Commencement of Irish Sign Language Act 2017: Statements

I am delighted to chair this important debate on the Irish Sign Language Act 2017 commencement review. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House. I thank the Minister of State for coming in for this important debate on the commencement of the Irish Sign Language Act 2017. I thank Members for taking the time to come here today. As Members know, three years ago we passed the Irish Sign Language Bill in the Seanad and the Dáil and then it came back to the Seanad and it was eventually signed by the President on Christmas Eve 2017. This is important legislation because it gives human rights to the members of our deaf community and to the 50,000 Irish Sign Language users in Ireland.

Three years ago, when we passed the Bill, we dedicated it to the memory of Daniel and William McCarthy, who were in their 70s and who died in extreme isolation in Dublin. They were deaf brothers who lived together and they died together in tragic circumstances. They were buried in Dingle in their native Kerry.

The importance of the Bill is highlighted by the fact that we are here today to look at how far we have come in giving those rights of access to State services to members of the deaf community and to inform them of their rights. We have come a long way but we have a long way yet to go in the fight for equality for all of our citizens. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for taking the time to come to the House to discuss the commencement of the Act.

I thank the Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly.

It is important that I start with the right words said in the right way. I have just had my first lesson in sign language and I will not be as good as the Cathaoirleach in the fluency of his delivery but as I look at my notes, I will try my best. To people watching I encourage everybody to try to learn a few words in sign language. It has been a very enriching experience. I am delighted to be here today to talk to the House on this very important occasion and I am proud to speak a few words in the Irish Sign Language, ISL, which is one of Ireland 's unique, native and recognised languages. This is something to be celebrated.

We are approaching the third anniversary of the passing of the Irish Sign Language Act, which we will shortly commence. The commencement of the Act is a milestone moment for the sign language population for whom this is among the most important legislation ever passed in this country. However, each and every one us should share in celebrating this moment. At the end of this most difficult year, we have here the opportunity to recognise, celebrate and commit to support our unique, native and independent language. It is my pleasure to confirm to the House that a commencement order is being finalised and this will commence the Act on 23 December. I will, therefore, take this opportunity to give a brief overview of the progress in the key areas of the Act.

I acknowledge all those who worked and called for the realisation of this Act. This has been so important in the journey to its commencement. Unfortunately, time does not allow me to go through the long list.

As the House will be aware, the Act places an obligation on public bodies to do all that is reasonable to ensure that they provide ISL users with free interpretation when availing of or seeking to access statutory entitlements and services. Secretaries General are being reminded of this fact and encouraged to remind their staff and the agencies for which they are responsible of this. The fulfilling of this duty will require that there are a sufficient numbers of accredited interpreters available. The Department of Social Protection, working with the Citizen's Information Board and the Sign Language Interpreting Service, has taken steps to ensure that this becomes a reality.

A company has been established to maintain a register of Irish Sign Language interpreters and to develop a quality assurance scheme which will strengthen and guarantee the quality of ISL provision. The Department of Social Protection is piloting an app which will allow access to interpreters via phones and other devices. This is an exciting opportunity and I look forward to seeing it work for ISL users so that it can be expanded as part of our suite of options for them. The Department is also responsible for a voucher scheme which will allow ISL users to book and avail of interpreters to ensure that they have access to them when participating in cultural, social and educational events. This is key to removing barriers that deaf people experience in engaging in their community and in enjoying access to the arts and other important activities. The voucher scheme is well advanced but Covid-19 has impacted its readiness. However, I also understand that this will be realised over the course of 2021.

Equal access to justice is key to our society. For many years, our courts have arranged and paid for sign language interpreters where required in family and criminal law cases. For civil proceedings, the protocol has been that litigants cover the cost of interpretation themselves. The legislation provides that this practice in family and criminal proceedings becomes an obligation for the State. As a result, the Courts Service will be required to arrange and bear the cost of ISL interpretation in civil proceedings. The Courts Service is committed to implementing this responsibility.

In the education of our young ISL users and their families, the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education are ensuring that there is an ISL tuition scheme available to families and that dedicated visiting teachers support the work of class teachers. For our teachers, Dublin City University has an ISL bachelor of education course that enables deaf and hard of hearing people who use ISL to enter primary teaching. This is a significant step towards ensuring access and inclusion for all in the classroom.

I take this opportunity to thank the ISL interpreters who have supported the Department of Health's nightly briefings on Covid-19. They are a crucial part of the communication of key public policy health messages and confirm, once again, the Act's importance.

Realising the transformation envisaged in the Act will take time. I celebrate the progress made but I recognise that there is more to be done. As the person now charged with the duties as Minister of State with responsibility for disability matters, I emphasise my commitment to ensuring that the Act is fully implemented as soon as possible. I believe strongly in the goal of ISL users to participate fully in Irish society, as is their right.

I thank the Minister of State for such a comprehensive summary of progress. Her sign language skills were very good and I commend her on her efforts in that regard. I also pay tribute to an Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly, for his vision and commitment over the years to bringing this legislation to fruition. I thank him for all of his efforts. I was very proud to be one of the proposers of the legislation in 2017 but it was the Cathaoirleach who championed this issue from the outset.

One of my first memories after my election to Seanad Éireann was of being metaphorically pounced upon by Senator Mark Daly to talk about Irish Sign Language legislation. It was what he wanted to see passed in his term in the Seanad. I commend him on having the vision to bring forward a Bill on Irish Sign Language. As we know, language rights are human rights, and that is the case for all languages, be it the Irish language or Irish Sign Language. Language rights are directly linked with human rights.

The Cathaoirleach referred to two very tragic deaths. None of us will forget the day we passed the legislation and the tributes we paid to the two men who died. Without doubt, deaf people are among the most marginalised groups in the country. This legislation starts us on the long road towards equality for deaf people. We are not going to reach the end of that road any time soon. I know the Minister of State is personally committed to this, as are many Members of both Houses. I hope we will all travel this journey together in the years ahead.

Having the commencement order on 23 December is probably the best Christmas gift the deaf and the hard of hearing community, and their families, can get this year. It has been an incredibly difficult year. I know from people who are deaf or hard of hearing who contacted my office that they are having a particularly difficult time. As people are wearing face masks, the inability to lip-read has had a significant impact on their health and well-being and their ability to make their way in the world. This Act is a good recognition of the difficult time they have had in recent months. This is a fantastic occasion.

I am very glad the Minister of State referenced the Irish Sign Language, ISL, interpreters assisting the Department of Health with the health briefings. The symbolism of that alone was very significant. The more people outside the Irish Sign Language community see of that the more it normalises it and inspires other people to take those lessons and to better include the deaf people living within our communities.

I would like to pay tribute to two other sign language interpreters, Amanda Coogan and Aisling Dragoi - I hope I pronounced Aisling's surname properly - who interpreted the recent "Late Late Toy Show" and did a fantastic job. I do not know if anyone saw their interpreting of the toy show but it was only the second year the toy show was interpreted in Irish Sign Language. That is probably as a direct result of the vision the Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly, had a number of years ago. That toy show was the most widely watched ever and it was the most watched programme in the country. It was watched abroad also. To have those two interpreters interpret with such enthusiasm and dance along to every song being sung included deaf children and their families - I am sorry but I am getting emotional even thinking about it - and made their Christmas special. I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Minister of State very much for that.

I was particularly glad to hear in the Minister of State's contribution that the Courts Service will have the responsibility of providing interpreters for civil litigation procedures. That is ground-breaking because up until that time, nobody could take the financial risk of bringing any civil litigation proceedings. It is a big enough risk taking a case but to have that extra risk heaped on people just because they are deaf was an outrageous barrier to access to justice. I am particularly happy to see that.

I am particularly happy to see also that my local university, Dublin City University, will be providing the new Irish Sign Language bachelor of education course to further assist deaf and hard of hearing children in our education system and to allow those children aspire to be teachers. The most wonderful thing any child can have is the aspiration to achieve their goals.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive run-down of the legislation. I will celebrate with a glass of champagne on 23 December and I will brush up on my Irish Sign Language skills on that day to celebrate with her everybody involved.

I thank Senator Clifford-Lee. I thank her for sponsoring the Bill all those years ago because at the time we were still campaigning and there was no certainty that it would be passed. I call Senator Boyhan.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. I was told a long time ago when I first came into these Houses to watch her because she was a fast learner. That is clearly the case. We have seen her tenacity, grasp of issues and determination in action in the past few weeks and well done on that. It is not an easy task to come into these Houses and to be a Minister of State. The Minister of State and her colleague from Waterford who we had in the House yesterday are a formidable pair. They are two people to watch for the future and Leinster House is a better place having them in government as Ministers of State with two important portfolios. I wish them well and acknowledge that. It is important that we acknowledge talent and skill but also the determination and fast learning I have witnessed here today, as it reflects everything I have been told about the Minister of State. I say that in the best terms.

I have known the Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly, a very long time. The very first day I met him he was talking about this issue. Since I have come in here he was talking about ISL. He, too, is a very determined man, as the Minister of State, and Members of this House, know. When he sets his mind on something he is focused, driven, forensic and determined. We owe a lot to him. I know he is involved in one of the deaf organisations in terms of his nominating body.

I have been a director of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind for many years and I equate blindness with deafness. To close one's eyes and see nothing or to have one's ears covered and hear nothing are two profound disadvantages in life. Somebody asked earlier what was this about. This is about human rights, access, communication, the skill of engaging with other people in one's community and the capacity and ability to play a meaningful role in one's school, church, community or place of work. This is an important communication skill that we all need. Many of us who have the ability to see and hear still have not quite learned how to communicate. There is a real art in communication. It is about empathy and many other things. We have many faculties that we never put into use. I am reminded of a woman who is blind from birth who told me one day when I met her that I was not in good form or I was in a bad mood. I told her I was not but she said she could sense it. She could smell it. She said she could hear me as I came up the path. We have many senses that we lose because we have never practised them. It is important to be aware that while people do not necessarily hear, they have other senses.

This is an important day and it is important that we celebrate it. Senator Clifford-Lee spoke about the "Late Late Toy Show". I saw it, too. I liked the strong images of the sign interpreters in respect of the Covid-19 restrictions. That was important because we need to bring people to the front. We need to show that there are many ways of communicating with people.

I was delighted that the Minister of State referenced DCU because it is a wonderful university. It operates a range of courses that assess people and support them in realising their potential and ability, which is what it is all about. It is about each and every one of us realising and maximising our full potential to be relevant and meaningful citizens within our community.

I thank the Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly. I also want to thank Grace Coyle, who works in his office. She is the other half of the engine that operates up there. I acknowledge her because she did a great deal of work in the background, and it was not easy. It is hard to believe but three years ago, we were wondering if there would be enough support in this House for the Bill. We wondered if there would be an issue with having a sign language person in the House to interpret. We remember the lovely movement when we finished our debate. They put up their hands and waved indicating "Thank you" and "Goodbye". Communication is not that complicated if people are given the space and the time to communicate.

I want to acknowledge also the work of the Minister of State's predecessor, Finian McGrath, because he did a lot of work and it was not easy for him either. There was a Government in place very similar to the one we have today, a confidence and supply arrangement. He had difficulty in getting time and getting people to listen to what he was trying to advocate.

Well done to the Cathaoirleach for driving this Bill. Well done to the people who came on board but, importantly, to the families and the advocates of the deaf community who did not give up and believed they were right and entitled to fight and push for their right to be able to communicate and engage. I hope it will not be too long before we see a member of the disability community or, for that matter, the deaf community having a meaningful role and engaging here in Seanad Éireann and, hopefully, in Dáil Éireann. I thank everyone involved and I wish the Minister of State well with her work.

I thank the Senator for his kind words. I call Senator Martin Conway.

History was made here today because I do not recall a Member, a Cathaoirleach or a Minister ever speaking in sign language in this House.

It is yet another first in the Seanad Chamber. The work the Cathaoirleach has done on this issue has been immense. I can stand here in front of him and say that we would not be where we are today but for what he did, his commitment and dogged determination over the last number of years to get this over the line. I will never forget that Christmas Eve in 2017, speaking to the Cathaoirleach on the phone when the President signed the legislation into law. As far as I am concerned, it was probably one of the most important pieces of legislation we ever put through this House. One might say three years is a long time to commence it but, when one looks at many pieces of legislation that we have had in this country and the length of time it has taken to commence legislation, 36 months is not bad. Why has that happened? It has happened because people like the Cathaoirleach, the Minister of State and other colleagues in the House did not stop campaigning. The Bill was a first step. Bills are great, putting legislation through is fantastic and it is what we are here for. However, it is when legislation works its way down to helping people and getting people the type of equality they need and deserve that it really works because that is when history is made.

We are now at another incrementally important step: the commencement of the Act. The Minister of State will have done her bit in terms of signing the necessary orders and so on. Now it is up to the Secretaries General of the various Departments, the public bodies, institutions and third level bodies to implement the law. We will have to keep an eye on them to make sure they are doing so. When the Minister of State addresses us afterwards or, if she does not, when she comes in again, perhaps she will talk about how she sees us monitoring this to ensure it is implemented, that there are proper complaints procedures and how that will work.

There is nothing as challenging as not being able to hear and relying on movement and so on. The public were brought a long way in this conversation with the HSE briefings on Covid-19 and the constant presence of people like Lisa Harvey in the background delivering the message in Irish Sign Language. They did a phenomenal job in raising awareness. The six interpreters that worked on the HSE, Government and Department of Health briefings did a phenomenal job and we owe them a debt of gratitude. They are the ones we see but the ones we do not see interpreting every day of the week in various circumstances in families, institutions and workplaces and so on are fantastic people as well. I am delighted that Dublin City University is playing its part because the biggest challenge we will have is the availability of interpreters. I hope the Minister of State through her good offices and through the Minister for Education will ensure that whatever funding is needed to develop and to support programmes will be in place.

I would love to be able to do some Irish Sign Language, as the Cathaoirleach and the Minister of State did. I remember in University College Dublin attending a sign language lesson when I was a student. The realisation hit me quickly that someone with a visual impairment will find it hard to pick up sign language by watching. I am sure there are other ways of doing it so I will have to become more creative in how I go about learning. The Cathaoirleach and the Minister of State have given me inspiration to try and take baby steps in learning it. The more languages we have, the better, especially of our own native languages. This is our third language, thanks to the Bill passed in this House.

I thank the Minister of State. After less than six months in office, to deliver this is a fantastic achievement. As Senator Boyhan and others have said, she has only just begun.

I thank the Senator for his contribution through the years on this important debate on sign language recognition.

Can I share my time with Senator Wall?

Yes. It is six minutes. Does the Senator want three and three?

Yes, three and three is fine.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Minister of State for coming here. It is great to come into the Seanad after all the work has been done in the years beforehand and be able to say "Well done" on getting this legislation through. This is a delight. I was watching on the screen closely and the Minister of State was doing the exact same as the person signing on the screen and it was very clear.

We talked about hopefully someday having representation in this House and I remember during the Seanad election campaign there was a candidate who was deaf. I was ashamed of myself that when I spoke to that person I was not able to communicate beyond being able to spell out the alphabet. It is not the most practical way to communicate to someone by trying to spell it out. I felt bad and that this was not good enough. I can communicate in Irish, even if it is struggling along through a few words. I thought about what I could do to try and be better, such as always having subtitles on videos and stuff like that.

A couple of Members have spoken about the impact face masks have on people. I downloaded an instant audio-to-text app to my phone so, if I ever meet someone again who I am unable to communicate with, I can hold the phone beside my mouth and, as I am speaking with the mask on, the text will come up across the screen. It is not the same as learning sign language fully but it means I always have that on my phone if needed. I suggest if people want to do that to download an instant audio-to-text app to their phones. It means that one is at least a little prepared while we hopefully go forward and try to learn a bit more sign language. I also downloaded the concise Irish Sign Language app. It was only a couple of euro and it teaches one how to do letters and 1, 2, 3, 4. Hopefully, I will get on better. That was a pitch for two apps and I am not sure if we are allowed to do that. I particularly suggest people download the audio-to-text app to their phones. As long as we have masks, and even beyond that, it is a reasonable thing to do.

Some 5,000 people speak Irish Sign Language and 40,000 use it in their daily communications. That is the same population as Drogheda. For anyone listening in, and everyone here knows how important it is, that is a significant number of people in Ireland for whom this is an important issue. It is important that Irish Sign Language be more widely recognised and we make things accessible, with subtitles on videos, apps on our phones, commitments to go beyond the basics of A, B, C, D and, like the Minister of State, learning to communicate.

The World Federation of the Deaf has a Charter on Sign Language Rights for All. Only four countries have signed up to it so far, namely, Iceland, Venezuela, Colombia and Bolivia. Something we might need to look at as a next step is to get Ireland to sign up to that charter. The basic charter is to demonstrate a country's support for the rights of deaf people to realise their full human rights through sign language. It might be a significant step for this House or the Minister of State to get Ireland to sign up to this charter to demonstrate that we are fully committed to facilitating, understanding and engaging with people and their human rights through their language. It would be great if we were to do that.

I thank the Senator for informing the House about those two apps, which will be useful for communication. It is a good idea that we, as a country, sign up to that charter.

I thank Senator Hoey for sharing her time with me. I welcome the Minister of State into the House and join in the tributes to the Cathaoirleach for his work on this legislation. As a councillor receiving his many letters on ISL over previous years, it was excellent. Today we see the fruits of that labour and it is important we acknowledge the Cathaoirleach as the person who has driven this through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I congratulate him on that.

I will mention a couple of people and groups the Cathaoirleach will be familiar with.

I wish to highlight the work of a fantastic community group in my home town, Athy, which has made it its business to teach Irish Sign Language to children, teenagers and adults in a fun and friendly way. The Athy Sing and Sign Club was founded in 2005 by Aiden McHugh. In 2007 the club was joined by its teacher, Maggie Owens. She is a brilliant and inspirational community campaigner who has instilled a love of the Irish Sign Language in the people of Athy and its surrounds. The club has performed on television, in musicals and on stage.

I have had the pleasure of supporting many of its members in completing QQI levels 3 and 4 in ISL with the Irish Deaf Society. Recently one of its members, Aoife Harrington, qualified as an ISL interpreter following four years of study through the Centre for Deaf Studies in Trinity College. The group and its committee of Maggie, Majella, Linda, Breda and Mary produce an annual ISL booklet and hold an annual ISL festival in the town which is always well supported and remains one of the highlights of the yearly calendar of events in Athy. They are also involved in every civic and community function and event held in the town.

I will finish by highlighting the club's mission, which is to provide a supportive and positive learning environment in which all individual members have the opportunity to develop their ISL skills and learn about deaf culture and the deaf community. Their members will also get an opportunity to develop their leadership skills in a youth-friendly environment which, in turn, leads to self-confidence and personal growth. Athy Sing and Sign is a group of which we are rightly proud of in Athy and which has rightly put ISL to the forefront of our thoughts and actions. Long may that continue.

I watched the club's performance on social media last night. It was truly outstanding and long may it continue its great work.

This is an important debate. There is nobody who suffers from hearing issues in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Somebody has to be their voice. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the work he has done over the years, and the Minister of State for putting all of the support behind the hard work that has been done. It is important that we thank the working group. Politicians are great at talking but we are not experts in different areas. We heard from experts.

I refer to the working group. I want to acknowledge the work of the Irish Council for Sign Language Interpreters, the Irish Deaf Society, the Centre for Deaf Studies in Trinity College, Dublin, Chime and members of the deaf community who gave of their time voluntarily and repeatedly, and provided proper input into the process which resulted in a useful Act with super recommendations.

I want to highlight a couple of people from my own experience. I have full hearing and do not have any concept of what it is like to be deaf. An amazing woman called Marion Lafferty from my village, Inagh, had a child who is deaf. The people in the area are friendly. She gave free classes to people of every age. It was super. I went to them 20 years ago. I am chatty, but I did not know how to communicate with her son. However, as she had set up free classes we were able to communicate. It was amazing. I hope those kinds of supports will be provided under the Act so that it is not always the case that parents have to provide extra support so their children can have links with communities. What she did was remarkable because it enabled her son and I to connect.

There was a deaf unit in Holy Family Junior National School in Ennis. Noreen O'Connell worked tirelessly there for years and did a lot of work with the children of the deaf community. I did a project with some of them when I was working to get them to park and stride and walk to school. I spoke to a group of children who had hearing impairments of different severity. One little girl told me that because she cannot hear cars, it is very difficult to know how fast they are going. We do not realise it, but we use our hearing a lot to dictate how fast things are moving because of the sound. Thanks to her writing a letter and working with me, extra seconds were added to the green man outside the school. If we have not listened to her perspective that would not have happened.

The most important thing is that we listen to deaf people and those with expertise. That is why we have come to where we are today, where we have a strong Act. I again thank everyone for all of their work and look forward to supporting them in any way I can. I always subtitle my videos. It is a token thing, but I have done that consciously because I was made aware of these issues by people like Marion Lafferty in my village many years ago. I have to improve my vocabulary.

Nelson Mandela said:

If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language that goes to his heart.

That is a very important sentiment as we reflect on the passage of the legislation.

I led the Sinn Féin team on the Act in the last Oireachtas, and colleagues have rightfully acknowledged the Cathaoirleach's leading role in that legislation. I celebrate the passage of the Act. Being involved with it was a very positive experience. We now need to be at a point where we move beyond that celebration and, as Senator Conway rightly said, we are talking about its implementation, roll-out and effectiveness within the community in a way that positively impacts and enfranchises members of our deaf community. The Act also informs and assists all of us, as Senator Garvey rightly said, in terms of how we, as parliamentarians, legislators and citizens, engage with and understand our deaf brothers and sisters in a better way.

I have a series of questions for the Minister of State. She touched on quite a few of them in her opening remarks. I hope we see her back here soon to discuss this issue. I want her to tell us how it is going so that we, on behalf of those whom colleagues have rightly acknowledged, are able to hold the legislation to account. As someone who is very proud and active in the Irish language community, I know that legislation is not a panacea and does not cure all ills in respect of linguistic issues.

While colleagues have rightly said that this is an issue of rights, equality and societal justice, for me it is also an issue of fundamental liberation. This is about liberating people. One of the key phrases we consistently heard during the passage of the Act in the last Seanad was the extreme marginalisation faced by the deaf community. That is how they put it. That took many forms, some of them very tragic and devastating for the community. Others were quite mundane and affected things that the rest of us would take for granted in our day-to-day lives.

The deaf population of the State, including people watching today, are delighted that we are happy. Equally, I am sure they also want to see action, delivery and results. The Cathaoirleach and I will disagree on a lot of things, but on this issue we have a champion.

I will flag something as a warning. The only time we see headsets in here is when there are specific statements on the Irish language. I do not want it to be the case that someone is only speaking in Irish Sign Language in the corner of a television screen when there are specific debates on issues around the deaf community. All issues impact on the deaf community. The community is us and we are them. We need to take steps, but today is a day of reflection on, and acknowledgement of, the hard work and effort put in by a range of people, not least the deaf community and representative groups. We should have a very keen eye on this the next time the Minister of State is in the House. It is to be hoped she will have a lot of good and positive progress to report.

Níl mé ábalta sign language a úsáid mar atá an Cathaoirleach agus an Aire Stáit ach b’fhéidir go mbeidh lá éigin. Is lá an-speisialta é seo, gan dabht. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas don Chathaoirleach. Rinne sé a lán oibre ar an issue seo agus bhí sé ag obair go crua ar son na ndaoine bodhra.

He brought this legislation forward three times, and in so doing showed unbelievable perseverance, and he got it passed. It is great to hear the Minister of State's commitment today, and I want to compliment her on the way she has spoken.

This legislation represents a huge advancement in the human and civil rights of the deaf community. Through the Act, the State will recognise the right of ISL users to use ISL as their native language. Designating sign language as a native language empowers the deaf community, by permitting it to be used in legal proceedings. The Act also requires the State to provide interpreting services for students who use ISL. It is important that we move as quickly as we can with this and I have no doubt as to the Minister of State's commitment to this issue. I am confident she will do what is required.

ISL is the language of the deaf community. As has been highlighted, there are 5,000 deaf people in Ireland, and approximately 40,000 people communicate using sign language, whether it is with family, friends or co-workers. As we all know, sign language is a visual and spatial language, with its own distinct grammar. It is not only a language of the hands, but also of the face and body. It is an indigenous language of the deaf community, and research shows that sign language is a full language with its own complex linguistic structure, rules and features. ISL was recognised in Northern Ireland and not in the Republic. This will be rectified with the commencement of the Act. ISL is different from all other sign languages, such as British and American sign languages. Ireland is unique in that sign language differs based on gender, due to the fact that males and females are educated in separate schools. The deaf community views itself as a linguistic and cultural minority group, as opposed to being disabled.

It is great to see that the Seanad can co-operate so well on these issues. I also want to pay tribute to my own neighbour, Grace Coyle, who has done so much fantastic work in this area behind the scenes. At some stage, perhaps the introduction of ISL lessons for Oireachtas Members could be considered and perhaps the Minister of State and the Cathaoirleach could even provide some of the lessons. It would be a great idea for us all to get a handle on the basics of the language so that we could communicate in ISL. I certainly would love to be able to do that. I thank the Minister of State and the Cathaoirleach for all their work. It is lovely to hear all the Senators speaking so positively on this issue and hopefully the work will come to fruition before too long.

I thank Senator Murphy for his comments and I echo his praise for his neighbour, Grace Coyle. I can guarantee Members that without her tenacious work on this matter, it would not have happened.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is always a pleasure to have her with us in the Seanad. My colleagues, Senators Hoey and Wall, have spoken very eloquently for the Labour Party to say how much we welcome the commencement of this important Act and how pleased we are to see the Minister of State announce 23 December as the date for it. It is very positive news to receive this week, before we go off on our Christmas break. I could not let the opportunity pass without paying tribute to the Cathaoirleach, or Senator Mark Daly, as he was known then, for his incredible persistence and commitment in steering the Bill through the House. Many of us did our best to help him along the way with it and it is great to see it come to this point. Therefore, I pay tribute to him.

As a Senator representing the University of Dublin, I want to pay tribute to my great colleagues in the Trinity Centre for Deaf Studies. Others have spoke of their immense work on this project, in particular, Professor Lorraine Lesson and Dr. John Bosco Conama, both of whom have been tireless advocates for ISL and the deaf community. I also want to pay tribute to the Irish Deaf Society. As the Cathaoirleach will recall, we had many meetings with activists from the deaf community, the Society and the Trinity centre over the period of time when the Bill was being steered through the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is really great to see this day arrive, and I want to take a few moments to put my thanks on the record and to pay tribute to the Minister of State for taking the final step in the commencement of the Act. I also want to pay tribute to, and thank, the brilliant signers who we see at the bottom of our screens currently and who also stand quietly - but play such an important role - on so many stages and podiums at all our live events pre-Covid, and all recorded events now. I thank all those involved in bringing this Act to its final point. Finally, I would also like to echo Senator Murphy's words. It would be a great idea to have lessons in ISL. I know that Senator Hoey has spoken about trying to learn ISL. I think it would be a great new initiative to introduce in the Oireachtas.

I thank Senator Bacik for acknowledging the work of the professors and researchers of the Trinity Centre for Deaf Studies, such as Professor Lorraine Lesson and Dr. John Bosco Conama, and others who have passed on, who have excelled in this area and who have championed this cause long and hard over four decades. I call on the Minister of State to respond.

I was delighted to make the announcement when I came to the House today, and I was also very proud to be a colleague of the Cathaoirleach and to have worked with him for the past number of years. All of his colleagues here recognise his ability, determination, tenacity and willingness to get something done when he puts his mind to it. However, the Cathaoirleach has not been alone in doing the work he has done, and we have acknowledged the work done by Grace Coyle on this project.

This legislation represents a unique project on which the Members of the House worked collaboratively. One of the special things about Seanad Éireann is that when Members work together, the good is served. All Members of the House worked with the Cathaoirleach on this project. Everyone recognises and knows the value of this project. Senator Boylan spoke earlier about communication. As politicians, we recognise the value of communication and of getting our message out. There are those who do not have that opportunity to get their message out, and without a Bill or a commencement, they are being denied. That is why the work must be completed. I must praise all Members for their support in ensuring that the Act has now become law. It is now my job to be held to account with the public officials and to ensure that the project is completed.

I also wish to pay tribute to the newly formed Department of Justice. Departmental staff are here today. They have worked really hard over the last three years to get us where we are today and to have 23 December as the commencement date. Every Member of this House has spoken on the issue and been involved in the work.

I will take two things away from with House today. The first relates to what Senator Hoey said about using audio-to-text and ISL apps. I think we should circulate that information among all Oireachtas colleagues, because we know how difficult it is to communicate, particularly with the wearing of face masks. There is an impediment there that must be addressed. Second, I take Senator Murphy's suggestion about ISL lessons on board. In the last week I have enjoyed immensely taking ISL lessons and it brought me to a new level of ability. I was very nervous coming to the House today, and I felt the pressure of delivery for the first time in a long time, in ensuring that I did not let the sign language community down. There is a confidence that we all need to build among ourselves. If we are to expect the Civil Service to embrace ISL, we should lead by example. We should take that on board, and no different to embracing the Irish language, we should also embrace Irish Sign Language. I look forward to bringing that initiative through at some stage.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for all the work he has done with this team and the years he has dedicated to the project. Each of us who knows the Cathaoirleach from his Seanad campaign knows that it was one of his priorities to get this done and I am delighted to be associated with it.

I thank all Members for their contributions and the Minister of State not only for coming to the House, but also for learning sign language for her opening contribution. We should also remember the Minster of State's predecessor in the Department of Health, former Minister of State, Finian McGrath, with whom we had long arguments in this House on this issue. I am sure Senator Bacik remembers them.

Senator Bacik, as a person who has passed legislation in opposition, will know that, at the time, this was one of only six Bills to have passed after having been introduced by Opposition Senators since the enactment of the Constitution. That shows what a job it is, as she will be aware, to pass legislation.

Not only was Grace Coyle very important in getting it passed on my end, but other officials from the Department, such as Gerry Maguire, a tireless worker whom the Minister of State will know, sat in on many meetings for many hours, along with Deaglán de Bréadún from the Department of Justice. I recall one meeting that went on for seven hours and had to be translated into sign language. It was like a Committee Stage debate in the House but it had to be translated into sign language, over and back, as it should have been. There were 24 people at the meeting. It demonstrated the level of dedication of Finian's staff and of Deaglán, Gerry Maguire, Grace and the Senators from all sides of the House who attended those meetings. Eventually, the legislation got over the line. I pay tribute to the Irish Deaf Society and all its members. They spent four decades campaigning.

We are delighted to have got this far. I thank the Minister of State for attending, as well as all Senators.

Sitting suspended at 3.42 p.m. and resumed at 4 p.m.