An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, statements on reports regarding the Department of Health policy examined in the recent "RTÉ Investigates" programme, to be taken at 12 noon and to conclude at 1.15 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, contributions of Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given not less than five minutes to reply to the debate; No. 2, statements on the Covid-19 vaccination programme, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to conclude at 3 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, contributions of Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, statements on living with Covid-19, to be taken at 3.15 p.m. and to conclude at 4.45 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, contributions of Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; No. 4, Residential Tenancies Bill 2021 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude at 6.30 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government; No. 5, motion regarding early signature of the Residential Tenancies Bill 2021, to be taken without debate on the conclusion of No. 4; and No. 6, statements on matters arising from the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, to be taken at 7 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 5, whichever is the later, and to conclude after two hours, with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.

Today the Government launched Our Rural Future, a new plan for rural Ireland. It is an exciting day. The potential of this plan to transform rural communities throughout the country really is something of which to take note. The plan envisages more than 400 remote working hubs across regional towns and villages, co-working and hot-desking for public servants in regional towns, for the public sector to go to 20% remote working and for that figure to increase over the next five years.

It also envisages encouraging the Industrial Development Authority, IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta to promote this across their client base; funding the repurposing of vacant buildings in our rural town centres into remote working hubs to include rural pubs no longer be in use, or "hubs in pubs"; reviewing the tax arrangements for remote working in budget 2022 for employers and employees; legislation to give employees the right to request remote working; and funding our local authorities to run campaigns targeted in their areas to attract remote workers to their counties.

It is an exciting development for rural Ireland. It provides a long-term plan over the next five years and beyond to try to regenerate rural towns and villages decimated by depopulation. It will allow greater footfall and more residency in our towns and villages. We need people living in our towns and villages again. We are aware that rural people who have made the journey to live in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway would love the opportunity to go back home, once there are employment opportunities. Why should they not be there?

The only silver lining of this pandemic is that it has accelerated the pace at which we, the State, will provide the opportunity and choice for our citizens to work in the areas they live and are from. We will no longer have a situation in which young people are forced to leave the communities they were born and reared in to seek employment in our cities because there are no opportunities where they are. I have no doubt smaller businesses, the SME sector, and the tourism and retail sectors in smaller towns and villages will be encouraged by this plan because it means more people living near their businesses and more business and footfall for them.

The plan's reach knows no bounds. If it is delivered, as envisaged, it will be transformative. It will be incumbent on every public representative to get behind the plan and over the coming years to ensure it is delivered in a fair and balanced way so that every town, village and county gets its equal and fair share. I will be strongly advocating for my county, County Mayo, to see its fair share of the investment and opportunity our rural future plan can bring.

I support the plan for rural resettlement. I hope it comes to fruition. It is a pity the old scheme was done away with because the rural resettlement scheme was a success in its own small way but I wish the new plan well.

The Leader will not be surprised I am on my feet once again because of the Defence Forces. Ireland has a responsibility beyond its borders. We are a member of the European Union and have a responsibility to protect Europe's assets. We have a responsibility to ensure drug and people trafficking does not take place off our coast. We are in the sad situation in which four of our nine ships are tied up in Haulbowline in County Cork.

The establishment figure for the Naval Service is 1,094 people. We were recently told there were 899 people still in the Naval Service. However, if we remove the 37 untrained personnel, 27 recruits and ten cadet officers, we have 862 serviceable personnel. Some 24 of those have sought their discharge which will bring the figure down even further. The sea-going allowance brought in by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, which I and others welcomed, has been a disaster. Only 48% of those serving are qualified or eligible to apply for it, so it has been a failure. We are facing a situation in which we have few experienced personnel on board our ships. It must be a serious concern for all of us.

In the high level implementation plan agreed between the representative bodies and the Government last year, technical pay was to be implemented between level 2 and level 6.

We now find out they will not be implemented. Are we really trying to drive people out of the service? Apart from above sea, below sea we have massive assets coming into the west coast of this country from the United States. There will soon be a new data link between Iceland and Ireland and another between Santander and Ireland. We have massive data communications systems coming into Ireland and no way of monitoring them under the sea.

There is a commission sitting. The Leader has promised to bring in the Minister but we need urgent action to reverse what is going on.

I wish the Leader and everybody in the House a very nice, restful Easter since I will not get the opportunity again. I raise the issue of general planning and development which should be discussed in this House. A number of people, from a rural perspective, have raised the issue of national planning and development guidelines as development plans go through local authorities and the impact that will have on rural settlement and the ability of people to live together in rural environments. From my perspective and from that of an urban environment, I am very concerned about the impact the abolition of building heights is having on the city and about some of the planning applications coming through. Combined with the strategic housing development process, which will run until 2022, we have a recipe for many very bad decisions to be made, particularly in Dublin, over the next couple of months and the next year.

I will give an example. In my area, Hines has a site at Player Wills and Bailey Gibson. The development in Bailey Gibson, which is currently subject to judicial review, is 16 storeys and 19 storeys in Player Wills. The site is in the middle of the inner city and is essentially an infill development. It is an inappropriate height for what is there. I have long been an advocate for high density and have long compromised, particularly in the context of development plans for it. However, I do not think the high-rise that is proposed is good planning or equates to high density.

This kind of high-rise is adding to the cost of development, the price of land and land speculation. It creates additional costs in terms of fire safety issues, parking and costs associated with going above eight storeys. It is the type of developer-led planning that has not served us well in the past. We are building for pension funds rather than building places where people want to live. Even a Government report from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, published in 2018, stated that high-rise, contrary to the assumptions of public relations, PR, is less affordable and does not necessarily lead to big increases in density, which is exactly what we want for good planning, transport services and other community infrastructure.

The report states that:

Contrary to common understanding, higher rise development...can be a more expensive form of development. This is generally due to the increased requirements from a structural and fire safety perspective. In this regard, high rise does not necessarily improve matters where affordable delivery is the focus, nor does it always translate into increased density.

I am convinced about increasing density and height in the city as we cannot have urban sprawl and urban spread. However, one can have good density, of between eight and ten storeys, if it is done across the board in the city. This type of piecemeal, 19 storey high-rise development, lashed in the middle of inappropriate places, does not equate to good planning. We need an overall debate on good planning in the city and country.

It has been a busy time for Government. Despite the ongoing issues in relation to Covid, the business of Government continues. Last week we saw the landmark Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 passed by Cabinet, and a new pollinator plan was launched before the weekend. Today, the Government will launch its new rural development policy, Our Rural Future. That all amounts to quite a lot of pressure on rural Ireland which has many roles to fulfil, whether it is to deliver for climate action, improve our biodiversity and water quality or deliver jobs. These are all significant asks.

However, rural Ireland is also the home to an increasing number of our citizens.

There have been many heated discussions about the merits of one-off homes and who should be allowed to live in the countryside, but ultimately if we make our towns and villages more accessible, more liveable and more like home, then I am quite sure we will see this becoming a less divisive issue. Bringing life back to urban centres in rural Ireland will be key to delivering more vibrant and sustainable living, because rural towns and villages should not be there to serve only those who live in the countryside. They should be desirable places to live, work and raise families. The residents of such settlements will ultimately be the best stewards of them.

My local group in Laois-Offaly organised a super webinar last week called Revitalising Portlaoise. It brought together many people with a wide variety of interests, such as business, active travel, commuting, heritage, culture, and local amenities. The one thing they had in common was they wanted Portlaoise to deliver it for them. That was the landing zone and it will exist in every town from Birr to Edenderry, and Abbeyleix to Mountmellick, and towns all over the country. I especially thank my colleague, Councillor Louise Heavin, for bringing the town centre first policy to life in the webinar, and our local area representative, Sean McManus, for his insights and views as a resident of the town. The town centres first policy is a keystone in the programme for Government.

I want to raise concerns about the cargo ship, the Ever Given, which I understand has become a little less stuck in the Suez Canal this morning. There have been many images circulating of comparatively minuscule diggers tackling the huge vessel and gags about three-point turns. Joking aside, it has had significant consequences for supply chains. It highlights the fragility that exists in global markets which are totally dependent on a fluid supply chain. The cost of this grounded ship is estimated to be in the region of €7 billion per day. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that up to 20 livestock vessels are thought to be caught in this blockade, which is adding significantly to their journey time. We recently witnessed the fate of unfortunate cattle on two live shipments from Spain. These animals were caught at sea for months in horrendous conditions, which resulted in eventual euthanisation. It is critically important in farming and in transporting animals that animal welfare is held in high regard. Therefore, we must do all we can, including keeping journey times as short, safe and comfortable as possible, to ensure the welfare of these animals.

Colleagues were rightly outraged by the Beacon Hospital-private school vaccine scandal and I know they spoke about it on Friday. However, a related scandal which has not really received any airing over the past couple of years is the €91 million subsidy given to private schools each year by this Government. To be clear, I have no problem with parents who want to send their children to private schools. However, I have a major problem with parents expecting to be subsidised by the Irish taxpayer to send their children to private schools. When one considers that Barnardos estimates it would cost just €112 million to make national school education truly free for all parents when it comes to schoolbooks and uniforms, surely, the republican thing to do would be to phase out the subsidy to private schools and the wealthy parents who send their children to those schools,and instead ensure there is proper free education for everyone. This is an issue I have raised before but which successive governments seemed very reluctant to engage on. I ask for a debate on the issue so we can hear where everyone stands on €91 million in subsidies to private schools.

The second issue I ask for a debate on is workers' rights. I am continually concerned about how this Government is failing workers. I will cite three particular examples. The first is Deliveroo. I acknowledge other Senators have raised the issue of Deliveroo. It was very depressing to hear a Minister of State reply to Senator Seery Kearney, two weeks ago that this Government has no intention of legislating to protect Deliveroo workers when it comes to their employment status. My union, SIPTU, has clearly called for that status to be protected in terms of proper employee status. The fundamental question I ask is whether we, collectively, are okay with the idea of young people having to sit in the dark and in the shadows outside fast-food restaurants, night after night, and not getting paid? It is basically a recreation of the old hiring fairs. They are waiting outside restaurants to see whether they get a fare. They then take their chances on the roads in Dublin. There is something fundamentally wrong with that and yet this Government has, to date, set its face against legislation to get rid of bogus self-employment. That is an important point we need to raise.

My second example is community employment, CE, supervisors and the ridiculous decision by Fianna Fáil to do a volte-face, a 180° turn.

Instead of supporting CE supervisors in their right to a pension, Fianna Fáil is now saying that it changed its mind on that, it is sorry and there is nothing it can do. It is so disappointing for those CE supervisors. My union, SIPTU, is involved.

The workers in Debenhams will be one year on a picket line next week. It is so frustrating to see the failure of Government to deal with this issue. There is the bones of a settlement available. The €3 million is not the issue. The issue is how we can give that money to those workers. The Government has failed. It is so disappointing to see that the Taoiseach has failed to write back to Mandate, not once but twice, on this issue. Those workers deserve so much better. I am calling for an urgent debate on workers' rights. The Government is failing workers.

The next speaker, and my constituency colleague, Senator Gallagher.

Along with many other people in the country, I watched as our international soccer team went down 1-0 to Luxembourg at the weekend. It was a hugely disappointing result. I looked across the Border and our friends in the Northern Ireland soccer team are on a similar run where they cannot seem to buy a win either. It raises the question many people are asking me that perhaps now is the time for us to have a debate in this country about having an all-island soccer team just like we have in rugby and hockey. The reality is that for two small nations, such as Northern Ireland and the Republic, to have two soccer teams on one island and expect them to compete at international level is simply not on anymore. We have seen what we can do when our nation unites. We have seen how our rugby team can compete with the very best in the world. Our rugby team beat England less than a week ago - the same English team that went on to compete in a World Cup final not so long ago. I ask that we would have a debate in this country and perhaps the Members of this Chamber would kick-start that debate by having the Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Jack Chambers, come to this House to see how we could start this conversation. Northern Ireland, and indeed the Republic, have had some good days in the past. Here, in the Republic, we had an opportunity last night to watch a programme on Virgin Media One about dementia and the great late Jack Charlton who, like many others, suffered from that disease. I saw the scenes of the glory days when we had success in this country - indeed, Northern Ireland have had their day in the sun too - but not as often as we would like. It is time we had that debate. I would like us in this Chamber to kick that off by asking the Minister of State with responsibility for sport to come in to have a debate on that subject.

I, too, would like to acknowledge the launch this afternoon of the Our Rural Future plan by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, together with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Work hubs are proposed in 400 locations across Ireland. We have had debates regarding the recent closures of Bank of Ireland and the exiting plan by Ulster Bank, and we have seen certain areas where post offices have closed. There are key landmark buildings in many communities that could be used for such hubs.

I would like to acknowledge the work of the Western Development Commission and, indeed, Údarás na Gaeltachta, which over the past number of years have been promoting, even before the Covid pandemic or any changes to work practices, working hubs and digital hubs. Údarás na Gaeltachta has worked on its gteic network of hubs in places such as Carna, An Cheathrú Rua and An Spidéal. Indeed, the one in An Spidéal was the first project completed under the rural regeneration and development fund.

The potential of rural Ireland, as we all know, is huge. Whether it is in regard to work hubs or remote working, high-speed broadband is vital. I would like to acknowledge, as I am sure the Leader would, the work of the previous Government in ensuring that state aid was provided under National Broadband Ireland to ensure the roll-out of high-speed broadband, which is a key to developing rural Ireland.

We had a positive debate last week on the national development plan. We also had announcements regarding the urban regeneration development fund and today funding was announced under the National Transport Authority for active cycling and walking in all counties.

All of these plans and projects have one key component: construction workers. I wish Cabinet well in its deliberations tomorrow on the next phases of Covid. Construction workers are key, and getting them back on sites in towns, villages and construction sites throughout the country is vital because we are at risk of people moving to England to get higher wages than what they receive with the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, if we do not open up the construction sector soon. That is key to all of the plans and policies we have as a Government.

I thank all of the Senators who have raised the issue of the rural resettlement programme and the plan for the future of rural areas, which is all very important. Many of us represent rural communities and many Senators live in rural communities, which is even more important. It is also important that it is sustainable for people to live in rural communities.

Last week was a funny week in politics. It was a bit of a comedy show for a number of reasons which I do not intend going into here. Last week, An Taoiseach spoke at the launch of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021. He said that the Bill "will create tens of thousands of new green jobs" and increase employment in agriculture. As a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine I welcome that initiative. It is positive and really good news, and it is a good focus and start to the Bill.

The Government must understand and not underestimate the scale of the challenges faced by farmers. Farmers know agriculture and climate change are inextricably linked. They know best about sustainable agricultural practices. Farmers also know climate change is important to their sector's sustainable development and profits. Farmers are ambitious too, not just for food production but also in wishing to have sustainability and production as key elements of their farm practices. The kernel of it is that the Government will need to provide substantial financial supports to farmers to assist them in the transition to new sustainable practices under a new just transition package. Just transition is not an optional policy extra for the Government but a legally binding obligation resulting from Ireland's adoption of the Paris Agreement. Under any just transition mechanism, economic costs have to be taken into consideration. Like everyone in this House, I want a fair deal for farmers and I look forward to a very realistic and pragmatic debate on this important legislation.

The Bill and climate justice are owned by us all. It is not a political gift for anyone and is not going to be hijacked by any political movement. We all live in this climate and we all must prioritise climate justice, which is the key message that I wanted to deliver.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach agus is mian liom trí ábhar a ardú le toil an Leas-Chathaoirligh. First, I would like to raise the report of the Higher Education Authority this morning on completion rates for undergraduate programmes. It is to be celebrated that three out of every four undergraduates complete their courses. There is a concern, however, that students from disadvantaged backgrounds, in particular male students who enter with lower leaving certificate points, are not completing, and this is of particular worry in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM. I would like a debate on access to further and higher education.

I wish to raise the fact we do not as yet appear to have a solution to the long-running case of pensions for community employment supervisors. I ask, as a matter of urgency, that the proposal for agreement would be brought before this House and we would get some clarity from the Government as to the actions that are going to be taken.

Normally this April we would be required to fill in census forms, and householders in the North have been required to complete their forms in recent weeks. During the recess, on 7 April, the 40th anniversary of the murder of Joanne Mathers by the Provisional IRA will be marked. She was a young mother of a one-year-old child who took on the job of collecting the census data simply to bring in extra income for her family. She was killed by the IRA simply for doing her job.

It was a senseless killing. The truth never fully emerged. I ask that, for her family and those who knew here, those who have information about her murder would come forward now, on the 40th anniversary of her death so that there can finally be some closure in respect of this disgraceful act.

I ask the Leader to organise a debate on the travel industry, travel agents and the issuing of travel vouchers. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach and Leader will be aware, EU Regulation 261/2004 protects the rights of consumers and travel agents. Travel agents have been without income, or have had negative income, for a year as a result of Covid-19. Our travel agents now operate under what is probably the strictest international travel regime in the world. Despite what some might say, travel has been absolutely stopped with the exception of travel for essential business.

I call on Government and the airlines, Ryanair in particular, to address the issue of the travel voucher scheme and I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate in that regard. Our travel agents require clarity, support and co-operation. I ask that all airlines accept an extension of the five-year rule in respect of travel vouchers. Hundreds of thousands of flights have been cancelled. If these vouchers are not used by a given expiry date, a refund is issued. These originally expired after one year but this was extended to five years. That is not an issue for most people but I have talked to many travel agents and they have told me that Ryanair has told them that, once such a voucher goes out of date, that is it, game over. That is not good enough. I ask the Leader of the House to bring the Minister in so that we can ensure travel agents and the travelling public will be able to use those vouchers beyond the one-year expiry date and that the five-year expiry date will be honoured. I hope we will have such a debate. It is important to give certainty and clarity.

I raise today the issue of the continuing problems families in south Kildare are having in accessing specialist treatment for their loved ones. On the back of prolonged delays with regard to assessment of need for families in the area, the HSE decided to redeploy a number of staff to this much-needed resource but this has resulted in unacceptable delays for families whose children were dependent on and seeing these specialists or, in the case of some of the families with whom I am dealing, whose children have moved along the age groups and are waiting on specialist therapy. It is my understanding that the local disability team was told to backfill the positions left by the redeployment of staff involved in carrying out assessments of need by the HSE. As this was only supposed to be a 12-week redeployment, the team looked for agency staff. There were none available as most had been scooped up to deal with the backlog in respect of assessments of need, the greater part of this backlog involving cases in Dublin.

I ask the Leader to raise this issue with the Minister. I would really appreciate that. I will finish my contribution today by reading a short extract regarding the day-to-day experiences of one of the families with whom I am dealing. It refers to a lady called Samantha Kenny and her daughter, Ava, who are from my home town of Athy:

Ava has such high dependency needs, she depends on a combination of equipment and her parents for every aspect of her every day life. Currently as it stands with Ava transitioning from early intervention to school age without an assigned team, she is at risk of being left behind. Without therapists Ava will not have someone to fit and adjust a chair for in home use, which means as a family she will have no safe way to be included within the home in family life. The same can be said for her wheelchair which means she will not have a way to attend school, travel in the family van or even just go for a walk in the garden. She also has a stander which lowers her risk of osteoporosis. As she has grown so much over the last year and with limited access to therapists due to covid, personal reasons and the redeployment, she has outgrown her equipment and faces transitioning with no assigned therapists to monitor, adjust and fit any future equipment. The staff do their best with the resources they have but still we feel very much that we may fall through the gaps as that is what has happened in the past.

I ask the Leader to bring this issue up with the Minister.

I want to address the decisions facing Cabinet tomorrow as it decides on the next steps with regard to the current level of restrictions.

Like all Senators I am sure, I have received many representations on this issue in recent weeks and months. I recognise there is a difficult balancing act in easing restrictions while ensuring we avoid a fourth wave. The current level of restrictions, however, is simply not sustainable at this stage, as people are reaching breaking point. We must have faith in the people to act responsibly without the need for the intensity of level 5 restrictions. I urge the Government to allow the construction sector to resume immediately. We all recognise, particularly in my city of Galway, that there is an absolute necessity for more homes to be built throughout the country. Every week that the sector is shut delays the building of such homes.

This pandemic has had a considerable impact on children's development, as we are all aware. We must bring some level of normality back to their lives, ensure that schools will reopen fully on 12 April, as planned, and allow the resumption of outdoor sport, with training in pods at a minimum. We must also allow the resumption of low-risk outdoor activity, including sports such as golf, tennis, hiking and so on, remove the nonsense of the 5 km restriction and allow for outdoor meetings between friends and families. I wish the Cabinet well in its difficult decisions. I hope it will be guided by public health advice but also by the clear message people send us every day concerning the need for fewer restrictions.

There were two important announcements earlier, one of which related to a walking and cycling fund of €70 million, which is greatly welcomed. In Tipperary, we will receive €4.6 million, which is an awful lot of money to support walking and cycling tracks throughout the county. We are very lucky at the moment. While it is not as well known as the greenway in Waterford, there is a blueway in Tipperary from Carrick-on-Suir to Clonmel. It has been very successful over the past year since it was opened, particularly during Covid. The announcement today of €70 million gives Tipperary County Council and Waterford County Council the opportunity to connect the greenway and the blueway in Tipperary. A feasibility study is being carried out on the possibility of expanding the blueway from Cahir to the Rock of Cashel, which will enhance tourism along the way. I encourage both county councils to work together and seize the opportunity to connect the blueway and the greenway.

There was also an announcement from the Department of Rural and Community Development about promoting rural Ireland, in conjunction with the Tánaiste, the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Ryan. It is about supporting people to live and work in rural Ireland and I welcome that, as someone who has lived in rural Ireland all his life and loves it. It will encourage people to live in places such as Tipperary. The new initiative will focus very much on remote working. Will the Leader ask the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to come to the House after Easter to discuss the launch? We could examine the issue of the banks that have closed in recent weeks. In Tipperary, Bank of Ireland branches in Cahir, Cashel and Templemore were closed and perhaps we could examine them as opportunities for remote working areas. I have written to the CEO of Tipperary County Council, Joe McGrath, to inquire whether he could examine the opportunity to purchase or lease those buildings. Perhaps the Government or a Department would support him on that front. These are fantastic buildings in three towns and they give us the opportunity to encourage people to live and work in small towns in rural Ireland.

Something significant happened on the Order of Business on Friday last. Fianna Fáil introduced a Bill that seeks to lower the voting age to 16 years in local and European elections, and the Leader of the House, a proud member of Fine Gael, indicated she would support it. As a result, two Bills on the Order Paper seek to lower the voting age in local and European elections.

Let me remind those who have joined us what happened in the Seanad in the previous term. In 2017, Sinn Féin and the Civil Engagement Group, through myself and Senator Ruane, brought forward a Bill on Second Stage, which was delayed for 12 months by a Fine Gael amendment. We brought it back on Committee Stage 12 months later in March 2018 and Fianna Fáil proposed an amendment that would form a select committee. We ran out of time on that Committee Stage so we have resubmitted the Bill, which currently sits at Committee Stage.

Those two debates in the Seanad ensured that we did not lower the voting age to 16 for local and European elections in time for 2019. Now, because we have the time, we can work together to lower the voting age in time for the 2024 local and European elections. I hope that by Fianna Fáil submitting its Bill, we can work together and it will signal an end to the messing that went on in the two debates we had previously. Senator Craughwell will recall that we had good debates and the time was put in. We should, therefore, pick that up and legislate in time for 2024 to lower the voting age in local and European elections.

I wish to speak about and congratulate the young women and girls in Maryfield College, Drumcondra, who along with Amárach Research conducted a study on how young girls and women are being intimidated by catcalling. They call for legislation and for this to be made illegal.

The Seanad is mostly male. I am sure the Leader is very well aware of how intimidating unsolicited shouting, whether that be so-called compliments, whistling or whatever case may be, can be to a young woman, or any woman, who is walking down the street. It is not the effect of the catcalling and unsolicited comments; it is the domino effect of what that does to society. It is about sexualizing young girls. One thinks of grown men whistling at young girls in school uniforms and how perverse that is when one steps back from it. It leads into a domino effect in sexual behaviour and sexual assault and blaming the victim.

I spoke on the radio this morning and raised a very personal issue about being physically and violently groped in a nightclub. By pure reflex, I threw my elbow back and hit the person who did that. I was in pain and in shock, and who got in trouble? It was me. The bouncer came to me and said, "Less of that, lady, or you will be out." I explained my issue and he told me to move on. Therefore, I was the problem that night. This is continuing and repeated behaviour. It is an everyday occurrence, although obviously not now as nightclubs are not "everyday" anymore. We need awareness, however. We need to challenge the norms and be able to stand up and call it out. When we do, however, we also need other people to say they will call it out with us. We need awareness and education and we need to legislate.

I wish to raise the issue of substitute teachers. I spoke to a couple of teachers in my home area of County Louth over the past couple of weeks, which is a good idea. I find I can do my job much better when I talk to people who are on the front lines of certain sectors rather than when we are in in the Seanad or reading stuff in briefing notes where one gets a theoretical view of the issues.

Until recently, I did not realise there existed this concept of the five-day rule, which is that a person who is qualified as a teacher but is waiting to get his or her teaching number, which could take a couple of months, is allowed to go into a school and substitute for five days. That person must then take one day off and is replaced by another substitute teacher, who comes in and substitutes for the final four days of teaching.

As someone who is coming into this sector without knowing much about it, it just seems mad and I do not understand why it is. I printed the information from the education.ie website. A person without a Teaching Council number can only substitute for five days in a row. He or she must then take a day off and be replaced by another substitute teacher who comes in and substitutes for the further four days.

That is mad, in this day and age, because we have had a massive shortage of teachers during this Covid era. Perhaps it is a bit like trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted but surely that rule could have at least been put on ice for the past year in light of the situation with teachers and Covid. I would love to have the opportunity to discuss education matters with the Minister at some stage and to ask her what the reasoning behind the rule is. To me as a layman it seems archaic. There does not seem any reason for it. These are qualified teachers who are waiting to get their Teaching Council numbers and we are in dire need of teachers who are willing to step up to the plate during Covid. They should be allowed to do so, rather than being hindered and held back by this type of bureaucracy.

I rise to speak about the importance of a positive result for the Ballymahon Pobal le Chéile project under the 2020 rural regeneration and development fund. A category 1 application has been made and all the necessary consents are in place. The project is a collaboration between a number of organisations in the town, namely, the Tidy Towns team, Bridgeways Family Resource Centre, the local day care centre, the Men's Sheds group and Longford County Council. The project proposes the creation of a cluster of community support services in the town through the co-location of a number of service providers, including an enhanced family support service, a new dedicated youth club, extended elderly care services - both on- and off-site - and the development of a rural working hub. It would involve bringing a number of existing vacant buildings back into active use, including a former convent that has been vacant for a long number of years, and putting them at the heart of the community to play a key role in delivering services. There has been extensive consultation with all relevant stakeholders following the development of a local action plan in 2018.

Project Ireland 2040 sets out a number of strategic objectives, including the development of strengthened rural economies and communities. The service providers that are key to this application are providing vital services to Ballymahon and its hinterland and the project will, therefore, address the three pillars of regeneration, which are social, economic and physical regeneration. The huge opportunities in the co-working hub and the jobs created as a result of the development will directly impact the town and the entire rural area of south Longford. Furthermore, education opportunities and engagement with the youth in the region will ensure Ballymahon is in a positive position into the future to become a strong driver for that rural area. I ask the Leader to urge the Department of Rural and Community Development to fund this project.

I thank colleagues for the variety of topics raised today. The project Senator Carrigy described would have huge merits in the area of Ballymahon and for the sections of society on which it would have positive impact. I will write to the Minister for Rural and Community Development and ask for the status of the funding from the rural regeneration fund.

Senator McGahon raised the five-day rule, which does not seem to have any logic. I wonder why it is even a rule. It probably has something to do with protecting employment rights or continuity of service but, as the Senator said, it seems incredibly illogical. As we will be in recess for the next couple of weeks, rather than ask the Minister for Education to come in for a debate I will write her a letter today to ask what the logic behind the rule is and if it could be suspended during Covid. I will come back to the Senator with the Minister's response.

Senator McGreehan makes thoughtful contributions in the Seanad every week. It may not be very good practice for me to say this but I am absolutely bloody delighted that she put the elbow in on that particular day. This issue gives rise to a much more serious conversation. In the past number of months, we seem to have been having more of these kinds of conversations about the inequality in which women and children in this country have to live. Many of our male colleagues, friends and family members are somewhat surprised and perhaps defensive in some conversations we have with them. Of course, not all men carry on or cause women to have to behave in a certain way to protect ourselves. It is definitely a conversation that should be had far more frequently and maybe it will become commonplace for men to understand the kind of self-preservation women have to go through just to lead normal lives.

I would like to touch on what the Senator said about catcalling with regard to our children. I have a 14-year-old girl at home. She is the baby of our family but she is as tough as nails. It never ceases to amaze me when she talks about being the subject of catcalls on the way home from school. What is incredible is that the catcalling is not coming from 14-year-old boys, which one could potentially think is banter or that they are growing and trying to find themselves, it usually comes from older men.

One has to wonder what is wrong in this world or this country that people find it acceptable to be catcalling sexual innuendo at a 14-year-old girl. It is beyond me. I am not sure how we could legislate for catcalling, but it is a matter on which we definitely need to have further conversations.

Senator Warfield raised the two Bills on the Order Paper with regard to reducing the voting age, in respect of which I expressed my support on Friday last in the Seanad. We need to have conversations with our 16 to 18-year-olds and, perhaps, 14-year-olds about what they are interested in. We can all fall foul of the thought process that young people are not interested in politics. They are but we are just not talking about the things they are interested in. Giving them the franchise would bring them into that sphere. Whatever I can do to help advance that, I am happy to do so.

Senator Ahearn spoke about the large amount of funding announced for rural Ireland for walking, cycling and interconnectivity. The investment in rural Ireland, developing our pathways, cycleways, blueways and greenways, is coming to fruition. I wish Tipperary success in bringing the blueway and greenway together.

Other colleagues mentioned the expected announcement at 2 p.m. today, which has been well flagged, regarding our future plans for rural Ireland. It is really exciting. I have been a Member of the Oireachtas for just over ten years. Much of the time we talk about the things that we do that will discourage a thriving society in rural Ireland. In recent years, it has been the reverse and that is really welcome. The plan to be announced today, in particular in regard to remote working, will be a game changer in that it gives people a viable opportunity to work and live in rural Ireland and have exciting and successful careers. We have attempted to redistribute public services in recent years through decentralisation, somewhat unsuccessfully. This does not mean we will have a pocket in Sligo, Roscommon, Cork, Galway or north County Dublin, which I represent. It means we can have all services at all levels with all opportunities in rural Ireland. I welcome the announcement to be made later today and I welcome also that many Senators have welcomed it this morning.

Senator Buttimer asked for a debate on the travel industry, particularly travel vouchers. On the way here this morning, I heard on radio people talking about consumer rights in regard to concerts, something in our distant past but, hopefully, not too distant our future, and people constantly being told they are to be rearranged. Concerts that were due to take place last summer and rearranged for this summer have been cancelled again and are to be rearranged for next summer. An official from the consumer rights protection agency spoke about people being entitled to have their money back and not just rolled over. The reverse appears to be happening in the travel industry, such that we definitely do need a debate. We all know that travel is be interrupted again this year, much to our dismay, but people must be entitled to get the extension of the five-year rule introduced for vouchers last year and then have their money back, as opposed to it being rolled over for a further 12 months. I will arrange that debate when the House returns after the Easter recess.

Senator Byrne spoke about the higher education report. There are some really good aspects to the report, particularly around younger people coming to our third level institutions through the disability and access route to education, DARE, and higher education access route, HEAR, programmes and the successful outcomes they have in some more affluent societies that we always expect to do well. That is really positive progress. Senator Byrne also spoke about, sadly, the anniversary of Joanne Mathers. I concur that anybody who has information should come forward to help put an end to the suffering of the family.

Senator Boyhan spoke about rural Ireland. I agree with him that just transition has to involve all of us; it is not something that should be done to us. It is important all of us, collectively, are involved in it, particularly the farming industry because we will not have a farming industry if we do these things to our farmers. We need to work with our farmers to make sure we have positive outcomes while addressing the challenges that face that whole sector.

Senator Kyne also spoke about the rural plan and the 400 remote working hubs that are to be put in place. This will be seismic. Earlier, Senator Chambers made the point that it is very difficult to find a positive in the last 12 months but, if anything, the acceleration of remote working and our grow remote strategies, about which people have been talking for a number of years, is probably the one positive we will all hang on to.

Senator Gallagher asked for a debate on an international soccer team for the island of Ireland. I will invite the Minister of State, Deputy Jack Chambers, to the House for a discussion on it.

We should be talking about it in light of the request from colleagues last week that the Seanad start to discuss the shared island experience and the outcomes. This probably should be less contentious than some of the other topics. I will organise it after Easter.

Senator Gavan requested two debates, one on workers' rights and the other on the subsidies to private schools, I will organise both after Easter.

People talked about the landmark climate action Bill that was launched by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Green Party leader, Deputy Eamon Ryan, last week. Ours is probably the most ambitious plan of any state in the European Union, but it will absolutely require us all to be ambitious and not to be partisan or political.

Senator Moynihan talked about development plans and her aspirations for her city. That was a welcome contribution.

As he always does, Senator Craughwell talked passionately about the Defence Forces. I will ask for a debate after Easter. I might write to the Minister today on the Senator's behalf to find out why the technical pay is not operational for levels 2 to 6, which makes no sense to me. I wonder why it has not been implemented. I hope to be able to come back to the Senator a bit quicker than that.

Senator Chambers opened today's session very much welcoming the plan, Our Rural Future. I know we will all be avidly listening in when the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, officially launches the plan at 2.30 p.m.

The entire House joins the Leader in offering good wishes in respect of today's launch.

Order of Business agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 11.27 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.