The Order of Business is No. 1, motion re the arrangements for the sitting of the House on Friday, 28 May 2021, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; and No. 2, Health and Criminal Justice (Covid-19) (Amendment) Bill 2021 - Committee and Remaining Stages, to be taken at 11.45 a.m. and to conclude at 12.45 p.m. by the putting of one question from the Chair which shall, in respect of amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
I welcome the decision of the 27 EU member states last night to launch fresh sanctions against the Lukashenko dictatorship in Belarus. The intervention of President Biden overnight in his comments of support for the European Union and the decision it has taken, and an indication that the United States will follow suit with increased sanctions on Belarus, is to be welcomed. I think most right-minded people have been deeply disturbed by what has transpired in recent days. The effective hijacking of an Irish-owned airliner by the Belarusian Government was an audacious act which must be condemned and in respect of which appropriate sanctions must be put in place. The free movement of people within and between member states is one of the fundamental freedoms of the European Union, and anything that might undermine it has to be dealt with in the most aggressive manner possible. I hope that in the coming days we will see the strength of those sanctions and they will bring some consideration to bear in the minds of the people of Belarus, particularly its leadership.
I ask the Leader again to try to arrange, if possible, a debate here at the earliest possible opportunity on the issue of Irish Water and its operational programme. Yet again the town of Kilkee finds itself with a no-swim imposition, with no bathing in the bay at Kilkee for the third year in a row now. Going back to 2018 and 2019, the town and the area were promised that a plan was under way to improve the infrastructure such that this kind of situation would not be allowed to continue. Unfortunately, however, it has continued. This comes at a really difficult time, when the Government and the State are encouraging people to stay at home, to stay focused, not to travel too far, to utilise our beauty spots and to work within our own resources. There is nowhere more beautiful than Kilkee on a fine summer's day. So many people find an attraction there. They go there on visits and to take their holidays. However, there is little point in people heading to Kilkee on their holidays if they cannot swim. Until such time as Irish Water comes forward with a plan and a programme to upgrade the sewerage infrastructure, we should not stop either in this House or anywhere else. We need to see these kinds of locations addressed. We need to see the infrastructure appropriately repaired and upgraded in order that people are not left on holidays in a town but unable to use the most important amenity there.
Well-deserved tributes have been paid to the great Bob Dylan in recent days as he has reached that great milestone of his 80th birthday, but another legend, an Irish one, deserves to be remembered here too, and that is the great Barney Curley, who went to his reward in recent days. He had a particular connection with these Houses. We have important debates that we need to have on gambling and changes that are needed in order to protect people, so it may seem unusual to extol the achievements of a famous gambler, but Barney Curley was a truly exceptional person who did wonderful things for some of the least fortunate people in the world. It was for that reason that in 2015 the then Ceann Comhairle, Seán Barrett, presented him with the Oireachtas human dignity award on the part of the human dignity group.
Barney Curley was famous for his exploits in getting the better of bookies over the years and he did very well in that department, but he was a deadly serious man who devoted much time and energy to and raised millions of euro for the good work being done mainly by missionaries, as I recall, in Africa, particularly Zambia, in the fields of education and healthcare. He was an enigmatic and interesting individual. The phrase "ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann" is often used when maybe it is not always the case, but Barney Curley was certainly a one-off. He worked closely with Irish priests and nuns abroad. Senator Keogan's uncle, Fr. Jim Brady of Kiltegan, worked with Barney Curley. The people near Kavu health centre, in rural Zambia, may remember the name of Barney Curley and many of them may never have heard of Bob Dylan. Ar dheis Dé go raibh Barney Curley.
I wish to raise the issue of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. As we all know, to give false statements in court, either in evidence or by affidavit, amounts to perjury, which is a very serious offence, but there is no provision anywhere in law that would lead to a similar penalty for making false statements to the PIAB. As we know, the PIAB was set up in 2003 to divert personal injury cases away from the courts, but nothing in the legislation contains the words "false", "misleading", "truthful" or anything like that, so somebody could submit an application to the PIAB that could be a tissue of lies but he or she would not have committed an offence. Contrast this with the fair deal legislation of 2009, which provides that somebody who knowingly or recklessly gives false information relating to a material particular could be liable for a fine of up to €5,000 or up to three months in prison. There is a glaring gap in the legislation that I do not think has been brought up in these Houses before. I wish to ask the Government what it thinks of that gap and whether it would see fit to plug it.
We await the roadmap for the reopening of indoor hospitality to be announced today, and it will be very welcome to hear that announcement. I understand that the Government intends to publish a national economic recovery plan at the end of May or on 1 June, according to the Tánaiste's statements last week. In this national economic recovery plan it is absolutely crucial that we see very clear and very specific proposals to assist young workers who now find themselves out of a job or those who are attempting to start their working life or who need to work to try to get themselves through college or education. Last month just short of 70% of all young women between 15 and 24, women who are in the labour force, were out of a job.
For men of the same age the figure was 53%. Some will attempt to minimise these figures or cast them aside and say they are only a small share of the overall population in that age group, but that misses the point. The reality is the people in this age group depend on jobs in hospitality, retail and other services. People in these sectors have been out of work for many months.
With the reopening of our economy and with our streets coming to life again some people could be forgiven for thinking that this is a temporary blip for young workers and that all will return to normal in good time. The evidence so far from this pandemic and from previous recessions is to the contrary. Even when shops and hospitality were back open in full last December, the unemployment rate for young men and women remained at the high level of 53% with some 99,700 of those between 15 and 24 years of age remaining out of a job.
The question of job security is relevant. We know that young workers under the age of 25 are almost three times more likely to be on the pandemic unemployment payment rather than the employment wage subsidy scheme. We should not assume that we are going to go back to normal. Instead, we should work off the evidence from previous recessions and recognise that youth unemployment will be one of the major legacies of this pandemic.
My particular appeal today is that when the Government publishes the national economic recovery plan next week, we see clear commitments to deal with the triple problem we now have of the high rate of those not in employment, training or education. The ESRI research has highlighted that this problem was elevated even pre-pandemic. The cohort of 75,000 graduates coming out of college will find it difficult to find work over the coming weeks, months and even in the coming year or two. Those in the hospitality and leisure sectors who are now out of work may not have a job for the foreseeable future.
Is oth liom a rá go bhfuil mé ar ais anseo arís ag caint faoin scéal mar gheall ar uisce. It saddens me to have to come back up here to the Seanad again today to raise the issue of water for possibly the tenth time. My first speech was about water as well. I should not laugh because it is such a serious issue.
We are in a water emergency. I know we are in a pandemic and we talk about a housing emergency, but if we do not look at water and the issues around water as an emergency in this country then we are going nowhere.
Last week we saw the beach in Kilkee closed down due to raw sewage. That is something we would expect in a poor underdeveloped country but not in this country. Last year we saw the beach in Lahinch closed down. We had major issues with raw sewage in Liscannor. It kills me to name places with raw sewage issues because I want people to come and visit these places in my country.
This is an issue throughout Ireland. We have seen the statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. There are major issues with water at so many levels in this country. Until we start looking at water as an emergency we are not going to solve these issues.
The people of Kilkee were promised a treatment plant in 2021. It was to be finished by the beginning of this year. Now they are told it will be 2025. We are promised a similar plant in Liscannor. I had to make a YouTube video about it to try to draw attention to the raw sewage there. The plant was promised for the third quarter two years ago. It has only started although we are still unsure how it is progressing.
I am unsure whose fault it is and I do not care. However, we need to solve our water issue first. We will not be building any houses in town centres or developing serviced sites or anything like that until we sort out water.
I urge the Leader of the House to have a specific debate on water and what we can do as Senators to help the relevant Department and all Departments to look at the issue of water as a priority. We have people getting sick from E. coli poisoning. That is a major issue. We have major issues with people not having access to water. I get calls almost every day from someone who has lost water. The situation in Miltown Malbay has been an ongoing disgrace but I imagine Clare is not unique on this issue. I do not believe we are taking it seriously enough. It is a basic human right to have access to clean water. Many of us pay for water as we are in groups and so on but we are not getting it right. I am unsure what Irish Water needs. Does it need more staff or money? Whatever needs to be done, we need to look at getting it done. I urge the Leader to bring in the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, to focus on water alone. I know he has a great deal going on - everyone does - but the need to have water as a basic right must be dealt with and seen as an emergency, now more than ever.
The conversation about Seanad reform has slowed. The programme for Government is completely silent on the need for Seanad reform. I am concerned that the conversation has slowed.
We have had a Bill from Senator McDowell and others. This is essentially the work of the Seanad reform implementation group that was set up by Deputy Leo Varadkar when he was Taoiseach. I do not want the work of that group, which I was involved in, to go to waste.
I encourage all the new Senators to embrace the Seanad reform conversation and the need for reform. It is not good enough to push all these issues off to the electoral commission and say that the commission will deal with votes for those aged 16 years and Seanad reform and the myriad issues facing electoral reform. We need to take responsibility for these issues.
Christina Finn is writing in the Journal today about the vacant apartments and investment funds sitting on huge swathes of vacant apartments throughout the State. This is a scandal when we are in a housing crisis. There are 183,000 vacant homes in this State, excluding holiday homes. Vacant housing is anti-social and irresponsible. There is extraordinary potential that could be tapped by tackling vacancy in terms of urban regeneration that is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. These premises do not need new schools or roads. They have services like water. The turnaround can be at a fraction of the cost of new-build premises.
There are three Government schemes that tackle vacancy - I will not go through them. Combined, these schemes have reached and achieved only 30% of their collective target of 5,600 homes. A little over 1,600 homes have been brought back into use. This is simply not good enough during the housing crisis. The repair and lease scheme, building renewal scheme and the housing agency fund need to be resourced by Government to end the crisis in vacancy.
Today I rise to ask for a debate. I am unsure how specific it should be. It may be to talk about green spaces in general or limited to the 2018 cross-agency group set up by the Department of Justice.
The group maintains the problems is caused by scramblers but for me it is about trying to reframe the conversation. The reason I am bringing up the matter today is because over the weekend I read the plans and proposals for a park in Tallaght and the reinvention of the park there that has become completely void of use in so many senses. I was excited at the idea that a park might have some creativity and imagination put into it.
When I was younger we heard about the problem of horses. I never saw a problem with our use of horses. If anything, it was one of the most exciting and formative times in my life. We would go around to the local men who ran stables from the backs of their gardens. They taught us how to look after, mind and ride horses. We saw the craftsmanship that went into the making of sulkies.
Now, I look at young men on scramblers. It is a problem only in the sense that we are not providing adequate, safe or organised space for young people to invest in their interest in understanding and looking after the bikes. In the 1990s Fr. Liam O'Brien and a local woman, Catherine Tynan, in Killinarden set up stock car racing. They tried to be creative in addressing the fact that there was a great deal of joyriding at the time. It was a great success but it did not get the support to continue.
We need to be creative in how we look at our green space and communities. One suggestion for the park in Killinarden was for an orchard. I was baffled at the idea that what we have all been asking for in Killinarden is an orchard. How does that even make sense? People talk about the fact that the pitches are ruined because of the scramblers and that young people do not want to have to be taken chase by the gardaí. They would love somewhere where they could be licensed and trained to use those spaces. Another recommendation was for a skate park. That sounds lovely but for every person we see on a skateboard in Tallaght, there are 50 scramblers.
This too misses the point of the social fabric and social context of the community. Skate parks and orchards are nice, but are they what we are seeking? Most likely not. It is not joined-up, creative or imaginative thinking. The solution in so many estates has been to build a wall because that will stop scramblers entering or cars being stolen. How about just building a scrambler park or spaces that are adequate to enable people to live in and use their communities in a safe way? A request from the GAA club to extend the boundary wall so that the club would be within an enclosed space and the pitches could at least remain intact was refused. The authorities do not like building fences in parks but they will build walls at every entrance to the park to stop scramblers entering. It does not make sense. I ask that we return to the working group on scramblers that was set up and include a conversation on how we can creatively use green spaces.
I thank the Senator for raising that issue. She might like to table it as a Commencement matter.
This day three years ago, a majority of voters voted to amend Bunreacht na hÉireann to repeal the eighth amendment and make abortion services freely, legally and safely available for women. Following on from that in 2018, the legislation was introduced and in 2019, abortion and the termination of early pregnancy became legally and safely available to women. It has worked for many women in crisis pregnancies but the legislation is not perfect and the provision of early termination of pregnancy services is not perfect either. Thankfully, at the time the legislation was introduced, there was a commitment to conducting a review after three years, which was prescient.
I ask the Leader to raise with the Minister for Health the promised review of the provision of termination of pregnancy services. Many women have availed of the service, particularly in crisis circumstances, with 90% of terminations taking place before 12 weeks. For some women, however, who may be in very disadvantaged circumstances, the legislation has further disadvantaged them. Only ten of the 19 maternity services in the country provide abortion care, while the legislation to provide for safe zones around abortion care facilities is still pending. In 2019, the year after the referendum, 375 women with an Irish address travelled to the UK for a termination. The pandemic has been so lonely and isolating for all of us, but I cannot imagine how it has been for women facing a crisis pregnancy. It is estimated that 30 of them had to travel to the UK for a termination. Imagine the loneliness, pain and hurt, and having to deal with strangers and justify a trip that no woman would ever want to make.
Will the Leader ask the Minister for Health to advise the House on what arrangements he has made for a review of the legislation? Specifically, he might confirm that an independent expert chairperson will be assigned and that he will engage with all stakeholders, including, most critically, women who have availed of abortion services not only in Ireland but also in the UK, and those who have been charged with the provision of abortion care in order that the recommendations can be evidence based and promptly made.
Last week, I raised the issue of vaccines and vulnerable people and called on the Minister for Health to come to the House for a debate on it, although I am pleased to say those people have since received vaccines. Having said that, I am concerned about the increasing number of Covid-19 cases detected in Limerick and the fact that many young people are being treated in the hospital. My main concern is that, allegedly, a 60-bed unit opened there recently, but people are on trolleys awaiting beds and I have discovered that 45 beds within the hospital have been closed, which has not been reported. This is really serious. Covid numbers are increasing, I am ashamed to say, and people are waiting on trolleys. It is not acceptable. It is opportune that the Minister come to the House for a debate because we cannot allow people who really need care to be left waiting on trolleys in corridors, especially in these Covid times.
Limerick has not been included in the provision of pop-up driving test centres. More than 3,000 people from the city centre alone are on the waiting list and there are many more in the wider county. It is a disgrace that Limerick has not been included because it has a high number on the waiting list. I call on the Leader to intervene and see whether something can be done to have Limerick added to the initiative.
I raise the issue of backlogs for driving tests and driver theory tests. As I am sure is the case for most Members, this is an issue I am contacted about daily, particularly from people in Galway city. The Road Safety Authority has confirmed that more than 100,000 people are awaiting a driving test, which is staggering, and a further 100,000 are awaiting a theory test. Given the size of our population, with 200,000 people awaiting tests, there certainly needs to be action. In excess of 95% of those waiting are young people who have been severely impacted by the pandemic in terms of their lifestyle, freedoms and so on, as we are all aware. If they are on a provisional licence, their insurance costs will be significant, putting further pressure on their mums and dads or whatever the case may be.
The Road Safety Authority has confirmed that once testing resumes, it will have the capacity to carry out 50,000 theory tests to resolve that issue, which is welcome, but driving tests are a much more complex issue, with waiting times in Galway in excess of seven or eight months. The Minister for Transport has confirmed that an additional 40 testers have been undergoing training in recent weeks, which is welcome, but we need still more urgency. The Road Safety Authority has stated that even with these additional resources, the best case scenario is for waiting times to decrease to four months by the end of the year. In order to reduce those waiting times to eight to ten weeks, an additional 40 testers are needed, bringing the total increase to about 80. I ask that the Minister come before the House at his earliest convenience, given that this is such a critical issue for young people, who have suffered so much.
I highlight a group of people who have been a little forgotten. Throughout Covid, people have been admitted to hospital who are elderly and may suffer from early forms of dementia and other illnesses such that their release from hospital is dependent on their getting home care packages, and it may be their first home care package. There has been a delay in that regard, although that is a separate issue that probably deserves its own debate. As a result of the delay, they remain in hospital. In other circumstances, they may have moved to nursing homes or be in a patient category equivalent to that of people in nursing homes. Because they are in hospital, however, they are not receiving visitors. Many of them are not able to use mobile phones, and not having that face-to-face contact means they cannot have conversations. There may be a regression in their mental health.
I ask that we address the issue of this group and put in provisions for them to have the opportunity to be visited in the same way as people in nursing homes.
This is a very discreet group of people and, because of that, a system could be put in place with the hospitals through which a family member would be given a specific pass to visit for at least one hour per week. That would be really important and valuable. It is important we highlight and address as a priority the plight of people who are in hospitals for a long time, who are receiving no visitors and who have no means of communication with the outside world. I call on the Leader to communicate the matter to the Minister for Health on behalf of the Seanad.
Yesterday, Oireachtas Members from the west and north west met the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, to discuss the progression of the application of the Institutes of Technology in Galway-Mayo, Leitrim-Sligo and Donegal to merge to form the Connacht-Ulster Alliance, a technological university for the north west. It was a huge moment for the region when on Tuesday the three campuses submitted their formal application to join forces and become a university for the region. It is a step change in the provision of third level education in the region. The excitement is palpable across all the counties that will be catered for and served by the university. The prospect of a university town in Castlebar, County Mayo, is huge. People locally are really excited about the potential for the county and Castlebar in terms of this new development. I commend all three campuses, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, Letterkenny Institute of Technology, LYIT and Institute of Technology Sligo for putting this proposal together. It is long awaited. They have put forward a fantastic application to the Minister, which I have no doubt will be progressed.
It is my understanding we can look forward to the establishment of the Connacht-Ulster Alliance as early 2022, when students from across the west and north west will have an opportunity to attend a university in their locality. There is some work yet to be done. A governing body will need to be appointed which, ultimately, will make the decision on the layout of the campuses and courses and the location of the head office. I make a pitch today for the head office of the Connacht-Ulster Alliance to be located in County Mayo, but I am sure other counties will make a similar bid for it. It is a fantastic opportunity for the west and north west and is part of a wider Government agenda for balanced regional development and the provision of top-class third level education for citizens and students across the island.
I want to raise the issue of the slow roll-out of vaccines in County Meath. I am not sure if the Leader is aware of it, but there is only one vaccination centre in County Meath. The population of County Meath is 210,000 and the vaccination centre is in Simonstown. Some people have been given appointments in Dublin, Drogheda and Mullingar. I have raised this issue with the HSE and I have asked it to consider the provision of an additional centre, be that in Ashbourne or Fairyhouse. The vaccination programme in County Meath is a very slow process. Although it has been a success in many other areas, County Meath appears to have been left behind.
Last night, the Seanad debated the issue of reproductive leave for people who have had miscarriages, during which we heard about the importance of recognising the loss of a baby at any gestational age and the need to provide support to families to cope. However, in repealing the eighth amendment, we effectively viewed the unborn as a non-person. We all want to support reproductive health, but we have to look at the rights of the unborn as well. It is difficult to understand how what we give them on the one hand, we take away with the other. Are they recognised in Irish law or not? Should they be shown the compassion and humanity afforded to all other persons or not? We all voted in whatever way was right for us, but I do not think many people understood the ramifications of their votes. We were told abortions would be rare, but there have been 6,666 abortions. In late-term abortions, potassium chloride is injected into the heart of the baby. This is the same product used on death row to execute people. There is no obligation in our legislation to give the unborn any pain relief during abortions. I was shocked to note that the website informs people who have taken abortion pills to flush the babies down the toilet.
Last night's debate was compassionate and open. For me, it brought back a lot of memories and I had a very lonely journey home last night. I would like to think that when this House comes to review the abortion legislation, it would be compassionate, including to the unborn.
Covid-19 has affected the entire world. The World Health Organization has done good work in terms of pulling together all of the strands of the pandemic. However, one particular country, Taiwan, does not appear to have much, if any, access to the World Health Organization. Taiwan has proven to be enormously successful in terms of its response to Covid-19. I call on the World Health Organization to give the Taiwanese Government representation at the World Health Assembly and to work out a structure to bring Taiwan into the World Health Organization so that we all can benefit from its experience and it can feed into the overall world response to the pandemic.
I was troubled to hear that the National Women's Council of Ireland has issued a report which states that only 10% of GPs are providing advice and support in regard to the termination of pregnancy in this country. Three years ago this week the people of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to amend Bunreacht na hÉireann to allow for the termination of pregnancy up to 12 weeks in this country. It is worrying to hear reports that many GPs have opted out of this service. My fear is women in rural Ireland in particular are being extremely affected by this decision. It is troubling to hear also that many women still find it necessary to go to England for a termination of pregnancy, alone and with no support. The legislation needs to be reviewed and amended to reflect these challenges and difficulties in the system.
I endorse and support Senator Fitzpatrick's call for a timely review and debate in this House of the decision we, as a country, took three years ago.
I also want to raise the important issue of young people in care in Ireland and how they transition from the system of foster parenting up to the age of 18 years to life afterwards. I commend the bravery and honesty of Danielle McGarry and Sarah O'Brien in speaking recently about their experiences. I learned a lot about young people in care from an incredible young man, Shane Griffin, who spent time in 19 different care homes. Sadly, he had his own battles and he departed this world two years ago on New Year's eve. Shane was an incredible advocate for young people in care and, with Wayne Dignam, established a group known as Irish Care Leavers' Network. Shane believed young people in care, who on reaching 18 are living in a happy, stable environment, should have the opportunity to remain there and not have to leave. In this regard, England has the Staying Put scheme, Wales has the When I am Ready scheme, Scotland has the Continuing Care scheme, and Northern Ireland the Going the Extra Mile scheme. The transition from care to independence is very challenging.
We have 6,000 young people in care. If they are in a family and the foster family agree that they are happy to continue supporting that young person after he or she reaches 18 years then that should be the case. I commend the Munster Technological University that, in conjunction with EPIC, is bringing in a supports system. We need to debate the care system and I would appreciate if the Leader would arrange same. Finally, I acknowledge that the Cork Life Centre has announced that it will be renamed the Shane Griffin Centre after the inspiration and legacy given to many by him.
My apologies because I had to attend a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications and my slot has had to be rescheduled a couple of times.
I wish to refer to the hijacking of an aircraft. Senator Dooley has briefly mentioned it and I am sure it was mentioned by a number of Senators yesterday. As a member of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications, I welcome what happened yesterday at the EU Council and the imposition of sanctions on Belarus.
We must, as a Parliament, insist that Mr. Protasevich and his girlfriend are freed in Belarus and provided with safe passage to their original destination of Vilnius that is in a nearby country. It is horrific to think that an aircraft, albeit registered in Poland but owned by Ryanair Holdings which is an Irish-based and headquartered company, was taken down by military jets on the basis of a fake bomb threat. Nothing was found and nothing was proven so the threat was made up. In fact, the plane was far closer to the border than to Minsk yet the pilot was expected to fly to Minsk where not just the journalist and his girlfriend were taken off the plane but three other people mysteriously vanished. We have been told this morning that the three other people are of Russian nationality but I do not know whether that is true.
I ask the Leader to arrange for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come here and let us know what he is doing in terms of contact with Belarus. Also, I want us, as a Parliament, to ask that the journalist and his girlfriend are released and given free passage to another country where they will be safer.
Normality has returned with children now being able to play outside and play sports so when will swimming lessons for children resume in the Republic of Ireland?
Last night, I spoke to the manager of the Aura Leisure Swimming Pool in Dundalk who outlined a couple of things and it is not until one thinks about these things that one realises they make perfect sense. Perhaps, as a Government, we should consider the nuances of re-opening and my rationale is as follows. First, numerous scientific studies have identified that the Covid virus is killed within 20 seconds in a swimming pool facility due to the chemical disinfectants in the water. Second, modern swimming pools due to having high humidity have ventilation systems that provide a total of ten complete air changes per hour. So at a time when discussions are taking place about a resumption of indoor dining it needs to be noted that swimming pools are one of the much safer indoor environments in terms of sporting activities. Swimming pools are a part of the debate that has been missing in recent weeks.
I have spoken previously in this House about cross-Border trade and travel but now there is cross-Border swimming as swimming lessons became available in Northern Ireland yesterday. Swimming lessons are usually offered in blocks of eight or ten weeks and one pays for a block of lessons. Now there is a viability issue in the medium-term as Border town leisure facilities have no idea when they will re-open and, as a result, parents, who naturally want to ensure their children have a good level of swimming, will travel across the Border to Newry and spend money there. I ask the Government to outline when swimming lessons for children will resume. I must say that it has been great to see children playing sports over the last couple of weeks and we must seek the same for sports that predominantly take place indoors..
Due to a heavy rainfall this month, May 2021 will be recorded as being the wettest May ever. The rainfall has had knock-on effects on the agricultural community because, traditionally, ten or 11 days of silage cutting would have been completed. As there is now a backlog the end of this month and the month of June will be very busy. I am also very concerned about the statistics for farm safety during these few months. In the last decade, with machinery and farm accidents but particularly with machinery, 118 people were killed of which 13 were minors.
The next four weeks will be a very busy period so we need a debate and a campaign that urges people to be responsible on farms. Safety on farms is a real worry because there is going to be real pressure on contractors. Farmers need to realise that silage has always been cut, and that although the work may be ten, 12 or 14 days behind they do not need to put their contractors under so much pressure. We do not need to put everyone in society under so much pressure, and we do not need to start talking about working 24 hours a day because we know that fatalities happen when people make mistakes. I do not want to see a peak in farm fatalities between the end of May and into the month of June due to pressure being placed on contractors. Therefore, we need a campaign to combat a potential spike.
I suggest that the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Martin Heydon, who has direct responsibility for farm safety and thus has an important role to play, starts a campaign that calls on people to calm down and reiterates that the silage will be cut but there is no need for anyone to lose their lives because life is precious.
At this very moment, once again crowds of young people who are representing An Dream Dearg, which is the campaign group for an Irish language Act, are gathered safely and in a socially-distanced fashion outside of Stormont. The group is predominantly made up of young people. It is not all young people who are involved in the campaign but the vast bulk of them certainly are.
Albeit in a much changed societal situation, the group is once again engaging with political leaders and representatives there about the need to deliver on the promise to deliver Irish language legislation. The language must also be protected in the North as part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the premise and basis on which the five political parties in the North returned to operating the institutions in the North last January. It is important, as people gather there, to remind Senators of our own steadfast support in these Houses, and as indicated by the Irish Government previously, for the implementation of an Acht na Gaeilge.
The Irish language is something that we all share on this island no matter what tradition one happens to come from. Whether it is new Irish communities who have taken to the language and enriched it as a result, I remind people that there is absolutely nothing to fear from a language. There is nothing divisive or contentious about a language. What makes a language political, divisive or contentious is when it is denied rights, protections and when people try to marginalise it, and demonise those who simply want to speak their language, live their lives through their language, educate their children through that language, celebrate and see them, and their language, represented in the world around them.
I thank colleagues. I do not know how we can support Senator Ó Donnghaile. The provision of an Irish language Act is incredibly important in the whole island of Ireland and, indeed, to our diaspora. If there is anything that he specifically thinks we can do to help in this House, or as a Government, I would be very willing to help and hear him. The Irish language has beautiful words and we do not use them enough. Some of us use them a hell of a lot more than others and we should certainly promote the Irish language. So if there is anything that I can do to support the Senator, I certainly will.
Senator Lombard made an incredibly important and timely request. I will contact the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, by letter to ask him to consider a campaign on farm safety for the next couple of weeks. We know the harvest has been delayed because of the incredibly bad weather in May and it is certainly not something we should be trying to catch up on by cutting corners so I will contact the Minister of State today on behalf of everyone.
Senator McGahon spoke about swimming lessons, an issue raised by a number of colleagues last week after a very important meeting with the sector. Our children, particularly some smaller children, babies and their mammies, have not had an opportunity to bond and learn that life skill. As we know and reports have shown us, swimming pools are among the safest places in this country and I think we will hear that a lot more in the next couple of months. Please God, everywhere will be safe. They are places we need to reopen so I will put a call into the Department of the Taoiseach today to ensure it is announced on Friday with the rest of the announcements we are looking forward to.
Senators Horkan and Dooley spoke about the incredible incident that occurred in the past number of days with the hijacking of the Ryanair aeroplane. The public was made aware of more details yesterday evening about how military jets forced the two very experienced pilots to return to Belarus. It is incredible. It is something one would see or expect to see in a movie, and not in real life. The EU sanctions announced yesterday are very welcome. The US following suit today will also be very welcome but what we need are real economic sanctions. The no-fly zone is a good start but we need to demand the release of the political prisoners who have been taken in the past number of days and impose economic sanctions that will really hurt Belarus and force it into a recognition that we live in a democratic society and its carry-on will not be tolerated.
Senators O'Loughlin and Keogan and others raised the issue of the review next year of the legislation passed following the referendum on the eighth amendment. I know we might be a bit ahead of ourselves as the legislation was not passed until 2019 so the three-year review will commence next year. I am not aware of the exact context of it but I will write to the Minister. I think Members have been very balanced and aware this morning that some people think the Act has some limitations while others think it went too far. The fact that we have a relatively small number of GPs willing to give the service shows how important the clause was so that if it went against a person's beliefs, he or she had the ability to opt out. That sits very well with some people and does not sit well with others but the review needs to be comprehensive and independent. I will see if I can find more information and come back to Members.
Senator O'Loughlin also mentioned what provided and still provides inspiration - the inspiration that Shane Griffin offered. We need a debate but more importantly, we need a programme of legislation. I do not know how anybody else feels but I have young people at home who are only 18 and 19. Perhaps this is just the mammy in me but I do not consider them adults to be set free who are able to forge their way. I still feel they need guidance, help and most of all, money on a Friday. That is very true of all our young adults who have lived most of their lives in care homes. It does not just stop at 18. They do not just grow up and suddenly become independent and the State certainly does not treat them that way so it is really timely that we have that debate and I will try to arrange it as quickly as I can.
Senator Conway also touched on the three-year review but more importantly, he spoke about Taiwan not being allowed access to the table of the World Health Organization. I will talk to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and see how we can help with regard to that. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science met with various members of parliamentary parties yesterday. The Connacht-Ulster Alliance will be very welcome. It is lovely to see regions that have had no universities over the past coming together and working together for the betterment and education of our children and I very much support this.
Senator Seery Kearney raised a vital issue. I do not think we realise how many people are isolated and locked away in our hospitals through no fault of their own or their families. We have reinstated visiting rights in nursing homes and it is certainly something that needs to be addressed. More importantly, these people should not be in hospital at all. They should be at home with home care packages so I will send a letter, as the Senator requested, today.
The massive backlog in driving tests and driver theory tests will become very evident to all of us in the next number of weeks as society starts to reopen. The figure of 100,000 on both waiting lists is astronomical and needs to be addressed. I will ask the Minister to come to the House for a debate, although it is proving difficult to get debates at the moment because in the run-up to the recess, everybody's time is becoming very tight. Senator Maria Byrne spoke about the need for pop-up driving test centres in Limerick given that there is a backlog of 3,000. I will write to the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and ask her to come back to us with a response on this issue.
Senator Fitzpatrick also asked about the review of the eighth amendment legislation. Once I have information on that issue, I will come back to her.
In the way she so eloquently does, Senator Ruane described how the State has provided a solution to a problem that does not exist in Killinarden where she lives. She pointed out the disconnect regarding officials who sit around the table thinking they are solving problems that do not actually exist while ignoring the real evidence of what is required in communities. I will ask the Minister to come to the House for a debate on the actual activities that would suffice and solve the real problems that exist in society. I will come back to the Senator on that.
Senator Warfield spoke about his dismay at Seanad reform having slowed down. I would suggest to him that he has not been to any of the meetings of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges of Seanad Éireann for the past couple of months because it is on the agenda every single week and will certainly form part of our Seanad 100 response. I think this is down to the Cathaoirleach and I appreciate and support him for doing that.
Senators Dooley and Garvey highlighted the unacceptable conditions in Kilkee and other places around the country. I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to come to the House for a debate but in the absence of that, to meet us to talk about solutions.
Senator Sherlock spoke about when we reopen fully over the coming weeks. It will obviously be very welcome and we will do it cautiously. The most important thing we need to do is make sure that the people who have been hurt and harmed the most by Covid do not get left behind. The national economic recovery plan will be a major road map regarding how we recover as an economy and society to be able to support people earning their own livelihoods. That is something that will be very welcome in the next couple of weeks.
Senator Mullen raised a very important issue. When someone makes a false statement in court, it is perjury and he or she can be charged. When someone makes a false statement to PIAB, nothing actually happens. I do not think this is right, particularly given that this was supposed to be the way to stop people from having to go to court. It is certainly something I will bring up with the Minister but we might be able to produce legislation ourselves. I might talk to the Senator again but I will certainly bring it to the attention of the Minister.
Last week, it was remiss of me not to address an issue raised by Senator Keogan. She spoke about a project she started a number of weeks ago called the Feel Good Project. She described how during the past couple of months when we have all been walking around our towns and villages, she and a considerable number of Independent councillors around the country got together and put up some lovely signs of flowers and rainbows. I have some in my own village. The signs are really nice and they lift people's spirits. The sentiment behind the project was incredibly kind and thoughtful and I pay tribute to and congratulate the Senator.
I join with the Leader in congratulating Senator Keogan and all those involved in that project. It is positive and a good way to lift people's spirits.