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Seanad Éireann debate -
Friday, 23 Apr 2021

Vol. 275 No. 8

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

I know colleagues will join me in congratulating the new Senators and welcoming them back to the House. I congratulate them on their election and look forward to working with them in the Seanad. I know they will work hard on behalf of all the people. I congratulate all those who contested the election. Elections are important to the work of democracy. I look forward to working with our new colleagues and I congratulate them on their successful election. They deserve their seats. I know colleagues will wish to congratulate the new Senators individually and we will do so after the acting Leader has outlined the Order of Business.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for introducing Senators Maria Byrne and Horkan, the new old Members, shall we say. I congratulate them on their election and I congratulate all those who participated in the recent Seanad by-elections. I will not try to tell the Senators anything about this place because they are more experienced than I and many other Members are. I wish them well in their terms.

The Order of Business is No. 1, the ninth report of the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Bill 2020 - Committee Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to adjourn at 3 p.m., if not previously concluded; and No. 3, statements on the future of gambling regulation, to be taken at 3.15 p.m. and to adjourn at 4.45 p.m., if not previously concluded, with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, contributions 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 six minutes to reply to the debate.

I endorse the Order of Business. I offer my congratulations on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party to Senators Horkan and Maria Byrne. I look forward to engaging and learning with and listening to both of them. I wish them well in the term ahead.

There are a number of issues I want to raise today, the first being maternity services. Every morning, as I come to Leinster House, I travel by the Coombe and I see all of the expectant dads sitting in their cars outside of the hospital. I believe that, at this stage of the vaccination programme, particularly as it relates to healthcare and hospital staff, the restrictions relating to maternity hospitals should be lifted and dads should be allowed in for the complete duration of labour and for all antenatal scans. Emma Carroll and Ciara McGuane have done a wonderful job in terms of petitioning on this and have obtained 54,000 signatures. They set up a Facebook page called In Our Shoes. They have told about harrowing situations in the 19 maternity units throughout the country. Only yesterday I received an email from a lady called Michelle about her situation. She had a miscarriage last June and she had to hear the news herself and then go out and tell her partner. She is now pregnant again. The stress and the worry she is going through are huge. Dr. Peter McKenna, the HSE clinical director of the women and infants health programme, has said the improving situation means maternity hospitals can begin easing restrictions. However, it is down to each individual hospital. A direction should be given that the restrictions relating to maternity units should be relaxed.

I also want to raise the issue of the opening of third level and further education. Thankfully, primary school, secondary school and special schools are all open but we have to plan for the return of our students in September to ensure they have the full educational and social experience to which they are entitled. Further education, which does not happen just from September to June, needs to be looked at for our adult learners.

I remind Members that all of those involved in tackling domestic violence have asked us to wear purple today and to text the word "Safe" to 50300, which results in a €4 pledge. We all know the shadow pandemic that has happened along with the pandemic in terms of the increase in domestic violence. My local refuge, Teach Tearmainn, is doing incredible work. All such refuges need our support.

I thank the Senator for raising that issue. I call the Leader of the Opposition, Senator Boyhan.

I thank the acting Leader for setting out the Order of Business. I want to welcome back Senator Maria Byrne and Senator Horkan. A week is a long time in politics. We had a very interesting election but democracy won out. That is the great thing about the elections we all compete in. Senators Byrne and Horkan are both very experienced and our group of Independent Senators on this side of the House looks forward to working with them. I suppose they have a another unique claim today in that they are sitting in Dáil Éireann rather than in the Seanad. I suppose that is something of which we are conscious. People ring me up and ask have I been elevated or demoted, and I do not know which, but it is a great honour to be in either Chamber. I wish the Senators well.

I take this opportunity to mention the other candidates. I thank Angela Feeney, a Kildare county councillor and an excellent candidate, and Ciarán Ahern from Labour. I particularly thank the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Hazel Chu, for putting her name forward in what was a difficult election for her. She had to make a difficult decision. It is always tough when running elections against a large group of people, particularly in this case, where there was clearly very a strong, united and determined campaign to get the party people across the line by the tripartite Government of Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and Fine Gael. Fair play to them. They ran their competition, they set out their stall, they set out their vision and they got elected. I also want to acknowledge the work of former Senator Billy Lawless.

I must be honest, I was somewhat disappointed with the result, that is a personal thing of mine. He is a man with a track record of working for the Irish diaspora, the forgotten Irish in America, London and other places. I thank Billy for his enormous work, for which we owe him. I hope there is a place, that we are big enough and wide enough in these Houses, and also the Government, to incorporate and reach out to Billy Lawless and his enormous talents.

Finally, I want to acknowledge, of course, Ian Marshall. He is a member of the academic staff of Queens University Belfast, involved in agriculture, food, innovation and technology, and has great skill sets that we need in this House. He is a man who has worked very closely with Phil Hogan, the former EU Commissioner; a man who has a great track record in Europe. He is a loss but I hope we and the Government, in turn, are big enough to reach out in the context of its all-Ireland vision. That is really important. What a place we could offer Ian Marshall in the shared island initiative. I hope people listening today might consider that.

I wrote to the Taoiseach yesterday because I know his enormous commitment to the shared island initiative. I believe he is committed, as is the Government and the Oireachtas. We know the difficult times that Northern Ireland is going through and the enormous challenges that this country faces in uniting the minds, spirits and hearts of our people on this island. Therefore, I ask that the Leader extend an invitation to the Taoiseach to come to the Seanad and set out the vision for the island of Ireland. I wrote to him asking him to make the necessary arrangements to come to the House. He is always welcome here. We need him here, we have not seen him since this Seanad was elected. There is a good story there and we all need to be part of the vision to support our people on the island of Ireland.

I extend my congratulations on behalf of the Labour Party group to Senators Maria Byrne and Horkan on their election. I also thank my party colleagues, Councillors Angela Feeney and Ciarán Ahern, who stood in the by-elections and represented the Labour Party so well.

I want to express solidarity with the Debenhams workers who were dragged out by gardaí in the middle of the night. I do not know if Senators saw the scenes but they were galling. I hope the Taoiseach and Tánaiste are horrified at what happened and I implore them to step in because dragging the workers out in the middle of the night is not how this situation should be resolved. I want those workers to know there is solidarity coming from this Chamber.

I note a motion against conversion therapy passed in the North. Senator Warfield's Bill on this issue which is co-sponsored by my colleague, Senator Bacik, is sitting ready to go. It is a very comprehensive Bill on conversion therapy and it is high time there was action. There has been talk with the Minister on banning conversion therapy but work has already been done and I see no reason to delay further.

I am concerned about the vaccine roll-out among those who are housebound. In my home area, there is a woman who is extremely distressed about her husband who is PEG fed and housebound. Absolutely no one - no GP or homecare nurse - can give her an answer about when he will get the vaccine. She is distressed out of her mind. This week, I was told at the health committee that in the next three weeks all those who are housebound will be covered. I raise this issue today as it is causing enormous concern among families who already face so many difficulties in their homes.

There is a family-friendly forum on how we make the Oireachtas family-friendly, and it is something we have discussed in both Houses. We found a work-around for a Minister who is pregnant but a work-around is not a solution. We need a long-term solution. There are people who work in both Houses who may have families or will have in the next few years, and others who have home care responsibilities. Their lives might have been turned upside down, something has come up and they need to be able to return home and take care of a family member. That family member could be elderly or sick, and currently there is no facility for those Members in either House to be supported to do so.

I know from conversations I have had with some people that it is causing an enormous amount of distress. The only way to tackle it is for a person to make his or her situation public. For a number of people it is unreasonable to do that due to concerns around their privacy or that of the family member concerned. I hope everybody will make submissions to the family friendly forum. It is not only about maternity leave, it is also about care, family, being able to have a balanced life, take a step back when it is needed and to be supported in this workplace.

On behalf of the Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, Seanad grouping, I congratulate the victorious Senators Horkan and Maria Byrne. I wish them well. They can be assured of our total co-operation for the betterment of Ireland, as is the tradition of this House. It must be deservingly complimentary to the new Senators when they hear feedback from Members who are not affiliated to their respective parties and who speak of the respect in which they hold the Senators. They have displayed their work ethic and dedication to this House in the past.

The House of Commons declared yesterday for the first time that genocide is taking place against Uighurs and other religious and ethnic minorities in north-west China. It has been reported that more than 1 million people are estimated to have been detained in labour indoctrination-type camps in the region of Xinjiang. It has also been reported that women in the Uighur region are being fitted with birth control devices. In response to the House of Commons declaration, the Chinese Embassy in the UK dismissed the allegations and accusations against its country as "the most preposterous lie of the century, an outrageous insult and affront to the Chinese people". The problem China faces is that a growing number of countries simply do not believe China and are deeply concerned at the events unfolding there. Some Irish citizens have first-hand experience of the Chinese Government's way of doing things. I refer to Yvonne Murray, the RTÉ journalist, who reportedly felt compelled, with her husband, to leave China. Richard O'Halloran cannot get home.

Earlier this year, Canada, the EU, the UK and the US imposed sanctions on Chinese officials in protest at rights abuses in the country. The response from the Irish Government has, unfortunately, been remarkably quiet of late. Ireland should never endeavour to win friends as a result of not calling out human rights abuses. This issue is not tradeable. It is not about trade; it is far more serious than that. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has a good track record in foreign affairs but there is a feeling among the public that whatever he is doing, people need to be assured that Ireland is using its influence on the UN Security Council. Ireland is a respected nation to which people look up, although it is relatively small in its population. We must use that influence in a more tangible, vocal and effective way to say "No" to these human rights abuses.

I welcome Senators Maria Byrne and Horkan to the Chamber again. We worked well together in the past and I look forward to working with them in the future. However, I cannot let the occasion pass without reminding Senators that this should be the last election in which so few people vote for seats that are representative of many people. We have a Seanad reform Bill on the Order Paper and should work collectively to ensure its passing.

As Senator Hoey mentioned, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion to support the ban on conversion therapy. It was proposed by the Ulster Unionist Party, UUP, and supported by all parties, bar Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice, TUV, and the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP.

It is a welcome step in the debate, which has seen the launch of a broad party campaign to ensure an effective ban in both jurisdictions of this island. The Minister for Communities in the North, Ms Deirdre Hargey, has committed to research and a ban, as has our Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O’Gorman. I appreciate the assistance of the Leader of this House in setting up a meeting between me and the Department of Justice. There has been some movement in the areas and portfolios. I appreciate the support from the Leader. I remind new Senators that the last Seanad passed the Bill to prohibit conversion therapy. I look forward to bringing it back. No one wants to see this legislation languish any longer, and we should work together to ensure its swift and effective passage.

On behalf of the Civil Engagement Group, I welcome the new Senators, Senators Maria Byrne and Horkan, to the House. In the past, they had a great relationship with the Civil Engagement Group so I look forward to working with both of them.

Following on from the comments of my colleague, Senator Fiona O’Loughlin, on maternity services, it has been all over the media all week that pregnant women still do not have the support of their partner, or a partner, while availing of maternity services. There should not be one set of rules for one hospital and another set for another. Every woman should have her partner with her on her maternity journey. Dr. Peter McKenna of the HSE said the restrictions on maternity services should be eased. From the cancellation of antenatal classes and being told bad news going through labour to having to stay in hospital due to minor complications, women have been failed, even since before the pandemic, in respect of maternity services. We really need look at this.

We are under the illusion that maternity care is all free. If a woman suffers from extreme morning sickness, unfortunately she is not covered for the payment for her medication. The same applies to gestational diabetes in that women still have to pay for care during their pregnancy. I really want to bring that to the table today.

Being pregnant myself, with my baby due in September, I am worried about not having the supports. I know of women who have, over the past year, been begging the Department of Health to allow them to have a partner present for the birth of their child. It is a worry and a roller coaster of a journey for any pregnant person. Why is a partner allowed in one hospital for maternity services and not in another? This needs to change for women. Since we talk about gender equality, the man, just as much as the woman, should have equal access to see his child and be part of the journey. It is a long time since we had a conversation in this House or in the Dáil on maternity services and maternity care for women. Maternity care is not free if a woman has an illness due to pregnancy.

Congratulations, Senator Flynn. We look forward to seeing your new baby in Leinster House at some stage in the autumn.

I welcome my two new colleagues, Senators Horkan and Maria Byrne, and congratulate them on their re-election. I expect we will have a tough time with Senator Horkan in the Chair again in the not-too-distant future but I am delighted for him. I endorse what my colleague, Senator Boyhan, said but I am not going to go back over that ground.

I am one of those who was able to register for the vaccine last week. It is with a heavy heart that I come in today to state I am absolutely petrified.

I cannot outline how petrified I am. I am being given one option and one option only, which is AstraZeneca. I understand there are rare instances of blood clots as a result of taking the AstraZeneca vaccine. I suffer from coronary artery disease. I still have some blockages in my coronary arteries that could not be treated 20 years ago when I had stents inserted. I do not want to get a clot. Nobody will explain to me how it is okay for me, over the age of 60, to receive AstraZeneca but it is not for somebody under the age of 60. I know nobody wants to hear this because we want people to take up the vaccine. I want the vaccine. I want to be able to return to a normal life where all of us can do the things we did previously. I want to be able to go on holidays. I want to be able to do all of those things but it is not just me who feels this way. People in my age group are contacting me and they are petrified and yet we have a gun to our heads. It is a case of take it or leave it. The Tánaiste said a couple of weeks ago that if people do not take this vaccine they will have to go to the back of the queue. A person who rang me this morning said they were not comfortable about taking AstraZeneca and they were told that they might get to him in August or September. Professor Kingston Mills said today that it is wrong that one can only have access to one vaccine. I want somebody somewhere to tell me how it is okay for a 60 year old and not for a 59 year old to take the AstraZeneca vaccine. I say to this House today that I am petrified but I will probably have to take the vaccine because the risk of getting Covid-19 is even worse. However, I am not happy.

As spokesperson for sport for Fianna Fáil in the Seanad it is sad to hear the confirmation this morning, which we were expecting, that the UEFA European Championship games scheduled for Dublin will now not take place and instead will move to St. Petersburg and Wembley instead.

On that theme of sport, we were engulfed in a furore this week with the proposals for a super league in soccer which, by all accounts, was just another play thing for a few American and Italian billionaires and a Russian oligarch, with some Arabs thrown in. What was most pitiful to see was the impact on the ordinary fans in England who were despondent that their national sport was being taken away from them.

We can contrast that greed with the positive news yesterday that €40 million in funding is being pumped into sport, not just in the main sports but 50 other smaller sports bodies also. However, in some way the threat to sport as we saw in England was highlighted by Kerry GAA legend and RTÉ analyst, Tomás Ó Sé, this morning who warned that the professional training load placed on our national GAA sports stars is unsustainable, not just for inter-county stars but ordinary club players who are now expected to train to professional levels. The running of the GAA and its games is a matter solely for it but the political classes across the water took their eye off their game and then had to scramble at the last minute to try to deal with what was happening. In terms of context, what happens in the sporting arena resonates across all our society. There is a drive towards the professionalism of our national sport. It may be by default but it is heading that way. We saw it even during the Covid lockdowns. Managers were bringing teams out to train despite the warnings because they wanted to get that edge. This is indicative of that. Tomás Ó Sé called it out this morning and warned that players are expected to go to work or to college and then train like professional sports people but they are clearly not.

Sport is rarely discussed in these Chambers unless it is politicians standing up to congratulate sports stars despite the fact that it is equally as important as many other topics and resonates across the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in this country. I call on the Leader to invite the Minister with responsibility for sport to come to the Chamber for a full debate on this and many other issues pertaining to sporting matters.

The breaches of data protection laws which have been reported in the media and confirmed by the Sinn Féin Party leader yesterday are extremely alarming. They raise fundamental questions about how secure the democratic system in this country is from outside interference. Some might dismiss this because they want the story to disappear but in the context of the electoral reform Bill it is critical that we examine these questions and put safeguards in place.

There is something really dodgy about all of this. It seems that Sinn Féin is operating a transnational cyber web of databases with unknown individuals being trained to elicit information from people on social media that they can combine with their voter database system and, to borrow a phrase from their training manual, to pinpoint them in the real world. There is a reason this voter system was located in London and not in Dublin and a reason it was transferred to Frankfurt and is not located in Ireland. Is it because Sinn Féin-----

Gabh mo leithscéal. The Senator has to be careful on the issue of privilege.

Does the Cathaoirleach have an issue with me?

No, but I am just signalling that we did a great deal on this process and I am just asking for caution. That is all.

I will always exercise caution and I would appreciate if the Cathaoirleach would add on the time that he has just taken there.

The Senator need not worry as this time will be added on.

There is a reason this voter system was located in London and not in Dublin and why it was transferred to Frankfurt and not to Ireland.

Senator Warfield has asked, under Standing Order 39, for a 30-second intervention.

Is this relevant to the Order of Business?

Perhaps the Senator might conclude by making his comments by reference to legislation.

This is relevant to an item on the Order of Business.

I ask the Senator to continue, please.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and I would appreciate if he might add on the time from the interruption. Is it because Sinn Fein wants to keep this voter system at arms length from the Data Protection Commissioner, DPC, or because the secret database is a well-financed Sinn Féin asset and was not declared by the party in its Standards In Public Office Commission, SIPO, returns? This seems to me like Cambridge Analytica meets Ardoyne, via Serbia, Frankfurt, Manhattan and London. I suspect even Edward Snowden would find it difficult to get to the bottom of this sophisticated cyber operation.

Sinn Féin says that the Abú system is just the electoral register. That argument does not stand up to scrutiny because everyone in this House knows there is no centralised electoral register in this country. There are 31 individual registers across 31 individual local authorities. It seems that the Oireachtas database is good enough for every other political party in this country but it is not good enough for Sinn Féin.

I welcome the fact the UK data watchdog has joined the Irish DPC in asking questions of the Sinn Féin Party and I certainly hope the data protection officer in Germany will do likewise.

Does the acting Leader agree with me that the only way this controversy can be brought to an end is for Sinn Fein to decommission this database and that, in the context of the electoral reform Bill and the wider discussions on that, we need a very serious debate in this House on this matter?

Hopefully, I will get the same latitude on time.

As long as the Senator is not interrupted, she will.

I congratulate Senator Flynn. She has informed us that she is due to have a child in September and I, therefore, hope that we do not see her in the autumn. Every mother and woman is entitled to maternity leave and I hope to see her when she comes back from maternity leave as opposed to coming straight back in the autumn time.

I raise the issue of the taxi industry and the very bad effect Covid-19 has had on that industry. Taxi drivers are coming to this building next Thursday and they have a number of key points to raise. First, they want a financial plan and support to be put in place for them. Many taxi drivers have said that they have had a very significant drop in income. Business is down and the tourism industry on which they were hugely reliant is down and yet no financial plan has been put in place for taxi drivers unlike other industries that have seen such support.

Taxi drivers are also calling for access to bus corridors, which is a very simple demand, a moratorium on the issuing of licences and to have the vehicle restrictions extended from ten to 15 years. We have treated taxi drivers in this country abominably, particularly when it has come to Covid-19. They have driven people to hospitals and to Covid-19 tests and they have collected people's prescriptions for them. They have provided a vital public service, as front-line workers, for many people around this country during the course of the pandemic.

Drivers are also at great risk of contracting Covid-19 and they received a paltry €1,000 grant to bring their vehicles up to standard.

To avail of that grant, they had to give up the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. When people were out of business and out of work, that was a huge ask of them. I ask that we have a debate in this House on saving the taxi industry and giving taxi drivers a decent standard of living and wage for what they do and the public service they provide.

I welcome my colleagues, Senators Horkan and Maria Byrne, back to the Chamber. Senator Horkan will forgive me if I extend a particular welcome to Senator Maria Byrne. It is good to have a second voice from Limerick in the Chamber. I congratulate both Senators.

This week, I attended the Council of Europe. It was good to see a motion on Alexei Navalny. I commend the speech of our colleague, Senator O'Loughlin, on that. I was happy to vote in support of the motion calling for his release. It struck me as I saw politicians from across Europe lining up to demand freedom for Alexei Navalny that there is another prisoner in relation to whose case there is absolute silence. That is Julian Assange. Julian has been in prison for two years in London. Before that, he had to be holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy for a number of years. His only crime was to release horrific facts about US wars. One particularly famous video showed a US Apache helicopter slaughtering people, 18 of them. When the van came to protect the wounded and take them away, the same Apache helicopter gunned them down as well. That is one example but there are thousands of files containing torture in Guantanamo and horrific murders of civilians in Afghanistan. We would not know anything about these facts if it were not for Julian Assange, yet there has been silence across the political spectrum in relation to this man. I want to end the silence in this Chamber today and call for his release and a debate in relation to his release.

I do not know if it is because this State is complicit in relation to some of these killings through its support, through Shannon, of the US military. I really do not know, but it strikes me that the silence is more than poor. It is shameful. I call on people from across all parties to stand up for democracy. The National Union of Journalists, NUJ, has called for his release, as have The Washington Post and The New York Times. Journalism is under threat. We need freedom for journalists and for Julian Assange.

I welcome our re-elected Senators, Senator Maria Byrne and, particularly, Senator Horkan. Senator Horkan has been a good friend and ally of mine over the years and I am delighted for him to be able to represent the people again and give us an Oireachtas Member in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area. The push is on to get him into the Dáil. It is a cornerstone of his campaign to get elected here. I would be delighted to be his campaign manager and get him into the Dáil. I will do all in my power through my connections to get him an office in Dún Laoghaire somewhere at the first opportunity.


On a serious note, well done. It is a great honour. All the talk was about splits in the Government and that they were not talking or getting on but the facts are in the votes. Maybe some journalists should study the facts in relation to this.

On a more serious note, not that that was not a serious matter, school places are something most politicians here are getting calls on day in and day out. Allocation of secondary school places has become a nightmare and more so this year because there has been a change in policy. Kids can now accept a place in more than one school, and this is having serious knock-on effects. We have to review this. If they are accepting more than one place, there should certainly be a time limit on it, but there will have to be a change. In my town of Mullingar, if one could believe the kids were taking so many places, we would need two extra classes in secondary schools this September. That will not be the case according to the numbers. At most, there might be half an extra class needed.

This is causing a problem and we will have to address it. The Leader might bring it up with the Minister and she might come to the House to discuss it, because it will have to be addressed.

Like others, I offer my congratulations to Senators Horkan and Maria Byrne and look forward to working with them and others over the coming years.

I ask the acting Leader to try to organise a debate at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss the reopening of society in line with the fall in Covid numbers. I expect an announcement next week with further proposals for the months ahead. It would be appropriate if we had a debate here. There are a couple of areas that I have real concern about.

The aviation sector is a significant employer in the State, with upwards of 150,000 people connected to or working in it. They have gone through a horrendous time. Even with best-case scenarios, it is projected that it will be 2023 or 2024 before the sector gets back to 2019 levels of activity. It will suffer for a considerable time. We need to give some sense of a plan about when international aviation will begin again. We especially need to concentrate on the digital green certificate and give some sense of when that might be put in place. Do we have the structures to deal with it? We need to look in the first instance to Europe and the US because those are our big markets. We need to start planning now. We must not take a wait and see approach; we have to have a plan. We know that we are rolling out the vaccine and we know where the milestones are. We now need to give certainty to the aviation sector.

We also need to set out a clear plan for the ending of mandatory hotel quarantine. While it was a useful tool at a certain point, once the vaccine is rolled out, we need to get rid of it quickly. It severely inhibits the ability of people to travel and move freely, even in exceptional circumstances. That needs to be addressed. I also ask that consideration be given to allowing the so-called wet pubs the same ability to trade as gastropubs and restaurants in the outdoor environment. It now appears that gastropubs and restaurants will be permitted to sell food outside and people will have the capacity to sit in the open air. I see no reason wet pubs would not be provided with the same opportunity in the open air where the spread of the virus is strongly inhibited by the outdoor experience.

I welcome my two former colleagues back into the Chamber and wish them the best of luck. It is great to have two new Senators and a full complement in the House again.

I bring to the attention of the House what I believe is an impending crisis in the building industry. In the next few months, we face a scenario where the inflation we have seen in products will result in a significant increase in house prices. The price of timber has increased by 50% in the past four months and two further price rises are due in the next two months. This will mean a 70% increase in the price of timber in a six-month period. One can only get a quotation for timber on a five-day rotation now. A quotation for trusses for a house only lasts for five days, which makes it nearly impossible for the industry to provide quotes. The same applies to cement to steel, with the price of the latter increasing in price by nearly 60% in the past six months.

I was contacted by a woman during the week who signed a contract for a house before Covid, in November. House prices have gone up by €35,000 in the last six months. The bill of quantities has been produced for her and it is in line with inflation in materials prices, which means she is under exceptional pressure to finance the closing out and finishing of the house. If we are to continue on this line, house price inflation could be anything up to 25% in six months' time. That will have a significant effect on house building and affordability. We need a serious debate with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage on how we will ensure the economy will be sustainable in future and on whether the inflation we have seen in these products can be justified.

This, in many ways, has a smell of 2006 about it. In 2006, our economy grew dramatically. Inflation in labour force and product costs drove the housing market around the bend. We are starting on the same circuit again.

Unless there is a real change in policy, we will, unfortunately, have people, like those who have contacted me, who are grossly affected by this.

I welcome Senators Horkan and Maria Byrne to the House. It is great to have new colleagues.

Today, I am wearing purple for Go Purple Day, to raise awareness of domestic violence. I ask all colleagues to text "SAFE" to 50300 to support this cause. I have often raised in the House the issue of gender-based violence and called for a debate on how the Government can make this country a really safe place for women, girls, families and children to grow up and live in. We need an interdepartmental task force on gender-based violence. We need integrated, survivor-focused policies and services, and sustainable and thriving local services. We need to look at how we can intervene to prevent such violence and create proper strategies around that.

I thank Safe Ireland and commend it on all its incredible work. Everybody should look on its website and read the policies for eradicating domestic violence in this country. I applaud Women's Aid Dundalk, with which I work very closely, for the incredible work it does, particularly over the past 15 months of the Covid crisis. The people in the organisation had to change how they work with the people who come to them for help. They had to restructure everything, and they did so undaunted and remaining absolutely focused on their goal, which is to help women and children who are going through domestic violence. They work on a shoestring, stretching their budget to the very best of their ability. I urge all Senators today to support Safe Ireland's Go Purple Day.

I welcome back to the House my colleagues, Senators Horkan and Maria Byrne, and congratulate them on their re-election. I commiserate with the people who put their names forward and were not successful, including two former Members.

Will the acting Leader ask the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to come back to the House? We had a great debate some weeks ago on tourism and sport. As several speakers have noted, it is very important that, as the economy opens up, we focus particularly on wet pubs, restaurants and the entertainment sector. We need a special debate on these issues. This is an area where a lot of young people are employed. Up to 30% of young people are not working at this time and there are no outlets for them. They cannot go to the US or the UK and will remain based in Ireland. It is very important that we open up as many small businesses as possible, including wet pubs, restaurants, gastropubs, tourism projects and entertainment services. The Minister should come back to the House to hear what we have to say and discuss what we can do to help those small businesses get back to employing people and providing a service.

Finally, the proposals regarding green certificates are very important as we move ahead, not just for the aviation sector but for tourism in general.

Ar dtús báire gabhaim comhghairdeas agus gach dea-ghuí leis na Seanadóirí nua-tofa. I congratulate the two re-elected Senators, who are both close personal friends of mine for many a day.

It is incumbent on all of us, as well as being a pleasure, to try to build good interpersonal relationships north of the Border and, indeed, on an east-west basis.

This needs to happen at ground level with people mixing across the Border in a very normal way. To achieve this, I believe that we should build in a condition to many of our State grants that there should be clear evidence of a reach across the Border. In the case of the sports capital grants, a considerable number of points should be allocated for evidence of a form of twinning with a similar club in Northern Ireland. In the case of CLÁR grants, points should be given for links with Northern Ireland. Town and village renewal grants should have a twinning or interlinked incentive and, similarly, rural regeneration grants.

I fully understand that physical travel to Northern Ireland would be more difficult the further away one is from the Border. However, we have recently discovered that distance is no obstacle to contact so we could mix and match. I ask the acting Leader to bring my proposal to Government and arrange a debate. I ask for this because we will build unity in this country, and ultimately a united Ireland, by the bringing together of hearts of minds and building of interpersonal relationships. My practical proposals are implementable and could have a transformative effect in a very short time.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his excellent proposal. It is a very innovative idea. I call on our newly elected Senators and first call Senator Maria Byrne.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his kind welcome. I congratulate my colleague, Senator Horkan, and it was a pleasure for us both to be elected the other day. I thank everybody for their very kind welcome back today. I look forward to working with the many Senators who have never met me or engaged with me but heard from me via phone, Zoom or whatever. It is a great honour and privilege to be re-elected to Seanad Éireann. I enjoyed my four-year term from 2016 to 2020 and look forward to serving here. Many of the Senators who served with me in the past would know that I have always been very passionate about everything being for the greater good, and willing to support issues and debates here, certainly when I believed they were worthwhile supporting. I have always been prepared to give everything a fair hearing and my colleagues here will find that will be my mantra going forward.

I am disappointed that Senator Craughwell has left the Chamber because I am going to mention Limerick. He always says to me that I raise everything concerning Limerick. Senators Dooley and Burke raised issues concerning both the aviation and hospitality sectors. The aviation industry is very important for the mid-west, which is where I come from. I agree with the concerns expressed about the aviation and hospitality industries here today. I say that because I believe that wet pubs and gastropubs have experienced very difficult times and a special package should be created for them. I also support the call for the relevant Minister to address these issues.

I wish to pay tribute to the people who put their names forward for the Seanad by-elections and were unsuccessful. There were two former Senators, Billy Lawless and Ian Marshall, and Councillors Angela Feeney and Ciarán Ahern from the Labour Party, and Hazel Chu. I pay tribute to all of them. I have been in politics for more than two decades and for all of that time I have believed in competition as it is very healthy. I pay tribute to everybody who put their names forward.

Finally, it is an honour and privilege to be back here. I look forward to working with the Cathaoirleach, all of the Senators, Mr. Martin Groves, his staff, the ushers and everybody here in the House.

We look forward to working with the Senator and I now call on Senator Gerry Horkan.

I may have been in this Chamber once or twice to hear Nancy Pelosi and another couple of speakers but I have never had the opportunity to speak in this Chamber.

As Senator Boyhan said, people looking on may wonder whether we have been demoted, promoted or elevated. On 27 March last year, I did not think I would lose my seat and, when I did, I did not think I would be back less than 13 months later. I thank everybody here. It is a very strange experience, as a by-election candidate, and particularly one who happened to make it over the line on the first count, as did Senator Maria Byrne, to become aware that a majority of the Members operating in these Houses every day put a number one beside my name and elected me to this Chamber. I am humbled, privileged and delighted to be here. I thank everybody who was able to give me that number one but I equally appreciate the support of those who were committed to another candidate but who gave me twos and threes, which I may have needed, although I am thankful I did not. I aim to work with everybody, right across the Chamber, for as long as we are all here. Long may it last.

I pay tribute to the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, as leader of our party, for instigating an open and democratic process with the 58 members of the parliamentary process in which 12 candidates were allowed to present and in which I was ultimately successful, thereby allowing me to be the candidate. I also thank everybody across the three Government parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. There was a little bit of a blip with some of that but it is fine and grand. We got through it. Equally, there are Members from every party, and Independent Members, who supported me and Senator Maria Byrne. I acknowledge that and appreciate it.

As group leader of the Fianna Fáil group in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in 2014, I negotiated with the late John Bailey and Deputy Catherine Martin, who was then the group leader of the Green Party in that council, to form what was, I believe, the first Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Party arrangement in the country.

It was a sign of things to come.

We did it before anybody else and it worked very well. The Green Party started off with two councillors in 2014 and came back with six in 2019 so it did not have anything to fear from being in a governing arrangement. The other parties also did quite well and came back with a good number of councillors.

It is great to be here. I thank everybody for their support. It is not a day on which to raise too many issues but I do want to reflect on the fact that, over the last 13 months, many people have lost loved ones and have suffered illness during the pandemic. Friends of mine have lost parents and people I know have passed away with Covid. Many of them had underlying conditions but they were alive and with us and no longer are. I want to remember that.

On the other hand, I also acknowledge the very difficult times businesses have had, particularly those in the areas of aviation, hospitality and tourism as well as restaurants and pubs. I support the calls made by Senators Maria Byrne and Dooley for no distinction to be made between pubs that serve food and those that do not when they are allowed to reopen, which should be done as soon and as safely as possible. People should be allowed to enjoy company and being sociable in the open air and in a safe way. The last thing people want is to be reliant on the pandemic unemployment payment. They want to get back to work and back to doing what they do well. It is to be hoped that, sooner rather than later, we will all have our vaccines and be back working, albeit to a new normal. I hope those opportunities will be there.

Again, I thank every single person in these Houses who gave me support in the last few weeks. I apologise to all of those I rang and spoke to too often. I appreciate the support.

I thank all Senators for their contributions. Senators O'Loughlin and Flynn raised issues with regard to maternity services. That is very important. It is a stressful time for expectant mothers, their partners and, indeed, their parents and anyone else who loves them and worries about them. It is not only a matter of the pregnancy. There are also scans. Expectant mothers may face a range of concerns. While there has been some relaxation in some hospitals and while individual hospitals have taken different approaches, there is certainly a need for a united approach. I agree with Senator O'Loughlin in her advocacy on that issue. I also agree with her with regard to the opening of third level education.

Both Senator O'Loughlin and Senator McGreehan raised the issue of domestic violence.

Indeed, after the debate I will be texting "Safe" to 50300 to pledge €4 for domestic violence victims. I acknowledge the volunteers and professionals who provide services for victims across the country and those who advocate for them, such as COPE Galway, Women's Aid Dundalk, which was mentioned by Senator McGreehan, and the other facilities around the country that do very important work.

Senator Boyhan mentioned all the candidates in the Seanad by-election. I join colleagues in acknowledging that, in any election, some people win and, unfortunately, others do not. There are many walking wounded in this House after campaigns in the past year, myself included. We all acknowledge that it is difficult for those who do not gain election. They should not be too despondent. Many people who have lost an election go on to serve at a future date. Indeed, Senators Horkan and Maria Byrne are examples of that. I acknowledge Billy Lawless, who is a good friend of mine, Ian Marshall, Angela Feeney, Ciarán Ahern and Hazel Chu. I wish them well in their endeavours and future campaigns.

As regards the call for the Taoiseach to come the House, I know there are long-term demands or requests for the Taoiseach to come to the House from members of his own party and I am sure that will be forthcoming at some stage. It is a pity that we are not in the Seanad Chamber and cannot have a full house for such occasions, but Covid has an impact on everything.

Senator Hoey raised several issues. She mentioned conversion therapy, as did Senator Warfield. I acknowledge the work of Senator Warfield in the previous Seanad in terms of advocating for the Prohibition of Conversion Therapies Bill 2018. I acknowledge the work that has been done in the Northern Ireland Assembly in terms of banning the practice. I know the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, has stated that his Department is preparing a scoping document and is engaging with the Department of Health and, presumably, the Department of Justice. It is an issue that crosses those three Departments. I hope that we will see progress on it very soon. I know there are strong advocates on the issue within the Government and an anti-conversion therapy coalition in the community. I wish them well in their work. It is a very important issue that we must solve as quickly as possible.

Senator Hoey also raised the issue of vaccinations for the housebound. The issue was raised with the HSE at a recent Oireachtas committee meeting. The National Ambulance Service, NAS, is engaging with the housebound. There are delays in that regard. I contacted Martin Dunne at the NAS headquarters yesterday on behalf of certain individuals in their mid-90s who were left without having received their first vaccine, never mind the second shot. I suggest that the Senator follow up in that manner. The NAS is responsible for this issue.

As regards the Debenhams workers, obviously, I cannot comment on Garda operational matters. There are other forums in which the issue can be raised, including as a Commencement matter.

Senator Martin raised the issue of the Uighur people in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Ireland won a seat on the United Nations Security Council because we have a reputation as a fair-minded country. As we are a small country, we can advocate without fear or favour on behalf of minorities across the world. I will ask my office or the office of the Leader to contact the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to get an update on the issue. The Leader will keep the issue in mind in terms of a future debate on foreign policy.

Senator Flynn raised the issue of maternity services. In her absence, I congratulate her on her good news. I wish her well in that regard.

Senator Craughwell raised the issue of the vaccine and his concern that he has been offered one variety of vaccine. Obviously, I am not a health expert and I cannot advocate anything except to urge everyone to register for the vaccine when asked to do so and to take a vaccine of choice. This issue was raised at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health during the week. Professor Karina Butler of the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, appeared before the committee. I asked a question similar to that raised by the Senator on behalf of a constituent who is part of the vulnerable group and, having received a first dose of the vaccine, this constituent stated they would not take the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Professor Butler stated it is very important that everybody gets vaccinated and that it will protect themselves and everybody else, and that even the first vaccine dose provides a certain amount of protection. I can understand the concerns of Senator Craughwell on his own personal health issues and I suggest he contact his doctor, obviously. In terms of the issues of vaccine hesitancy, it is certainly a concern given the issues that have arisen with various types of vaccine, not just here in Ireland but also in other countries. I know NIAC will continue to encourage people to register, take the vaccine they are offered and protect themselves and their families. I would advocate for that.

Senator Cassells talked about the UEFA championships, the super league and the whole issue of sport. I will ask the Leader to contact the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, and the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, in regard to a debate on the issue of sport. I know Senator Cassells is a huge advocate of our national games and the GAA. Most people acknowledge the volunteering spirit up and down the country in our clubs. I hope that the GAA, as a national game, will continue as an amateur sport with, if we like, a professional ethos in terms of training and athletes looking after themselves and their health. I will certainly contact the Ministers involved to raise the issue of a debate in regard to the GAA and the interesting development of the super league during the week which, thankfully in this case, showed that money did not trump the people who advocate, day in, day out, for their games and who go to attend games regularly. I know many Irish people have a love for the game and for various clubs across the water as well, so it is good that fans won out against money and big business on that occasion.

Senator Cummins raised the issues of the breaches of data by Sinn Féin and the electoral reform Bill. The electoral reform Bill is hugely important and is one that I know will generate a lot of debate in this House. I know members of the committee are engaging with that and I am sure they have done pre-legislative scrutiny, and that Bill will come before us in due course, as well as the issues around the electoral register and the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO. As candidates in various elections, we all have to fill out our SIPO returns. We fill them out truthfully and honestly and hope that every other individual candidate and party does the same. Certainly, if there are questions to be answered, they have to be answered by Sinn Féin or by any other party that might be implicated.

There are a number of questions, such as when the database was first initiated, when it was moved from London to Frankfurt, why was it moved, did they ask any of the electorate could they store personal information first in London and then in Frankfurt, and is it the case that Sinn Féin is circumventing SIPO rules. There are a lot of questions that have to be answered. It is certainly free for any party to request debates, put down Commencement matters and advocate on Private Members’ time. We will follow that but Senator Cummins has raised very important issues for the parties, Sinn Féin in particular.

Senator Moynihan talked about the taxi industry. The Tánaiste is coming to the House next Friday to talk about Covid and business supports, which will be an opportunity for the Senator or her colleagues on her behalf to raise concerns about taxis. I have a good colleague in Galway, Councillor Frank Fahy, who is a taxi driver. Like so many different businesses and self-employed people, they have had a difficult year because of Covid and the collapse in tourism, in the hospitality sector and in all of that area. It is an important question. I ask Senator Moynihan to raise that issue with the Tánaiste next Friday on behalf of taxi drivers.

Senator Gavan raised the cases of Alexei Navalny and Julian Assange. I cannot comment on Julian Assange and perhaps it would be more in order to put down a Commencement matter or we could look at a debate with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in regard to foreign affairs. I acknowledge the bravery of Alexei Navalny, who voluntarily returned to Russia and probably knew what he was likely to face. I hope he recovers and gets independent healthcare in Russia.

Senator Davitt raised the issue of school places. This is a hugely emotional issue and is stressful for parents and children, probably more for parents, I suggest, than for children in most cases. People are registering with a number of schools.

There is a situation where one might not know until the end if a place becomes available. There has been a lot of work done in the last couple of years on making the schools placement system fairer but there is always competition. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Foley, to consider the topic in a debate.

Senator Dooley asked for a debate on the important matter of reopening society. The Tánaiste will be before the House next Friday to discuss some of the issues involved in that regard. I will ask the Leader if that debate can be adjourned rather than concluded because I expect that there will be a lot of interest in it. The roadmap will be published by then. The aviation sector is hugely important and has effectively collapsed. We know its importance for Shannon, Knock, Dublin and Cork and the advocacy of so many Senators over the past year who raised the concerns of pilots and staff. Thankfully, supports have been provided but it will take some time for the system to reboot and reopen.

I am sure mandatary hotel quarantine will end when it is deemed to be safe. No one likes the idea or thought of it. It goes against the grain in the context of Ireland being a welcoming country and one that relies so heavily on tourism. I hope it will not last for a long time.

I fully agree on outdoor seating for wet pubs - I do not like the term either. I know the Minster for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, has introduced a grant. This matter was raised within our party meeting during the week and the Tánaiste said he would look at it and see if the pubs that do not serve food can be included in the grant scheme relating to outdoor seating.

Senator Lombard referred to building inflation and housing issues. People have been locked up in their homes for the past year and have plenty of time to look around and see what is wrong with their houses and what things they might like to do or change, maybe put up an extension or do a refurbishment. Working from home might mean that a person needs to spruce up the office or build a new one. I am sure that creates demand for materials and labour but there are genuine issues. The ESRI was before a committee recently and Deputy Canney asked about building inflation. Dr. Kieran McQuinn of the ESRI has spoken about the significant build up of savings which are available for people to do up their homes. This could lead to heightened levels of demand, with supply still constrained. There is also an issue with labour shortages. There might be people who moved to England in recent months when the construction sector reopened there and there is an issue about getting them back. I will contact the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to see if we can get a debate on a very important issue of housing and inflation in building.

Senator Paddy Burke also spoke about tourism and small businesses. The Tánaiste will be in the House on Friday but I will contact the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, again about tourism and hospitality. The Taoiseach and others have stated there will be a package for the sector when it comes to reopen and we will advocate for that.

Senator Joe O'Reilly spoke about cross-Border work in respect of a range of excellent schemes, including those relating to sport and town and village renewal. There is potential for the Oireachtas and the assembly linking up on projects that may operate on a cross-Border basis or where parishes are split by the Border. Coming from a Border county, the Senator knows more about that than me. I will contact the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, to ask what plans she might consider. It is an interesting proposal. The Senator might put his thoughts and suggestions on paper and I will progress the matter. It is an excellent idea on which I commend him.

I congratulate the two new Senators. I know they will make a strong contribution in respect of matters relating not only to Limerick or Dún Laoghaire but also those relating to the panels to which they have been elected.

Order of Business agreed to.