Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Graffiti Policy

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Graffiti is a real problem in cities and towns all over the country. One cannot travel through cities like Dublin, Cork or Galway without seeing the impact of graffiti on the public space. I am calling on the Minister for Justice and Equality to consider reintroducing the anti-graffiti programme that was in place up until 2009. Many people refer to graffiti as a mere irritant but I prefer to refer to it as vandalism or criminal damage.

I met an elderly gentleman last Saturday who was trying to clean the gable end of his house for the third time in three months, at great expense. This gentleman is a pensioner in his early eighties. He explained that he could no longer climb a ladder to remove the graffiti and that no assistance was available to him. The anti-graffiti programme that was in place previously funded the removal of graffiti in public spaces and places that could be seen from public spaces. It supported small business people in removing graffiti from their premises and distributed anti-graffiti kits. The reintroduction of this programme would be a recognition of the many volunteers who clean their own communities week in and week out. While there are many Tidy Towns committees that clean up their communities on a weekly basis, they cannot deal with criminal damage to householders' property. I ask that the Government would consider reintroducing the programme which could be funded in various ways. It could be co-funded by the Departments of Justice and Equality and Communications, Climate Action and Environment, with matching funding from local government. We need a programme because volunteers must be recognised. The financial hardship that householders are suffering when trying to remove graffiti must be acknowledged. People have pride in their homes but are waking up to find the gable end of their houses destroyed by criminal activity. The fact that there is no assistance available to them to remedy the situation is unacceptable.

The Minister of State may have been provided with a stock answer by the Department but I ask him to consider the matter and discuss it with his colleagues and the Department. I ask that some mechanism be provided to assist communities in dealing with the scourge of graffiti which mainly affects urban areas.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue.

The community graffiti reduction programme was introduced in February 2008 and was sponsored at that time by the then Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Pobal managed and delivered the programme on behalf of these Departments and a total of approximately €1 million was spent under the first phase of the scheme. Due to the declining state of public finances at the time, the programme was formally brought to an end in the middle of 2009. The programme was separate from, and in addition to, graffiti abatement programmes carried out on an ongoing basis by the local authorities.

As the Senator will no doubt be aware, and as the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has previously advised the Oireachtas, primary responsibility for management and enforcement responses to litter pollution, including the defacement of structures by writing or other marks, lies with local authorities under the Litter Pollution Act 1997. The Act provides significant powers to local authorities to deal with these issues, including on-the-spot fines. It is a matter for each local authority to decide on the most appropriate public awareness, enforcement and clean-up actions to deal with graffiti, taking account of local circumstances and competing priorities. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment operates an anti-litter and anti-graffiti awareness grant scheme. Under this scheme, local authorities can apply for funding for projects aimed at raising awareness of litter and graffiti issues. Local authorities are asked to focus their activities under the scheme on young people and, in particular, on schools and community groups with an emphasis on encouraging long-term behavioural change.

In terms of the justice sector generally, An Garda Síochána has advised that it tasks local community policing units with compiling information which might identify individuals associated with various graffiti incidents. The Criminal Damage Act 1991 is the legal framework utilised by An Garda Síochána to police anti-social behaviour of this nature and alleged offenders are processed in accordance with the provisions of this legislation. The Probation Service, which falls under the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality, operates two graffiti removal projects as part of its community service scheme. One project is based in Dublin and the other is in Cork. The Probation Service does not have a dedicated graffiti project budget.

While the Minister for Justice and Equality is supportive of any measures to remove graffiti from our local areas, he regrets to advise the House that his Department has no plans to reintroduce the community graffiti reduction programme. The issue is not a primary function of the Department and while the public finances are clearly in a better position than ten years ago, there are other competing pressing demands on the resources available for allocation by the Department.

I encourage the Senator to approach the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment to see if his Department would provide additional funding for a pilot scheme under the aforementioned anti-graffiti awareness grant scheme administered by the local authorities.

I understand from where the Senator is coming and the frustration of a lot of people, but it is not just in Dublin that there is an issue with graffiti. There is graffiti across the country, but I understand the Senator's frustration.

Graffiti is a problem across the country. Mr. Peter Horgan is a local election candidate in Cork. Yesterday he raised the issue of graffiti in Cork. It is what I call criminal damage done to householders. We are all too aware of it in our cities and town. Deputy Kehoe is Minister of State in the Department of the Taoiseach and I ask him to take one thing from the debate on my Commencement matter. I ask him to reconsider whether we can have a Government-led programme within the Department of the Taoiseach. I ask him to consult the relevant Departments to see whether a programme could be brought forward to alleviate the problem in every city and town. The programme that was in place was discontinued because of the financial crash, but there is now an opportunity for the State to show leadership to the local authorities in reducing the size of the problem. The only thing I ask the Minister of State is to reconsider and talk about the issue within his Department and with the Taoiseach to see if we could have even a small fund of, say, €5 million that would be matched by local government to deal with graffiti. I am not asking him to give me a "Yes" or a "No" answer; rather, I am asking him to reconsider the matter and consult the Taoiseach and revelevant Departments to see if we could take a step towards acknowledging the volunteers who try to clean up their local community. It would be a good day's work if he were to give me an undertaking that he will reconsider the matter to see whether central government could assist local government in tackling the scourge of graffiti.

I reiterate that the removal of graffiti is supported by the Minister for Justice and Equality. As I outlined, agencies of the Department of Justice and Equality continue to play a role in tackling the problem. However, primary responsibility for the removal of graffiti lies with other statutory bodies. I understand the Senator's frustration. He mentioned that I should approach the Department of the Taoiseach. I encourage him to go to the Minister responsible for local government and the environment because it is through that Department that the issue should be tackled. The Department of Justice and Equality can prevent the problem of graffiti from happening through An Garda Síochána, but the issue of the removal of graffiti should be pursued through the local authorities. The Senator should, therefore, approach the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, or his Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, who has responsibility for local government to see what can be done to deal with the problem. It is not the statutory function of the Department of Justice and Equality. While clearly the public finances are in a better position than they were ten years ago, I understand there are other competing and pressing demands within the Department of Justice and Equality. I encourage the Senator to raise the matter with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, given that he has statutory responsibiliy for the local authorities. I personally believe the anti-graffiti scheme should be reintroduced but through a different Department. It would be more appropriate, therefore, for the Senator to ask the Minister and the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government to reintroduce it.

Northern Ireland

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank her for being here and appreciate her attendance at this very busy time. I am glad that she has come to take my Commencement matter.

Let me outline what moved me to ask this question again. I have raised it consistently since I entered the House. I am sure the Minister of State and her officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have been alert to the mobilisation on social media on the concerns of Irish citizens living in the North. What we are seeing play out is Brexit exposing not just the negativity but also the anomalies and issues that need to be addressed for Irish citizens resident in the North. The reality is as follows.

As we all know, the Good Friday Agreement is an internationally binding agreement between two sovereign states. It confers, as a birth right, both Irish citizenship and British citizenship or everyone born in the North. That assertion has never been codified in British law and to the extent that is necessary in domestic law in this State. All of the anomalies have come into sharper exposure as a result of Brexit. It is obvious that people are concerned and will mobilise. They are offended, hurt and worried as a result of our failure to deal, both legislatively and legally, with this firm commitment that was made 21 years ago. Given the threats posed by Brexit and in a climate in which we have already lost our right to vote in European elections and to representation in EU institutions, as well as access to various EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice, it leaves people not only deeply exposed and worried but also creates a tiered level of citizenship. It creates inequality and goes against the core and heart of the Good Friday Agreement because we will have citizens resident on these islands who will have at various levels rights and entitlements and access to European mechanisms and institutions.

That is an important point to make and I will listen intently to what the Minister of State has to say because it is crunch time and the Government must address these issues. The UK Minister of State for Immigration, Ms Caroline Nokes, brazenly stated, in contradiction of the Good Friday Agreement, that as a matter of law everyone born in the North was a British citizen. Not only does her comment run contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, it also runs contrary to it in word and letter. I ask colleagues to take one minute to think about how that makes people feel. We do not derive our Irishness from our passport or even the Good Friday Agreement but from being Irish. After centuries of conflict the Good Friday Agreement indicated to the world, on a legal basis, that we had created a path out of conflict and that people's identity, allegiances and rights would all be respected. It is now clear in the already calamitous environment created by Brexit that these important core aspects of the Good Friday Agreement are not being lived up to or fulfilled. I do not think we will hear the end of the matter until it is resolved.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. He is right that it has been raised with me directly and indirectly via social media and otherwise. It has also been raised with the Minister.

Ensuring both the citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are upheld in all relevant areas is vitally important. It is something on which the Government and I are continuing to engage intensively. The Government has noted the update on UK immigration rules announced on 7 March, as the Senator outlined, to give effect to the UK settled status scheme and the letter from the UK Minister of State for Immigration, Ms Caroline Nokes, MP, on 5 February. We are all fully aware, including the Government, of the concerns the statements made raise for Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland, particularly, as the Senator outlined, given the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. It is important to be clear that the statements in no way change the current position - the EU citizenship of Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland will continue in all circumstances.

As EU citizens, they will continue to enjoy the right to live and work throughout the European Union, as well as the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of nationality. It is very important that we return to the words of the Good Friday Agreement. It "recognises the birth right of all of the people of Northern Ireland to identify and be accepted as Irish or British or both, as they may so choose". Accordingly, it is confirmed in the agreement "that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments".

Last December the Tánaiste wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to raise the case of Ms Emma DeSouza, the concerns related to the identity and citizenship provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and suggest a review of the issues and questions which have been raised not just in recent weeks but for some time, as the Senator outlined. Following this engagement, the Government noted and welcomed the fact that the Prime Minister had acknowledged in her recent speech in Belfast on 5 February that there had been serious concerns raised about how UK immigration rules treated citizens exercising their right under the Good Friday Agreement to be Irish. The British Prime Minister affirmed that "the birth right to identify and be accepted as British, Irish or both" and the right to hold both British and Irish citizenship were absolutely central to the agreement. She said she had asked the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to urgently review the issues surrounding citizenship to deliver a long-term solution consistent with the letter and the spirit of the agreement. They were welcome commitments and acknowledgements by the Prime Minister. The Government and our colleagues in the North are now actively seeking the outcome of the review announced by the Prime Minister in February.

There is clearly a need for the UK Government to provide an assurance for everyone living in Northern Ireland that the citizenship and identity provisions in the Good Friday Agreement are being fully taken account of in all policy areas, regardless of the United Kingdom's approach to exiting the European Union. The Government also fully recognises the importance of access to EU programmes for Irish citizens and, therefore, EU citizens living in Northern Ireland. We are continuing to work to find ways by which they can be protected, consistent with the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. I repeat that this is irrespective of the approach being taken by the United Kingdom to exiting the European Union and whether we have a deal. Obviously, we would prefer to have a deal scenario. The protocol expressly confirms that Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland "will continue to enjoy, exercise and have access to rights, opportunities and benefits" that come with EU citizenship. Access to specific programmes is to be addressed during the period of transition and in the overall context of the future relationship.

We are ready for a no-deal exit by the United Kingdom and have actively been exploring ways by which we can protect continued access to EU entitlements for Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland, wherever possible. In any scenario the Government, the Tánaiste and I will continue to engage with the UK Government to ensure the important citizenship and identity provisions of the Good Friday Agreement will be upheld in all relevant policy areas.

I do not want to make the Minister of State's life any more difficult than it is. While I understand and appreciate this is a complex issue and a trying time for the Government, this is really high-wire stuff. With the greatest of respect, the answer the Minister of State has given me is, more or less, the one I have been hearing for the past two years about this process. What we are not yet seeing is a resolution of the issue. While I fully understand and appreciate that the main responsibility for dealing with it rests with the British Government, inside our passports, it is stated the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is responsible for us. People need to hear these words, but they also need to see them being translated into action by the Government. There must be pressure from this state and our colleagues in the European Union. The British Government must be told that it will be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement if it does not codify in law what is expressed within it. Potentially, this issue affects 1.8 million people. It will not affect everyone as there are those who are content with their British citizenship and identity in the North. Fair play to them; I fully support and respect that right. However, an increasing number in the North, rightly and understandably, are demanding that their rights under the Good Friday Agreement be asserted and legislated for.

The Minister of State mentioned the speech made by the British Prime Minister on 5 February in which she outlined a review of these issues. We have heard no more about it since. Actually, what we have heard is the statement made by Ms Caroline Nokes, MP, on 7 March, that, as a matter of law, that we are all British. From 5 February to 7 March, that was the British Government's approach. We need to ensure we will up our game and that citizens, particularly those living in the North and those who will be affected the most, will see action by the Government because the situation is so precarious. I know that the Minister of State appreciates and understands this, but we need to start to see those words being translated into legal, actionable and tangible works.

I take on board and understand the Senator's concerns. Many are concerned by statments made more recently since the Prime Minister's speech. I reaffirm the commitment made by her that the birth right to identity and to be accepted as British, Irish or both, and the right to hold both British and Irish citizenship are absolutely central to the Good Friday Agreement. We absolutely intend to ensure the Prime Minister will uphold that commitment. What we would like to see is the outcome of the review which was announced and for which the Tánaiste has specifically asked. Whether it is in the overall negotiations or in our engagement with our EU and UK colleagues, we are stressing that in any scenario, whether it be a deal or a no-deal scenario - we are working towards having a deal in order that we can work towards having a future relationship - there must be a transition period to work out some of the more complex issues such as the rights of and access for citizens of Northern Ireland if they choose and wish to exercise them. In any scenario in the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union the obligations and commitments of the Irish and UK Governments under the Good Friday Agreement must remain. The rights and entitlements of Irish citizens in the context of not only their identity but also citizenship must be upheld. We will do everything in our power to ensure that will happen.

For the Government, does that ultimately mean legislative codification?

I cannot allow the Senator to ask another supplementary question. He will have to have that chat with the Minister of State on the side.

What we need to see is an update from the Prime Minister on the review. We will then take it from there.

Organ Donation

This is truly a Daly matter. We will be moving from one Daly to another.

Needless to say, I am disappointed that the Minister of Health is not here to discuss the issues of organ donation and organ donor awareness. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, was also unable to come to take this matter. It is a matter of life and death for some. The specific issue I raised last year has not been advanced by either Minister. I thank Mr. Mark Murphy of the Irish Kidney Association for coming to listen to the response that will be given by the Department of Health, if not the Minister.

On 13 March I asked for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House in order that we could find out why he had not signed the statutory instrument to allow the HSE access to the driving licence registry to see the names of people who had indicated on their driving licence that they would like to be an organ donor. He cited two reasons on that occasion, one of which was related to the issue of data protection under EU law, while the other was Brexit. He was too busy in dealing with it. In May 2018 we informed him that, according to research conducted by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, he was able to share the data. The Schedule to the legislation could be amended to allow the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, under section 63 of the Finance Act, to make a regulation to make the database available. When the Minister, Deputy Ross, told us that he was not able to share the information because of EU data protection law, he was not aware that the previous Minister, Deputy Donohoe, had shared data in the driving licence registry with everybody, from car manufacturers to the Health and Safety Authority, the Motor Insurance Bureau of Ireland, eFlow, a private company, the Road Safety Authority, the National Transport Authority, the National Consumer Agency and the local authorities. People approved by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, commercial services and the office of the provost marshal of the military police have access to it. Tribunals of inquiry also have access to it, as do the Office of Official Assignees in Bankruptcy and the Courts Service, yet the HSE and the national transplant authority do not.

We asked the Minister to come in again and he has not shown up today but he replied on 22 March that it is not a data protection issue and the issue is the Department of Health has not requested that the national organ transplantation unit have access to information from the driver's licence registry. A year ago, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, said that he would ask the HSE to give me its views and see if progress can be made in a constructive way. Has the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport engaged with the HSE on this issue and when will he be asked to sign the statutory instrument that will allow the HSE to have access to the drivers licence registry so that people will know if their loved ones want to be an organ donor?

It should be borne in mind that figures supplied by the Irish Kidney Association to me show that when asked by a professional in organ co-ordination and transplantation if they would consider donating their loved one's organs, the figure internationally is approximately 52%. When supplied with information that their loved one wanted to be an organ donor, the organ donor rate in families increases to 92%. The only place we currently have a registry is in National Driver Licence Service. I have outlined all of the other organisations that have access to this registry. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is clearly blaming the Minister for Health and his Department by saying that they quite simply have not asked for this information.

Will the Department of Health ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport for this information in order that it will be available to healthcare professionals, organ donor co-ordinators and the families of the donors so that they can make an informed decision when considering to donate organs?

I thank the Senator for raising this issue and for the opportunity to speak on it in the Seanad on behalf of my colleague, Minister for Health.

It is appropriate that we are debating this issue during Organ Donor Awareness Week.

Organ donation is among the most selfless acts we can bestow on one another. The improvement in the quality of life for organ recipients and their families cannot be overstated. We have a duty to do everything we can to ensure that as many people as possible benefit from organ donation. Work is continuing to finalise the general scheme of a Human Tissue Bill and to deliver on the commitment in the programme for Government to provide for a soft opt-out system of consent for organ donation and an associated register.

The aim is to make organ donation the norm in Ireland in situations where the opportunity arises. Under the soft opt-out system, consent will be deemed, unless the person has, while alive, registered their wish not to become an organ donor after death. However, it is proposed that even though consent is deemed, the next-of-kin will always be consulted prior to removing any organ. If the next-of-kin objects to the organ donation, the donation will not proceed. The best way to ensure that a person's wish to become an organ donor is realised is to have a conversation with one's family and to make one's wishes clearly known to them.

The proposed opt-out register for organ donation will create a clear and easily communicable choice to individuals to either opt-out of deceased organ donation entirely, or to allow deemed consent to apply. Signing up to the opt-out register will be a definitive expression of the person’s wish not to become an organ donor after death.

The Senator’s proposal to share code 115 on a driver’s licence in respect of organ donation with the HSE's Organ Donation and Transplant Ireland would not guarantee that the person’s wish to become an organ donor would be carried out. This is also the situation in regard to organ donor cards. The decision to donate organs in the case of a deceased person rests with the next of kin. Health service personnel will not proceed to transplant organs without the permission of family members, irrespective of whether the deceased person carried an organ donor card or had ticked code 115 on their driving licence.

Furthermore, due to the need for medical practitioners to be informed about the medical history of the potential donor to ensure the safety of the recipient, the co-operation of the family will always be required as part of a safe organ donation process. An opt-out register will make organ donation the clear default option, and signal to citizens the move towards organ donation being the norm. The general scheme of a human tissue Bill is being finalised at present and will be submitted to Government shortly.

I do not want the Minister of State to take this personally, if that is not the worst answer I have heard to a question put in the Seanad, it is fairly close.

Some 1 million people in this country have registered that they would like to be to be organ donors. That information is available in the Government system. This will increase organ donor rates from 52% to 92% if the family are informed that their loved one wants to be an organ donor. The Government is saying it will not do this and make this information available to families, the health services or doctors and nurses so that families can be assisted in making one of the most traumatic decisions that anyone can ever make. When people sign up for a driver's licence and indicate that they want to be an organ donor, they want to share that information.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is saying that it is available to the HSE if it asks. What the HSE, the Department of Health, the Minister for Health and the Minister of State are saying is that they do not want this information to be available to the doctors, nurses and the families.

As I stated earlier, this is not the worst reply I have ever heard in this House but it is pretty close. People are dying as they await organ transplants. It is costing the State hundreds of millions of euro in dialysis and so on with people waiting in the system and taking up beds. That is not the reason we should do it; the reason we should do it is it would save lives. If making that information available saved one life, would it not be worth doing? Yet the Department of Health is saying that it does not want this.

Has the Senator a question?

This is not the worst reply but it is pretty close.

I have no interest in engaging with the Senator in the politics that he wants to engage in on this issue. I want to distance myself from his interpretation of what I have said in suggesting that the Minister, the Department or I do not want this to proceed. He knows this is only playing politics with the issue and if he wants to do that, that is fine.

Let me be clear, I am not playing politics. This is not party politics or political-----

The Senator had an opportunity to put a supplementary question and he is being disorderly now.

-----but is about people who are waiting for organs. The Minister of State is just reading a reply-----

The Senator knows that he is not allowed to interrupt and he will have to find another way of pursuing this further. He is out of order.

-----that is prepared by the Department and I am just saying it is a terrible reply. Is that going to help somebody waiting on the transplant list?

I ask the Senator to please resume his seat and not to abuse this House.

I am not abusing this House. That reply is one of the worst I have ever heard.

I ask the Senator to resume his seat and obey the Chair. That is his opinion and he is entitled to it. I call the Minister of State again, without interruption.

The Government is totally committed to increasing organ donation and transplantation rates to the benefit the patients and their families. We welcome the Senator's support for our efforts to increase the rate of deceased organ donation. Deceased organ donation, however, cannot proceed without the support of next of kin, as I outlined in my previous contribution, even in circumstances where the deceased person had an organ donor card or had indicated his or her wish to be an organ donor on his or her driver's licence. The Minister's proposals to introduce a soft opt-out system of consent for deceased organ donation are one of a number of measures being taken to increase transplant rates. The Department continues to work with HSE's Organ Donation and Transplant Ireland, intensive care units, ICUs, and the transplant hotels, which are Beaumont, the Mater and St. Vincent's hospitals, in building upon the achievements of recent years.

Improvements to our organ procurement service will continue to be achieved through improved infrastructure in ICUs, a more robust organ retrieval service, and through transplant centres achieving high conversion rates from opportunities that are presented. The legislation will be accompanied by a publicity campaign which will aim to ensure that individuals understand the opt-out system and to encourage individuals to have the conversation and make their wishes on organ donation known to their next of kin and to other family members.

Finally, I encourage everybody to consider becoming an organ donor and to make their loved ones aware of their intention in this regard.

Sitting suspended at 11.10 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.