An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on mental health and Covid-19, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 4.30 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed seven minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed four minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than five minutes to reply to the debate. Business will be interrupted at 3 p.m. for 15 minutes for sanitisation of the Chamber.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Leader. I have to start today's proceedings by talking about education and some of the statistics that have emerged. When we see that calls to Childline went up by 26% during this lockdown, there are 20% fewer referrals to our social workers, and top paediatricians are saying children are at risk of suffering in terms of physical health and lack of socialisation, we have to have a pathway back to reopening schools. That has to be a priority and we should send a strong message. I think we were all devastated when we heard the news last night that the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI, walked out of talks with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and her officials. We were all glad when we heard last week there would be a two-track approach to the leaving certificate.

It is something that many Senators called for and sought, and it was absolutely the correct decision. It is appalling that the ASTI walked out of talks that aimed to find a solution for young people who are due to sit State exams this year. The union is certainly not thinking about them or their mental health or about supporting them. I urge it to get back in and to continue those conversations.

There was good news in my constituency this week, with the southern distributor road having reached a new milestone after the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, signed the documentation for the advanced tender. Nevertheless, I make an appeal through the Leader in regard to other vital infrastructure that is needed, namely, a second bridge for Newbridge. Newbridge is a busy, vital town, but there is only one bridge to bring us into or out of it. On that bridge, there are three busy secondary schools and three busy primary schools, and in normal times, it is not unusual for people to be blocked for 30 minutes in traffic. We need a second bridge to support residents and business. An application has been submitted under the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, and it is vital that funding be delivered. I would appreciate if the Leader could bring that to the attention of the Minister.

My final point relates to eating disorders. Next week is national eating disorders awareness week. According to research carried out, there was a 66% increase in 2020 in the number of hospital admissions relating to eating disorders, compared with the previous year. There are only eight beds in the country that specialise in and deal with eating disorders. We have to do something and to be better at supporting those who need help.

I thank the Leader for setting out the Order of Business. I want to talk on behalf of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, the nurses' union, and the great work it does. Nurses and midwives are doing an amazing job on the front line in saving the lives of our loved ones in the context of Covid. It is a tragedy. They are physically exhausted. I do not know whether Senators had the opportunity to watch the "RTÉ Investigates" programme earlier this week. We saw nurses say they could not take a break even to go to the toilet because they would have to take off all their protective clothing. Some of them go many hours without food or water to stay on the job, saving the lives of our people. They are our heroes. That is true for doctors but also for front-line health workers such as orderlies, porters, cooks and security people - everyone who makes a hospital community tick.

Justine McCarthy wrote a very moving piece in last week's edition of The Sunday Times, in which she stated: "The emotional and psychological toll of caring for very sick patients isolated from their loved ones - sometimes holding a patient's hand until they take their final breath - is immeasurable." That sums it up. It is so sad and so tragic. The INMO has lodged a compensatory request with the Government. In its most recent statement, published on 9 February 2021, the union stated it was still waiting for a response from the Department of Health to that request. Despite great personal risk to themselves and their families - given that they too take personal risks - in going out and caring for our loved ones, healthcare workers do incredible work on the battlefield of holding back, stemming and keeping some control on Covid. We as a nation owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for their work and service.

The article goes on to argue that we cannot offer mere words of thanks and gratitude; we have to demonstrate our commitment. This is an important time for calm heads, and I do not want to be winding up issues in the Chamber or expressing the old political rhetoric. We all share a common concern in this House and the other. How can we in some way recognise the very significant work that these nurses are doing? In Northern Ireland and Britain, including Scotland, there is a sort of bonus scheme, although I am not sure that is what nurses are seeking. They are seeking financial recognition.

Remember, a high percentage of people in the nursing profession are women who have childcare commitments. Schools are closed. Who is paying for these childcare services for them? That is another burden and stress they do not need at this time. I would welcome a debate, when it is appropriate. We should work together across these Houses to see if we can, in some practical and measurable way, compensate and support these nurses on the front line who look after and care for our loved ones in our amazing health services.

I will bounce through a number of issues today as quickly as I can. The first is about students travelling for practical laboratories. A number of students have contacted me because they are concerned about bringing Covid-19 into their homes. On-campus laboratories are still mandatory for students completing courses with a practical element, which has left students throughout the country who are back in their family homes or in counties other than their place of study left in the position of having either to travel on lengthy public transport journeys or take lifts with family and friends. I spoke to a man who drives his daughter from Sligo to Limerick because he does not want her going on public transport.

Many are concerned that while they may take every precaution possible at an individual level, they will be at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 while on campus and bringing it home to their family or rented accommodation. Many who have contacted me have asked why they cannot have their laboratories grouped together towards the end of the year, in a few months, when it is hoped there will be lower rates of infection. This is causing an awful lot of stress for these students and their families.

Another matter that has been brought my attention by students and their parents is the ongoing issue of having to pay large fees for student accommodation on campus which they cannot then access because they have been instructed to stay at home. Many people have prepaid for this year or this semester. I know that while the private companies that run these accommodation facilities are not to blame for the ongoing lockdown, many are benefiting quite handsomely from students who have prepaid for accommodation they cannot now access. I ask that the Minister would do all he can to compel these companies, through the colleges if needs be, to give students and their families a break on their fees next year for accommodation services. This has been an incredibly tough year for students and the families who help them to cover the costs. They are being asked to pay for services they simply cannot access. This really is not fair.

The last issue I wish to raise is around transgender healthcare and transgender children. I do not know if Senators saw the noteworthy article yesterday in thejournal.ie. Transgender children are being referred to transgender healthcare that simply does not exist. The gender identity adolescent service that was situated in Crumlin children's hospital is no longer receiving further referrals, according to the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland, TENI. A long-awaited report came out in December and one of the recommendations was that psychological supports for those under 18 should be provided and delivered by the Irish health service rather than in the UK, as was previously the situation. This has come about because of the failure of the HSE to develop and implement a proper multidisciplinary team to support the provision of care for young transgender people in Ireland. It is concerning now that young transgender people will be referred to a service that simply will not exist for a number of years, which means they will eventually end up transitioning into the adult service. As we know, that adult service is also woefully lacking, with many transgender people having to travel abroad to access the care they need. I ask the Leader to raise this with the Minister.

Many people in the democratic free world were deeply concerned and appalled by the grab for power - the military coup - that took place in Myanmar on 1 February last. That Government was elected last November by a landslide, but even if had been only by one vote, that is the true test of democracy. The voices of everyone in the democratic free world not only must be heard but must be heard in an effective way.

I welcome that the vice president of the European Parliament, Ms Heidi Hautala of the Green League, has called for effective widespread sanctions. The decision by President Biden to freeze €1 billion in assets of the coup leaders in America is also a step in the right direction, as is the Minister, Deputy Coveney’s, call for our partners on the Security Council, now that we are on it, to do all in our power to not tolerate this affront to democracy. More should and can be done through a coherent and concerted effort from all right-thinking people in the democratic free world to say "No" to this. A democratically elected government is not displaced and removed overnight.

I welcome yesterday's announcement by the National Transport Authority that it will allocate €240 million to city and county councils throughout Ireland for proper and better cycling and walking facilities. This includes €3.7 million for the Royal Canal greenway in my native Kildare and €460,000 for the Sallins village traffic management and cycle scheme. Overall, nearly €8 million has been announced for County Kildare alone. This is a positive step and a new beginning. Throughout Ireland, it will help to provide safer, better and more routes for school commuters and better choices for leisure and cycling usage on these proposed routes.

Yesterday's announcement of the new outdoor public space scheme grant aid is welcome. This will create public spaces for arts, culture and innovative artistic performance all year round. There is a growing appreciation of the value of communal spaces. In my county of Kildare, one must only look at the huge success of the Market Square in Kildare town. It is a victim of its own success because it has been oversubscribed at times during the pandemic due to its popularity. I also mention the car-free days on the canal bank walkway in Naas. Up to 10,000 pedestrians take to that beautiful walk on such days. This is the future. As a county councillor, in September 2019, I tabled a proposal which was supported by all councillors, for an artistic centre in Naas. As happens elsewhere in Ireland, this injects reality into such moves and this can happen. Bandstands and artistic centres can be provided throughout Ireland with up to €250,000 in funding for each local authority and that is up and running from today. I hope people go for it and seize this opportunity.

Today's Order Paper contains a Sinn Féin motion, No. 11 in non-Government motions, that seeks to end the nightmare that is facing renters across the State. Many thought the pandemic would ease the dysfunctional private rental sector but it has not done so. We should all focus on ending that crisis and making life that bit easier for hard-working renters who are finding it difficult at this time.

The number of inspections of rental properties carried out by local authorities needs to be increased and we have legislation ready that will ban the advertising of unfit properties. The previous Seanad debated that legislation. The motion also sets out the data and the facts presented by various housing organisations and charities, from sky-high rents in all our cities and towns, to substandard rental accommodation and the slow pace of building affordable cost-rental accommodation. We need to place a figure on what affordable rent is. We are all going around talking about what affordable rent is but as of yet, that has not been defined. It is remarkable that we do not have a figure on that to give people hope that their salaries would earn them decent and safe housing and a good quality of life. We keep hearing from the Government about various laws around housing. Will they make a material difference to the lives of people struggling to make ends meet? We need legislation that addresses how people leave the market and what situation that leaves renters in. I look forward to that debate. That motion is on the Order Paper and I invite the Government parties to study it and act upon it.

The topic that is on many people's lips this morning is the decision of the ASTI to withdraw from talks on the leaving certificate, which Senator O'Loughlin raised earlier. As a former teacher, I understand where ASTI is coming from regarding calculated grades. We need perspective in this debate but, as Senator O'Loughlin said, to walk out of talks is wrong.

I would appeal to the ASTI to come back into talks because the students, teachers and parents of Ireland all deserve certainty and an end to the dialling up of the rhetoric.

Calculated grades are fine in theory. Many commentators who know everything are this morning pontificating about education on the airwaves and in print. Last year we had pre-examinations, Christmas examinations and summer examinations from the year before. This year all we have are the Christmas examinations just gone. I would appeal to the ASTI to come back into talks. The present situation is unfair to everybody. I would appeal to the Minister for Education to come and address Seanad Éireann. Let us have talks and let us do so in a manner that is respectful of all sides.

I ask that the Leader would invite the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Chambers, to come to the House to discuss the rationale and reasoning behind the decision regarding the GAA and its operation at level 5. I have a view, which is probably a minority view, that we should allow young people back playing sport and training in pods of 15. There are young people all over the country today who are frustrated, bored and dying to play a bit of sport. We have playgrounds open under level 5. We have GAA fields, soccer fields and rugby fields, the best in the country, funded in many cases by voluntary donations and by the State. I ask for perspective and that we would allow our younger people to be able to have some bit of optimism and hope by letting them train in pods of 15.

Following on from what Senators Buttimer and O'Loughlin have said, it is important that people dial down the rhetoric and get down to negotiation. I wonder whether the common good is being served by the kind of debate that we are having about the leaving certificate, calculated grades and-or a combination of both. What strikes me listening to the media discussion of this issue is that it is doing nothing to help the situation. National unity is what is required right now. We are in a crisis situation and the real focus of the country should be on keeping people safe and well, and getting the vaccine to people as quickly as possible. The panic ridden discussion about the leaving certificate, the controversy generated by people saying they are pulling out of talks and people clamouring to have their particular point of view on this issue heard is not only pointless, but harmful. What is needed now is a recognition that there is no perfect answer to this problem, there is no possibility of absolute certainty and seeking the perfect is the enemy of the good at this time. I would like to see a private discussion and negotiation where the different parties - students, teachers and parents - are all heard. In the end, it has to be a consultation, and decisions have to be made that will not please everybody 100%.

When I hear the student voice, I am glad that we now listen to the student voice in these discussions but we have to acknowledge the paradox as well. We rightly listen to the student voice in a way we did not do a generation ago but at the same time in the background there is the realisation that if we announce that there will be no leaving certificate there is the risk that students will down tools. It is time that we acknowledge that and give leadership to the younger generation.

I would say talking to people on the airwaves about how stressed they must feel by all of this is doing nothing to help them to be resilient at this time. There is a bigger picture and we need to reach for it.

I wish to raise the issue of the forthcoming legislation regarding the gambling industry and pay tribute to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, who is preparing to tackle this issue. The speed at which gambling addiction has risen in this country is frightening. Some years ago there was a move to put a casino in Tipperary and they thought the place would be turned into Las Vegas. Now every teenager and, indeed, adult, is walking around with a casino in his or her pocket.

Worse, that device is the greatest weapon that gambling firms have for targeting their addicts. Through the work of their social media teams, they have hooked people with targeted ads and fed their addiction.

The specific issue I am raising pertains to the legislation on the advertising of these insidious products in the gambling world. One cannot turn on a sports bulletin on Sky Sports without it being sponsored by a casino. My nine-year-old who wants to watch the sports news sees that, as does every other child. The sports pages in our newspapers have banner ads for casino firms and social media is a free for all.

I welcome the move by the Minister of State, who will next month start the process of appointing a much-needed gambling regulator. What is also needed is for all of our sporting bodies, regardless of the forthcoming legislation, to lead the charge and reject the lure of these firms' cash. I know doing so would be hard, especially in these times, but it is a little like the situation with tobacco companies previously. Yesterday, I spoke to the chief executive of Basketball Ireland, Mr. Bernard O'Byrne, a man who has become well versed over the decades in the sporting bodies of this country. He is calling on his counterparts in all sporting bodies to lead the way on curbing the proliferation of sports betting advertising among those bodies. It is targeting the bodies' membership. It might be enriching some sports bodies, but it is ruining the lives of their members and future generations because the firms know that that is where their target market is.

I welcome the legislation that the Minister of State will be introducing, but we must do more to reject these firms, which are turning our young people into addicts.

During the pandemic, we have seen the important role that local media has played in keeping communities connected and giving them valuable, useful and correct information, and none more so than local newspapers throughout the country. It is appropriate that the Government would provide financial assistance to help local newspapers during this difficult time for them. However, that requires a responsibility of local newspaper to treat their journalists and other staff appropriately. It has come to my attention that Iconic Newspapers, which owns more than 25 local newspapers, has shredded its editorial workforce and reduced the hours and working conditions of many editorial staff, photographers, journalists and so on. If we are giving support to local newspapers, they have a responsibility to retain their staff. That is the core principle of the support that is being given to them. I call on Iconic Newspapers, which owns the Limerick Leader, the Tipperary Star and so on in my area, to reverse its cuts immediately and engage properly and meaningfully with the National Union of Journalists, NUJ, which is the body by which journalists must be accredited to attend Government press conferences and so on. It is appropriate that Iconic Newspapers do so.

The HSE urgently needs to provide clarity regarding the mopping up process in nursing homes. Sadly, when vaccination was under way in many nursing homes, some patients and residents had Covid and were not in a position to access a vaccine. There is a 28-day period in which a patient must be Covid-free before receiving a vaccine injection, but there is no clarity in this situation. We are dealing with elderly people. They, their families and their nursing homes are worried. I call on the Leader to seek clarity on the mopping up process and protocols.

I plead with the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI, to return to the table. I can only use my experience, which is that the best place to discuss any issue is at the table. I echo the calls in the Chamber for the ASTI to return to the discussions. I will use my experience as the parent of a leaving certificate student and as a public representative. The mental stress on these young people was increased last night. The announcements are not helping, no matter what anyone says. When a leaving certificate house hears such news, the effect is unbelievable. We are listening to every announcement. This has to stop. The only place for a discussion on the leaving certificate is around the table.

I encourage the ASTI to go back into discussions immediately.

I welcome the €240 million funding announced for sustainable projects yesterday by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the NTA. I also welcome the €7.7 million announced for my county. However, it would be remiss of me not to question the obvious disregard between the electoral areas of Kildare North and Kildare South. It is great to see the money being invested in towns and linking the villages of north Kildare. Unfortunately, almost 80% of the funding allocated to my county is targeted at north Kildare. We have many fine towns and villages in south Kildare but I want to mention one, which is Newbridge. Newbridge is the largest town in Kildare. Recent figures tell us it is the 15th largest town in Ireland. I suggest that any stimulus package to increase sustainable transport, including walking and cycling, must include the biggest town in the county. Without such investment, the residents of Newbridge are being left behind. I have met the NTA to discuss the issues surrounding commuters in the town and rail commuters in particular. We presented the NTA with a petition of 7,000 signatures, whose main concern surrounded the cost of fares, overcrowding and facilities. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Transport to come before the House to discuss the future transport needs of our towns. We cannot allow the town of Newbridge to grow as it has without looking at the transport links needed for it and to ensure this town in south Kildare gets the funding to ensure transport is sustainable.

I thank the Minister and the Government for the €18 million in funding provided for central Dublin to improve walking and cycling infrastructure. More than ten years ago, when I was first elected as a city councillor, I looked for a greenway on the Royal Canal and I am really glad to see it has progressed. With this funding we will be able to have a high-quality greenway all the way from the docklands through Ballybough, North Strand, Phibsborough, up through Cabra and all the way to Ashtown. It is very welcome. Money has also been included for the Liffey cycle route and other routes and improvements at Broadstone plaza, Glasnevin and Fairview.

There has been a lot of talk today about Covid. I concur with Senator Buttimer's request that when we move to the next stage of the living with Covid plan the Government protects those who are most vulnerable and also prioritises our young people. Young people are really struggling mentally and physically in the pandemic. The issue of them being put back into classrooms, where they will be eight hours a day with a mask on their face, yet they cannot train outdoors in pods of five or 15 has to be looked at. I urge the Leader to urge the Government to do this.

It is hugely stressful for 2021 leaving certificate students to hear the debate being conducted over the airwaves. It sets a very poor example to them when adults have talks about having talks or have talks and withdraw from them. Teachers are working very hard. Parents are working very hard. For anybody to suggest they would down tools because there would be no leaving certificate is deeply insensitive and deeply disconnected from these young people. This is their future. There is nothing more important to them than to be able to progress from secondary school and move on with their lives. They are being frightened out of their lives with thoughts of extra points for the CAO and an extra 2,000 CAO applications. Still today, having lost five months of classroom learning from their senior cycle, they have no certainty. I urge the Leader to urge all of the partners to return to the talks and give these students certainty and choice.

A few weeks ago, I asked the Leader in the Chamber whether she had a date for the introduction of the gambling control Bill. She honestly said then that she did not. I want to ask now whether there has been progress. I formally request that in the interim, before the Leader brings the Bill to the House, we have statements on gambling as a priority. I want to elaborate on this. A gambling addiction ruins more than one life. People chase losses with more gambling. They suffer mood swings and depression. It leads to dishonest behaviour in people who are otherwise honest, as well as to secretive and evasive behaviour.

In a Covid context, online gambling has increased. The Paddy Power organisation has officially said that 77% of its profits come from online gambling. As much as €10,000 per minute is spent in this fashion in this country. I ask the Leader to arrange for a debate. I ask her to please bear in mind the awful statistic that, as we speak, 29,000 people in this country suffer from gambling addiction. That is the minimum figure that has been established by an interparliamentary group.

We should do the following quickly: impose a cap on each bet of €100; display statistics that show the problems like the warnings against smoking cigarettes; if a customer is very high on the list of high spending then he or she should be referred to addiction services; the numbers for addiction services should be displayed; only debit cards should be used; weekly spend should be monitored; and there should be a social fund. These are steps I would commend. I support the views expressed by Senator Cassells who raised the issue of gambling. I have spoken about gambling before and I will raise it again because we cannot give up on this issue. All I would say is that we are talking of tortured people. We all know them in our communities and among our friends. A gambling addiction has had devastating effects on families and children. I support everything that was said about the leaving certificate examination but what is happening to 29,000 people and their families is horrendous. Gambling needs addressing with a most radical plan, including in the advertising area that was identified by Senator Cassells.

I would like to raise the distressing news that the delay in the Stardust inquest commencing is due to the Department of Justice and its stonewalling of the legal teams representing the families and the release of funds. We were given repeated commitments by the Minister for Justice and by the Taoiseach, when he announced the budget last year, that there would be sufficient funding put in place for the inquest. This is the largest inquest in the history of the State. This weekend is the 40th anniversary of the horrific fire that took the lives of 48 young people. Every year, the number of relatives at the anniversary decreases because they are dying, unfortunately. The relatives are getting old and deserve answers.

I ask that the Leader writes to the Minister for Justice and requests that she immediately meets with the legal team representing the families to resolve the issue of funding. The Department was warned by the legal team that the legal aid route would not be the appropriate route to go down and that a special arrangement was needed, as was the case with the Hillsborough inquest, in order for the inquest of this scale to proceed. That warning was ignored by the Department of Justice. It has ignored all of the letters and is now refusing to release the funds to allow the inquest to proceed. I beg the Leader to please take this message back to the Department of Justice as these families need answers and for the inquest to start immediately.

Last week I received an email from Ruby Lily Doyle, aged ten, from Avoca. Like many of us, Ruby Lily and her family have taken to walking the beautiful village of Avoca in Wicklow, which is known to people as "Ballykissangel" from the television series. In her email she states that what has horrified her has been the level of dog fouling that has taken place on the walks. In fairness to her, she has now started her own local campaign in Avoca called Clean It Up and she has a lovely little poster that she goes around Avoca with. She has also written to the local authority to ask it to raise awareness about dog fouling. We are all aware of the issue and I am not too sure which is the greater offence. Is it the dog fouling or the people who make an attempt to pick up the dog fouling, put it into a plastic bag, tie it to a tree or nestle it neatly between the roots of a tree on the ground and leave it there? What is more, and I shall be graphic, people put it into a plastic bag, throw it in a hedge and then a Tidy Towns' worker, private resident or council worker comes along in a few months' time with a strimmer to strim the grass and bursts open the plastic bag.

Ruby Lily has asked that we conduct an awareness campaign. Each local authority has had an awareness campaign, tried to erect signs and provided litter bins.

Yesterday, there was an announcement of millions of euro for walking and cycling routes. I believe we must invest in a national public campaign on dog fouling and support this campaign to make these walks more enjoyable and safer for everybody and, indeed, for the volunteers and council workers who are maintaining these routes. Perhaps the Leader would convey to the appropriate Department that we should spend some money on a national campaign of awareness about the impact dog fouling is having on the environment.

I commend Ruby on her act of citizenship in starting the campaign. I call Senator Ahearn.

The national development plan review process is due to finish on 19 February. The national development plan currently includes the N24 road from Limerick to Waterford. It is being done in two phases. The first phase is from Cahir to Limerick Junction, which is approximately 35 km in length, and a consultation process with the public representatives has already taken place. The second phase is from Cahir to Waterford city and is 60 km long. There will be a meeting about this on 26 February with all public representatives from all the county councils involved - Tipperary, Kilkenny, Waterford and Limerick. The road is in the national development plan at present, and it is at the design stage and is funded up until the planning stage.

However, due to recent announcements by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, there is a level of fear in all the local authorities, but particularly in Tipperary County Council, that this project might not remain in the national development plan. Will the Leader invite the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to the House to give clarity and reassurance that this road project is a priority for him and the Government? The Minister is on record as saying last year that he saw the sense in having new road infrastructure between Cahir and Limerick. Obviously, given that Rosslare will be used more frequently post Brexit, the main road from Limerick to Waterford and on to Rosslare is seen as a priority. We have been in this situation previously in Tipperary. About ten or 15 years ago we were brought up the mountain with a design stage, only for it to collapse. It is understandable, therefore, that there is fear among the public. Certainly, the public representatives and councillors in all the local authorities, as well as the chief executives of those local authorities, should be given the reassurance that the work that is taking place at present can continue, with the assurance that this road is a priority for the Government in the future.

First, as the chairman of a board of management of a secondary school, I wish to be associated with everything that was said this morning about the current situation with the leaving certificate. I plead with the ASTI to return to the room. Due to what occurred yesterday, the debate is now public. This is not good for the class of 2021. Ultimately, the decision on whatever leaving certificate examination takes place will be made around that table, so I plead with the ASTI to return to the talks and to have them in the tunnel and avoid the public debate.

The matter I wish to raise is, in a way, closely related to the issue raised by Senator Casey. I ask the Leader to lend the support of this House to a request that the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine has sent to the relevant Ministers to recommence an awareness campaign regarding the savaging of sheep by dogs. We might work in collusion with Senator Casey and include the issue of dog fouling in urban areas under the same campaign. We are very familiar with the role of the councillor in approaching us for assistance, but I plead with all councillors to raise this matter at their local councils. The local authorities have ultimate responsibility for the Control of Dogs Act 1986. It is a startling fact that, according to Garda figures, at this time of the year each year there are approximately 400 attacks on sheep, which result in between 3,000 and 4,000 fatalities. Another startling fact is that it is compulsory and the law that one should have one's dog on a lead when outside. Many people do not realise this. We will be discussing mental health later today and I realise that it is vital during the pandemic that people get outdoors and get their exercise, but I plead with them to keep their dogs on the lead.

There are two points I wish to make to people and I hope they can be highlighted. People in areas where there is commonage land assume the land is public land.

Commonage is land that is owned commonly by a group of farmers. It is not public land. Farmers do not mind people going onto their land once their dogs are under control.

With regard to enforcement, local authority dog pounds, etc., there are approximately 800,000 dogs in Ireland. There are 217,000 licensed dogs so this needs to be enforced. It is the law. I ask the Leader to forward that message to the Ministers to get the awareness campaign going first and we may need to address the question of legislation at a later stage.

I thank my colleagues. I am slightly in shock to hear Senator Daly say that we have 800,000 dogs and that only 217,000 of them are licensed. That should be something that is relatively simple to enforce yet we are not doing it.

Deputy Casey raised the wonderful initiative of Ruby. It is particularly topical in conversation for the past 12 months when all of us have been walking around our villages because there has been nothing else to do. The amount of dog faeces in this country is phenomenal, and we all know the reason for that. There is a row in my house every day when we bring the dog for a walk about who is on bag duty. We all hate carrying the bags but if there were bins in our villages, we would not have to carry the bag the whole way. That would stop people hiding them in hedges or hanging them on bushes. The idiocy of people who do that never ceases to amaze me but it can only be because they do not want to carry them the 5 km around their villages. The real need is not to have an awareness campaign, and it would very valuable, but to put bins on all walks and greenways in our villages. We need to be forward thinking when we are providing new routes for people or planning routes around our villages through Slí na Sláinte initiatives or whatever to make sure that we have the facilities for people to dispose of what obviously comes naturally to a dog when we bring them out of our houses. I am sorry for that rant.

I will bring the recommendations of the agriculture committee to the Minister’s attention. It is something that is very important, particularly at this time of the year. Most people in our towns and villages do not realise the impact of their dog running out of the house and what it can turn into in respect of our sheep and lambs. We should be very much aware of it to ensure our dogs do not slip off their leads or get out of the back garden. I will write a letter to the Minister today.

On Senator Ahearn's issue, for the past number of weeks there has been a standing invitation to the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform and Transport, Deputies Michael McGrath and Eamon Ryan, to come to the House to discuss the national development plan with all of us and to hear our concerns, issues and ideas. I had very much hoped that that would happen before the closing date of 19 February because it seems silly to have it after that date when the horse has already bolted. I have not received a date from either Minister yet but my office we will continue to push for that.

In all of our counties, there are certain projects that are at an advanced stage of development. Not all of them are road projects but other infrastructural projects that people are relying upon for the future development of their counties and their areas. We all need reassurances that those at an advanced stage will continue with the support of Government and local authorities but also that information on those that are or may be under review or for reconsideration should also be passed on so that we all know exactly where we stand. I will come back to the Senator as soon as I have the date for that debate.

I commend young Ruby. She is a little doll. When it takes a little lady like her to point out something that all of us moan and groan about, there should be a national awareness campaign. As already stated, however, having the necessary infrastructure would provide a solution to the problem. We would then not have to continually moan about it.

Senator Boylan referred to the Stardust tragedy. This is one of the earliest memories I have of a national disaster. I was only nine. It was shocking then and it is even more shocking now to hear her describe the difficulties the families who lost loved ones are still having 40 years later in trying to get answers to what actually happened on that night. I heard a lady make a comment this morning that if the events of that tragic night had happened in a more salubrious area, we would not be having this conversation now. We would have long ago had memorials and testimonies attributed to the people who lost their lived and all of the families who have suffered ever since. What is going on is an absolute disgrace and I certainly will write to the Minister today, not just on Senator Boylan's behalf but on behalf of everybody.

I sincerely apologise to Senator Joe O'Reilly. I told him that I would find a date for him the last time he raised the matter. I know this issue is particularly important to him, as it is to others. He is absolutely right. Every time I have turned on the television recently, I have seen advertisements for the large types of casinos that I always associated with very late-night viewing on particular television stations.

They now seem to just be on our mainstream stations as if they are legitimate, attractive and something that should be part of the normal daily discourse. They absolutely should not.

Senator Cassells is right. I cannot believe he has a nine year old. He is making me feel really old. We know our rates of ownership of phones per capita are some of the highest in the world and this starts very young with our children. We all absolutely know that most young people from the ages of approximately ten, 11, 12 and upwards are walking around with a very dangerous weapon in their pocket, not just because of the potential for gambling but for all the other things they can access. I will definitely push for a date for that discussion but I am at the mercy of the Minister and the team. It may be very apt for us to have a debate or statements as a form of pre-legislative scrutiny or to indicate what we would like to see in the upcoming legislation. I will try to arrange that in the next couple of weeks.

Senator Fitzpatrick and others brought up the very welcome announcement of €240 million for transport infrastructure yesterday. We are pushing an open door, particularly as the past 12 months have seen people pounding the pavements and out on their bicycles, which is welcome. It has probably accelerated the spread of the enthusiasm that some of us have for walking and cycling to the rest of the population at a much faster rate than we would have seen otherwise. It is a very welcome announcement and I look forward to us extolling the virtues of all the projects in our constituencies as they are developed over the next couple of months. That €240 million is very welcome.

Senator Paul Daly spoke about the money too and he and Senator O'Loughlin mentioned that there is only one bridge in Newbridge, which flabbergasts me. We absolutely need a debate on transport, not just in our towns but in all our urban and rural communities. We need the national development plan to be outlined as it applies to this infrastructure, including motorways. There is a standing request to the Minister for Transport to come in to have a conversations with us. It is not scheduled for next week but it might be on the cards for the week after. As soon as I have a date again, I will let the Senators know.

The communications committee had a hearing on not only the funding of local media but that of the national media, and particularly our print media. There is an extension of funds to all our local and national media through the wage subsidy schemes, including the Covid restrictions support scheme and new schemes announced this week. It is a tragedy and a pity when we hear of staff being stood down because most of us know the people representing our local newspapers, whether photographers or journalists. They are being stood down because advertising in local newspapers has fallen to a trickle. The number of people purchasing newspapers has dropped significantly in the past 12 months so there is a real need for support. I very much hope that commission on communications advances the required funding not just on a national perspective but on a local perspective.

Senator Cassells spoke poignantly about the concerns we have for children and I will arrange a debate with the relevant Minister as a precursor to the legislation. A number of people raised the question of the leaving certificate and I will speak to that at the end.

Senator Buttimer spoke about this and we will have a new living with Covid plan, although I know we are all bloody sick to the back teeth of living with Covid and just wish it was over. We all recognise that there is a couple of months at least left in this phase of our lives. We must recognise that the past number of months have been incredibly difficult. My husband said to me this morning that Dublin has effectively been in lockdown since 13 September last year, which seems like aeons ago. With the exception of one week over Christmas, the people of Dublin have not been allowed go outside their county or 5 km from where they live. If we have as many months in our future in which we must live with lockdown as seems to be the case, we must recognise the socio-economic and social impact on every section of society. Different people in the House have asked for debates on Covid's effects on the front line, women and children, for example, but there is no section of society that has not been or is continuing to feel an impact from Covid. We may have got through the months before Christmas because we had Christmas to look forward to.

I recognise that mistakes were made and that hindsight is wonderful but right now, nobody has anything to look forward to. Last night, we were told through the media, which is a huge pity, that we potentially are facing another seven weeks of level 5 restrictions. To be told that, with no prospect of light at the end of the tunnel, is difficult for people who are in the whole of their health but it must be incredibly difficult for those who are teetering on the brink at the moment. Therefore, we do need a debate on living with Covid in this House in the next few weeks. I hope it is held before the plan is launched in order that our ideas can be fed into the plan. Sport, and safe sport in particular, is definitely something that needs to be brought in. Perhaps this could be not just for elite athletes but also for those who are teetering on the brink and need an outlet of an evening. I will try to organise that debate in the next few weeks.

Senator Warfield talked about his motion and I very much look forward to the debate when he tables it in the few weeks during Private Members' time.

Senator Martin lauded the allocation of €240 million to councils for walking and cycling infrastructure. While this is something that is close to his heart and that of his party, as we all have encompassed a new-found love of walking and cycling, we will enjoy spending that money.

We may have to start referring to Senator Hoey as the Senator for students because each week, she brings up different issues in relation to the difficulties students are facing. I have issued an invitation to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to come to the House to talk about students practically, if not entirely, learning remotely this year, about what are the plans for the coming years and about the issues raised by Senator Hoey this morning. It makes perfect sense to me, as it should to the organisers of practicals in universities, to only bring students to universities on as few occasions as possible. It would make sense for universities to arrange practicals together. Obviously, something must definitely be done next year for those students who have already paid fees but who have been unable to access their rooms or dorms at all this year. I will relay that information back to the Minister.

Senator Boyhan spoke beautifully about the impact the "RTÉ Investigates" programme shown on Monday night had on everybody who watched it. One would have to be the most cold and cruel person not to feel heartbroken at witnessing the way nurses and doctors put so much into their work after such a long period. They are still enthusiastic about the care they provide even after so long. The Senator is right to state that something must be done. It is not just about money and rounds of applause. That was all lovely last year but we have all come so far down the road this year that we now recognise that more needs to be done. I will talk to the Minister about the kind of tribute we can make to those workers. I am not sure that it should just extend to those to whom Senator Boyhan referred, who are immediately looking after Covid patients, because stress levels are also high in other sections of our health service.

Senator O'Loughlin raised the issue of roads in Kildare and the welcome advances for the money but we all recognise that there is a long way to go. When we consider that there are five or six schools close to the only bridge in Newbridge, it is clear that there is a long way to go.

I will finish by noting a number of colleagues raised the issue of the disappointing announcement by the ASTI yesterday evening. It is disappointing because some of us are teachers and many of us are parents of children who are doing their leaving certificate examinations. Mostly, it is disappointing because we want certainty for students and young people. I spoke just now about the impact of the pandemic on those who are in the whole of their health. Young people are at an important stage in the development of their lives. They need certainty and it was promised to them a few weeks ago. The Minister for Education said that there would be certainty last week. The Taoiseach said this week that there will be certainty next week. That was thrown in the air last night.

I am most surprised at the behaviour of the media. Perhaps in some ways, I should not be, because there always has to be a hero and a villain. It was in no way helpful for the media to attack teachers last night. I certainly do not think it was helpful for them to do so this morning. Any teachers that I know - I am sure it is the same for us all - are engaged in teaching our children from 8.40 a.m. or 9 a.m. until 3.30 p.m. or 4 p.m. every single day. They are as exhausted and stressed as our children. I completely believe that the ASTI wants what is best for the children. The accusations made against the organisation last night were most unhelpful and will not have a positive impact. The Senators are correct to state that the only place that negotiations and positive outcomes happen is around the table. The ASTI is meeting the Minister this afternoon. I very much hope that the meeting does bring it back to the table. While I also know that a decision will be reached on the leaving certificate, I wish to God that it was made sooner, rather than extending the pain, suffering, anxiety and stress that young people and their parents have been going through for many months now. I wish the Minister every success this afternoon.

Order of Business agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 1 p.m. and resumed at 1.35 p.m.