Today is 1 February and we celebrate Lá Fhéile Bríde, St. Brigid's Day. She was a negotiator, peacemaker and community activist. She was a leader and a wise woman. St. Brigid's Day represents a new dawn on spring. There are hopefully longer, warmer days ahead, this year more than any other. We are looking forward to warmer days and longer evenings. It will be welcome and needed. I thank Senator O'Loughlin for circulating the information on St. Brigid and the Brigid's cross that she gave to us on this Lá Fhéile Bríde. I ask the Leader to outline the Order of Business.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
The Order of Business is No. 1, the Criminal Justice (Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing) (Amendment) Bill 2020, Second Stage, to be taken at 2 p.m. and to conclude after 65 minutes with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed seven minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 2, statements on the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage's response to Covid-19, to be taken at 3.20 p.m. and to conclude at 5 p.m. with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, with the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 3, statements on the Department of Social Protection's response to Covid-19, to be taken at 5.15 p.m. and to adjourn at 6.45 p.m., with the contribution of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and notwithstanding anything in Standing Orders, the Minister is to be given no less than six minutes to reply to the statements, with the debate to be adjourned thereafter.
Thankfully the incidence of Covid-19 is on the decrease in this country and we have many people to thank for that, from the gallant efforts of our front-line workers to the general public, the vast majority of whom have been adhering to the strict guidelines that have been laid down. We must always ask ourselves how we can do better. We had much debate this week about the zero Covid strategy, which NPHET has ruled out as not being practical for this country. We also had some talk about sealing the Border with Northern Ireland. For someone who comes from a Border county, the notion of sealing the Border is totally impractical. It is almost 300 miles in length, with almost 300 crossing points. Some 209 of those crossing points are major roads. The idea that one can seal the Border is a non-runner as far as I am concerned.
That does not mean that we should not be looking at areas where we can improve on things. One of the areas where we need improvement is in North-South co-operation. The common enemy here is Covid-19. A member of An Garda Síochána doing a checkpoint in Emyvale, or indeed in Lifford, should have the power to deal with whomever is not adhering to the restrictions. The same should apply to a PSNI officer in the North, when someone from the South is not adhering to restrictions. They should be able to deal with it. There is co-operation there already and information is being shared. I would like to see that developed so that people who are flouting the law can be dealt with, regardless of which police force does so, or what part of the country they are in. I ask that the Leader raises the matter with the Minister for Justice.
The other issue that I would like to raise is one that has caused me great disappointment. It concerns statistics that were released by the head of the community healthcare organisation, CHO, 1, showing the number of Covid tests being done in each county. The statistics also illustrate the number of people who do not turn up for Covid tests. In Monaghan, for example, this figure was as high as 11%; in Donegal it was in excess of 10%; and in Sligo, for some reason, it was greater than 20%. That is very disappointing. We need to know why those people are not turning up. Is it because they have no transport? Is there a childcare issue? Is it because they are afraid they cannot get off work? We need to know the reasons behind the non-attendance. By not turning up, those people could be infecting other people - perhaps with devastating consequences. It is also a waste of resources to have people standing by and waiting for people to attend an appointment, who do not show up. It is a serious issue. I would be grateful if the Leader would bring it to the attention of the Minister for Health.
I wish to raise the issue of the supply of affordable housing. Anyone involved in politics, be it nationally or locally, knows the importance of affordable housing. We are now at crisis stage. There are people earning a salary of over €100,000 who are not able to purchase their own home, which is outrageous. There are people who are caught in the rent trap, whereby they are paying substantially more than if they had a mortgage, and they cannot pay it.
I welcome the publication by the Government of the draft Affordable Housing Bill 2020. It is an important Bill. I am a member of the joint Oireachtas committee. It is envisaged that we will begin pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill the week after next. That is an important step in the process. I know that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is very committed to initiating and bringing legislation in this area through this House. He has said so in the past. Indeed, he was an effective and active Senator when he was here, and was supportive of the idea. He confirmed that to us in the House quite recently. I suggest that the Leader engages with the Minister to determine whether there is a possibility of doing so.
As the previous Senator mentioned, I am conscious of Covid and the constraints that places on the Houses of the Oireachtas. At the moment, we do not have the time to have statements when we meet. They are important and I accept that. However, it is important that we deal with legislation. I can think of two things. First, the significance of Land Development Agency, LDA, Bill, which has yet to go through some more preliminary work, and the capacity of the LDA to provide affordable rental and purchase homes for our citizens right across this country. It is important and is what I respect and embrace. It is what we should pursue.
There is also the important question of how we are going to address rental, and delivering social and affordable housing on local authority lands. We must not get hung up on who is building them and where they are being built. We must get on with building affordable houses for those who need them.
Finally, I would like to touch upon the issue of the Seanad by-election. There is much talk about this issue. There is much disquiet about Seanad by-elections anyway, from city and county councillors. I have received quite a lot of correspondence in the last few days because many city and county councillors seem to think that they will be voting in these by-elections. They will not. That is one of the anomalies. On the issue of Seanad reform, in my view, the franchise should be extended to everyone. It is a terrible anomaly that city and county councillors can elect Senators in a general election but cannot do so in a by-election. It needs to be addressed.
If she can, the Leader might share with us what is the expected date on which both by-elections are to be held and whether they will be held on the same day.
I will begin by wishing everyone a happy St. Brigid's Day and first day of spring. I know the Cathaoirleach has already mentioned that it is an auspicious day and I hope there are better times ahead for everyone as we enter the month of February.
I wish to express my serious concern regarding the events in Myanmar, or Burma, that have unfolded over the past 24 hours with a military coup. I ask the Leader to make representations to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to express Ireland's concern and to seek to take any steps we can through the EU or otherwise to ensure that democracy is respected in Myanmar and that we do not see a return to military rule as appears likely now, unfortunately.
I ask the Leader to allow a debate on zero Covid in this House. I note that today at 1.30 p.m., the Independent Scientific Advisory Group will launch a people's campaign for zero Covid. The case has been very eloquently made by some of my Trinity College colleagues, including Professors Tomás Ryan and Aoife McLysaght, who have called for a very clear strategy of "crush, contain and chase". They have set out clearly how it can be done. We all know of examples from other countries. Public support for stricter measures is clearly evident, as was seen in the The Business Post poll yesterday. My own party leader, Deputy Kelly, last week put forward the Labour Party's plan for an aggressive national suppression strategy incorporating many of the zero Covid strategy elements. In addressing the issues that Government spokespeople keep raising about the lack of practicality of a zero Covid strategy, people are increasingly frustrated hearing them saying that it is not practical to have a zero Covid strategy. Why is it not practical to implement an aggressive suppression strategy and yet it is practical to keep us in rolling lockdowns; to keeping people within 5 km of their home; to deny children the right to return to school and even to deny children with additional needs to right to return to school? Why is that more practical than the sort of active border management measures that Deputy Kelly put forward, some of which have now been taken up by the Government-----
Deputy Kelly wanted to open the pubs.
Things have changed very rapidly and all of us are now very conscious that the vaccination-----
He wanted to open-----
I did not interrupt any Government Members nor do I. I am courteous in this House and ask for similar respect from others.
If Senator Cassells wants to interrupt, he must ask permission through the Chair.
I will be more gentle. I ask permission to correct the-----
Senator Cassells must speak through the Chair. He must follow the Standing Order.
As I was saying, we are all conscious that there will be a more delayed vaccine roll-out this year than we had anticipated. We see new and dangerous variants coming in and as we have seen extraordinary and deeply devastating levels of Covid transmission over the past month, the case has become stronger for an aggressive suppression strategy. The concern most people have is about the absence of any clarity from the Government as to what is the alternative if it is not to embrace zero Covid or aggressive suppression strategy. What is the Government's strategy beyond 5 March? What is the Government strategy for managing or suppressing Covid until we see full vaccination? This is now not likely until much later this year than we had hoped. I ask the Leader to allow for a debate on Government strategies, specifically on zero Covid or aggressive suppression strategies.
Finally, as Members are aware, the childcare sector has valiantly remained open over the last few weeks for children of essential workers. Childcare workers are at the front line. The SIPTU Big Start campaign published groundbreaking research last week, which showed just how deeply concerning it is for many workers in the childcare sector to face daily risk and yet receive such poor pay levels generally, as well as lack sick pay and so on. I ask the Leader to allow for a debate on childcare during a time of Covid.
Because Senator Bacik was interrupted, I allowed her more time.
I wish everyone here a happy St. Brigid's Day. Brigid was originally a pagan goddess associated with spring and new beginnings. It is great to see our Government colleagues in the Fine Gael Party backing the long-time call from the Green Party to make this day a public holiday.
Unfortunately, it has not been very springlike of late. Over the weekend, we saw pictures of the DART line at Seapoint underwater and of the coasts getting battered by waves.
Flooding is widespread across the country. On my farm in County Offaly, I have noticed water lying in parts of fields I have never seen water in before. As a farmer, it is very difficult to accept these floods, particularly if one has crops underwater or animals on the land. Initial thoughts might be to drain these fields to prevent future flooding in these areas but all this will achieve is to move the problem onto someone else's land further downstream.
This is climate change and it is happening before our very eyes. Rising sea levels may at some time in the future leave the stretch of the DART line to which I refer permanently underwater and threaten many coastal homes. We can continue to build bigger and bigger walls, dredge our rivers and take out pinch points, but none of these really tackle the root of the problem. We hear a great deal about nature-based solutions and this is something the Government wants to take seriously. We know that some lands are simply meant to be wet – bogs and those with peaty soils, for example - and some lands are meant to flood, if we think about our many callows. However, in the past we have not accepted this and instead we have tried to force this land to be something it is not meant to be and this had knock-on effects. It is not just farmlands, but lands chosen for housing, road development, forestry and wind farms. How we use our land in the future will be critical.
Of course, nature always fights back and she will continue to do so unless we start working with her. We will probably spend millions, if not billions, of euro on flood defences into the future, so why not spend some of that money supporting our farmers and landowners to do this for us, by implementing nature-based solutions? Let us invest in our land, in that natural capital - its trees and wetlands, its soils and habitats - not in more concrete and diggers. For decades, we have been encouraging farmers to drain fields, remove hedges and scrub and kill every weed in sight in order to maximise productivity and squeeze as much out of land as possible. This has required financial investment from the State and from farmers, and while it has delivered economic return for some, we know it has not delivered for the environment.
Things are changing. We are now asking many farmers to consider a future which looks like it is going in the opposite direction, but it is not - it is the future. The EU's green deal and its strategies on biodiversity and farm to fork have set some lofty targets. While none of us can really argue about the reasons behind these strategies, the consequences may be significant for our communities and we, as a Government, must work hard to support and reassure our citizens that this is the correct approach, because it is the correct approach and our country's future depends on getting it right. I am quite sure Brigid would agree.
I am sure St. Brigid would agree and I think we would all support the Minister of State's call. If St. Patrick can have a national holiday, St. Brigid deserves a national holiday as well. I call Senator Ó Donnghaile.
Gabhaim beannachtaí na féile Bríde do na Comhaltaí go léir. Mar atá ráite ag comhghleacaithe cheana féin, seo lá speisialta agus ceiliúradh speisialta. Anois go bhfuil an t-earrach bainte amach againn, is cúis dúinn píosa dóchais a bheith againn agus muid ag dul ar aghaidh i 2021.
I want to move an amendment to the Order of Business that No. 29, motion 8, be taken before No. 1. Now is the time for calm heads and solidarity in the fight against the global pandemic. It is also a must that the EU and British Government honour and implement their agreements post Brexit. Now is the time for solidarity as we fight this global pandemic together. I know my colleague, the joint Head of Government in the North, Michelle O'Neill, spoke to the Irish Government and expressed our serious concern that the EU did not consult with the political Administrations in Ireland before moving to trigger Article 16 at the weekend. This unilateral action was clearly unwise, ill-judged and totally unnecessary. I welcome the fact the decision has now been reversed but, regrettably, it has caused political harm. It is not what Article 16 was designed for. Once the potential consequences of this move were properly understood by the European Commission, it is very quickly engaged in a climbdown and did not pursue that particular course of action. However, it has given those shameless Brexiteers now opposed to the consequences of their own actions the opportunity of using it to their advantage.
While the Irish protocol may be imperfect, it must be preserved. The protocol exists as a solution to avoid a hard border on the island, thereby enabling both the all-island economy and the Good Friday Agreement to be protected. Our citizens need timely access to lifesaving vaccines, not trade disputes between the EU and the British Government. The withdrawal agreement and the Irish protocol were negotiated and agreed by the EU and British Government, and the onus is on them to honour and implement both.
Questions need to be asked and there are very important questions as to how and why this happened over the course of the weekend.
More importantly, there are answers to be given. This could have had serious and significant political consequences.
In the context of the broader issues of which we are all aware, it is timely to have an update from the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the post-Brexit scenarios that we are facing post 31 December and, given the weekend's events, the implementation of the Irish protocol and the withdrawal agreement.
I wish everyone a happy St. Brigid's Day on this fine spring day.
Although we have had two debates on mother and baby homes, I feel I have to raise the issue again. We learned over the weekend that the audio recordings of the testimonies of survivors of the institutions had been destroyed. Many survivors have expressed anger at this latest development, saying they were not informed when giving their testimonies that they would be destroyed. It was shocking to hear that the majority of the 500 plus audio recordings of survivors' personal testimonies had been destroyed.
Many survivors have criticised the report, in particular the conclusions, which state that there is a lack of evidence of forced adoption and abuse, despite testimonies contradicting this. Many were also unhappy that their testimonies were not recorded accurately. Their proof of that has now been eradicated. One survivor made the point that she would not have agreed to give oral evidence had she known that the recording would be destroyed. With each new revelation, the suffering of the survivors is compounded and the trauma continues.
I wish to discuss the deaths of more than 900 children at the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork. It was shocking to hear that planning permission had been granted for apartments on the grounds of the institution. In a detailed submission on the planning application, the Cork Survivors and Supporters Alliance noted that the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes found that no proper records of burial locations were kept for Bessborough. It was also noted in the submission that the southerly parts of two blocks of the proposed development would be located on an area marked as the children's burial ground on a 1950 ordnance survey while a third block would directly overlook the site. The proposed development on the site of the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home as well as the dignified treatment of unmarked burial grounds there are matters of significant national and local concern. One of the survivors stated:
We have the evidence, we have the documentation, we know where the children's burial ground is and we don't want any big huge development overshadowing it. We have been overshadowed all our lives.
I request that the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, who launched the commission's report, come to the Seanad and give an undertaking that the graves of babies buried at Bessborough will be marked, preserved and protected.
In the report, one of the most shocking aspects relating to Bessborough was that, in one year, 75% of babies died, yet no issue was raised. I thank Senator Black for raising this matter.
Beannachtaí na Féile Bríde. It is the first day of spring and hope, but there is not much spring and hope for Josh Dunne's family. The House should send its condolences. He was a talented young man with his whole life ahead him. Unfortunately, he is not the only young person to have died in Dublin. Indeed, there is an issue with knife crime around the country. We should ask the Minister for Justice to take this matter up with communities through joint policing committees, JPCs. She should engage with them on examining what can be done to tackle and provide a better response to knife crime.
I wish to raise an issue that I have raised previously, that of the uncertainty around State examinations for leaving certificate and junior certificate students.
I have spoken to both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and know they are acutely aware of the extra stress and strain that the leaving certificate class of 2021 is enduring. The leaving certificate advisory group met and listened to the students, which is welcome, and I am hopeful a decision will be made this week.
When all the education partners meet to make the decision and the recommendation to the Government, I really hope they take into account the fact that this leaving certificate class has lost four months of classroom learning, time in which there were no labs, technical work, art work, domestic science or home economics. All of that valuable time usually spent in the classroom has been taken from their senior cycle, and that is before we account for any additional time they lost through Covid-19 or families affected by the virus. On their behalf I ask this week for a decision that gives them options, choice and, most important, certainty soon.
The Government has announced plans for changes to working practices for many in a bid to improve work-life balance and allow many workers, including public servants, the option of working from home or remotely. The benefits, including reduced time lost to commuting, additional time with family or rest time, as well as reduced costs and carbon footprints, are all evident.
To make this policy a reality, two things are needed. These are working hubs and broadband connections. Ba mhaith liom tréaslú le hÚdarás na Gaeltachta as ucht an dul chun cinn atá déanta aige le cúpla bliain anuas an polasaí Gteic nó gréasán digiteach a chur chun cinn. Seo polasaí atá curtha chun cinn ag straitéis Údarás na Gaeltachta chun áiseanna den scoth a thógáil trasna na Gaeltachtaí agus ar na hoileáin cois cósta le ceangal leathanbhanda ardluais. Tá Gteiceanna lonnaithe sa Spidéal, ar an gCeathrú Rua, i gCarna agus sna Forbacha i nGaillimh, i nGaoth Dobhair i nDún na nGall, i mBéal Átha an Ghaorthaidh i gCorcaigh, agus i mBéal an Mhuirthead i Maigh Eo. Tá a lán de seo ar fáil do chomhlachtaí nua ag tosnú amach agus do dhaoine chun obair óna gceantair féin.
The Gteic and other centres across regional areas, such as the PorterShed in Galway, are important regional hubs. The availability of high-speed Internet connections is vital to remote and home working. I welcome the first homes being connected under the national broadband plan recently. The investment, as agreed and put forward by a Fine Gael-led Government, ensures all promises will have access to high-speed connections through state aid. It was the correct decision and it has been reaffirmed in the Covid-19 era.
The recent announcement by National Broadband Ireland indicates that connections in Galway are planned to be built out from May to July this year in areas surrounding Galway city, including Furbo, Barna, Boleybeg, Tonabrocky, Corcullen and some of the Moycullen townlands, such as Tooreeny, Clooniff, Tumnasrah and Poulnaclogh. These connections are good for remote working, education, leisure and other activities. The Leader might agree that the decision to invest in state aid to provide high-speed broadband connections was the right decision before and this has certainly been affirmed by the events arising from Covid-19.
I will briefly deal with the matter raised by Senator Fitzpatrick. There is on the Order Paper of this House a Bill to deal with a particular relating to the naming of child victims of crime. I ask the Leader to make provision for that legislation to be dealt with as a matter of urgency if the Minister is content to do so.
I raise the question today of what happened in Brussels with the Irish protocol. I fully understand the Government does not want to make a song and dance about this that would be harmful to Ireland's interests. There must nonetheless be accountability for this. It is not an oversight, which was a description used on the radio today. It was not just a blunder. It was a deliberate insertion in a draft regulation of a provision that was legally unstatable, aggressive and undermining in its very thought process. The idea that the Irish Government was going to stop trucks going across the Border to check if a vaccine was on board was absurd.
It is not enough to say this will not happen again.
Who was responsible for it? If it was a lawyer, as we are being told, that lawyer cannot have read annex 7 to the protocol agreement and cannot have read Article 16 itself, which talks about a serious and lasting effect on trade in the community. It was a deliberate piece of panic-stricken foot stamping put into a document.
There is a problem that this was not noticed at Commission level. I heard Commissioner McGuinness say that it was not drawn to her attention. She has a cabinet and we have to know who was aware of this and why was it not stopped because it has done very serious damage to those who support the protocol and those who support an open border on this island.
Guím beannachtaí lá fhéile Bríde ar gach duine. I would like to join Senator Frances Black in her comments on the destruction of nearly 550 tapes of oral testimonies without having made a transcript. It is shocking, appalling and gut-wrenching. I hope the Minister comes to the House to explain what exactly happened and who made the direction to destroy the tapes.
Like my colleague, Senator Fitzpatrick, I welcome the fact that, hopefully, we will get clarity this week in respect of the leaving certificate. I believe also that the comments of the president of ASTI, Ann Piggott, on its preferred option of a modified paper is appealing on the basis that it takes into account the fact that students have missed nearly four months of school, gives them much more flexibility and perhaps will reduce their anxiety if they know they will have more options on the paper. I look forward to the students getting clarity and putting their anxiety aside to some extent. I hope we see that happening this week.
I want to join in the sympathies expressed to Josh Dunne’s family on his death. I look forward to the legislation on naming minors coming before this House or the Dáil because it is very important that they are not forgotten.
I raise the issue of the Covid restrictions currently in place. They have been very effective in many ways but there are issues we need to have a debate on as soon as possible. I refer, in particular, to the activity seen in my part of the world in the past ten days where houses have been rented at the weekend for the holding of parties. We had a situation in Kinsale, which the Garda Síochána publicised, where seven lads from Cork city came down and rented a house, bought alcohol, were cautioned by the gardaí and sent back to Cork. This phenomenon of renting a property for a weekend either in rural Ireland or a destination that would be considered scenic to get away from Covid issues is something we need to start talking about.
My office has done a good deal of work on the Airbnb website in particular, which is currently in full operation. People can book accommodation wherever they want to go in Ireland and nobody will stand in their way. We contacted the local authority. They have no listing of Airbnb accommodation even though it is their job to licence them. We have a major issue about how Airbnbs have been operating during the Covid level 5 restrictions. I believe we need to do something drastic about that. There is no need for this website to be operation in the current scenario. We should ask for the website to be taken down while we are in level 5. Nobody should be going anywhere in level 5. The activity that took place over the past two weekends has to be seriously examined. It is putting everyone’s life in danger and it is unfair on the gardaí, who have to police every party. It is impossible so the only logical solution we can work towards is to have the order amended so that we can have this website taken down while we are in level 5.
I am conscious that there has been much debate in recent weeks about the return to school for students.
Yesterday the Taoiseach again stressed that the return is a priority and that within that phased return there is a priority for students with special needs. For many students, it is not just a question of when they will return but to what they will return. The facilities in a number of these schools are not fit for purpose.
One such school featured in a special report in The Irish Times on Friday - the Stepping Stones School at Kilcloon, Co Meath. In it, the principal, Dolores Cullinane, set out a number of the deficiencies in the school. When it was established in 2005, Portakabins were used as a short-term measure but it is now seriously deficient. The Department's building unit had conducted a technical report prior to Christmas on the future of this school. However, there is still no update from the Department on where matters stand. I am pressing that we have this particular school's requirements addressed.
St. Mary's Special School in Navan, established in 1961, has almost 100 students. It has been waiting ten years since it was sanctioned for a new building in 2011. I raised this by way of a Commencement matter prior to Christmas. Again, this is with the building unit in the Department and we have seen no progress. It frustrated me no end that over the Christmas period I saw a planning permission extension notice going through Meath County Council for this particular school. Such has been the delay, it requires an extension on the planning permission already granted.
The report in last Friday's The Irish Times highlighted quite clearly that while people are anxious to see students with special needs return to their schools, the broader question is that in a large number of areas the school buildings are quite frankly disgusting and not fit for purpose. We need to see the Department's building unit treat these facilities with the same urgency that the Government is treating the return to school in order that they actually have proper facilities to go back to in the first place.
I congratulate the local gardaí in Longford who recently broke up an illegal gathering held by a national party at a famed War of Independence site. The 100th anniversary of events there actually takes place tomorrow.
A full review of the Clár programme by NUI Maynooth was initiated by the Department. It will examine the patterns across the country on the basis of the 2016 census. That review has not been published to date. When will it be published? Will it take into account Clondra and Stonepark, three to five miles from Longford town, which are not eligible for applying for Clár funding?
Coming back to the special schools issue I raised last week, it is an absolute disgrace the way this has gone on. Fórsa needs to stand up and go back to work. I received a letter from a parent with whom I spoke to last week. It stated:
I hold the Minister and all the Ministers in government accountable for my son's regression. I hold you responsible for all his loss of skills, the waste of years of emotional and financial investment by us and the school. I hold you accountable for his blocked access to his constitutional right for education. I write tonight for 113 days in 2020 and 25 days already in 2021. I hold you 100% responsible for the pain in my chest and the sleepless nights I endure ... A Government with foresight would invest more wisely. Ironically we watch on while full-time salaries are paid in the name of teaching and helping our children. Justified by the term remote learning ... The time will come when a future Taoiseach will have to stand up and apologise for what has happened today in our country to our most vulnerable children [kids].
I welcome the case taken by the parents. I believe Fórsa should be included as a defendant in that case. Members of that union are working every day in adult services but our younger vulnerable children are not being looked after. It should immediately indicate a return to work. We need to prioritise those who are most vulnerable and regressing in our communities.
I wish to raise the issue of mental health.
During the whole debate about Covid-19 over most of the last year, there has been a great deal of acknowledgement of the impact Covid would have and is having on our nation's mental health. Many speakers in this House, the Lower House and the Government have alluded to it. It is time we started having a proper wider debate on mental health needs because mental health services have suffered with lockdown and a tsunami of demand for such services is about to hit the nation; it is simmering. I ask the Leader to invite either the Minister for Health or the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health to the House in order that we can have a proper debate. Services will not be able to cope.
Given that it looks as though we will have a mass of the population vaccinated by the end of the year and things are starting to show a little hope, it is time the dial was moved somewhat towards mental health. Let us have a proper examination of this issue and get proper constraints and measures in place to deal with the most vulnerable in our society and those badly in need of it as a result of this Covid-19 pandemic.
I wish everybody a happy spring and a happy St. Brigid's Day. I will speak on springing into action in respect of two recent announcements by the Minister for Transport. He announced €50 million for rural infrastructure for walking and cycling and he also announced 248 new jobs in that sector.
Following on from Senator Blaney's remarks, this is not just an environmental or climate change issue. This is a mental and physical health issue. We have a significant issue at present in that a quarter of our nine-year-olds are overweight and we have huge issues with teenage girls in particular. At present, only 400 teenage girls cycle to school in Ireland. On the feast day of a powerful woman like St. Brigid, we need to look at this issue. As I know from working with active travel for 14 years, a major part of that is that when one approaches local authorities, they either have no money or no staff. As both those options have now been taken away from local authorities, I encourage Members to get on to their local authorities and push this agenda. Active travel is hugely beneficial, socially, mentally and physically for our youngest, oldest and those who lack accessibility.
We need to put pressure on our local authorities to up their game. A bit of red paint here and the odd pedestrian crossing there is no longer sufficient. We need to reconnect our towns and villages and enable our children, teenagers and old people to walk and cycle safely around their villages and towns.
I join my colleague, Senator Black, in raising an extremely concerning report from the Irish Examiner over the weekend with regard to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. The report states that the commission has destroyed audio recordings of the interviews given by survivors of the mother and baby homes and that the oral testimony of evidence given to the commission's confidential committee no longer exists. In light of the many serious concerns raised concerning the contents of the commission's report in recent weeks, the fact that survivors have lost their only opportunity to verify the transcripts of the evidence they gave is inexplicable. If this was evidence that was destroyed in the course of a trial, it would rightly be a criminal offence.
I do not comprehend how the commission thought it appropriate to delete these vital records, not just for the personal importance they hold for survivors, the rightful owners of such recordings, but also for the role they might play in future redress schemes, criminal proceedings against those involved and a future tribunal. Apart from anything else, there has been a serious violation of EU data protection law, which must be investigated further. Despite the public outcry about the legislation rushed through the Seanad last autumn, we now discover that crucial parts of the database that were moved to the Department for which the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is responsible have been destroyed before they can be accessed by survivors under the general data protection regulation, GDPR. How does the Government plan to rectify this clear injustice? Taken together with the fundamental flaws unearthed in the commission's report, I believe the commission's chair needs to provide an account publicly on how this has been allowed to happen. Will the Leader update the House on the Government's planned response?
I wish everybody a happy St. Brigid's Day. It celebrates women's creativity and success, which is fantastic. I wish to make two points.
A public consultation is open and, as I mentioned previously, we have until 1 March to make submissions. I am talking about families, schools, clubs and businesses. In areas of east County Galway, people should consider making a submission to the consultation. We have fantastic gateways into the west through Ballinasloe, multi-million euro whiskey distilleries are planned for Ahascragh, and there are gorgeous forest parks in Mountbellew. We are fighting to transform the region of east County Galway and to offer the most wonderful experience to cyclists and walkers on the new Dublin-to-Galway cycleway.
On funding for the Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, research centres, as my party's spokesperson for science, research and innovation, I welcome the announcement of more than €190 million for five research centres, which includes funding for more than 17 higher education institutes. It is wonderful, although I am slightly biased, given that I worked previously in Science Foundation Ireland and at the research office in National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG. I am over the moon to see more than €46 million for CÚRAM, the SFI research centre in medical devices based in and led from NUIG. This funding speaks to hundreds of jobs. More than 1,000 postgraduate and postdoctoral students will be funded for the next five years under this programme.
The centre at CÚRAM is examining smart implantable medical devices for chronic conditions, particularly heart disease and diabetes, and it is working with industry. It is phenomenal. There is excellent research and talent, especially in the west, to be slightly biased again, and this leads to engagement with industry. There are more than 50 medtech industry partnerships in CÚRAM alone and it is viewed as a centre of excellence not just in Ireland but throughout the world. The researchers and reviewers who reviewed the applications, which involved more than a year's work, have stated that internationally, CÚRAM is considered the foremost centre of research excellence in the country. It is fantastic and I really welcome it.
I have been contacted by ten concerned primary school principals in Ennis and its environs. They are calling on the Minister for Education, school patron bodies and the National Educational Welfare Board to find a solution to this continuing crisis regarding second level places. I know from personal experience that many students and parents cannot find a second level place. It happens year after year, notwithstanding additional accommodation having been provided in recent years. It is putting enormous pressure on students who want to progress to second level despite knowing from an early stage that they will not have a place in their local secondary school and that they may have to find school accommodation in a village or town 15 km, 20 km or 30 km away, while many of their classmates will go to the local schools in Ennis. That is not acceptable in this day and age. We have to find an appropriate method of allocating accommodation in secondary schools whereby all the bodies come together.
What is particularly sad is that some students will receive an allocation for each of the four secondary schools in the town. They will be sitting there with four letters of offer, while the kid beside them will have none. If there exists a more negative impact on the mental health of a child at that early age, I do not know what it is or what could cause greater distress. It is putting pressure on teachers, students and parents alike. We have to find a better method. I would have hoped that through the offices of this House, we could bring all sides together to try to find a resolution.
As we are talking about education, I am pleased the Government is moving quickly to address the issues of the leaving certificate and junior certificate. I have campaigned for the past month and a half to ensure that the leaving certificate class of 2021 will be given their predicted grades and an opportunity to sit a written exam if they so wish, when it is safe to do so, and I am hopeful it will be possible. They are a class that has lost so much face-to-face teaching time. They lost three months last year, and they have lost a month this year and will perhaps lose more. They cannot in good conscience be expected to sit the traditional leaving certificate examinations. I hope the Government and all the education partners will work towards providing predicted grades, with the opportunity for students to sit the traditional leaving certificate examinations at a later stage.
I would like to raise the absolute scandal of 300 units lying empty in the middle of Dublin city, including the city centre, at Clancy Quay and Capital Dock. The week before last, the Business Post carried a really important article on the Clancy Quay and Capital Dock developments. At Clancy Quay, four fifths of the apartments are empty. At Capital Dock, half are empty. We need to have a serious discussion about a vacant unit levy. In the middle of a housing crisis and a pandemic, it is a disgrace that large institutional investors are able to influence supply to the housing market to keep up their unaffordable, unsustainable rents. In The Irish Times recently, one-bedroom apartments were advertised at Clancy Quay for €1,900 per month. It was €2,200 per month for a two-bedroom apartment and €2,700 per month for a three-bedroom apartment.
Other countries have already acted on this issue. Barcelona has moved against the short-term letting of empty holiday homes. Apartments that have been vacant for two years can be purchased compulsorily at half the market rate and large fines can be issued. What is tying the hands of councils in Ireland is our restrictive and cautious approach to housing because of our conservative interpretations of the Constitution. If there are legal impediments to moving against landlords who are controlling the supply of housing to the market, it is time to act on the programme for Government commitment to hold a referendum on the question of housing. We need to balance the rights of tenants and property owners. In a deep housing crisis that has been ongoing for many years, hundreds of homes are lying empty in our capital city. That is not good enough. It is time to take action in respect of a tax on empty houses.
I express my sympathy to Senator Keogan and her brothers and sisters on the sad passing of their mother.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. I appreciate that.
I have scant regard for the recent apologies by our political leaders regarding mother and baby homes. Those leaders are predominantly male, I might add. They have failed women and children all too often. Apologies mean very little without meaningful action. We must reach out to survivors and provide every assistance and support possible. We must help people to heal and rebuild their lives and we must make amends for the harm suffered. I will be keeping a close eye on the promises the Government is making regarding redress and holding it accountable. Reflecting on the lives of the 9,000 mothers and children who died in the homes in such sad circumstances, I would like to propose a national day of remembrance for them. Perhaps any time this year would be suitable. We commemorate the lives of soldiers who die for the nation and the State. It would be fitting, then, to commemorate also the lives of the vulnerable who died and, indeed, suffered because of neglect on the part of this nation and State.
My second point is on the annual visit of our Taoiseach to the White House on St. Patrick's Day. The lockdowns the people of this nation have gone through have been among the world's most severe. If the Taoiseach were to attend the events in the White House, public buy-in with regard to continuing to adhere to the strict measures would evaporate. Independent Kerry county councillor Charlie Farrelly has suggested that we ask Ms Vicky Phelan, who is currently in the United States getting treatment, to represent the nation on St. Patrick's Day in the White House, if she is healthy. If she is not, I am sure that Mr. Daniel Mulhall, the ambassador of Ireland to the United States, could do the honours for our leader on the day. We are either all in this together or the Government's mantra means nothing.
I will certainly pass on the comments of Senator Keoghan and her colleagues in local government on the Taoiseach's proposed visit to the White House. Essential travel needs to continue if the world economy is to continue to support those who cannot support themselves temporarily because of the impact of Covid on our lives and society. I genuinely believe and hope, as we all do, that society will re-emerge later this year. Our relationship with the United States is certainly key in the context of our hope that our economy will completely take off and soar once we reopen it. I appreciate and understand the concerns the Senator has raised, however.
Senator Moynihan referred to the amount of speculation going on in the market today. I certainly believe she has a point, not only in the context of imposing levies in respect of vacant or empty apartments and houses, a move that would not be without its difficulties, but also regarding a vacant site tax for which many people have long advocated. We will have an opportunity to talk to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage this afternoon. The issue should be raised then.
Senator Dooley referred to ten primary schools. I do not believe this issue is unique to Ennis. In Rolestown, which is in the constituency in which I live and which is just up the road from where the Senator lives, there are people who do not fall into any catchment area and who will, therefore, always be at the bottom of the list of the schools to which they apply to send their children. That needs to be remedied and not just by the Department of Education but by those who are dominant in the provision of education. Many of our education and training boards and, indeed, the Catholic Church, need to work together to ensure that no child is left waiting at the end of anybody's list when it comes to that big milestone of moving from primary to secondary school, which has an impact on our children whether we like it or not.
The funding for science research is welcome. It is something we probably do not sing enough about. The future of technology and the creativity that exists in that sphere in this country is something we probably do not applaud much. Certainly, however, in view of the amount of money being invested, it should be clear to all of us that is exactly what will cause the major impetus on the change of life we all expect to come in the years and decades ahead.
Senator Garvey welcomed the €50 million rural infrastructure fund for walking and cycling in the countryside. I must concur. This is really welcome. I wish to God it was not just for rural Ireland. Some money is probably needed for many of our urban areas, particularly in view of the fact that in the past year almost everybody has become a walker and many more people are cycling than used to be the case. There probably is not an awful lot else for us to do, to be honest. As an avid walker and cyclist, I absolutely wish there was some logic to how the money is spent and the infrastructure that is being developed. The only example I will give is the consternation that was evident at the weekend in Swords in north County Dublin. We unveiled an absolutely beautiful looking cycleway and walking path, yet the path is not wide enough for two people to walk beside each other. The cycleway is supposed to allow cyclists to travel in both directions at the same time. It is so small one could not possibly even have a walker and a cyclist on the same path. With such a huge amount of money being invested, there needs to be some logic in the delivery by our local authorities as to the actual use of these amenities by people, and not just have something looking lovely on both sides of our streets. The money is welcome, however.
Senator Blaney brought up the need for a debate on our mental health services and the people who provide them. It is not just the State. It is all of our charities that are supported by the State but also by the millions of people who donate to their fundraising events every year. They certainly are stretched but most of them have moved seamlessly from providing face-to-face services to providing them online. We should be hugely grateful for these services. This is not to say that a debate is not needed or that more money is not needed to support them. I have no doubt it will be, however, once we all come through the aftereffects of Covid-19.
I do not know when the CLÁR programme review is due to be published. I will find out and revert back to Senator Carrigy's office, however. Again, the letter he read out from the parent of a child in a special school is testament to just how much of an impact the closure of our schools is having on all our children, but particularly, our those who have extra and additional needs. There is a Cabinet sub-committee meeting to discuss education this afternoon, which I hope will bear some fruit. There will a debate in the House next Monday with the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and with the Minister for Education on the following Monday. I very much hope that we will not still be seeking answers on the leaving certificate and junior certificate - as Members have been doing for the past number of weeks - but that, as has been sought, we will have clarity and decisions will be made.
Senator Cassells raised the issue of a school that has been close to my heart for many years. Although I do not represent the constituency anymore, I still live there. Stepping Stones School is a wonderful addition to the community of Kilcloon and to the counties of Meath and Kildare. It is probably no different from every other special school in the country in that it has been taken into the minds and hearts of the people who live in the local community. It has been entirely dependent upon the goodwill and, in the main, the financial support of those people for the past number of years. Stepping Stones School was only taken under the aegis of the Department of Education a short number of years ago.
I am dismayed that despite a visit by me and the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Joe McHugh, and the promise made by the Department not only to provide a new building but to upgrade the disgraceful provision it was making for those kids who have to go to school every day in the Stepping Stones school, that work has still not been done. A scheduled meeting was cancelled the day before it was due because of Covid. It does not take a genius to take photographs and realise that the education buildings in Kilcloon are nowhere close to a minimum standard. The provision of educational services by the teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, for the children who go to the school is second to none. The Senator is dead right that we are failing them. I do not know what it takes because I am sure he and every other representative associated with the school have been in touch with the Department of Education in the past week, yet there has still not been a response. I do not know what it takes to get a response on such a crucial issue. I will contact the Department again today. The staff, parents and children who attend the Stepping Stones school will continue to have all of our support.
Senator Ardagh and others spoke about the awful tragedy of the passing of Josh Dunne, a young 16-year-old boy. One could not but be moved by his mam at the weekend when balloons were released and the community came together in solidarity with the family on Coultry Road in Ballymun. I extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to Josh's family, on behalf of every Member of this House.
On the clarity sought about the leaving certificate examination, I hope we will have some certainty this week.
I advise Senator McDowell that I have already sought a debate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He has acquiesced but I do not have a date given that we have a full schedule next Monday and nearly a full schedule the following Monday. It is an important debate to be had and the questions raised this morning need a response. We saw the impact of the threat at the weekend. It shows just how easy it is for temperatures to rise in what is already a very volatile situation. One wonders how anybody could have made such a silly mistake. I think the Senator knows what I mean in describing it as "silly" because it could have had disastrous consequences. We need to come together and reaffirm to the rest of the world and the European Union that we are committed to travel and the economy of the island of Ireland. I will try to get answers and will schedule a debate as soon as the Minister's schedule allows. He has agreed to a debate.
Senator Kyne raised the correct decision made by the previous Government to invest in the national broadband strategy. I do not say this with any pleasure because we are well aware that nearly every other party and Independents, bar a small number, had great difficulty with investment in broadband and, indeed, investment in Irish people. I hope that Covid, if it has ever done anything for us, makes us realise that we can have a better society and a better distribution of the economy and the population so that they are not just centred in major national cities but in rural places, as Senator Kyne so eloquently described in Irish. Unfortunately, I did not understand what he said, much to my regret. Work-life balance needs to be addressed in legislation later this year. In lockdown, we are all dying to be able to go anywhere other than taking a walk around our own village or within a 5 km limit. There is a definite balance to be struck between being in an office and being at home. No one wishes to go back to spending an hour or longer in their car every morning and every evening when they do not have to.
Senator Fitzpatrick spoke about the Minister for Justice and the justice and policing committees, JPCs, with regard to knife crime. Members of the other House have raised this issue in recent days. Last week was, I believe, a record week in Dublin in this regard and we had the shock of people being injured in various incidents, with some losing their lives and some being left gravely ill. I heard one gentleman say on radio that he would not leave his house without a knife in his pocket because he was not going to let somebody walk his daughter up the aisle. I think I know what he meant with those sentiments but, by God, if that is the attitude we will all have when we leave our houses, we are certainly not going to get to a better place. It will be a worse place so that is something that needs to be addressed now.
I am very pleased to accept Senator Ó Donnghaile's order and look forward to the two by-elections. To answer Senator Boyhan, I do not know the dates but I am quite sure they will be held very soon. The clock has been ticking on the first one for a number of weeks now as it was initiated by his previous motion and the clock is now ticking on the second one as well. We need to get these Seanad by-elections done as quickly as we possibly can. The Senator is right that it does highlight an anomaly, a number of my own colleagues in local government had expected that a vote would be extended to them and are surprised that this has not happened.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs is coming in to discuss Article 16 and I will ask to have a Brexit debate on the same day. I very much think we need to lay out to Irish people what post-Brexit is actually going to look like, and not just in the immediate term. We are aware of the difficulties with paperwork, queues and so on at the moment, but there is also the matter of what we expect and hope, and what our ambitions are in the long term.
The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, spoke so eloquently about the challenges we have with climate change and how all sections of the community need to embrace them to ensure we have a happy outcome with the green deal and its commitments.
Senator Boyhan talked about the housing scheme. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will be here this afternoon but we probably need a separate debate on it when we have all of the details. I would also love to see the outcomes of the pilot scheme that was run by the former Minister of exactly this scheme in Cork a number of years ago. It indicates whether this is going to work or shows the pitfalls or the pros and cons of how the pilot actually went so we can all learn, when we are doing the pre-legislative scrutiny, what kind of changes we should expect. However, there very much is a need for some scheme. This may or may not be it but there very much is a need for some scheme to support people. When one considers the situation where a household with €100,000 coming in in salaries still cannot afford a house in Dublin, it is not fair. We greatly need to support them.
A number of colleagues have raised the mother and baby homes and what emerged about the matter of the recordings of survivors' testimonies over the weekend. I do not know whether to call it an admission or not, because it is something that maybe we all should have known, but I must say it is certainly not something I was aware of. Admittedly, it was in the terms of reference of the establishment but that dates back to 2004. I think Senator McDowell was the Minister who introduced that legislation. We all sat here for two weeks in November and December fighting to ensure the information and the testimonies the survivors gave would be available to them, and not withheld for a period of 30 years. I think we all thought that battle had been won and the acknowledgement by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth - who resisted initially but then came around to both public protests and indeed everybody's concerns and suggestions in this House - was that all of the survivors would be able to access the testimony. This was not just for the obvious reasons that we are familiar with of how a people can query what has been put in a report as having been said by them if they do not have the original testimony to go back to, but because it is theirs - it is their story and their voice. People have found out now that it is gone.
It does not even come close to appreciating the compounding of hurt on hurt that we seem to be continuously doing. Now that we know it is gone, one would nearly shrug one's shoulders and give up. However, I know we will not give up because of the stories and the experiences that the women still continue to contact us with, as do their children. They are the men and women who lost the opportunity of having a life with their real family and substituted obviously with their next family. We need to find out when the audio tapes were destroyed. If we found out we were having a debate in November and December about something that had already been destroyed. I must assume the Minister did not know because he stood here so earnestly debating as to why we could not have access to them and then giving us the details of why he absolutely would ensure that they would be given access to them when he got the right information from the Attorney General. If we find out that they were already gone by then, by jove. I know the commissioners do not want to have a conversation with either the public or our committees downstairs but they definitely owe it to the 550 surviving women who came and sat in front of them and shared their stories. The commissioners should explain why the survivors were not told their stories would be erased before the report was published and explain to them how in God's name they are actually going to refute the memories the women now say have been incorrectly proposed in the report on their behalf. There are so many questions which remain unanswered but I will tell the House what we will not do is allow this to be swept under another carpet again. Just before I walked into the Chamber this morning did I receive an audio message from a lady?
She did not want to reply by email because she wanted her voice to be heard. That is how much of an impact the actions of people in this country are having on survivors and it has to stop now. I will write to find out and I am sure that we all will. We will probably need another debate about the commitments given by the Government to make sure that they are lived up to daily in the timelines set out. No more can be taken by the women or their families. The Irish people are losing the will to live with the commitments and things that we say on behalf of the State, and that is not a good place to be.
The Leader did not respond to my comments on Myanmar and zero Covid.
I raised two issues that the Leader might address. Those are increased co-operation and protocols to be put in place between the gardaí and PSNI and the non-attendance of people for Covid tests.
Senator Gallagher will have to forgive me. I did not get to his contribution and I apologise. There is absolutely a need for co-operation between North and South. The Irish people are exasperated, listening to us calling for politicians, North and South, to co-operate and yet it does not happen. We put blocks and obstacles in our way and while they might be political, the people do not care. They just want us to get on and do it. I will contact the Minister for Justice today. I know she is in contact with her counterpart in the North. We need to see action as opposed to more talk.
I might ask Mr. Paul Reid to come back to us about the reasons that people do not attend for tests. If it is a transport or childcare issue, then those issues need to be addressed, but it may be, as it was last year with people not showing up for their second PCR test, because they think they are grand. The most shocking tweets I have read were from Dr. Tony Holohan recently. He talked about how we have had more cases in January than we had in the entirety of 2020. More than 1,000 of our citizens, people's loved ones, have passed away completely needlessly, yet we still do not seem to be getting the message through. We will try to find out the reasons and come back to that.
I apologise to Senator Bacik and will ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. I am sure he will make a statement and I will send it to the Senator once I receive it. If not, he certainly needs to make that statement. Democracy is precious and we take a lot for granted but it is certainly not taken for granted in countries where it is under threat. I will come back to the Senator about it.
She also asked for a debate on zero Covid. I will request it. The difficulty with calling it that is that "zero Covid" means different things to different people. We should certainly pursue an aggressive strategy to rid our country of the virus and we could certainly all get behind that.
Will the Minister come in to talk about Bessborough House?
I think the Leader answered that in response to the issue of mother and baby homes and I am sure that she will facilitate a further debate on that.
Senator Ó Donnghaile has moved an amendment to the Order of Business, "That No. 29, motion 8, be taken before No. 1." Is the amendment agreed? Agreed.