I thank the Cathaoirleach and colleagues. It is absolutely lovely to be back and to be talking about any issue other than Covid-19. We have been consumed by that for the past 18 months. There is certainly romance in the air in the Seanad. On behalf of colleagues, I wish Senator Moynihan every happiness. I also wish Senator Hoey, who got married a couple of days after we went into recess, every happiness. I congratulate our colleague, Senator Ward, on his engagement. He has all of our support and good wishes.
As Senator Cummins said, there was an important announcement this morning by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment with regard to the new redundancy initiative. The reason we introduced the legislation that paused the ability of people to seek redundancies during the pandemic was that it would have put businesses to the wall. The initiative announced by the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, this morning is very welcome because it will support businesses that are struggling to get back up and running. That is a debate that would be relevant for us to have in the coming weeks given the numbers of vacancies across the different business sectors in Ireland. However, the redundancy initiative is most welcome and I want to acknowledge that.
We need a debate on energy security, so I will ask the Minister to give us a date that would suit in the next week or so, because there are a number of issues which are very relevant to different sectors and we need to have a proper, lengthy debate on where we are going as a country.
Senator Horkan talked about needing a debate on post-pandemic Ireland. There definitely are some specific topics. Rather than just give the topic to one Minister, we should break it down into education, well-being, health delivery, economic recovery and so forth, and organise the debates over the next couple of weeks, if that is okay with the Senator.
Senator Maria Byrne raised the most bizarre thing I have heard of businesses being sued because they asked their patrons to abide by the rules to keep them safe. I wish those businesses well. Senator Byrne also raised an important issue with regard to the vast shortage of student accommodation this year. It probably highlights, more so than in any other year, our reliance on people renting rooms in their houses. I listened to some people on the radio last week explaining why they are concerned and nervous, and it makes perfect sense. Those who have those rooms are probably older people who do not have children or adults in their house anymore, but it certainly highlights the need for new, sturdier education facilities and accommodation for our universities.
Senator McDowell raised the issue of the Seanad Bill. There will be a date for its Second Reading very soon but I will talk to the Minister and come back to him on what the plans are.
Senator Cassells talked about a presentation received from Dr. Harry Barry, who is well-known to me, particularly because of some instances in my household. I have four children. The older children seem to be far more resilient than some of the younger ones. I do not know whether it is time they are living through. Maybe it is the proliferation of social media which seems to be available to our children at all hours of the day and night. A debate with the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Mary Butler, will be arranged in the next couple of weeks. I am aware she is meeting a number of organisations in the coming weeks with regard to her plans. We will wait until she has had those meetings so that she can update us on her plans, of which she has many.
In response to Senator Lombard, I will send a letter to the RSA regarding the reinstatement of readers to that process. We have a bigger issue, however. We have more than a 12-month delay in any young adult, or anybody else for that matter, getting a date for a driver licence test, which is simply not acceptable. I appreciate the world has only started to awaken, with people returning to their workplaces this week, which is very welcome. What we need to see is an absolute impetus behind State agencies and State services, catching up on the backlogs built up over the past 18 months. Plans and announcements have to be made by Ministers and heads of Departments to show us what they are going to do ensure that this backlog is caught up with.
Senator Fitzpatrick spoke on the vaccination programme. We are all aware of some of the difficulties raised here week in, week out, some of which still exist. The HSE and all the administrators in the HSE, be they medical practitioners or support staff, who delivered the vaccine programme deserve all the praise we can heap on them because they have done such a wonderful job. I wish to put that on the record of the House but I will send a letter to Mr. Paul Reid and Professor Brian MacCraith on behalf of us all thanking them for and acknowledging the wonderful job they have done.
Senator Gavan will not be surprised that I agree wholeheartedly with him. There were some very pertinent reasons, some of which he may not have agreed with, over the last number of years that it was not possible to have across the board welfare increases. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is required this year, not least to keep up with the inflation rates we are seeing at the moment. An analysis of that special assignee relief programme would certainly be worthwhile and timely and maybe it could be brought to the attention of the Minister for Finance. I would encourage the Senator to do that.
talked about Dublin Bay water quality, which is an issue in many of our seaside resorts. Sea swimming took off enormously in the past year because there was nowhere else for people to swim until the pools opened. People braved the elements and have now become addicted to it in many cases. It is absolutely imperative that the water quality is A1, and that we should not be swimming in the sea where there is raw sewage. I encourage Senator Ward to work with his council to make sure it has a safe regime.
Senator Malcolm Byrne talked about the wonders of Gorey and he is absolutely right. More importantly the Olympians' success, both in the Olympics and the Paralympics, gave us enormous joy and pleasure during the summer months. Every one of the Olympians needs our thanks and praise and every single one of them was a winner. I will send both organisations a letter on our behalf. The Senator was right about the protests. Quite a number of us have been subject to these and it is not pleasant. Whether you have children or not does not really make any difference. It is just not pleasant. It is your home and your place of sanctuary where you want to put on the slippers and be yourself. You do not have to put up with that kind of nonsense outside your door. Nobody should be expected to put up with that. I want to acknowledge that.
Senator Keogan raised what I can only describe as awful tragedies, which are obviously happening far too often in certain parts of the country. She is right that we probably need a debate on how best to help people recognise that there are other ways to deal with the challenges they face in different circumstances in life. I can only extend my heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of the people who have passed away because it is just an awful tragedy.
Senator Dolan should probably work for Bord Fáilte with her talent in describing the wonderful towns of Roscommon. I wish her well and congratulate all of those towns, particularly Ballinasloe which received State and Government funding over the last number of months because it was very well deserved.
Senator Gallagher brought up something which has been brought to my attention in the last number of weeks and we have been working on it. We all understand the international targets that have been set for us, as a country, to try to reduce our carbon footprint.
In the main, everybody agrees it is something that has to happen. However, we find ourselves in a situation where yesterday a very large shipment of 3,600 tonnes of horticultural peat was imported from Latvia. Two hundred truckloads of peat were taken off that ship because we refuse to allow people harvest peat from our bogs purely for the production of food or plants. I understand that if there were a replacement or stockpile ready then absolutely we should be using it but there is not. The stockpile has run out. The replacements are not ready. The science and technology have not kept up with the pace of what we have expected. The peat we used to harvest accounted for 0.6% of the carbon footprint of the country. We will now continue to import peat from Latvia and Poland and it will account for 2.6%. What we have done to stop producing a carbon footprint will produce a significantly higher carbon footprint. I do not believe this was ever anybody's intention and I do not believe it was ever envisaged. It is certainly something we need to sort out and do so soon. As Senator Gallagher has suggested, I will organise a debate in the House to ensure we can all be aware of what we are doing.
Senator Moynihan spoke about the rent Bill being brought to the Dáil tomorrow by our former colleague, Deputy Bacik. I wish her well and I hope it will be in the Seanad to be debated by all of us in the very near future.
Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke about the wonderful fine man that is the President of Ireland and the recent unwelcome attention he received. I acknowledge he has done the State an enormous service in his recent visit to Italy and Rome. I wish him continued good support from all of us.
Senator Hackett spoke about the 20 best places to live in Ireland and cited that three of them are in her area. I make reference to the former Minister of State, Boxer Moran, for the Ireland's Hidden Heartland initiative he brought forward when he was in office. It has probably helped to put Tullamore, Abbeyleix and Ballinakill on the list.
Senator Kyne began today looking for a debate on energy security because of our target of 70% of energy to be generated from renewables by 2030. I will organise a date, as I suggested earlier.
Senator Chambers opened today's debate on pre-pandemic access, which is the demand by the women of Ireland that we received at a meeting last week. I was contacted by a number of women arising from a tweet I sent regarding the programme on the Rotunda broadcast last Tuesday week. It is a wonderful programme and normally something I would absolutely be absorbed in watching but the outpouring of hurt and anger after the programme last Tuesday week was so palpable and raw that female Oireachtas Members arranged to meet the women. What struck me most was a young woman called Ciara who was taken into hospital in Letterkenny on mother's day, when she was 27 weeks pregnant. She did not see her husband for the six weeks before she gave birth to her baby, Jack, whom she did not see for eight days because he was taken to the NICU. She did not kiss him or hug him for eight days after he was born because of the independent restrictions being imposed on some or all of our 19 institutions. It is just not good enough. I do not say this disrespectfully to any of the men in the Chamber but I guarantee it would not bloody well happen if it were men delivering services for men. Enough is enough. We met last week and we have agreed to draft a letter on behalf of all female Oireachtas Members across parties. It is in my office at present waiting to be signed. Some people have signed it and I am awaiting other signatories. Tomorrow, we will present the letter to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and Paul Reid on behalf of the women of Ireland and in solidarity with them. What we want is a return to pre-pandemic access for one nominated partner for the duration of a woman receiving maternity services by and on behalf of the State. I thank Senator Chambers for raising it today.
It is wonderful and lovely to see the father of the House back here and please God we will see him far more often. Senator Norris opened today with his expression of good wishes to the former Minister, Katherine Zappone. I reassure him I do not have a clue who will replace her but I am absolutely sure the process to replace her will be transparent and open because by Jove have we learned our lesson the hard way.