 Private Members' Bills on Second Stage and 25 are awaiting money messages.  Government Bills do not make it to Second Stage without proper scrutiny from the Office of the Attorney General, pre-legislative committee hearings, the heads of the Bill being published well in advance and usually published, in almost all cases, at least two weeks before a Bill is debated.  We should not accept a lower standard for other legislation from any other source.

The vast majority of the changes, however, have benefitted Irish democracy and the reforms have helped to reinvigorate our Parliament, our Oireachtas and old institutions. The Oireachtas has also passed legislation to ensure greater openness and transparency. The Regulation of Lobbying Act, for example, was a major step forward in terms of transparency. We now know who lobbied whom, when and about what. This was clouded and opaque for many decades.

There is also an effective ban on corporate donations ensuring that powerful organisations and the very rich can no longer use their wealth to influence politics in the way they did in the past.  It is so different and so much better than other countries where big money has far too much influence on policy.

We have also had a major reform of the public appointments system with an open call through and the appearance of chairpersons designate before the relevant Oireachtas committees.

We have also embarked on a major programme of constitutional change and reform. The 1937 Constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann, has served us well.  As we move closer to 2037 and its centenary, however, there are, inevitably, elements that are outdated and which require renovation and renewal.  Whereas there were ten amendments to the Constitution in its first 50 years, there have been almost three times as many in the past 30 years. This year's referendum on the eighth amendment will be the 36th such proposal.

To help us to modernise our Constitution, we established the Convention on the Constitution and later the Citizens' Assembly. Both were bold and innovative exercises in deliberative democracy even though at the time they were dismissed by some as mere talking shops or as a means to long-finger important or difficult decisions. As it turned out, both allowed representative groups of everyday citizens to consider important issues facing our society.  Their work has help helped inform and shape our political decisions. Often, they proved to be ahead of us in terms of opinion. We got an invaluable insight into what really matters to people and the conclusions they would come to if given all of the facts and the time to consider them. The marriage equality referendum and amendment was the most transformative outcome from that process to date.

The Government has also accepted the case for a referendum on a number of other issues, namely: giving citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections; removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution; and amending the outdated Article on a woman's life within the home. The Government is committed to holding referendums on these issues over the course of the next two years.

The Citizens' Assembly has also submitted reports to the Oireachtas on the eighth amendment and how best to respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population.  It has finalised its discussion of the manner in which referendums are held and how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.  By the end of next month, it will have completed its discussion of fixed-term parliaments, which is an interesting proposal. It would certainly change the culture of Irish politics as it stands if parliaments were for a fixed term.

Recognising the importance of the issue of the eighth amendment to the Constitution, the assembly was asked to consider this matter first.  The assembly's report was then considered by a special joint Oireachtas committee, ably chaired by a Member of this House, Senator Noone.  The Government responded earlier this week. Any amendment of our Constitution requires careful consideration.  Some of these proposed amendments are matters of conscience and, as such, it is crucial that debate should be respectful of all sides and strands of opinion, and never personalised.

 In the 18th century, Montesquieu believed that a bicameral legislature was superior because the two parts would ensure that one checked the other through the mutual privilege of refusal.  That great founding father of America, Alexander Hamilton, likewise believed that two chambers were necessary to prevent a tyranny of the majority. Nonetheless, many countries, particularly small ones, get by just fine with only one chamber.

Following Independence, our forebears decided that two chambers were needed in Ireland and the Free State Senate in particular brought together a diverse collection of men and women, poets and thinkers, specialists and innovators.  There was also a deliberate effort in the Free State Senate to ensure that minority views were represented, especially Protestant and unionist voices.  The Senate was a place where courageous and outspoken things were said. In fact, the Chamber was threatened by anti-treaty forces during the Civil War and 14 Senators were targeted with assassination. Many had their houses burnt.

Times changed. In the 1930s, there was much debate about whether a second chamber was needed in Ireland and the Free State Senate was abolished by Fianna Fáil. Éamon de Valera claimed in 1934 that he had not heard a single good argument to convince him that a second chamber was either necessary or fundamentally useful. However, he was prepared to listen to other arguments and the proposal for the Seanad was included in the 1937 Constitution.  It very much followed the corporatist model which was fashionable at the time, deriving from a Papal encyclical, with panels representing industry and commerce, culture and education, labour, agriculture and administration. Members of this House will be familiar with these panels. The idea was that the Seanad would not duplicate or impede the Dáil.  In fact, the Constitution is very clear that the Government should be accountable to the Dáil. It does not say that about the Seanad.

The Seanad's true role is to be a check and balance on the Dáil.  Éamon de Valera said he believed the Seanad could be a revising Chamber, taking up measures, criticising them from an independent standpoint and with as great a variety of viewpoints as possible. Interestingly, he admitted that he worked on the basis that "even if we cannot get an ideal Seanad, then a bad Seanad is better than no Seanad". In 2013, when the question was put to the people, a majority felt the same way. They rejected the Government's proposal to abolish the Seanad but they did not endorse the status quo either. I believe they wanted reform.

Many formidable individuals have served in this House since its creation and it has provided a platform for some of the most articulate and determined voices from across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the Seanad has sufficiently fulfilled its role as a revising Chamber or as an independent voice in decades gone by. In 2013, I supported the referendum to abolish this House as I was not convinced by those who argued it was possible to reform it.  I did not believe this would happen as those opposed to abolition were not united on what a reformed Seanad would look like or how it would function. However the people have spoken, the matter is settled and it will not be revisited.

As is so often the case, everyone it seems supports reform, but they are much less enthusiastic about change; reform being the philosophy and change being the fact of it happening. As Senators know, an independent working group on Seanad reform was established by my forebear in December 2014 to examine possible reforms of the Seanad electoral system within the confines of the Constitution. The group, ably chaired by a distinguished former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning, reported in 2015.  A Programme for a Partnership Government commits us to pursue the implementation of the report.  I am happy to do so. Senators will know that both Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance are keen to press ahead with this. I want to give reform a chance and to see what we can do to implement, on a phased basis, the Manning recommendations.

As such, I have decided that a Seanad committee should be established with an eight-month mandate to consider the Manning report and develop specific proposals to legislate for Seanad reform. It is proposed that this committee will comprise Members of the Oireachtas with the assistance of outside experts, as appropriate. I intend to write to party and group leaders inviting them to nominate members of the committee. It is important that all groups are represented and also that it be representative. In composition, therefore, it may follow the model of the Committee on the Future of Healthcare and the Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. This will be done as soon as I can find a chairperson acceptable to all sides. The proposed timeframe is to facilitate changes that will be used to elect the Members of the Seanad after the next one.

Among the recommendations to be explored is the idea of giving the vote in Seanad elections to all citizens wherever they reside in the world.  There could be universal suffrage using the panel system allowing people to choose which one suits them best.  There is provision in the Manning report for online registration of voters and the downloading of ballot papers.  However, the Constitution requires a secret, postal vote election and that creates a complication.

The university panels should be retained as recommended.  They have served us well, although they should be reformed to implement the result of the 1979 referendum and open up the franchise to graduates of all higher level institutions of education. The Taoiseach will continue to nominate 11 Senators, as that is also a constitutional requirement.  Councillors will still elect Members to the Seanad, but not as many as they do now.

The logistical complications of requiring everyone to register to vote and to select a panel are significant.

It will require a major public information campaign and a global postal election will be expensive and cumbersome, so I do not underestimate the difficulties. People will have to decide for which panel they wish to register, with the most important principle being that one can only have one vote and so can only join one panel. However, I have absolute confidence that it will be possible to find ways of implementing the resolutions or finding workable alternatives. The committee may recommend other changes which will also be explored and debated.

When defending the principle of a second Chamber, John A. Costello praised Senators for "unselfishly placing their experience and their knowledge" in the service of successive Governments and the country. Throughout history, the great strength of the Seanad has been the diversity of that experience and knowledge. That is its shining quality. We should seek to elect Senators from nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland in order that the Seanad has an all-island dimension and provides different voices on issues that concern us all. As Ireland takes its place among the nations of the world, the voices of Irish people around the world should also be represented and heard. I support the election of more Senators to represent our diaspora and add to the good work of people such as Senator Lawless. One of the finest people to serve in the Upper Chamber was William Butler Yeats. When defending the Seanad from its critics, he said, "if you are to create and preserve a habit of service, you must trust that habit and be ready to prefer integrity to any kind of weight and measure". It is time for us to do the same.

In ancient times, people on this day, the feast of Imbolc, would look for signs of what the weather would be like in the months ahead. If a serpent or, later, a badger came above ground, it was a sign of bad things to come. The tradition crossed the Atlantic and is now celebrated in the United States and Canada as Groundhog Day. When we talk about renewing Irish politics in a general sense, or reforming the Seanad to give a specific example, it can often feel like Groundhog Day. It seems we are condemned to do the same thing over and over, often repeating the same mistakes, with little or nothing changing. In 2018, we have an opportunity to break that cycle and build a new political landscape which will renew the relationship between the Irish people and their Oireachtas. We can achieve the kind of genuine reforms that people in this Chamber have been advocating for a very long time.

Ar son Fhianna Fáil, cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach go dtí an Seanad inniu. Ba mhaith liom freisin comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis go pearsanta ar a phost nua mar Thaoiseach. It is a great achievement for the Taoiseach to be elected to his office and to be the youngest Taoiseach Ireland has ever had. It is a great personal achievement of which he and his family can rightly be proud. He has now been Taoiseach for seven months and he and the country have been faced with many domestic and international challenges.

The confidence and supply agreement which facilitates the Fine Gael-led minority Government is new to all Members. The result of the most recent general election did not allow for a majority Government to be formed and that has introduced a new type of politics, although not necessarily new politics, to both Houses. There have been some achievements under the agreement, such as the introduction of the first two progressive budgets in five years, but there have also been many disappointments in regard to delivery, in particular in housing, health and justice. The Government must do more to deliver commitments in those areas. It is not acceptable to any Member that over 8,000 people are housed in emergency accommodation. Even if those figures are, as the Taoiseach said, below international norms, it is not and never should be acceptable in Ireland. Families should not be brought up in hotel rooms and nor should 3,000 children be living for months on end in hotels. There are over 95,000 people on social housing waiting lists but very few social houses are being built. Some would say that there have been more announcements made than houses built. The slowness in introducing initiatives to build social and affordable houses is beginning to impact, in particular on young couples and families paying exorbitant rents. The Taoiseach is aware this is also impeding our ability to attract foreign direct investment to Dublin and the surrounding areas following Brexit. The Bank of America, which has recently decided to move to Dublin, has commented that the housing crisis here is causing it a big problem. This will create a negative reputation for Ireland, which must be avoided at all costs.

As Members know, Brexit is one of the greatest challenges Ireland has faced in many decades but the opportunities it presents should not be lost. Brexit is not some distant issue; rather, it is already under way and causing damage. Companies in all parts of Ireland are suffering because of a combination of uncertainty and the chronic weakness of the British currency, which is directly linked to Brexit. Now that phase one is over and we head into the most difficult phase of Brexit negotiations, it is important to review where we are and the key challenges we face. In light of the instability in Westminster, the major contradictions in the agreement and the deterioration of key relationships which have been exposed in recent weeks, far more reflection is needed. It would be an enormous error to believe that everything is settled. The repeated statements by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, on the United Kingdom's confirmed decision to leave the customs union and the Single Market still pose major challenges in spite of the agreement of 8 December. The German ambassador to the United Kingdom yesterday gave an interview to The Guardian newspaper in which he stated that if the United Kingdom leaves the customs union, there will have to be a border between North and South. All Members agree that should be avoided at all costs.

Brexit remains a deep and urgent threat to Ireland and I welcome the all-party approach to protecting the interests of the people of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement. The core Brexit challenge for us all is how to limit the damage it does because there is no possible scenario whereby no damage is done to Ireland. The documents that were this week leaked in London illustrated the sectoral damage that would be done in the UK and Northern Ireland and this shows one of the areas that would be adversely affected. If Ireland were to be given a special or unique status, challenges could be tackled or avoided in many areas. I ask the Taoiseach to outline whether sectoral plans are going to be published in the Republic and if he can confirm whether work is ongoing on the issue. I wish him well in his continued endeavours on Brexit and I assure him of Fianna Fáil support on this crucially important issue.

There is no doubt that domestic economic indicators have improved, in particular in the past two years, and that unemployment is at 5.1% However, behind those positive macroeconomic indicators, many people are still struggling and cannot be ignored. In large pockets of Dublin, drugs are rampant and crime is on the increase. All Members agree that the appalling and brutal gangland killings should be condemned outright. We all agree that the armed response unit should be properly resourced to pre-empt and monitor the gangs. We also need to tackle the insidious poverty traps that lead young teenagers into the drug and gangland scene.

Many people are still living in or at risk of poverty, even among those who are working because many are in low-paid and temporary part-time work. More people now hold down two part-time jobs and job insecurity is far more common. The ESRI yesterday published research that revealed a notable gap in the rate of persistent deprivation experienced by vulnerable adults, including lone parents and adults with a disability and that experienced by other adults. The findings show that the persistent deprivation rate is 26 percentage points higher for lone parents and 14 percentage points higher for adults with a disability than for other adults. Although the Government has committed to signing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is welcome, there are more practical supports that would make a world of difference to allow people with disabilities have better independence. Unfortunately, the way health budgets are negotiated and allocated leaves much to be desired. Every Senator in the House is inundated with complaints from young and older people who cannot access health services. Some children in need of assessments for speech and language therapy have languished on lists for over two years before even attending school. Older people are waiting over 17 months for knee and hip replacements. Ministers have repeatedly agreed budgets and promised higher levels of service than are being delivered. The Taoiseach has said that money is not the answer and it may not be, but the consistent problems of waiting lists and overcrowding in emergency departments will not go away without a determination to fix them.

I conclude by welcoming the Seanad reform group. All Senators and Deputies on the group will make short, medium and long-term achievable recommendations to best reform, improve our franchise and ensure we serve the citizens as best we can.

I welcome the Taoiseach to the House. I wish to take this opportunity to bring some very important issues to his attention. It is time for a change, but it is radical change that will make a difference to all our people. It is time for us to accept that the recovery that is taking place has broken down on the M50. The people of Ireland beyond the M50 have yet to experience any recovery.

We need to spread the recovery across the country. Let us create an Ireland where a person works hard, earns well, saves well, gets equal pay for equal work and it does not matter where he or she comes from. I attended a protest today outside Gaelcholáiste in Carlow. I gave my full support to the teachers and the Teachers Union of Ireland, TUI. The inequality in teachers' pay has contributed in no small way to the current shortage of teachers. The same situation has affected the crisis in nursing. Many of our graduates are choosing to go abroad.

The Taoiseach spoke recently about parents lending their children money for a first-time deposit on a house. Parents are under so much pressure to try to send their children to third level education. PAYE workers are now having to remortgage or borrow from the banks or credit unions to try to give their children a chance in life, as there is no such thing as free education. Let us create an Ireland where there are people to listen, plenty of jobs and happy workplaces. We deserve decent health care and homes to hang our hats in across this island.

Right now, there are people in rural Ireland holding their cap in their hand without hope in their heart or a future to look forward to. While there are parties, events, lights and glitter on the streets of Dublin, there are good people all over rural Ireland imprisoned in their own homes, unable to afford to travel and with no access to public transport. The ones who have a home to call their own are the lucky ones. God forbid if anything were to happen and people had to go to a doctor. They cannot afford to miss work. Then they are destined to spend years on a waiting list waiting for a diagnosis, not to mention the actual treatment.

People try to shop smartly, grow vegetables, prepare clothing, get everything ready for their children, buy economically and yet some children are still going to school hungry. This is a reality. Tools are stolen from vehicles in yards and machinery from sheds. People do not live luxurious lives. They hope the bank will negotiate a better deal for them. Every day, their hopes are dashed. The jobs go to Dublin while the tired rural workers commute for hours daily to work in Dublin, rural shops close, businesses close, post offices struggle, older people feel invisible, people move away and villages yawn under the tiredness of trying.

The Senator's time is up.

One more page and I am finished.


No, I have to be fair to everybody. The Senator is almost a minute over time and I ask her to finish up.

I have a lot more to talk about. However, all I can ask is the Taoiseach not forget rural Ireland. There is life past the M50. We in rural Ireland are forgotten. I will be looking for massive changes. Broadband is a major issue that came up yesterday. I will come back to the Taoiseach on this. Hopefully, I might be able to get back in.

I welcome the Taoiseach. It struck me as I was preparing and thinking about what I might say that he would set his own narrative as an able and skilled politician. There is a lot of substance in what the Taoiseach has had to say. I will take it with me.

However, I want to set out the concerns and initiatives of the people we all represent in Parliament. The constant and recurring theme of the Taoiseach, since long before he became leader but which he continues to echo and espouse, is building a republic of opportunity. I think that is admirable and something we all want. We all dream and have aspirations. I have no doubt the Taoiseach dreamt many things and possibly dreamt that one day he would be here. He aspired to be the leader of a great country and the leader of his party, and he got there. He realised his dreams. It is an important thing when people set out, have aspirations and those dreams are realised.

However, not everyone is able to realise their dreams. When I see a man and a woman begging on the streets in Dublin, when I see someone who comes to my office and has difficulty in tracing his or her family, or tells of an experience in the Magdalen laundry, or of abuse, they have not had their opportunities. It is important when we talk about a fairer society to remember we want a fairer society for all - not for the squeezed middle which is the political narrative of some, but for everybody. That is an important point.

Looking back at the Taoiseach's election manifesto and promises, he made and campaigned on a promise of abolishing the USC. That is very interesting because I went on to Google images today and saw many Government Ministers holding up banners saying they would scrap the USC. However, I think it is admirable when politicians stand up and say they have reconsidered and they have changed. I ask the Taoiseach to commit to not scrapping the USC. I will explain why I do not think it should be scrapped.

It should be reformed not scrapped. This money could be ring-fenced to increase funding for public housing, water services, public health care, particularly mental health care, and for education. The gap between the pension funds of private and public sector employees needs to be addressed. There is a huge gap and it is unsustainable. Perhaps, through some reform of the USC and PRSI, we can address the shortcomings in future pensions for our people. Can we look again at using the USC to close that gap?

We need to increase spending on social security, mental health and public transport. We cannot have services if the funds are not in place to do it. That is important and we need to examine it. It has been suggested that those who rely on public services are freeloaders. Those who rely on social protection are not freeloaders. They have paid their way and paid their dues. We need to be conscious of that in our language, because language is so important in politics.

We want, and I know the Taoiseach wants, an opportunity for prosperity. It must be equal and available to all. I want to reiterate, because I believe this is an important distinction, we need to keep saying it time and time again that people who work in the public sector are equally as important as those who work in the private sector. We need to support those who feel alienated and left behind. We need to support carers in all the work they do. We need more hospital beds to address the trolley crisis, and more nurses and doctors too. We need more teachers in the classrooms and more gardaí on the streets.

We also need a range of housing solutions to provide homes for our people. I say "solutions" because that is what we want. We do not want to get hung up on the ideology of who is building and providing these houses. We want homes and housing solutions. I commend the people who have worked, and continue to work, to roll out Rebuilding Ireland. It is a good initiative and we have to be patient to see its success. We need a range of housing options for young and old. We need affordable housing for rental and for purchase.

We need to protect and give every child in our country an equal start and encourage a yearning for learning. I salute Dr. Katherine Zappone for the enormous part she has played in the promotion and protection of welfare rights. We need apprenticeships and training to meet the future needs of the construction industry. We need to end degrading practices around direct provision for asylum seekers and refugees, and we need to fully, not partially, implement the recommendations of the McMahon report. It is a critical piece of work and needs to be implemented.

We need to grant work permits to men and women who want to use their hands and skills to make this a better place and a better economy. Give them the dignity of work. It is due to happen, but the sooner, the better. We need to support victims of hate crimes and stamp it out once and for all with strict legislation. It is an important point that needs to be addressed. We need to support small farmers and protect their way of life and incomes. We need to support and protect our local and rural communities, and empower local councillors to work and represent those local communities. We need to mind our environment and advance the principles of sustainable development to fund small enterprise and reward work and ambition.

The Taoiseach said, "it should not matter where you come from, but rather where you want to go". I agree. However, it is important that we keep echoing this central theme of the Taoiseach: a republic of opportunity must be one where every person feels safe, cared for, valued and respected. We must value all of our citizens, north, south, east and west. They must all share in our prosperity. Finally, we must remember we live in a republic and a republic where citizens can exercise democratically the supreme power of voting to put us into office.

I took the time to read a great speech by Des O'Malley, "Stand by the Republic". It is one of the finest speeches delivered in Dáil Éireann in the last 20 or 25 years. He spoke about equality, regardless of colour, race or skin. Equal opportunity for everyone. A true republic. The word "republic" has been hijacked for far too long in politics in this country. We need to reclaim the word "republic", be proud that we are republicans, that we are elected and that we are privileged to serve in the Parliament of a republic.

I welcome the Taoiseach to the Seanad. It is great to have him here on St. Brigid's Day. St. Patrick is our primary patron saint, but it is arguable that St. Brigid should be, given the work she did for vulnerable people-----

-----and the more deprived members of society. We love St. Patrick, not least for the fact that he gives us an avenue to promote our great little country internationally. His feast day is coming up soon. We should be very proud of the fact that we have such a strong voice internationally. We punch so far above our weight as a nation in terms of the population we have.

The year 2018 is hugely significant for women in Irish politics as it marks the 100th anniversary of the parliamentary vote for women in Ireland. Senators in this House, not least Senator Gabrielle McFadden, are involved with the launch of that anniversary. Senator McFadden spoke about it today. The year 1918 was the first time that Irish women were permitted by law to vote and stand in parliamentary elections. It was also the year the first woman, Countess Markievicz, was elected to the British Parliament at Westminster representing a Dublin constituency but never took her seat at Westminster. As we all know she joined the revolutionary First Dáil, becoming the first female TD.

We have come a long way since 1918 in terms of the number of female representatives. There are currently 35 female Deputies, which represents 22% of all seats in the Dáil. The Seanad is faring a bit better, with 19 female Senators, meaning that almost one third of the seats in this House are taken up by women. I want to commend the appointments the Taoiseach has made on this side of the House. Of the three appointees, two are women - Senator McFadden and myself - and of course we are very ably lead by Senator Buttimer, who is very supportive of women. On the other side of the House, Senators Conway-Walsh and Ardagh are both leaders of their respective groups. It is clear that this House is quite female-friendly, and it is a good House to be in as a female politician.

The introduction of gender quotas, whether one loves them or loathes them, has had an effect. They were introduced in 2011, when 11% of candidates were women. Now, 30% of candidates are female. We have much work to do, and the issue has to be kept front and centre.

The Taoiseach mentioned reform of the Seanad. This is the Upper House of the Houses of the Oireachtas, and it was never intended to be a crèche or retirement home for Deputies. I am very encouraged by what the Taoiseach said, because the long-suggested changes, about which there have been many reports, will serve to improve this House immeasurably. I have no difficulty whatsoever with, and would be very supportive of, any change to the electoral system. I would embrace the change. Change can be difficult but I believe it would be worthwhile in this context.

The Taoiseach touched on the upcoming referendum. I am grateful that he appointed me to chair the Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. It was the privilege of my political career to chair that committee. I want to commend the Taoiseach on his forthright manner of dealing with this issue in what is obviously a very conservative party. He has been very courageous, and I really commend him. I am proud to be a member of a party that is following through on this commitment. I really am grateful.

I welcome the Taoiseach to the House. It speaks volumes that, seven months into his term as Taoiseach, he is here. I commend him on his reflective comments, on this first day of spring, on what this Chamber has achieved and the huge potential that is there in terms of what we should and can achieve going forward. This House has been a reflective Chamber. It has been a source of very intimate debate on very important social issues over the seven years that I have been a Member here, and indeed for many decades before it.

This House has instigated change. Many of the changes that have taken place in this society over the last number of decades were instigated in this House. That is something this House can be proud of, but we can achieve a lot more. We can be a Chamber that reflects Irish society and improves it. That is why I welcome today's announcement that we will have a committee on the future of Seanad Éireann, and I believe we will all engage in that.

I commend the Vótáil 100 initiative. It reflects what was achieved in the last 100 years in terms of female representation and the hopes and aspirations for that going forward. I also believe that 2018 will be a year in which people with disabilities in this Republic will feel equal. It has started very well, with the announcement by Government on Tuesday that we are, once and for all, to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That is very significant and it certainly sets a tone. Will the Taoiseach to tell us in his concluding remarks what timeline he expects for getting the various legislative measures that are required over the line? I want to assure the Taoiseach - and I am sure I speak for all colleagues - that if legislation needs to be initiated in this House because of the demands of the other House, we would be very happy to oblige so that we can embrace and ratify without any reservations the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

When the Taoiseach was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport he initiated events like The Gathering, and initiatives such as the Wild Atlantic Way. That type of project has helped the tourism industry bounce back, and all parts of the country are benefitting from that. I would like the Taoiseach to look at increasing funding for tourism, particularly in the area of capital projects that will give people who visit this country a great overall experience, and a variety of experiences which are available in winter and in summer. Tourism can be an all-year-round product.

I wish the Taoiseach well. We in this House will do everything we can to ensure that the republic of opportunity is felt by everybody.

I welcome the Taoiseach's commitment to Seanad reform. In case he has not noticed we have already elected a Senator from the North, from the Short Strand indeed, who is here on my left.

I am from the North.


I congratulate the Senator; I am really happy for him.

Senator Joe O'Reilly is from the North.

He is not from far enough north.

The Cathaoirleach will allow me an extra minute. I welcome the Taoiseach's intentions.

I take them as bona fide. The previous Taoiseach, even though he was from my county, went through the process of asking each party to nominate a person onto the committee, and I was nominated by Sinn Féin, but nothing happened after that. I welcome that the Taoiseach has put a time limit on this. I look forward to working with him. Obviously the implementation of the Manning report is not the full reform we need but at least it will go some way to achieving what we need to achieve.

The Taoiseach spoke about reform within politics itself but what is frustrating for me and for other Members is the lengthy process it takes to get legislation through the House. I see where there are blocks put against Bills, particularly those from the Opposition. I will name just two of the Bills I really would like to see going through much more quickly. The first is the Bill to facilitate class actions introduced by my colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty. The Taoiseach will have seen for himself the tracker mortgage situation is likely to go to €1 billion as it stands. It is imperative that we get this legislation through quickly to save the impact it is having on people's lives. The other Bill the Taoiseach should get through as quickly as possible is the Domestic Violence Bill. We were hoping to get it through before Christmas. I acknowledge there were Government amendments but this is real legislation that would make a real difference to people's lives.

I was a bit dismayed by what the Taoiseach said about transparency of lobbying and so on. While I welcome it, it is shameful that in 2018, we are congratulating ourselves on the transparency we should have had many years ago. It has cost the country dearly in terms of the corruption and cronyism that has happened over the years.

Does the Taoiseach agree the main focus of his office over recent months has mainly benefitted Dublin and the major cities? How concerned is he about the recent report by the ESRI on the regional imbalance spelling trouble ahead not just for rural Ireland but for Dublin and other major cities? Does he now accept that the current model is flawed and that if it is allowed to continue, it will lead to further chaos in the cities and the continued dissipation of rural Ireland?

The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is due to publish the national planning framework in the coming weeks. Did the Taoiseach have sight of the draft of this important document before it went out to consultation? He spoke earlier about scrutiny but surely, even though it was at a draft stage, it should have been scrutinised before it was put to the people. The Taoiseach must understand that notwithstanding the fact it was a draft, it shows contempt and disregard for people living west and north-west of the Shannon. Did the Taoiseach's infamous and costly communications unit think this was good enough for us living in the region? When he became Taoiseach, he promised us he would be a Taoiseach for people living in areas from Dungarvan to Doohoma but this plan says something really different. I hope that in the coming weeks before it is finalised, he will take on board the submissions that have been made by all parties and that it will be radically changed to address the serious problems in rural Ireland. Infrastructural funding must meet the needs of today's demands but it also needs to disrupt the trends and create and anticipate future demand. The Taoiseach knows there must be a decoupling of the strict relationship between infrastructural investment and current demand. He spoke about a democratic revolution and we certainly need a rural revolution and we need it now. Until the Taoiseach sees rural Ireland as being the solution to national problems rather than a problem in itself, he will never create an environment whereby rural Ireland can fulfil its true potential.

I must talk about broadband not just because it is topical but because it remains a barrier to those seeking to set up or expand businesses. A slow and unreliable connection means many people cannot confidently rely on regular access to the Internet. Yesterday, we saw the latest disappointment with the withdrawal of Eir, which came after the withdrawal of SIRO before that. I do not put all the blame on the Taoiseach. I was returning from London at the time Fianna Fáil sold off the country's main telecommunications system. Why would one sell it off? Could the then Government not have been forward-thinking enough to say "Hold on"? Did it not foresee that a French billionaire was going to end up being responsible for whether I can send a bloody email?

That is what it has come down to. The consortium has total control over the infrastructure now. Even while Eir is pulling out, it has ownership of the vital infrastructure we need. I cannot believe the Government of that time could not foresee this happening. The whole mechanism of "if it moves, privatise it" has failed this country. It has failed our past generations, our current generation and our future generations. I ask the Taoiseach to sit down and look at the model with regard to health and across the board, and look at the impact it is having on rural Ireland.

Will the Taoiseach examine the situation surrounding Coillte? To hear the chief executive officer of Coillte this morning saying there was a disconnect between payments and what was committed to in the contractual obligations to farmers is not on. Unless the Taoiseach wants to be remembered in rural Ireland as the trickle-down Taoiseach, I urge him to make major investment west and north-west of the Shannon. A rising tide does not lift all boats. Carers will tell the Taoiseach this, as will parents looking after children with disabilities. Small farm families suffering poverty will also say this, as will the hundreds and thousands on trolleys and waiting lists and the people who are homeless. I ask the Taoiseach not to rely on this to sort out the problems of rural Ireland.

I have many more things I would like to say but my colleagues will ably do so. I wish the Taoiseach well in the months ahead and in the confidence and supply agreement, which I believe has failed the country. There is a lot of confidence but we have yet to see the supply. We certainly have yet to see the supply in rural Ireland, and rural Government Deputies and Senators will tell the Taoiseach so. Every day, they are on the radio pretending they are in opposition when they are in government. They are there to stand up and be responsible for their own Government policies.

On behalf of the Civil Engagement group, I thank the Taoiseach for his remarks. I wish him a very happy St. Brigid's day. I am a Taoiseach's nominee and I was reflecting on the Taoiseach's words. I do my very best to bring my experience and knowledge to the service of the Oireachtas and the country as best I can in my role here.

The Taoiseach's words on the reform of the Seanad are extremely welcome. Every member of the Civil Engagement group supported the Seanad reform Bill almost two years ago, which addressed all of the reforms outlined by the Taoiseach. It would have been great to hear the Taoiseach was going to support the passing of the Bill but we are eager to engage in the ongoing process in whatever way will provide meaningful change. In particular, we would like to highlight the principles of one person one vote, which is a fundamental tenet of all modern democracies. We warmly welcome the acknowledgement that our citizens living overseas, and I lived overseas myself for 17 years, deserve the right to participate in the governance of our homeland. Even though people are miles away they still care deeply about what happens at home. We welcome this. The Civil Engagement group looks forward to engaging with the ongoing process and we will participate fully.

For me and countless campaigners over the previous 35 years, it was a watershed moment on Monday night when the Taoiseach announced his intention to hold, and campaign in favour of, a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution and to replace it with language empowering the Oireachtas to bring Ireland's abortion regime more in line with our European counterparts in the developed world. I commend the Taoiseach's decision and I look forward to campaigning alongside him to make repealing the eighth a reality.

I also welcome the decision made to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. People with disabilities, their families and carers have been waiting a very long time for this. That community has heard many empty promises and actions. We cannot and must not let them down this time.

We need the Taoiseach to be the owner and driver of this work of emancipation and to integrate the actions of all Departments to make the promises of the convention a reality. The Action Plan for Jobs is an example of policy that was driven relentlessly from the centre of Government. It worked and this too will work if we use the same approach. Will the Taoiseach give his commitment today to people with disabilities all over Ireland that he will drive this forward?

The Taoiseach often refers to building a republic of opportunity. This is a laudable goal but we are very long away from achieving it. We in the Civil Engagement group work extremely closely with civil society groups which tell us loudly and clearly that the Republic in which we live is not one where there is equal opportunity for all. It is a strange republic where it is radical to say that someone earning the average wage should be able to afford a home or even more radical to suggest that everyone should have a right to a home. It is a strange republic where more people have nowhere to call home than live in the entire town of Youghal and more children are homeless than everyone living in Bantry. It is a strange republic where people most in need of health care are the least likely to have it and where 1,200 young people with disabilities are living in nursing homes because the supports they need to allow them to remain at home and in the community are not in place.

A true republic of opportunity is one where the needs of civil society are embedded in policy making, where people experiencing the challenges themselves, and those working for them, are truly listened to. The programme for Government sets the goal of formal co-operation with people who make up civil society from every walk of life. I urge the Taoiseach to make good that commitment today and to make it happen.

We in the Civil Engagement group also hope to see a republic of opportunity some day but I am afraid of empty words. The Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, took the bold decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity. That community is still waiting to see the real impact of that change. We learned recently that more than €4 million earmarked for Traveller accommodation was returned unspent while a tragedy and a crisis with respect to the provision of Traveller accommodation has been going on for years. Shockingly, only 167 Travellers have ever gone to university or third level. That needs to change. What are the Taoiseach's plans to ensure Travellers get the health care, housing and education they are entitled to as citizens to be fully part of our republic of opportunity like everyone else?

The Government has agreed to allow asylum seekers the right to work but only after its hand was forced by the courts and, it would seem, only in the most restrictive way. Again, they have been fine words but we await real action. I also urge the Taoiseach to make a real commitment to end the national disgrace of direct provision sooner rather than later. Living in Cork, I pass Glenvera Hotel on the Wellington Road and it makes me ashamed every time I do. We also have ongoing and encouraging support in this House for the right to family reunification for refugees and support from all sides but Government. I hope the Taoiseach will reconsider this position with a more humane and generous approach to family reunification.

The Government has made many fine statements about support and protections for older people. To pick just one, research shows that people with dementia have a better quality and length of life and more comfort when cared for at home but in Ireland today, unlike many other countries across Europe, we do not have an infrastructure of home care. It is not resourced adequately, people have no entitlement to it as an alternative to costly residential care and, even more worryingly, it is not regulated. When will we have real action on home care, not just endless consultations and reviews? Can we look forward to timely progress of adult safeguarding for people experiencing real harm and abuse?

The vital Public Health (Alcohol) Bill was initiated by the Taoiseach when he was Minister for Health, and he is to be commended on that.

This is another area on which I have to express some concern. With each step forward that Bill takes in the legislative process it seems that we have to take several steps backwards. I hope the Taoiseach will not allow the commercial interests of the alcohol industry weaken this crucial legislation any further, now that it is before the Dáil, and that this Bill, as well as the Domestic Violence Bill, is passed without delay. This is a really good example of us as a revising Chamber working across party lines.

The republic of opportunity is an aspiration. Actions speak louder than words or soundbites. We need to see joined-up thinking and collective, rather than individualistic, responses to the crises we face in health, housing, mental health care, education and climate change.

The Taoiseach has acknowledged that Ireland is an international climate laggard. I am pleased he recognises the scale of the problem we face and the severity of the consequences of our inaction. I hope to hear more from him on what specific actions he intends to take to seize the opportunities for a transition to greener jobs, communities and cities. I hope to hear his plans for tackling our huge and growing problems with waste and with single-use plastics flowing into our beautiful seas and oceans. Why are we not seeking to lead the world by developing an indigenous industry creating more durable and compostable materials to replace non-biodegradable single-use items?

Since the austerity years Ireland's public services and social fabric have been stretched to breaking point. The voluntary sector is being over-relied upon as a stopgap for inadequate Government responses to many social issues and problems. Most people perceive access to decent health care and public services, as well as education, to be more important than an extra few euro in their pockets. With the state of our public services, we simply cannot afford to be prioritising tax cuts at this time. There is also little attention paid to the money taken out of the Exchequer by tax breaks, which often benefit the wealthiest disproportionately, including money spent on private pensions and the unknown cost of the knowledge box. I call on the Taoiseach to ensure that the estimates on revenue forgone as result of such tax measures are published as part of budget 2019. The programme for Government also includes a commitment to introduce gender and equality budgeting. I hope to see that developed and delivered upon in the next budget.

Pension equality, valuing the contribution of care and recognising the historical pay gap between the sexes must be acted upon. The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, has been listening to these demands and she has been listening to the concerns regarding lone parents. We look forward to engaging with her proposals and hope the Taoiseach backs her.

While we might often differ with the Taoiseach, my colleagues and I in the Civil Engagement group share with him the desire for a real republic of opportunity in Ireland. We want to see one where everyone in Ireland, irrespective of class, creed, age, gender, ability or sexual orientation, is encouraged and supported, where we can live civilly and well and where all people and the beautiful country we live in are cared for, thrive and prosper.

I welcome the Taoiseach to the House on this auspicious day, Lá Fhéile Bríde, St. Brigid's Day, as he said. I thank him for coming to the House today. I was delighted to be present for his speech. I apologise that I could not be here throughout the debate. Senators McFadden and Higgins and I are involved in a symposium today for St. Brigid's Day on the centenary of women's suffrage in the Royal Irish Academy as part of our Vótáil 100 programme. I will speak about that shortly but, first, today, on 1 February, as a woman and as a mother of two young daughters, I thank the Taoiseach for his commitment to holding a referendum on the eighth amendment this summer. I listened to his words on Monday night and I was extremely moved to hear him and the Ministers, Deputies Harris and Zappone, speak so eloquently about the need for this referendum. I am one of the voters who, albeit rather older than the Taoiseach, was too young to vote in 1983, 35 years ago, but all my adult life has been spent under the chill of the eighth amendment. As a Trinity graduate, the Taoiseach will know that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Trinity Students' Union officers, including myself, and UCD Students' Union officers were taken to court and threatened with prison under the eighth amendment because we were providing information on abortion to women in crisis pregnancy. That was a very powerful experience for me because we were being rung up every day by women in crisis pregnancy throughout Ireland who could only approach students' unions, which were then the only bodies openly offering information on where to obtain legal abortion services in Britain. Since that time, I have been involved in the campaign for repeal and I am very optimistic that we will see both the referendum this summer, as the Taoiseach has said, but also that it will be successful and that we will at last be able to legislate. I look forward to canvassing with the Taoiseach, colleagues from all parties and Independent colleagues on the eighth amendment. A May date is essential to ensure maximum turnout. The students' movement has led on this issue. It is hugely important that we facilitate as large a number of students as possible to vote.

Second, on the day that is in it, I want to speak in my capacity as chairperson of the Vótáil 100 steering committee, which is organising the series of events here in Leinster House to mark the centenary of women's suffrage. The symposium at the Royal Irish Academy is the first of those events. We had a very successful launch on Tuesday of the fuller programme of events which, as the Taoiseach will know, includes an exhibition here in Leinster House in the summer of artefacts and materials from the suffrage campaign, including the Votes for Women banner donated by the Sheehy-Skeffington family. I want to thank the Cathaoirleach and the Ceann Comhairle for the immense support they have given to our programme.

One key aspect of the programme will be on 28 February, that is, the presentation by ourselves, the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach to the House of Commons in Westminster of a portrait of Constance Markievicz. It will be the first time the Westminster Parliament has acknowledged formally the status of Markievicz as the first woman MP to be elected to Westminster, although she did not take up her seat. Interestingly, until now, as the Taoiseach will know, the only woman formally celebrated as a pioneer in Westminster is Nancy Astor, so this will mark an important moment in our relations with Britain, and it comes at a time when we are facing into these extremely difficult negotiations. As a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, we have met some of our counterparts.

We met the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union, chaired by Hilary Benn, MP, and have done our best, on a cross-party basis, on the Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union and on another Oireachtas committees, to emphasise to MPs from Britain whom we have met just how immensely detrimental the impact to us in Ireland will be of Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit. Only this morning, the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade heard that negative prognosis being offered by the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce representatives who spoke powerfully about how devastating they see Brexit being for trade between the two islands.

The Taoiseach does not need any urging to ensure that we will see as soft a Brexit as possible if it is to happen. I was among the many who emphasised to Hilary Benn and others that many of us in Ireland think Britain can run a second referendum. Clearly, that is a matter for them, but there seems to be increasing popular support in Britain for that. Our own experience in Ireland is that a referendum is not necessarily a final say on some issues. We will certainly keep pressing that point and assisting in any way we can in the negotiations on Brexit from the Irish perspective.

The last issue I want to raise with the Taoiseach is, like the eighth amendment, one he touched on in his own speech, namely, the issue of the Seanad and Seanad reform. I thank the Taoiseach for his kind words about the incredibly important contribution so many Senators have made over the years to Irish society, in particular, if I may say, Trinity Senators and NUI Senators. The Taoiseach is correct in saying the true role of the Seanad is as a check on and balance to the Dáil. Clearly, that is constitutionally a different role to that of the Dáil, which keeps the check on the Government.

In 2014, I made a submission on behalf of Labour Party Senators to the committee chaired by the former Senator, Dr. Maurice Manning. We regretted that so few submissions were made at the time by serving or former Senators. I am glad to hear the Taoiseach state that he will establish a Seanad committee. I hope we will see significant Seanad representation on that committee because many Members of the Dáil who have never served in the Seanad really do not understand the procedures which are rather different or, indeed, the culture in the Seanad, which tends to be more collegiate where we have our committee debates in the full Chamber, etc. It is important that the Seanad would be well represented on that committee. I will certainly be making that point within my own party and I hope others will too. I welcome the announcement that the Government is keen to implement the Manning report.

There are some aspects of that report that need to be worked on. I am glad to hear the Taoiseach state he favours the expansion of the university electorate. Clearly, that is not controversial because that was already decided on by the people. However, there are a few other more difficult issues.

On the issue of the panels, if people will be entitled to decide which panel they wish to opt for, we have to make a decision on what university graduates will do because clearly it would be wrong in a reformed Seanad to have university graduates enabled to vote on both the university panel and one other. Of course, this is looking at legislative reform without constitutional change. In my party's submission, we suggested that university graduates should be able to opt for a vote on the university panel or one of the other panels. We recommended the national language, cultural and literature panel as an alternative panel so that one would not have a double enfranchisement for university graduates. I am conscious that we currently do. Currently, university graduates who have a degree from both NUI and Trinity have two votes. A Seanad, reformed through legislation not constitutional change, could address that.

Similarly, my party suggested reserving the right to elect one panel, the public administration panel, to city and county council members to preserve the existing link with local government. I note the Taoiseach states he wants to see that link preserved. How we do that is essential.

Finally, we also recommended that powers of nomination should be extended beyond the existing nomination bodies, and that could be done without constitutional change. For example, we could have popular nomination by 500 persons on the Seanad electoral register. We recommended also that Seanad elections should take place on the same day as the election for the Dáil. It would be constitutionally permissible. It would require some thought about how we define postal elections but I think that can be done within the parameters of the Constitution. It would certainly ensure that the Seanad does not continue as a mini-Dáil. It would break the direct link between Dáil and Seanad elections.

The principle of universal suffrage is the essentially important one that needs to be introduced. It does not require constitutional reform. I would urge the Taoiseach to use the local election register as an appropriate register for that. That would differentiate the Seanad electorate from the Dáil electorate. It would enfranchise more people than are currently enfranchised to vote in Dáil elections.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach ar Lá Fhéile Bhríde. This is a great day for him to come to the Seanad and an auspicious day for women in this auspicious year for women as the centenary of them getting the vote. I commend Senator Bacik and those who were involved in that gesture whereby Constance Markievicz's portrait will hang in Westminster, a building that the countess never wanted to sit in. I am not too sure how Constance Markievicz will view the fact that she will finally take her place in Westminster 100 years on.

In the past seven years of Fine Gael-led Government, people have seen their hopes replaced by fear. The future of this island must be about giving a sense of hope for those who are fearful for their future-----

We restored their hopes.

-----fearful for their families' future and fearful for this country's future.

That is the best Kerryman joke of all time.

The next election, whenever it takes place, must be about a change of policy and a change of direction. Most certainly, it must be about a change of Government. It must be about giving a sense of hope to those this very day who are in emergency departments, giving a sense of hope to those who are looking for a place to call home and giving a sense of hope to those who are working long and hard hours for very little reward.

The Taoiseach has stated that he is leading a Government that represents those who get up early in the morning. We, in Fianna Fáil, believe in representing an Ireland for all. We believe in giving everybody-----

The Galway tent, is it?

-----regardless of the circumstances of the person's background, the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

Those of the few.

We, in Fianna Fáil, believe that we can give those people that future that we all want to see. We do not believe in an Ireland for those who have received all the opportunities. We do not believe in an Ireland for the privileged. We do not believe in an Ireland for the few. We believe in an Ireland for everyone.

As regards voting rights, the most fundamental right of any citizen in any republic is the right to vote and in his speech, the Taoiseach did not state categorically whether or not it extended to all the citizens of this nation. This nation is not defined by its geographic territory. It is defined by its people. Those in the North and those overseas, who combined number nearly 3 million people, currently are not entitled to vote in any election in the State, bar one. If one happens to be a graduate of Trinity College or the National University of Ireland, and in Sydney, one is entitled to vote for this House. That is an Ireland of privilege. It is not an Ireland for all. It is certainly not an Ireland of opportunity where everybody, regardless of gender or creed, should have the right to vote, which is the fundamental right of any citizen of any state.

I welcome the Taoiseach's announcement that he would like to see Senators elected from the North represented in this House from both sides of the community but I want to know how he believes that will be achieved and how it can be done. Has there been engagement with both communities in advance of that announcement? I can imagine that Ms Arlene Foster, MLA, and others would be concerned about that. That is about the future of this country.

What is the Taoiseach's vision? The Taoiseach has outlined this vision for the future of this island in various interviews, as has the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney. They both would like to see in their lifetime, as Deputy Coveney pointed out, in relation to another referendum that we would hope would fulfil Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution which, one would imagine, would mean that everybody would have a right to vote. A hundred years on from giving women the right to vote in elections for which we applaud ourselves, we still fundamentally to do extend that right to everybody who is entitled to be a citizen of the State under the Constitution.

It is a great privilege and pleasure to welcome the Taoiseach to this Chamber and in so doing to recognise that at the outset of him taking this office he set out a vision for the country in his republic of opportunity speeches. In setting out that vision, the Taoiseach then sought to give it practical expression with professionalism, passion and competence.

I appreciate the fact that, on taking office, the Taoiseach gave significant priority to the Brexit question. He brought to it an imaginative, courageous approach and thought outside the box.

The Brexit phenomenon has an enormous potential to damage our economy and many facets of national life but its potential to devastate the region in which I live is more significant than in the rest of the country. It threatens agricultural producers, as well as those who are employed in the food processing sector across the region. If the jobs of those employed in the food processing sector were to be displaced, they would not readily find employment in other sectors. It would not be an easy area to attract sufficient inward investment to replace the displaced jobs. The question of how we deal with Brexit is paramount. It is paramount that the Taoiseach's achievement as we entered phase 2 of the negotiations in getting the commitments from the British Government is given practical expression and legal certainty and that we do not have a hard border. We cannot have regulatory divergence or customs on goods crossing the Border or any thwarting of free movement of persons. While I am happy the Taoiseach committed to that, I urge him to make it a critical part of his work in the future.

The trading relationship and the relationship with the UK is of paramount importance because of the kinship between our two countries. I thank the Taoiseach for the nomination to be the leader of the Irish delegation on the Council of Europe.


Hear, hear.

The Taoiseach also nominated me for the position of vice president, which was selected by the plenary session. I am delighted to be able to maintain a relationship with the UK delegation in the plenary session, which will be the only international forum in which there can be interaction with this country if the UK leaves the EU. That very important relationship can continue to be fostered within the Council of Europe. We had a bilateral session at the last Council of Europe plenary session with the UK delegation that was very effective and successful.

I urge the Taoiseach to continue his efforts to get a government in Northern Ireland. We need a government there as it is the missing link in the chain in dealing with Brexit and with our situation. I urge all the parties in Northern Ireland to come to the table. I urge the Taoiseach to give it major priority because it complements his work on Brexit.

I welcome the Taoiseach on his first visit to the Seanad. It will be of little surprise to him that the central issue I would like to see advanced during the lifetime of this Seanad - apart from the undocumented and emigrant rights - is voting rights for the presidential election.

Hear, hear. Well said.

I am delighted that a change in Taoiseach has not resulted in a change to a commitment to hold a referendum to allow Irish citizens abroad a vote in the presidential elections. While I recognise that there is a more pressing referendum on the horizon, I am concerned that a vacuum has been created between the Government's stated intent to hold a referendum on 19 June and the great deal of uncertainty as to what question the people are to be asked or what legislation will follow the amendment.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, have undoubtedly put the wheels in motion and started the discussion but already the fear-mongering in certain quarters has taken over. I ask the Taoiseach that the Government would place priority on ensuring the public know what is intended in order that those advocating on either side of the argument can prepare to fight their case on solid ground.

I have great faith that the citizens living in this State want to extend the franchise to their children, cousins and friends living abroad and give them a meaningful role, as well as delivering a clear mandate to our next President, or at the very least the one after that, that he or she represents all Irish citizens at home and abroad. I also acknowledge however, that there are those who will advocate that extending the franchise abroad will provide a disproportionate support for one party or the other; that they may be more established in the United States or the UK, where the majority of Irish emigrants reside. Alternatively, there are those who say that unless one is paying taxes in this country, one should have no entitlement to vote for our president. I believe the spectacle of future presidential candidates travelling abroad canvassing for votes will truly celebrate Ireland's global stature and engage and revitalise an interest in the affairs of our State from those who only want Ireland to prosper and succeed. I do not accept that because one party has stronger footholds in fundraising or other areas that this would put the candidates at a disadvantage.

Voting has nothing to do with taxation. It was introduced in the United States about 300 years ago. Whether a person is taxed on their income or only taxed on the bar of chocolate they purchase, every citizen of the State over 18 years has an entitlement to vote. If anything, extending the franchise to citizens abroad is only likely to boost our tax revenues, as emigrants become more rooted here in their homeland and spend more on journeys home.

I congratulate the initiative taken in 2013, it really started to boost tourism in this country. As members may know, tourism is up 14% to 15% year on year since then. I will leave one message for the Taoiseach, which is to let the people know precisely how an election abroad would be managed and who would be eligible to vote and let that be an absolute priority for the Government and all other parties as well. This should be communicated to us sooner rather than later and it will allow those of us who passionately care about the issue to make our case.

I congratulate the Taoiseach on his leadership and especially on his negotiations for Brexit. We were all watching that with interest from abroad and the Brexit issue is a major worry. I thank the Taoiseach for being in this Chamber today and for recognising my own position as an emigrant Senator.

I thank the Taoiseach for his time today and he is welcome to the Chamber. I will be sticking to the theme of the republic of opportunity.

The privileges and oppressions that we are born into are mostly out of our control. They are the fate of birth. However, the reinforcing of them by society is somewhat in our control. They must be challenged by us all and by the Taoiseach, the Head of the Government. The Taoiseach talks a lot about the republic of opportunity but what does that really mean? What does equality really mean? It is time that as a society and as a government, we look beyond the slogans and get right to the core of what true equality means. Instead of striving for equality of opportunity, let us aim for equality of outcome. Equality of opportunity is only accessible by all if we are all starting from the same starting point. If we create a republic of equal outcomes, we must have a far greater equality of wealth and income and the environments in which we live must resemble those of one another. We must have equal power to shape those environments. We can only achieve true equality if we reduce the material, social and cultural inequalities that exist between us in society.

In university, I explored the dimensions of social class in a bid to understand not only the morality of class but who or what is to blame. As a philosophy student I spent most of my time looking at it under the heading of moral philosophy. The result of that for me is that poverty, inequality and the systems that reinforce them are immoral. During a debate on the Social Welfare Bill two years ago, I told a story in the Chamber that I will tell again because it illustrates the contrasts of people's lives and experiences of class in Ireland. I had been invited to speak at Alexandra College in Dublin 6. It was a lovely evening and all the speakers were inspiring and entertaining. However, one woman who was a past pupil of the school spoke about her successful career and how she maintained the friendships with her ten best friends, which she made while at school.

They were all so successful and they were scattered around the world. I began to think about the ten best friends whom I grew up with, and the majority had died. Some experienced addiction, some were murdered, some committed suicide, some have become institutionalised in a prison system and many have had to fight harder than most for everything that they have achieved. It upset and shocked me to realise that I was only living a 20-minute drive from Dublin 6 yet that meant that we, who are just a short distance away, are not reaching our full potential.

It is important to examine how class is produced if we are to attempt to address it. I recently read a book by Dr. Andrew Sayer called The Moral Significance of Class and I would recommend it to anyone who cares about addressing inequality. The problem for me is that we tend to blame the individual for his or her circumstances, that maybe he or she did not work hard enough, get up early enough or try hard enough. Blaming the individual completely ignores the impact of poverty, environment and access to basic needs on a person's prospects. We cannot be blamed for the intergenerational poverty that areas such as ours have endured. Of course, I accept that there is both a personal and collective responsibility, but personal control over situations is often limited.

There is a lot of work to do in putting social class on the political agenda. Social class is killing people in my community and it is time we addressed it with the importance and urgency that it requires. I ask myself daily how society can address social class, and the Taoiseach should ask himself this question too. What does the Taoiseach mean when he thinks of a republic of opportunity and how does he measure that? Governments often distance themselves from acknowledging class as a problem within society. I ask the Taoiseach not to. He should be part of the solution, not a player in the reinforcing of a class system, and maybe look to equity, not equality.

Another area of inequality is equality for women. I will finish by thanking the Taoiseach for his recent comments on and commitments to the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution. I was proud on Monday night to listen to the Taoiseach as Head of Government, and I want to have pride in feeling that communities such as mine are also represented by him.

An Seanadóir as Béal Feirste, an Seanadóir Ó Donnghaile.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. Guím beannachtaí na Féile Bríde air.

As the Taoiseach delivered his address, I received a text message from my friend who is a rang a ceathair teacher in Bunscoil Bheann Mhadagáin i mBéal Feirste, stating his class was making crossanna Bríde today and they want to send the Taoiseach one to put up above the door in his office. I will get that to him.

Before coming on to my main points, I reiterate the call from my colleague, Senator Lawless, a champion for the extension to all citizens of the franchise in presidential elections, for clarity from the Taoiseach in that regard and call on all the parties here present to stand by many of their own party policies, including the Taoiseach's own, and support an extension of the franchise in the planned referendum for 2019.

Many Senators have already referred to the issue of Brexit. Sinn Féin has given a cautious and qualified welcome to December's progress report on phase one of the negotiations on the agreement between the EU and the British Government. The phase one agreement does not set the final deal on Brexit. While it recognises the unique and special circumstances surrounding the issue of the Irish peace process, the Good Friday Agreement and the Border, it does not address key areas of concern for many citizens, especially nationalists living in the North and citizens in the Border region. The insistence by the British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, that the UK must leave the Single Market and customs union contradicts her claim that there will not be a hard economic border. It gives no relief for citizens here on the future role of the European Court of Justice, in particular, the right of EU citizens in my part of the island to be able to access the EU institutions. These are all genuine concerns. Expanding on some of the issues that Senator Mark Daly raised, I would ask the Taoiseach what our citizenship means beyond the holding of an Irish passport. What are our rights and entitlements as EU, but in the first instance Irish, citizens beyond the holding of that passport?

Many Senators will be familiar with the case of Mr. Aidan McAnespie who was shot and murdered by a British soldier who was located in a sangar, on his way to watch his local Gaelic athletic club play in Aghaloo. His death caused widespread anger, and in an unusual move at the time, the Irish Government appointed then Garda deputy commissioner, the late Mr. Eugene Crowley, to investigate the killing. However, the findings of the deputy commissioner's report have never been made public. Speaking during the week, Tyrone GAA legend Peter Canavan urged the GAA to put pressure on the Irish Government to release this report. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that neither the GAA nor the McAnespie family should have to bring such pressure to bear. Mr. Canavan stated, "it's hard to believe that it's Dublin we are waiting on and as I say bad and all as Aidan's death was I think what has confounded the situation is the cover up and some of the things that happened after it". Mr McAnespie's brother, Seán, said it is very important that the Irish Government hand over the Crowley report, stating, "It's one more step to get to the truth, there might be stuff in there that could bring a conviction." I call on the Taoiseach to give a commitment to the McAnespie family, in the first instance to meet them, and also that the Government, more than 30 years after Aidan's brutal murder, will release that report.

Finally, and similar to the previous issue, would the Taoiseach agree, given this week's horrific details of collusion in the cases of the loyalist serial killer, Mr. Gary Haggarty and, indeed, the experience of the Loughinisland massacre families recently, that the Taoiseach needs to reiterate his support for the legacy provisions in the Stormont House Agreement to be implemented without further delay? If that is indeed the case, as the Taoiseach has stated previously, then it makes perfect sense that he, on behalf of the Government, would release the Crowley report as well.

I welcome the Taoiseach. First, I congratulate him on his office. As a citizen of this country and as an Independent Senator, I feel that Deputy Varadkar fits it very well. I am proud that he is there. I say this because of what I have seen and what I have heard, especially about the area of Brexit, which is a powerful force approaching our country. The Taoiseach has grasped what Brexit is and how it is, and he has informed us and kept it alive in a real way as to how he himself will approach it and hold it so that we are able to carry on and hold our own independence and our own North in the future. The area of the Citizens' Assembly is a profound issue and the Taoiseach has managed it, with other Ministers, extremely well. Like other Senators, I am proud of the way the Taoiseach has approached it to date. So there are a few compliments, but there is nothing wrong with compliments if they are true and if they come from a well-founded place.

I was glad to hear the Taoiseach speak about the Seanad because sometimes the problems are in our own kitchen. I have spoken about this here previously. I like the Taoiseach's commitment to the Seanad changes. I say that as a privileged Senator who has been a Taoiseach's nominee twice.

We are not intellectually independent enough in here. We are too territorial in the way we operate. I am not part of a group in here and it is only with the generosity and the gift of the Cathaoirleach that I can get to speak. A Senator must be part of a group. There is a precedence of the group over creativity and imagination and that must change.

Also, if one looks at the referendum on retaining the Seanad, it did not pass with any great gusto at all. In fact, under certain university recommendations, it would have been a semi-fail. That was because people needed it or expected some kind of reform. Reform, no matter how difficult, is essential.

How we get in here and what we do when we come here is extremely important. I believe in, trust in and value every Senator in here, but we are not semi-detached Dáil Deputies, mini-Dáil Deputies or waiting room Dáil Deputies. The Seanad has to be independent of mind and territory. If the Seanad were independent of mind and territory, it could flourish and be what we want it to be, namely, an intellectual, emotional and creative opposition to the Lower House. I would like to see that. If there are interviews going, I might knock on the door.

It sounds like the Senator has.

Maybe. There is the subtlety of a chainsaw here.

I will leave Senators with this thought, which nobody has mentioned, that the most important aspect of the next ten years is how people will grow old in Ireland, how they will age and age well, how they will be safe, be of value, be connected and be regarded when they are old. That is a major issue. It is an issue that an independent Seanad, without territory, might begin to face.

Senator Ó Domhnaill has three minutes.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak. I will keep it very short. I will start by congratulating the Taoiseach on his work in his role. He is playing an excellent role at a European level in particular and I wish him well. We should all wear the green jersey when it comes to the Brexit issue. We should leave party politics to one side and work and speak on behalf of the State. I wish the Taoiseach well in all the negotiations.

There are two issues I want to refer to. One is the Northern Ireland issue, which is very complicated now because of the Brexit issue. This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement but we are 12 months without an Executive or a political forum in the North of Ireland. Civil servants are running the budgetary framework in the North of Ireland. The institutions are falling and there is a vacuum being created. I encourage the Taoiseach to redouble efforts in negotiating with the British Government to come to a resolution of power sharing in the North of Ireland. I visited both communities in the North of Ireland over the Christmas period, particularly in Derry and Belfast, and met with community organisations. They feel completely isolated and feel they have no voice whatsoever. That sort of a situation creates huge danger. There are other issues, apart from the Irish language issue. I agree wholeheartedly with my colleague, Senator Ó Donnghaile, about the legacy issues. They have not been adequately addressed and they need to be addressed. They are complex. The Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, is dealing with the issues but there is a real need for a redoubling of those efforts. It is being left behind by Brexit.

The second issue is the national planning framework and where people will live, work and obtain State services from 2020 to 2040. There has not been enough national engagement on this issue. There will be a division one and division two after the current framework is implemented if it carries on. There will be a line between Dublin and Galway. North of that line there will be no economic investment. South of that line there will be the urban centres. The plan, as it stands, is flawed and needs to be revisited. We need more engagement on it. Before it is brought before both Houses of the Oireachtas, areas that are not included in the plan must be included, otherwise rural Ireland will be left behind yet again.

Before I call on the Leader of the House to wrap up, I will say that every skipper needs a first mate and I cannot leave my first mate out. I will give the Leas-Chathaoirleach, Senator Paul Coghlan, a couple of minutes. I might get shipwrecked some day without him.

I appreciate it. The Taoiseach is very welcome to the Seanad. It is good to hear him in this House. This is the Taoiseach's first official visit to the House since becoming Taoiseach. Hopefully, a visit by the Taoiseach to the Seanad will not be simply an annual affair. It should be something more. I hope, in the Taoiseach's case, this will be the first of very many.

I welcome what the Taoiseach said about reforms, particularly pre-legislative scrutiny, the Regulation of Lobbying Act, State boards and so on. I also welcome what he said about a Seanad committee to develop specific proposals. I think I detected that the Taoiseach is not wedded to the words of the report of Dr. Maurice Manning and Mr. Joe O'Toole.

Is Senator Coghlan hoping he is not?

We will take it further because this Taoiseach is a very wise man and he is cautious.

I think the term the Senator is looking for is "workable alternatives".

I will leave that to the committee.

It is conceivable that there could be a bigger electorate outside the State than within it. It would be rather peculiar as well as being representation without taxation.

The Senator should not worry about taxation.

I would welcome votes for all citizens outside the State for the presidential election. I am talking about the Seanad now. As the Taoiseach hinted, it will be a mammoth challenge. The returning officer of the Seanad will be an issue. In Dáil elections, we are able to rely on returning officers throughout the country. Every county council in the country provides a returning officer. The Seanad will be different. The Seanad office will be greatly extended. The budget for it will be another day's work, as the Taoiseach implied. Not every citizen will fit comfortably into the panels as they are constituted at present.

I will not delay further. There were references made to a subject I do not want to discuss here today but I salute the Taoiseach's recognition of conscience.

Ar an gcéad dul síos, cuirim fíor-fháilte roimh an Taoiseach. Gabhaim buíochas leis as ucht na hóráide láidre agus dúshlánaí. B'fhéidir nach mbeadh muid le chéile tar éis an ráiteas ach bhí sé iontach ar fad.

In welcoming the Taoiseach, I concur with Senator Coghlan and hope his visit will not just be an annual event. It is an important day to have the Taoiseach here. I am conscious it is 1 February and am thinking of Raifteirí an File. I hope we can raise our sail; ardóidh mé mo sheol. It is about raising our sails and ensuring we do not have Groundhog Day every day in every part of political life. The new political landscape in which we all exist is one that we see in this House. I thank all Members of the House, particularly the leaders, for their co-operation most days. It is important to recognise that there is co-operation in the House. I remind Senator Conway-Walsh that we passed the Domestic Violence Bill.

On behalf of the Government, I gave the Senator time on Deputy Doherty's Bill prior to the summer recess. As a House, we are efficient in passing legislation. I hope we will see more legislation commence here and emanate from the Chamber. We live in a changing and evolving world which presents challenges, not only to the political parties but to us as public representatives. We are embarking on a decade of commemorations. It is important to recognise and compliment Senator Bacik and other Members of the House on their work on Vótáil 100 and to look at the change we have made in that 100 years. We are still not an island of freedom. Our party has always put the country first. Fianna Fáil Senators should cast their minds back to the 16 years when they were in government in the context of where we have come from. We are, as a political party, leading the Government. I said on the Order of Business today that we should cast our minds back to where we were seven years ago and compare it with where we are today. Let us reflect on that. We face serious issues and challenges. The concept of the Citizens' Assembly and constitutional convention were important ones in helping the democratic process. Like Raifteirí an File, I believe we must challenge ourselves and lift ourselves up. That is why it is refreshing to hear the Taoiseach's views not only on Seanad reform or on current political events but on life itself. In a reflective, revising Seanad, there is a duty on all of us to recognise what the Constitution says is our role. It is not to hold the Executive to account. It is not to be a mirror image of the Dáil, even though we perhaps try to do that. The speech the Taoiseach made today is one we should reflect on. In her very fine address, Senator Ruane spoke about the republic of opportunity and the role of class in our society. The politics I espouse allows all of us to build a life in which we are all free and can be as Maslow wants us to be and reach our full potential. That is what we should always aim for. That is why I am very proud of the Taoiseach as leader of my party and as Taoiseach because his story reflects on an Ireland of the future and the Ireland of now in which every citizen and every child from every part of our country can aspire to be the Taoiseach of our country.

We are, as the Proclamation says, all cherished equally and so we should be. However, a recovering economy is about investment in the people that we speak about every day. I refer to being able to give citizens the right to buy a house and to be able to access health care. We are spending €6 billion on housing. We have the highest health budget in the history of our State. The Taoiseach is right. It is not just about money alone. If it was, then our health care system would be perfect because we are one of the top five spending countries in the world. I hear people speak about access to the health care system but when an individual does get in, our system is one of the best in the world. We should commend the men and women working in our health care system.

The job of Government is to represent all of us as citizens, reward work, invest wisely and to acknowledge that enterprise and business play a key role in our society. We cannot go back to the old days of boom and bloom of the McCreevy-Ahern era of politics. We must invest our money wisely in our services and in our people.

The Government is not looking after rural Ireland. Senator Buttimer is totally wrong.

Senator Ruane spoke of the morality of class and that is a challenge we must all face. That is why the republic of opportunity speaks about that. It is not just about spending Government money, it is about the delivery of services. When we speak of reform of the Houses of the Oireachtas, let us have reform of our public services where people are held to account in the jobs they do so we can deliver better services for all of our citizens.

As Leader of the House, I will work with all Members to bring about renewal of this Chamber to make us more relevant. I refer to playing a role in making this a revising and reflective Seanad. Senator Coghlan is perhaps not totally wrong when he says we should not be welded to the Manning report in its entirety. I believe the Chair of that committee should be a wise, independent, reflective person who can bring people together. The Taoiseach's presence and speech here today are welcome. I thank all Members of the House and also the Seanad Office for their work and their patience.

This is an important day. On the first day of spring, let us renew our commitment to the people we represent of all shades of opinion.

I thank the Chair, Leader and Senators for their speeches, contributions and questions. I do not think I will be able to cover them all in the time I have and I do not know all the answers to the questions. However, I will do my best to touch on some of the topics that were mentioned more than once.

Housing was one of those topics. In the run-up to Christmas, I took the opportunity to try to understand the situation a little better. I spent a night with SafetyNet, a group of doctors and medics who visit rough sleepers. I spent some time visiting family hubs, which are good accommodation providing people do not end up there for long periods. They provide high-quality accommodation. Somebody accompanying me on the visit to SafetyNet described the housing crisis better than I could understand it. She said that if we look at things from a general point of view, and look back at Ireland for the last 20, 30 or 40 years, we usually built about 30,000 houses a year. Then for ten years we did not build any. If one takes 20,000 times ten, there is a deficit of about 200,000 properties in the country. They would have been new homes bought mainly by young people and first-time buyers. Those 200,000 households, because most of them would be couples, who did not buy homes in the past ten years are now renting. That has pushed a lot of people who otherwise would be renting off the housing ladder. In many ways that has given rise to the problems that we face now. It is not all about supply but that is the main issue.

It is not going to be possible to build 200,000 houses overnight or in one, two or even three years. It is possible to build them over a prolonged period of time with the right policies. That is what we need to do. We should not forget how the housing crisis came about. It was because we had a lost decade and an enormous financial and economic crisis. The State was unable to afford to build social housing and the banking, private and construction sectors all collapsed and were unable to build private housing. We had a lost decade during which almost no houses were built and there was almost no investment in our transport infrastructure or capital investment in health care. That has now given rise to the problems we have in health care, housing and traffic congestion.

I am conscious that the party I lead was not responsible for creating that economic crisis. I am also conscious of the fact that many of the parties that criticise us, that have never served time in government, opposed every single policy decision we made along the way to get us out of the economic crisis. Notwithstanding that this was a crisis caused by others and the solution was opposed by others, we now have the opportunity in our hands, because we balanced the books and because the economy is growing again, to start to invest in our infrastructure, housing, health care, education, transport and everything else.

We intend to do all of those things but it is only possible if we manage the economy well, balance the books, keep debt under control, do not allow credit to explode and make sure the country remains competitive. I fear when I hear the Opposition speaking every week, not so much in this House but certainly in the other House, it is as though they have learned nothing from the crisis we faced. I am starting to hear the same stuff we used to hear before the last crisis. Spend more, spend more, spend more on everything. The leader of one party proposed the State provide 97% mortgages. Tax breaks for developers was proposed by the spokesperson for another party. That type of thing terrifies me because, in front of me in the Dáil all around to my left, I am hearing all the same demands for the same policies that landed us in the crisis in the first place ten or 11 years ago. That is something I will talk about more in the future.

In terms of our economic recovery, I love this term of being outside the M50. I have never lived inside the M50. I have probably spent the night inside the M50 less than most people from rural Ireland. I remind people there is a whole Dublin outside the M50, in case people do not know about it. I refer to places like Swords, Blanchardstown, Lucan, Malahide and Tallaght and so many other places. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, is spending a lot more time on the outskirts of the city because that is where a lot of housing is being built. I have been telling him that I have been introducing him to that whole place called "Dublin more than 10". There is a whole Dublin more than 10. In fact there are 24 of us, and a few other post codes as well.

It is not the truth to say that the recovery has only happened inside the M50 or inside the Dublin area. Those are just not the facts. Unemployment is down substantially in every county. There is not a single county where unemployment is not down by more than half. Employment is up in every county and region. Of the new jobs created in the last couple of years, 70% have been outside the Dublin area. One of the great things I get to do as Taoiseach, and formerly as a Minister, is to travel the country all the time. I have seen how places have changed in the past five or ten years. Galway is really booming. It is a city that is doing really well. I was in Cork recently and it is great to see the activity that is happening there with Páirc Uí Chaoimh finally open. We are going to get the convention centre done as well, Members can be sure of that.

I have been in Limerick recently and it is great to see that city with cranes all over the place as a consequence of Limerick 2030. Jobs are being created everywhere. Out in Shannon, where passenger numbers are being increased again, new jobs are being created. Take the Shannon estate for example. It was 60% vacant a few years ago. It is now 90% full. Those are the real things that are happening around the country. I could just as easily say the same about Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Killarney, Naas, Kilkenny, Athlone or Dungarvan.

I am glad the Taoiseach clarified that.

Those are all towns that I have been to in recent times that are doing well. However, I do acknowledge that the recovery is happening at different speeds and at different speeds in different places. Even within Dublin, there are communities where there has been very little recovery. I refer to communities with long-term economic and social problems, including some in my own constituency. That two-speed recovery is not just an east-west or rural-urban phenomenon. It happens within our cities. What we need to do now is to ensure we accelerate the recovery in areas where it has not been experienced to the same extent so that every household, every place and every part of the country can benefit from it. That will mean investment in infrastructure, building up our cities outside of Dublin more and making sure they grow faster than Dublin in the years ahead. The national development plan, NDP, and the national planning framework, NPF, are very much part of that.

Some of the debate about this has been the wrong way around. What would happen if we did not have a national planning framework and just had laissez-faire development letting things continue to trundle on as we do now? What will happen is that almost all of the development will happen around Dublin and the east coast and very little anywhere else.

Limerick and Waterford, which should be growing a lot faster, will continue to underperform. Cork will probably still do okay as it has critical mass, and we will continue to see the drift out of the north west in particular. That is what will happen if we do not have a plan. What we cannot have, at the other end, is a totally unrealistic plan, one that tries to say that Dublin is not going to keep growing, or that nobody else will be living in Leinster. That is nonsense. We all know that Dublin is going to keep growing. It is attracting huge amounts of international investment that otherwise would not come to Ireland at all. It would be in Tel Aviv, Amsterdam or somewhere else. Children are being born all around Dublin. We cannot tell people where to live, where to set up their business or where to invest. A rubbish plan, which would not be credible, would be one saying that there will be no further development in Dublin or the east coast, and that the Government will somehow tell everyone where they are going to live and where they are going to put their business. That might sell well politically, but it would be rubbish. We are not going to produce a plan like that.

We are going to produce a plan that is realistic, one that means there is less development and less growth in Dublin and the east coast than there would be in the absence of a plan, and tries to rebalance that growth to the other big cities of Waterford, Cork, Limerick and Galway in a realistic way. Our plan will also look at other growth centres: such as Letterkenny-Derry; the M1 corridor, Drogheda, Dundalk, and that area; and places in the midlands. That is a plan that might actually work. We do not want to publish another national spatial strategy. It might sell well on local radio, but we all know it was not for real. We would do a disservice to our people if we went down that route again.

Rural Ireland was mentioned. The rural Ireland that I see is alive and well. While we should not dismiss the fact that there are real problems in all places, in all countries, in all cities, and in rural Ireland, there are a lot of good things happening too. I sometimes fear that we talk down rural Ireland a little too much. I do not say that as an attempt to deny that there are problems and issues, because there are. Part of my job as Taoiseach is to promote Ireland and all parts of Ireland. If one wants to promote a place as a good place to invest, set up a business and bring a family to live, one does not tell everyone that it is a terrible place and it is dying. If we actually care about the places we come from, that is not how we should be talking, in my view.

Of course, lots of things are going well. Tourism has never been better, and that is the case all over the country. Agriculture revenues and exports are at record levels, and employment in all areas is improving too. If we are to judge the success or failure of rural Ireland, we should not base our view on the number of post offices and Garda stations. The number of post offices is going down everywhere, including in the cities, because people now have bank cards and use the Internet. As such, the number of post offices will go down in rural and urban Ireland. The number of Garda stations will go down as well, because they were built before there were Garda cars. There will be fewer Garda stations in rural Ireland and in urban Ireland. If we judge the success of rural Ireland based on post offices and Garda stations, we are making an enormous mistake. The success of rural Ireland should be based on the population; the number of people who are staying there and moving there to live. It should be based on employment; the number of jobs that are being created across rural Ireland. It should be based on the number of new businesses being set up; people's willingness to set up their business in Skibbereen, Clonakilty and other places. That should be the measure of success, not what I hear so often.

The universal social charge, USC, was mentioned. As part of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil, we will continue to reduce the USC for people earning less than €80,000. That is part of our agreement and we will do it. The vision that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and I have is not to abolish the USC outright. Rather, it is to combine the USC with pay-related social insurance, PRSI. We currently have three payroll taxes; income tax, USC and PRSI. We think there should be two; income tax and social insurance. That is particularly important because our Social Insurance Fund is now in surplus and we pay for most pensions and social welfare out of that. However, it will not always be in surplus. It will go back into deficit in the next couple of years. We should now use this opportunity of tax reform to strengthen the Social Insurance Fund and ensure that pensions and welfare are sustainable in the future. Where income tax reform is concerned, the focus will very much be on the marginal rate, and the fact that in Ireland, people on very modest incomes pay the highest marginal rate of income tax. That is not the norm in other countries. Certainly people in most European countries earning less than €50,000 a year do not pay the highest rate of income tax. To me, that seems profoundly unfair, and that is really where the focus will be within tax reform.

On the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Cabinet decided this week that there would be resolutions in the Dáil and in the Seanad. Both resolutions are required for Ireland to ratify. Once that is done, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, who is the Minister responsible for this and is really driving it, will deposit the instrument of ratification in New York. We anticipate doing that in the first quarter of this year.

On broadband, Senators will all be aware of the announcement made by Eir this week, and I have heard people speak about it in the Chamber. It is important to acknowledge the progress that has been made. Just in the last two years, the proportion of premises with access to high-speed broadband has increased from 52% to 70%. That is quite a significant improvement in the last two years alone. Every day, 300 farms and rural houses are connected to high-speed broadband.

What we are trying to do is very ambitious. We want to be the first country other than Singapore, certainly the first non-city state, to connect every home, business and premises in the entire country to high-speed broadband. That is not something that other countries have done. It is something we decided to do, and do first. It is an enormous undertaking, to which we are absolutely committed. In working with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, I am determined to make sure that the shovels are in the ground this year and that we conclude that contract and get the work under way in this calendar year, at long last. We need to make sure that those 500,000 premises without broadband, and the 1 million people who live in those 500,000 homes, have such access, which is essential to participating in the modern economy and modern society.

Members mentioned asylum seekers. I want to assure the House of my commitment to extending the right to work to asylum seekers who have been here for more than nine months. We are doing that in two phases. As a quite minor first step, we anticipate that by June we will opt fully into the European directive and extend more or less full access to our labour market to asylum seekers who have been here for more than nine months. It is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do for our economy, which has enormous skills shortages. It is the right thing to do for those individuals to give them the dignity and the ability to work. These are people who want to get up early in the morning and we do not let them. At least they want to get up early in the morning to work. We currently do not let them and I think we should.

However, we do need to be balanced about it. We also need to be fair to the people who come to Ireland with work permits and work visas. They get those before they come to Ireland. As we speak, there are people in Internet cafes in Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro and other places obeying the law and applying online for work permits or work visas with their documents, as they should. It would not be fair to them if we decided that people who had just arrived in the country, with no status at all, could suddenly be allowed to work. That is why I think it is important that we have that nine-month rule, to be fair to everyone.

On the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015, I really want to thank the Seanad for passing it. I know that several Senators had real concerns about that Bill and the impact it might have on small shops in particular. The Minister made some amendments in that regard. However, I think he did a good job in the Seanad in getting that Bill passed. I certainly do not anticipate that the Dáil will revise it. This House has already done the revision so I do not anticipate that the Dáil will revise it. We are not contemplating any further amendments to it.

Senator Lawless mentioned our commitment to extending the franchise for Presidential elections to all Irish citizens around the world. That is something to which I am very committed, as is the Tánaiste. We did not want to have a referendum this October or November because there is the possibility of a Presidential election, and we should not change the way in which the President is elected on the same day that we elect a President. That could create issues. That is why we decided to have the referendum in 2019. That will give us plenty of time to have all the systems that we need in place before the subsequent Presidential election. I really like the idea of the Presidency as not just the Presidency of the Irish State, but also of the Irish nation. The only way to do that in a meaningful way is to extend the franchise to Irish citizens overseas. People talk about the idea of no taxation without representation, and that can be argued both ways. Citizenship was never dependent on taxation, so I do not accept that argument. Even if one does accept it, the President does not levy any taxes. The Seanad does not levy any taxes either, because money Bills do not have to be passed through this House. That argument really only applies to the Dáil in my view. It does not apply to the Presidency, and probably does not apply to the Seanad either.

I would like to thank Senators who spoke about the republic of opportunity.

I actually forgot to do so in my speech, in case those Senators did not notice. I have not forgotten about it, though; it will continue to come up from time to time. However, I am glad that they spoke about it.

Often, I hear people talking about the many problems that our country faces and the many genuine difficulties individuals and families face. They ask me whether I think this country is the republic of opportunity I have spoken of. I think that question misunderstands what I have said. I have never said that Ireland is a republic of opportunity.

John Concannon will not be happy.

I have said that what we want to build is a republic of opportunity. It is about a vision for the future rather than celebrating everything as it is now, because everything is not worthy of celebration at the moment in our country. However, it does not mean equality of outcome – I will be straight with Senators about that. To me equality of outcome, if we really mean it, means that the outcome for everyone is the same, if I understand it correctly. That means everyone is the same, everyone earns the same and there is no reward, no personal responsibility, no ambition. To me, that is a levelling downwards; it is equality downwards. That is not the type of equality I believe in. There have been attempts to do that in the Soviet Union, Cambodia and, to a certain extent, more recently in Venezuela. I do not think that is a good way to order society or respect and empower individuals. If equality of outcome means something different to the outcome being the same for everyone, then perhaps I misunderstand it, but that is how I understand it.

The republic of opportunity that I speak about is something different. It is about equality of opportunity for everyone. That is certainly something we do not have in this country, but it is something I am committed to. It means everyone getting a fair go. It means second chances for people who need them, because everyone who needs a second chance should get one. It means investing in education, because education is the great leveller and the thing that can give people the opportunity to do so much better and to aspire higher. It means rewarding work and enterprise, because enterprise is the best way to create wealth and we cannot distribute wealth until we have created it. It means freedom for the individual as well. It means equality before the law for everyone, regardless of sex, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or those who do not have a religion – I will come back to that theme again.

I wish to finish with one point that I forgot in my opening remarks. I wish to congratulate Senator O'Reilly on his election as Vice-President of the Council of Europe. It is a singular personal achievement for him. Equally important, it brings honour to this House that a Member holds that high office at European level and I congratulate the Senator on that.

Once again, I thank Senators for being here and for their contributions and engagement today.

I would like to wish you the very best of luck on a personal level and every success as Taoiseach, whether with regard to Northern Ireland, Brexit negotiations or when you are visiting America shortly.

When it is proposed to sit again?

Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.45 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 6 February 2018.