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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 27 Nov 2018

Vol. 261 No. 9

Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, Finance Bill 2018 - Second Stage, to be taken at 5 p.m. with the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.

There are more than half a million homes and businesses around the country, not just in rural Ireland but also in north County Dublin, that are without high speed broadband. I mentioned in the House before that not having high speed broadband is detrimental to small businesses in particular. In October last, we learned of documented and undocumented meetings by the former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment with certain bidders in the broadband tender process. These meetings took place in Ireland and New York. I mentioned in the House the old maxim that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. That applies not only to court cases but also to procurement law. We know that this matter was investigated by an independent auditor, Mr. Peter Smith. I ask the Deputy Leader whether the Government is happy with this report. Is the report complete? Is the tender process now complete? Is the Government sure the process is watertight and will not be susceptible to judicial review? Is it the end of the road now for the project? Will we see the roll-out of broadband for these half a million homes and businesses around the country? That really is the ultimate issue. Since 2012, these people have been promised high speed broadband and it has not been delivered. I want to know the current status of the broadband project.

The second issue I raise relates to a picture that appeared in The Irish Times at the beginning of the week. It showed mothers queuing with their children outside the Capuchin day centre. We learned there are 600 mothers registered with the Capuchin day centre to receive nappies and formula milk. That is not acceptable in this day and age. If there is such a need and children are going to starve or go without nappies, it would be right for the Government to step in. The Capuchin day centre should not be going to these lengths. The State needs to provide for vulnerable people like this. We understand that people are coming from as far away as emergency accommodation centres in Dundalk and Drogheda to receive nappies and formula milk. It is not acceptable in a prosperous country where we say we have full employment and the economy is meant to be thriving that mothers are queuing for nappies and formula. It beggars belief.

The third issue I raise relates to the proposal for a super depot in Marrowbone Lane in the Liberties. The Liberties, as we know, is a very historical part of Dublin and it has, in recent times, been used as a dumping ground by the council for housing and injection centres. Now we are to have a super depot on Marrowbone Lane in the heart of the neighbourhood. There is already a depot for salting the roads in the area which causes inconvenience to locals. Increasing the size of the depot to a super depot will have a significant impact.

There is a massive scarcity of green space in the Liberties. I mentioned before that Kevins hurling and camogie club, which is the only hurling club in that part of the city, does not have a full-size pitch to play on, which means the club can never have home games. This is a massively growing club and any other GAA club in the country would not be able to fathom not having a pitch to play its games on.

There was also the recent closure of an allotment in Weaver Park. We need to address the scarcity of green space in the area. We cannot treat it as a dumping ground. Dublin City Council is trying to sneak in this super depot, which is not right. I ask that the Government look into this matter.

Before calling on the next speaker, I welcome former Deputy John Browne and his clan to the Visitors Gallery.

I welcome that the Deputy Leader is the acting Leader today. I am delighted to see her in the Chair. I will raise a number of issues.

First, on Friday, the Government announced the allocation for the rural regeneration scheme. There were 290 applications and 18 projects awarded. The question has to be asked. I am conscious with this programme for Ireland that there is a tight line to be walked between a Government initiative and a Fine Gael partnership Government initiative. There is a considerable amount of money being spent. I merely want to put down a marker today that I am seriously considering submitting some queries under FOI to find out how this line is being marked in terms of budgeting and marketing. I do not want to be cynical because I am not a cynic. I want to be positive because it is good news but I caution that there is a tight line to be walked by Ministers masquerading a Government of Ireland initiative using Government of Ireland designated budgets and marketing strategy when, in effect, it may be a Government initiative. I am conscious that in the not-too-distant future we will have a general election. We have to be careful that we walk this tight line.

Whereas there were 18 projects awarded under the rural regeneration scheme, the rest of the 290 applicants are disappointed. I would like some assurances, if not today then sometime. We need to know where the rest of those applicants will be dealt with. Will there be a second round in 2019? That would be really important because every project within this scheme is worthy of the funding.

The announcement yesterday of the urban regeneration and development fund was another massive announcement of €100 million in spending. That also has to be welcomed. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Halligan, presided over those announcements or at least that is what the Government press office issued in its press statement. I did not attend and do not know. Many communities were exceptionally disappointed they did not get allocations. I am not suggesting anyone who got them should not have got them but I am around a long time to know that interesting locations in interesting constituencies got this load of money. Project Ireland 2040 is a national plan and I want to see national, across-the-board distribution.

I had somebody in my office today who talked with great excitement and pride about the citizenship ceremony that took place yesterday in Killarney Convention Centre, in the Leas-Chathaoirleach's neck of the woods. Those involved took the oath of fidelity to the nation, received their certificates of naturalisation and thereby became Irish citizens. This lady explained to me in my office how proud she was, and that is a great thing. There were three sittings. There was such an amount of people there. These are new Irish citizens of diverse backgrounds, cultures and traditions. Is it not great to say that they are warmly welcome? A Minister, namely, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, presided over the ceremony yesterday. That is something we can be truly proud of. It enriches our society. It enriches our culture. I hope, by embracing these people as new citizens of Ireland, we will continue to support them in their careers, in their work and in their family life as yesterday is only just the beginning. They are now Irish men and women. It is a really good day. I wanted to share that good news with the House because that lady was in my office this morning telling me of her great excitement at that event.

I am glad Senator Boyhan mentioned that fantastic location for that wonderful ceremony yesterday.

As we are beginning the 16 days of action opposing violence against women, I remember the 225 women who have died violently in this State since 1996. I also remember all of the other women and children who have been impacted by domestic violence and sexual violence. The theme of this year's 16 days of action is femicide, believing the survivors and challenging the myths. As well as challenging the victim-blaming culture, we must listen to the women. We must listen to them when they tell us about the barriers that they face, in particular, in the judicial system, the insurmountable mountains they face in terms of the legal bills they are presented with and the barriers that stop them from seeking justice, as well as all the other barriers, such as the barriers in terms of the culture, the blame game, etc.

I commend the communities throughout the State that have organised vigils during the 16 days of action opposing violence against women. I also commend the front-line services and take the opportunity to highlight the fact that front-line services do not have sufficient resources to do the job they need to do. They desperately need funding. They are forced to turn people away and calls go unanswered as a result of the lack of resources. It is not right. Funding is necessary to carry out proper research on the impact of domestic and sexual violence on women and children. When I refer to women and children, I am conscious there are men who experience domestic violence, and they also need supports and services.

I commend the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre and the fundraising events it has every year for the Mayo inspirational woman of the year awards. A number of weeks ago, I was honoured to launch that fundraiser for this year. It is a wonderful and unique opportunity for women to come together to celebrate Nollaig na mBan in Westport Country Lodge. I encourage people to put forward inspirational women in their lives. It is a most fantastic event. We have spent hours debating the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017. I want some of that time spent talking about violence against women, the impact of violence against women and domestic violence. For that reason I ask that we have a full debate in the House to measure progress on the Domestic Violence Act. We had great celebrations earlier this year when we passed the Act in the House. We need to measure its impact, how it is being implemented and whether there are enough resources and training for it to do what it needs to do. We should have an all-island approach to domestic violence. Partition has not served tackling the issue of domestic violence well. We need to exchange good practice between the two states and work together to make sure women and children are safe on the whole of the island.

Before I make my comments, I am a bit taken aback by the language that has been used in the Chamber-----

The Senator only has three minutes so perhaps he should not waste too much time making that point.

I am a bit taken aback by the language that has been used on the proposed injecting centre. I do not believe public representatives, Members of the Oireachtas or anybody in public life should use a phrase like "dumping" when it comes to life-saving interventions such as will be available in an injecting centre. We are dealing with people who suffer from addiction and who are generally at the very lowest end of the political priority list. There tends to be name-calling in media circles on the issue. It is unbecoming of a Member of the Oireachtas to suggest in the Chamber that the establishment of an injecting centre, which will save lives, prevent the spread of hepatitis C and HIV and prevent overdoses, and which have prevented overdoses, including fatal overdoses, wherever they exist across Europe and the world, is being dumped anywhere. When we are dealing with vulnerable communities and people who are vulnerable, could we please not use language like that? I find it offensive.

I will raise two issues. One is the issue of policing. The Minister, Deputy Ross, is celebrating the pending opening of his pet project of Stepaside Garda station, which is of interest to us on the north side who deal with issues of antisocial behaviour and policing daily. I dealt with an issue of antisocial behaviour in Beaumont recently which is hurting the community there. I ask that the Minister for Justice and Equality would come to the House to justify his policy on Garda stations and to talk about the policing issues we on the north side have with crime and antisocial behaviour.

I ask that he also address the issue of the need for a Garda station in the Belmayne-Clongriffin area, seeing as it is a population centre that could house as many as 50,000 people in the coming years.

I wish to impress on the Leader the need for the Minister for Health to come before the House to discuss any number of issues concerning prescription drugs and drugs that are needed to save the lives of people with various ailments. The issue of cervical cancer has been in the media in recent days, and justifiably so, but the issue of the drug Spinraza has not gone away. Children and young people who suffer from spinal muscular atrophy are facing into a winter which their parents and loved ones are concerned they might not survive. They need Spinraza. It is absolutely essential that it be provided to them and at this stage I feel it is time for the Minister for Health to come into the Chamber to address this issue specifically.

On a happier note than some of the serious issues that have been discussed, I pay tribute to Joe Schmidt, his back-room team and the IRFU for their phenomenal success during the autumn internationals, particularly against the All Blacks. I think anyone who was at the Aviva Stadium just did not want to go home after the elation of being there. The pride that Mr. Schmidt has evoked and the uplift his team has given the nation with the team's success are truly amazing. He has been an outstanding leader, equally dignified in victory as in the few defeats he has had during his term in charge. He has a total absence of ego. He became an Irish citizen - in other words, he immersed himself in the country. He came to Ireland as a teacher and even played Gaelic football, I understand, for Mullingar Shamrocks during his time here. I wish him and his team and all involved every success in the upcoming Six Nations and the World Cup. It is sad but at the same time understandable to see him departing, and I wish him and all his family well in the future.

I also congratulate Philip Browne and the IRFU on the professional way in which they dealt with the announcement yesterday. I feel very strongly that if the values and ethos that Joe Schmidt instilled in Irish rugby and in sport could be replicated in other fields and, dare I say, even in politics, the world would be a better place. I also wish Mick McCarthy well in his second coming and thank Martin O'Neill for his efforts on behalf of Irish soccer.

As the House will be aware, there was a recent case in which the judge would not allow a trial to go to a jury because of comments in the media.

I agree with the Leas-Chathaoirleach. This just shows how we all need to be careful when matters are before a court. Every person who is charged is innocent until the matter has been dealt with fully by a jury and it comes to a decision that the person is guilty.

These are very emotional issues and there are very many tragic cases in which people suffer very serious assault and rape in horrendous circumstances. The law, however, is that where a doubt is created, the person must be found innocent. Unfortunately, we need to be extremely careful about comments in this House, in the Dáil and in the media, in particular when a case is before a jury. What has occurred in this case is unfortunate and there will be either a retrial or a decision not to proceed further. That is a matter for the DPP.

It is difficult for everyone involved, including the victim and the person accused, that they must go through the same process again. We all have a duty of care and it is important that we respect and keep in mind the separation of powers between the Government, the Oireachtas and the courts system.

I mention an issue that I have been raising since 2012 when I conducted a survey of medical graduates and asked them their long-term intentions. More than 60% of respondents said that once they had their intern year completed, they would not be staying in Ireland. I highlighted this in 2012. Now, we face difficulties retaining GPs and junior hospital doctors and trying to encourage consultants to return home. We must have a debate on this issue. The GP contract needs to be finalised instead of the matter dragging into 2019. We must sort out consultant contracts and determine how to make returning to Ireland more attractive. This is not about pay - it is about conditions and support services. While the HSE has taken on an extra 12,000 people in the past four years, it has done so disproportionately across the various fields. I ask that the Minister be invited to the House, as we need to have a serious debate on this issue if we want to build a health service that caters for everyone's needs.

I commend the Senator on his initial remarks because they are timely in light of what has happened. Not all allegations are necessarily substantiated or proven.

We eagerly look forward to 11 December and hope for a solution at Westminster. We want the closest possible relationship with the United Kingdom and it to have the closest possible relationship with the EU. It will be a very difficult time and what we need now are cool heads. I hope that there is an agreement with which we can all work.

I thank Mr. Martin O'Neill for the years of service that he gave the FAI. He is a man of great understanding who led us to some great triumphs. Sometimes, people lose sight of where we are, but we have had some great days out. I wish Mr. Mick McCarthy, the new manager, all the best. It has been mentioned that if people woke up to see Mick McCarthy and Boyzone on the news and the Spice Girls reforming, they would think they had missed the past 25 years. To anyone waking up, we have actually come a long way.

In recent days, I read about two men who had travelled down from Northern Ireland being assaulted. I suppose it happens at football matches, but it is very sad. I understand that the assailants have been apprehended. The two men had nothing but praise for the Republic of Ireland fans and said that it had been an isolated incident, which it was. We do not want anything like this to start happening at football matches between us and our friends in Northern Ireland. The booing that night was sad. It was not done by the majority, but it is something that we need to address. Those who were booing and who call themselves the best supporters in the world should reflect on their actions. The match between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a great night out. The vast majority of supporters mingled and got on well together. I hope that bodes well for the future.

Like my colleagues, I welcome the signing off of the draft agreement on Brexit by the member states of the European Union. I extend to the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, every good wish in getting the agreement through her parliament.

I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to Mr. Brendan Murray, a native of Tuam in County Galway. His father hails from Kildallan in County Cavan. Mr. Murray was a participant in "The X Factor" programme across the water. He represented not only Tuam, Galway, Connacht and Ireland with distinction but himself and his family as well. He did not, unfortunately, progress any further than the semi-final but I want to pay tribute to him. That is especially the case in light of the horrific social media campaign conducted against him over the last number of days. It is outrageous that a young man who was trying to progress himself in the entertainment business should be subjected in his personal life to horrific comments on social media. I condemn that in the strongest possible manner.

Having said that, I am glad the Cathaoirleach has accepted a Commencement matter from me in respect of the responsible use of social media. That Commencement matter will be taken tomorrow. Coincidentally, it also involves a young man from County Cavan who is attempting to progress in the entertainment industry and is subject to horrific and slanderous social media comments that are causing him difficulty in maintaining that career. I once again congratulate Mr. Brendan Murray and his family.

I am raising a concern brought to my attention in recent days involving Shannon Commercial Properties. It is a semi-State company that manages the Shannon free zone in County Clare. The Shannon free zone has been an extremely important element of the commercial activity of Shannon and the entire mid-west region for many years. A number of companies have been there for a long time. Back in 2006, the service charge was 3 cent per square foot. That was reasonable. It had, however, almost trebled by 2008 to 8 cent per square foot. When the recession kicked in then from 2012 to 2014, the service charge was dropped by 1 cent to 7 cent per square foot. By 2015, the charge had been doubled to 14 cent per square foot. At the moment, it stands at 21 cent per square foot.

The tenants were written to on 20 November informing them that the service charge is going up from 21 cent per square foot to 38 cent per square foot. That is almost doubled again. Since 2006 the service charge has gone up from 3 cent per square foot to a proposed 38 cent per square foot in 2019. I think that is a bit much for cutting grass, turning on lights and maintaining an estate. If this was a private company, it would be accused of commercial exploitation but this is happening through a semi-State company. I want answers. I want the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, who is responsible for managing the airport and the Shannon free zone, to come into this House and explain how a semi-State company can justify jumping the service charge from 21 cent to 38 cent per square foot. The companies affected by the service charge have survived the recession, they continue to employ people and now they are being asked to fork out 38 cent per square foot. Something is not adding up somewhere and I want answers.

I would like to raise two separate but somewhat interconnected issues. In recent years, we have all become used to the hype around the so-called Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.

This practice is the latest in a long line of fads that have been imported into Ireland from America, although not all of them are negative. As recent reporting indicates, it tends to be more focused on online sales to the detriment of the retail sector. This is great news for consumers, but Retail Ireland, an affiliate of IBEC, warned recently that the trend only had damaging impacts on Irish retailers because of the very deep discounts that the practice tended to incur. Many retailers are reassessing the practice for this reason. In reality, there is very little we can do or would want to do to deter online shopping, but we must do everything we possibly can to make it attractive for people to buy Irish and shop locally, particularly in town and village centres which are falling victim to larger shopping centres, often on the periphery of towns.

This prompts reflection on another serious matter discussed briefly on radio this morning. It concerns the amount of packaging generated by online shopping, for which the figures are extraordinary. Repak estimates that 10,000 tonnes of waste will be created by online shopping this year. It is incredible to quantify it in this way, but 1.74 million parcels were delivered by An Post over the Christmas period last year, an increase of over one quarter on the figure for the same period in 2017. I am not surprised as one of my relatives seems to be one of the best customers. Hardly a day goes by without a ringing of the doorbell and a package being delivered. It costs €500,000 per annum to collect and manage this waste. Repak's members, which comprise large and small businesses alike, foot the bill every year. They are subsidising the collection and processing of what we put in our green bins.

It seems that online retailers based in foreign jurisdictions, with the exception of Amazon, are not contributing to the fund. Essentially, Irish businesses are subsidising the recycling of packaging supplied by foreign businesses, which seems to be grossly unfair and anti-competitive. It seems EU legislation, as it stands, unwittingly, allows this to happen as there is a gap in the law under EU packaging regulations. It is also a problem for other countries. The best way to deal with the matter is through amendment of the regulations and the introduction of EU-wide legislation governing the process and ensuring a level playing field. In the interim we need to discuss the matter with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and consider if the Department is aware of the matter or what it plans to do about it, either at local or European level. We could also debate whether it would be appropriate to consider putting in place some voluntary contribution from online retailers similar to the way in which Amazon apparently is partaking. It is a matter we should discuss and I would like to hear from the Government on it. We must address it as best we can to protect both the environment and Irish businesses and jobs.

Senator Ardagh raised three matters, the first of which was broadband. As stated in recent days, the Government is committed to providing high-speed broadband in 100% of the country. Today it noted and accepted the conclusions made in the independent auditor's report. As it is satisfied that there was no influence exerted on the process by the former Minister, the plan has not been compromised. Therefore, it will proceed with its long-held desire to increase access to broadband for everybody throughout the country. A debate with the Minister, Deputy Bruton, would be useful, not least on that matter, but also on the matter raised by Senator Mullen.

Senator Ardagh also referred to the Capuchin Day Centre. None of us wants to see such scenes. There is no suggestion from the photo that certain citizens are starving. The reality is the State provides for mothers and babies in difficult financial circumstances. It is good that there is extra provision of certain things they need from the Capuchin Day Centre. A picture paints 1,000 words, but other matters might not necessarily be discussed that are relevant to it.

The Senator referred to the proposal for a super depot in the Liberties. It would be appropriate to raise it in the Commencement debate. Perhaps she might consider doing so.

I cannot comment on that particular issue but I can ask for comment from the relevant Minister. Senator Ardagh also referred to the lack of green space which is a significant issue throughout the city and I agree with the views she expressed in that regard.

Senator Boyhan spoke about the rural regeneration scheme in positive terms. A lot of very positive announcements were made yesterday. It is the Government's intention to drive the regeneration and rejuvenation of strategic areas throughout the country, particularly the five main cities and our large towns. As Senator Boyhan said, the announcement made yesterday was very positive.

Senator Conway-Walsh raised the important issue of sexual violence and paid tribute to the Rape Crisis Centre in Mayo. The Rape Crisis Network should be commended on its work throughout the country. There are several legislative initiatives in the offing and I am anxious to see the sexual offences Bill coming before this House before Christmas or at least to have sight of the Bill that is currently being drafted.

Senator Ó Ríordáin raised policing and I agree with him about the requirement for a Garda station in Clongriffin. I also agree with his comments on Spinraza, an issue on which I have done some work. A process is ongoing involving the HSE in which the Minister cannot intervene. It is my understanding that there will be an announcement on the matter in the near future.

Senator O'Mahony spoke about Irish rugby and the very positive autumn international results for Ireland. His comments are well made and hopefully we will see the current manager go out on a high, winning the Six Nations and possibly the Rugby World Cup.

Senator Colm Burke raised the very serious issue of commenting on court cases. It is also important to note that many victims of certain crimes or situations do not pursue cases because the commentary can turn them into double victims. This is an area of serious concern. The separation of powers is very important and, as Members of the Oireachtas, we have a duty to be mindful of that. The Senator also spoke about medical graduates and I commend him on his continued work in this area. This is an issue that merits discussion with the Minister for Health in the House in the near future.

Senator Feighan commented on the Brexit withdrawal agreement. He also paid tribute to Mr. Martin O'Neill, who was definitely positive for Ireland. We all wish the new manager well.

Senator Wilson raised a very serious issue that is close to my own heart. The particular situation to which he referred is very difficult for the individual involved and it also speaks to the wider issue of how we choose to discuss matters with one another as a society. The use of social media has facilitated a very negative vibe, to say the least, when it comes to what people consider acceptable to say to others. It is hard to know where it will all end but it is a topic worthy of further debate. I do a lot of work on this issue but sometimes I feel that we are bashing our heads off a brick wall vis-à-vis the tech giants and social media firms because they are commercially driven. They talk the good talk about how they want to help with this type of abuse but I do not see it as meaningful.

Senator Martin Conway raised a local issue relating to Shannon and I suggest he consider raising it as a Commencement matter. Senator Rónán Mullen raised two issues and I agree with his views on both. Black Friday is a bit mad in terms of how it has affected consumer activity. The Senator raised what is a tax equalisation issue with regard to retailers in the State and online retailers outside of the State who are not paying the same taxes. I cannot remember the exact figures but I know that one of retail bodies has done some work on this matter. It is a serious issue for retailers in Ireland because it makes it difficult for them to compete with online retailers which have an unfair advantage. I tend to shop online with Irish companies, some of which are excellent in the way they conduct their online business. However, as the Senator points out, the packaging involved is out of control. One wonders if companies are thinking about this. One can receive an item with a plastic hanger and several layers of plastic wrapping around it, inside a cardboard box. Often it is only the cardboard that is recyclable but one must dispose of all of the packaging.

I totally agree with the Senator on that. Nothing short of an EU-wide agreement on this will have any major impact. It is all well and good for consumers to be aware - I am very aware - but it is not possible for a person to control what retailers do in terms of how they provide products. It is an issue I would prioritise for debate in the House. It is very important. As far as I am concerned, it is the issue of our time.

That completes the responses to the Order of Business. I need to propose an amendment to the Order of Business as the Dáil is delayed somewhat. We should adjourn the House and begin No. 1 at 5.15 p.m.

Senator Noone has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 1 be taken at 5.15 p.m." Is the amendment agreed? Agreed.

Order of Business, as amended, agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 4.15 p.m. and resumed at 5.15 p.m.