An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

I thank the Cathaoirleach and welcome everybody back. I am looking forward to a very fruitful session.

Today's Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the taking of divisions in the Seanad Chamber, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 2, motion regarding the address to the Seanad by the MEPs representing the European Parliament Midlands North-West constituency, to be taken on conclusion of No. 1, without debate; No. 3, motion regarding the appointment of a member to the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight, to be taken on conclusion of No. 2, without debate; No. 4, motion regarding pre-legislative scrutiny waiver requests, to be taken on conclusion of No. 3, without debate; No. 76, motion 1, regarding bullying and sexual harassment in third level institutions, to be taken at 5.30 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 4, whichever is the later, with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours; and No. 5, motion regarding Ireland's opt-in to a proposal for a Council decision to extend the time period to exchange DNA profiles and fingerprints with the United Kingdom, to be taken at 7.45 p.m. or 15 minutes after the conclusion of No. 76(1), whichever is the later, and to conclude after 45 minutes, with the opening statement of the Minister not to exceed five minutes, the time allocated to group spokespersons not to exceed five minutes and the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate.

At the outset, I join with the felicitous remarks of our Cathaoirleach. I will not repeat them as that is not helpful but nobody would take issue if I again mention that we are delighted about Senator Moynihan's good news. The Deputy Leader will not have an issue with me calling on the father of the House first. It is great to have Senator Norris here.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach very much. It is nice to be back here among all my friends.

I will raise the issue of the controversy surrounding the appointment of Katherine Zappone. I am not terribly close to her, although I know her reasonably well, but I believe she has been treated extremely badly. Curiously enough, I was the person who introduced the amendment committing the Government to advertise government positions, so it is an unusual situation to find myself in. I cannot think of anybody who would be better suited to the role than Katherine Zappone. She has a very remarkable record in gay rights in Ireland, she has an international reputation and she has contacts. Who will replace her? I suggest to members of the Government that they look at the people who were involved in the "Yes" side during the marriage equality referendum campaign because they have a great deal of talent. That they succeeded in getting the "Yes" idea through to the Irish people was a remarkable achievement. I wanted to come to the House today to remark on the situation regarding Katherine Zappone and to say that she has not been treated terribly well. We have missed a great opportunity for somebody with her talents, contacts and knowledge to represent us at the United Nations.

It is great to be back in the Chamber and to have our home reinstated. I have raised this first issue on many occasions with the Leader and with colleagues in this House, which is the maternity restrictions that still exist in our 19 maternity hospitals and units throughout the country. I thank the Leader for taking the initiative in bringing together an all-party Oireachtas group of female Members to try to bring this matter to a resolution and to advocate on behalf of women and their partners throughout the country, who have been subjected to very cruel restrictions that are still in place while other restrictions are being lifted across the board. We have been talking to, and liaising with, the campaign group Better Maternity Care, which is doing fantastic work in providing a voice for women and their partners throughout the country.

All Members will agree that when we saw the story that came to the fore about an RTÉ camera crew and staff being allowed into the Rotunda Hospital to record a television programme, while partners and fathers waited in the car park outside as their babies were being born inside, was less than satisfactory. I would still love to find out the clinical reason why that was permitted and considered safe, yet it was not considered safe or appropriate for partners and fathers to be inside.

I would welcome the Leader again using her office and the collective strength of this House to try to get a resolution to this matter. I pose the question - who is making the decisions? We have clear, national guidelines from the director of the HSE, Paul Reid, the Minister for Health and the Taoiseach, yet hospitals continue to exercise a considerable degree of discretion locally that, in my view, is way beyond their remit. If additional capacity or new measures need to be put in place, then let us hear the plan because simply saying restrictions will stay in place until it suits hospitals for them not to be, is not a plan at all.

The second issue I will raise is the return of workers to the office yesterday. I wish all of them, and their employers, well, but issues are already starting to emerge around the return to the workplace. One of these is the difficult position employers find themselves in in that they cannot ask a worker if he or she has been vaccinated because it is seen as infringing on that person's civil liberties. That is fine, but there is a different approach to somebody who has been a close contact of someone who has Covid-19. If you are vaccinated, you do not need to self-isolate; if you are not vaccinated, you do. In the workplace, we do not know who should be adhering to what regulation because nobody knows the person's history, nor should they.

There is a considerable grey area around how workplaces will now function with the regulations that are still in place. Employers are finding themselves in a very difficult position, as are employees. We promised employees we would take to a new way of working, that there would be a facility to work from home where possible and that we would put legislation in place to facilitate workers' requests for a work-from-home situation to their employers. That is not in place yet but people are back in the workplace so there is a gap that needs to be filled by Government. Clearer rules and regulations around how the new workplace will now work are needed to give employers and employees the certainty they very much need.

As Members know, Ireland has set a target to achieve 70% energy generation from renewables by 2030.

With that in mind, there was some recent news regarding the Macquarie Green Investment Group, GIG, having acquired Fuinneamh Sceirde Teoranta, the developer of a project off the west coast, namely, a proposal for a 400 MW offshore wind farm capable of generating enough energy to power the equivalent of up to 295,000 homes. This development was recently designated as one of seven developments with relevant project status by the Department of Environment, Climate Action and Communications and it positions the Sceirde Rocks development to be in the first wave of offshore wind projects in Ireland for delivery by 2030.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an nuacht go bhfuil togra na Cloiche Sceirde ainmnithe mar cheann de na seacht tograí le stádas ábhartha ag an Roinn Comhshaoil, Aeráide agus Cumarsáide. Tá an comhlacht a thosaigh ag obair ar an togra seo ceannaithe ag Macquarie GIG. Tá sé molta sa togra seo feirm ghaoithe 400 MW a thógáil a bheadh in ann fuinneamh a ghiniúnt d'os cionn 295,000 teach. Táimid dóchasach go mbeidh an togra seo mar bhuntáiste do chás calafort Ros an Mhíl. Freisin, tá sé geallta leis an togra seo go mbeidh ciste éigin nó maoiniú a rachaidh chun tairbhe do cheantar Iorras Aithneach agus Chonamara theas.

I certainly welcome the acquisition of this development, which will put Galway on the cutting edge of offshore wind technology. We know the importance of offshore wind capability in regard to Ireland's plans and targets for renewables. Nevertheless, we have recently seen in the media concerns about energy security and these plans for offshore wind are for the medium to long term, although legislation on the planning process for these developments is due to come through the Houses this autumn, which is welcome. Decisions have been made regarding peat burning and there are questions regarding the future of Moneypoint. The Celtic interconnector with France, which aims to provide that energy security, has been progressing for some time, and there are some wonderful projects to address issues with solar and wind grid connections throughout the country.

I call for a debate on the issue of energy security with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and whoever else is needed. Speculation on energy security is a concern in the context of certain projects. Intel, for example, is considering locating a new plant in Ireland and there may be concerns regarding our capabilities to provide a consistent, constant and regular supply of energy. We should, therefore, invite the Minister to appear before the House for a full debate on the issue as soon as possible.

I congratulate Senator Moynihan on her marriage and wish her and her husband every best wish for the future. I echo Senator Chambers's statement on maternity restrictions and concur with everything she said.

It is a real thrill when places we know or are dear to us are recognised. I felt pure joy, as well as a strong sense of pride, when I saw that three midlands towns had made it onto The Irish Times's list of the 20 best places to live in Ireland. Tullamore, Abbeyleix and Ballinakill were all there, on a list of only 20 that covered the entire country. That is pretty impressive and it emphasised to me the need for us to take time every so often to recognise and celebrate what we have. I think we know instinctively how important it is to do this. When we are abroad or we meet people who have visited here, we are only too ready to lap up and agree with their insights into how easy it is to feel at home here, but when we are at home, we perhaps slip a little too easily into focusing on the negative. While there are things we can and must do better, and ways in which we could and should improve, in so many ways Ireland is a wonderful place, and the midlands has much of what is best about it.

Accordingly, I congratulate Tullamore, Abbeyleix and Ballinakill and will now tell those who do not know much about them why they are so special. Tullamore is a large town located in the middle of the country. The Grand Canal runs through it and it has a harbour. While there are still some empty premises, the town centre is busy and bustling, with pilot pedestrianisation, outdoor dining and wonderful streetscape enhancement works that brought it to life this summer.

Ballinakill has much to offer too. It is known as the town of the woods and has an entrancing 18th-century landscape in Heywood Gardens. Its most unusual feature, an outdoor heated swimming pool, thrived this summer thanks to the work of the dedicated community there. As for Abbeyleix, it is a pretty heritage town and is leading the way in the fight against climate change. Its town centre has a fantastic NeighbourWood project while its precious amenity bog will host the community wetlands forum next week.

Tullamore, Ballinakill, Abbeyleix and many other towns like them are places where people feel connected and part of the community. We need more of that and this Government is working hard to provide it. We have a rural future policy as well as a town centres first policy. We are connecting people with broadband and active travel infrastructure and supporting job creation through the just transition fund. The sense of community can easily get lost in cities, as well as in isolated rural homes miles from a local village. However, in many of our towns and villages, community is thriving. Let us recognise, value, celebrate and nurture that.

Ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Seanadóir Moynihan agus a fear cheile nua. Congratulations. I acknowledge and commend the President, Michael D. Higgins, on his many acts of reconciliation and peace-building over many years in elected office, with a majority of people-----

Under the separation of powers, the situation in this House and in the Dáil is that we are not allowed to comment on the President or his office. I am not impugning anyone. I am being helpful.

Ceart go leor. The Leas-Chathaoirleach's role is to keep us right, so he can consider me kept right. I will try to be as creative as other colleagues in making my next contribution, seeing that it is the first day back and all. There is no leeway, it seems.

The Senator can speak about events, etc.

I suppose "events, dear boy", events have proven that the debate as we mark our way through the decade of centenaries is live. The debate around partition, not just the historic legacy but the malign impact it still has on our lives, is in the political realm 100 years later and should not be shied away from, but should be addressed.

Ten out of ten for creative work.

I noted some discussion in the public discourse around the correct use of titles. Without commenting on the President or the office-----

The Senator cannot even imply----

I could not even imply. I think it keeps me on safe political ground to say that, while the President is in office, not all of us can vote for the President. As I have raised often in this House, I think it is a programme for Government commitment. We have reached a time past the restrictions where the referendum committed to to extend voting rights to citizens in the North and among our diaspora should be outlined. I ask the Leader to raise that with her Government colleagues as a matter of urgency. It is an issue that needs to be addressed and one the Government has committed to.

I did not want to let today pass without noting the tragic death of Antrim GAA hero Anto Finnegan at the weekend. Anto was a GAA hero for the county on the pitch. In recent years, following his diagnosis with motor neurone disease, he became an ardent campaigner in raising awareness about that horrible and awful disease. I extend what are, I am sure, our collective sympathies to his wife Alison, son Conall and daughter Ava. I hope I will get an opportunity at a further Order of Business to reflect a bit more on Anto and the contribution he made in life.

I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile very much. Indeed, we all want to be associated with those words. I also thank him for his co-operation on the other very sensitive matter. It is my pleasure to call Senator Moynihan and again congratulate her.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and all the Senators for the warm congratulations. I have not used this term yet but I am going to tell my husband. He will be delighted to know he will get onto the record of the House on our marriage. It was a great day and we are very lucky to live in a lovely village where our neighbours sent us off with a street party and we were able to walk down to the venue and the pub. I felt like I was getting married in the 1960s rather than having a big fancy wedding.

I wish to raise the issue of rents, which has been a popular topic in the news today. Before we left this House before the summer, one of the things the Government put through in the Affordable Housing Bill was linking rents to the consumer price index, CPI, which was, and still is, very welcome because, over time, that will ensure rents do not run away with themselves. How far they ran away with themselves in Ireland has been well documented. In a EUROSTAT report in 2020, rents in Ireland were up 61.8% whereas the European average was 14.9%. That points to a real crisis in terms of rent in this country. Even last year, it was up 7% outside of Dublin. In addition, we see worrying signs that inflation is rising again because of energy costs and we will potentially have the same increase in rents we had in the rent pressure zones, which were becoming a target.

I ask the Government to look at that issue again. While linking it to the CPI is welcome, I propose a temporary rent freeze. We in the Labour Party are calling for a three-year rent freeze. I ask that Government colleagues consider supporting our renters' rights Bill, which is being brought before the Dáil tomorrow by Deputy Bacik. There are many very constructive points in that Bill. I believe everybody across the board would like to see more protection being given to renters. Small things are also included in that Bill, which will have a big impact on people's quality of life, such as being able to keep pets. I am dealing with a case at the moment where a family has had their dog for seven years and they are being told they have to give up their pet to stay in their rental accommodation. There are many very constructive points in the Bill that will bring rental standards in line with European norms and give people security of tenure. I ask, therefore, that the Government allows that to go through to Second Stage and Committee Stage and works with us on bringing our rental standards in line with European norms.

The second issue I wish to raise is about a creeping development that is happening. I am sorry; I have run out of time. I will raise the issue again.

I wish to raise the issue of rights of way, the deadline of which was due to expire at the end of November. I am delighted the Cabinet made a decision today to defer that deadline. I brought this issue to the House last November, where I raised the concerns not only of landowners but of the entire legal profession that this was a cliff edge that needed to be avoided. I am delighted the Cabinet, through the recommendations of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has decided to defer that. It allows for a very stressful situation for all involved to be deferred and gives people a little bit of space to ensure the rights of way are registered, which is vitally important.

The other issue I wish to raise is the current crisis that hangs over the horticultural sector in this country. As Members will be aware, the horticultural sector employs more than 17,000 people, most of whom work in rural jobs located in different parts of rural Ireland. One of the sectors involved is the mushroom industry, which is of great significance to the economy of County Monaghan, where thousands of people are employed.

There is a ridiculous situation whereby, due to the ban on peat harvesting in this country, boatloads of peat are now being imported and transported to various parts of the country, with all the carbon footprint that goes with that. I ask that the Minister come to the House for a debate on this issue so that we can reach a common sense resolution to this very serious problem.

Is it not great to be back? The feeling of excitement is returning again as we are back on our first day. As I am sure the Leader will agree, it is great to be back in our rightful home here in the Seanad Chamber. I hope all Members were able to take a few days holiday for a restful break with family and friends. Congratulations again to Senator Moynihan on her phenomenal news. I think she spent her time very well. I hope she had a honeymoon as well.

I look forward to us working hard in the Seanad on the many challenges we will have ahead of us, especially after an incredibly difficult 18 months. To get businesses back up and going is crucial and encouraging people to continue to shop local as we move in a safe way to the final stage of full reopening will be extremely important.

Ballinasloe is looking outstanding with its new regeneration scheme and streetscape. It has given the town a real boost and it has been so important for local businesses. I wish to acknowledge the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the roll-out of the shop enhancement fund under the Department of Rural and Community Development. Six towns in County Galway received this funding and the businesses in the towns in question - Oranmore, Oughterard, Loughrea, Headford, Glenamaddy and Ballygar - will all have the opportunity to upgrade their premises and get a significant amount of support from the local authorities. It is a phenomenal scheme. In County Roscommon, Athleague, Knockcroghery, Roscommon town, Ballaghaderreen and Boyle will benefit. Behind the projects in each of those towns in the Roscommon local authority area were the Tidy Towns associations. They all came together and put in these submissions. It will be phenomenal. It was really important to try to tackle the issue of vacant units in many of these towns. That will drive investment and new retailers, people with an idea for setting up a shop in the town.

There is also construction taking place in Roscommon town. Anyone who lives in the town or has driven through it recently will know that significant roadworks are under way. That is the result of more than €9 million in investment from the urban regeneration fund. It is absolutely incredible. There will be a brand new square, as well as all the other works on Main Street.

I encourage people to grow remote, shop local and come and find a home in the west. There is lots to see and do and we want to welcome them to our brand new cities and towns in the west.

I thank the Senator for the advertisement.

What a pleasure it is to be back in our own Chamber. I hope that as we approach the lifting of restrictions on 22 October, other aspects of life in Leinster House will likewise return to normal.

I wish to call for a debate on what is to be done about the horrific instances of murder-suicides in rural farming communities. Yesterday morning, a woman and her 24-year-old son were laid to rest in County Kerry. They were kind and gentle people taken from us by a wanton act of violence. The tragedy comes while the terrible happenings in Kanturk, County Cork on 26 October last year, when father and brother turned on their own family and then on themselves, are still fresh in our minds. Although the prevalence of firearms in these communities enables these vicious acts, it is all too often land or farm ownership disputes that cause them. We need to examine critically the processes or programmes in place to educate farming families on their rights in respect of disinheritance and land ownership protection. We need a dedicated support process for families engaged in disputes over wills. We need to look at the role that can be played by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, and his Department, as well as the Irish Farmers Association, in the provision of mental health supports in rural communities. The increased attention being paid to mental health in recent years is of immense importance but we cannot allow it to be confined to students' unions and Twitter campaigns. These senseless killings and suicides will only become more prevalent if the underlying issues are not addressed. It is safe to say that in every parish in the countryside there is a family farm affected by land disputes and farmers listening to these proceedings will know someone affected. We have seen in the past year and a half the lengths to which we will go to protect lives. Let us protect these lives also.

Senator Hackett waxed eloquently about the towns in the midlands on The Irish Times shortlist of best places to live. I remind Senators that Gorey is also on that list. However, I will let its reputation speak for itself.

During the summer, we experienced the passion and joy of the Olympics. On behalf of the House, I congratulate all our Olympians and Paralympians on their achievements and how proudly they represented us. The House should write to the Olympic Council of Ireland to express that view.

It is also appropriate for the House to remember the recent passing of Mrs. Pat Hume, a woman who made an enormous, and quiet, contribution to the peace process and to building collaboration and co-operation between all traditions on this island.

I wish to raise what we saw at the weekend, which was a protest by a fringe element outside the home of the Tánaiste's partner. It included a lot of homophobic abuse addressed to the Tánaiste. This follows a protest in recent months outside the home of the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. We are fortunate in this country to have access to politicians, not just Deputies and Senators but also Ministers, right up to the office of Taoiseach. All office holders have always been accessible, and we have always respected the right to peaceful protest. However, in recent times we have seen fringe groups on the far right and sometimes on the far left resort to violent tactics and now they are engaging in protests outside private homes. Some of this is driven by social media, which I hope we will address in the context of the online safety and media regulation Bill. However, I believe we in this House must stand up for politics and talk about how our office holders can be protected in their home environment. We must send out a strong and clear message that politicians' private homes are off limits.

In the first instance, I entirely agree with what Senator Byrne said about the privacy of politicians' homes. We have a system where politicians are accessible only because people treat them in a civil and human way.

I welcome the decision by the Department of Education, in principle, to agree to the purchase of Booterstown parish hall. This is an issue I raised as a Commencement matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, last June. I am delighted to see progress on that and we look forward to the special needs class being made available as part of St. Mary's Boys' National School, subject to final agreements and so forth.

I also wish to raise the fact that there are major problems with water quality in Dublin Bay. There are discharges of raw sewage into the bay on an ongoing basis and sometimes, it appears, there are also discharges from industrial centres. People swim there, more often than they did a couple of years ago. There is plenty of sea swimming happening in places in my area, such as the Forty Foot, Sandycove, Seapoint and Hawk Cliff. People are swimming in the sea daily and when the warning comes that there is a problem, it is often too late. It might come 24 hours after the discharge or after a water quality test shows bacteria or whatever else might be in the water. There must be a step up on dealing with this issue. There must be regular testing not just in the summer but throughout the year, because people are swimming in the sea all year round. It is a wonderful opportunity for them to get out and exercise. It is good for everybody involved. The State, the local authorities in Dublin and the Department must set out a safe regime for them to do that, to ensure they know when they go swimming in the sea that they are swimming in water that is clean and will not make them sick. We heard earlier today about problems with inland water, but the seawater, which should be clean and pristine, is not always so. When it is not we need to know, and that can only happen through regular testing throughout the year. I hope the Leader will consider having a debate on that issue so we can clearly convey the need for that.

I congratulate Senator Ward on his engagement. I forgot to mention that earlier. I call Senator Gavan.

I join you, a Chathaoirligh, in extending congratulations both to Senator Ward and Senator Moynihan.

It is nice to be back. This morning I heard an intriguing debate on the radio about budgetary options and whether the Government could afford to raise social welfare rates or whether it should focus on the pension rate.

As we know, we are just coming into the run up to the budget. As the Leader knows, I always like to be helpful to the Government. The good news is that it does not have to make that choice. It can actually do both. Indeed it is very important that we see a significant rise in welfare rates. Bear in mind that in 2009, the welfare rate was €197. It is only €204 now so we certainly need to see a significant lift in rates.

For the past nine years, we have had an outrageous scheme called the special assignee relief programme. This programme subsidises the richest people in the country - the top multinationals - who can write off 30% of their PAYE tax bill to the tune of €1 million earnings per year. It is quite shocking. It involves subsidising the richest people in this country who are being subsidised by ordinary workers and taxpayers. It is important to raise this before the budget because, of course, we will all be voting on the budget in October. I appeal to my colleagues on the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael benches to face up to the fact that it is an outrageous subsidy to the richest people in this State. These are people who earn millions each year and yet they are able to write off 30% of their PAYE tax bill because this Government and successive Governments since Michael Noonan introduced the measure nine years ago thought it was a good idea. In terms of the suffering and hardship we see across the country, there is no justification for subsidising the richest top executives in this country so let us deal with it and let us use that money to ensure decent rates of welfare for people in this State.

Sometimes Members, no more than myself, leave their phones on so I remind everybody to turn their phones back on when they leave the Chamber.

It is great to be back. Comhghairdeas to Senators Moynihan and Ward. Romance is clearly in the air. I wish them a lifetime of happiness with their life partners. It is great to be back - largely because of the vaccination programme. More than 7 million doses have been administered. We have led the way in Europe, it is a huge success story and I thank everybody involved in the administration of the vaccines. There was a lot of scaremongering and criticism but everybody involved has done a tremendous job in Grangegorman in my constituency, Croke Park and DCU. It is not just the vaccination programme. The testing and tracing programme has been phenomenal. Everybody with whom I have engaged has been incredibly professional but also really sensitive because it has been a hugely stressful time so we owe them a huge debt of thanks. I would like the Leader to convey that when she meets with Paul Reid later today on behalf of the Oireachtas women's group. I thank her for taking that initiative.

I would like the Leader to raise the ongoing guidelines for primary school students if they are identified as close contacts. Under the guidelines, if a child is a primary school student and has been in contact with somebody identified as being positive, he or she must restrict his or her movements even if he or she is not showing any symptoms. This is resulting in a massive loss of school attendance for primary school children in my constituency and around the country. It is hugely damaging to their academic education and their social skills. It is creating enormous anxiety for the children, is over-medicalising this situation for very young children and is a cause of major inconvenience and stress for their parents. I know NPHET has agreed to look at it. We have had falling rates of infection four weeks in a row. We were told repeatedly that schools are safe environments and our vaccination levels are at over 90% among 16-year-olds so I ask the Leader to appeal to Paul Reid and NPHET to review that and relax the restrictions.

It is great to be back in the Chamber. I acknowledge the good news we heard from Senators Moynihan and Ward and offer my congratulations. I wish to raise the current guidelines relating to Covid. We have had an amazing vaccination programme. So much good work has been done in the past six months in particular but we need to get our institutions back on an even keel when it comes to delivering services to the general public.

The issue I am raising is with regard to the Road Safety Authority, RSA, and driver licences. There is a huge backlog at present, in particular with theory tests. The biggest issue my office has come across, over the past week in particular, is with regard to dyslexic people who want to sit a theory test. Traditionally they have had a reader provided but this has been taken away. This limits the ability of these boys, girls and people to get through the process. This is a huge issue for a certain cohort of society as 10% of people are dyslexic. Normally they have a reader to work through the theory test with them but this has been taken away. We need to make sure the institutions of the State and semi-State bodies look at such protocols and have the ability to change them rapidly. It is unfair and discriminatory. It is not appropriate. Because of it, people are being denied the opportunity to sit a driving test. In my part of the world if people cannot pass a driving test, they do not have the ability to go anywhere or do anything.

This is a major issue for us as a society. I call on the Leader to contact the RSA regarding this issue to ensure it provides readers. I spoke to the RSA this afternoon and the service is not available today. This is a major setback for a certain cohort of society who want to be able to sit a theory test.

Several weeks ago, my colleagues in the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party and I met the eminent Dr. Harry Barry who, as an expert on mental health, gave us a detailed presentation on the anxiety and emotional distress faced by young people at this time in our country. This has been exacerbated because of Covid-19. It was frightening to hear him speak, in particular about the rise of emotional distress among young people in our country, the challenges they face and the realisation that much more needs to be done. The very culture of how we deal with this is also an issue. Considering we are such a nation of talkers, it is not spoken about half enough. Dr. Barry spoke extensively about the need for a wider conversation about self-care, whereby we look after ourselves in our own lives, emotional resilience and how to manage our anxiety. He also spoke about the range of anxieties faced by young people, from acute anxiety to social anxiety to general anxiety. All of these have a very damaging impact on people's lives.

None of these issues gets discussed half enough, but when issues boil down to a point of self-harm, we end up speaking extensively about the need for State intervention and more support. Last Sunday morning, I met a woman in Blackwater Park in Navan who spoke to me about the battle she had when she was trying to get mental health support for her daughter. She had to go round the houses for people to take the issue in hand.

At present, there is no end to the amount of money being spent in this sphere. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, in this respect. We need to see a change in attitude in tandem. The most effective way to help this process is through dialogue and conversations in our schools, and not having a sense that speaking about these issues is a sign of weakness, particularly among young boys and, indeed, men. Men's mental health is simply not spoken about enough. I have paid tribute in the House previously to Rory O'Connor of Rory's Stories fame, who has been a huge advocate for positive mental health action in this country.

At the same meeting with Dr. Harry Barry, the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, who has responsibility in this area, addressed the range of actions being taken by the Department. I would like to see the Minister of State come to the Chamber so these issues can be discussed and thrashed out in full. In conjunction with the Minister, Deputy Foley, we can discuss how a very positive set of actions in school settings could be pushed, whether in classrooms or schoolyards, so those who are suffering with anxiety and emotional distress as a result of everything that is happening will know there is somewhere, and someone to whom, they can turn.

This is our first occasion to meet for some time. I want to put on the record that, earlier in the year, Second Stage of the Seanad Bill was adjourned until the end of the year. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and I had a conversation after that. He indicated it was his intention to have a small group among the parties of the coalition in government consider whether they had alternative suggestions to those set out in the Manning report. Time is going by. We are in September and we are coming up to the end of the year fairly quickly. Second Stage will be due to resume.

I just want to put on the record of the House that the matter has not gone away.

There are people in this country who should be given a say in who comes to this House. One does not need to go to university - or even a minority of our universities - to merit a vote in the elections for this House. There is nothing to be feared from giving people a vote. I just want to put on record that I had the honour of getting approximately 8,000 first-preference votes, more than the number of first-preference votes garnered by more than half the Members in Dáil Éireann. I long for the day when the Members of this House will be chosen by citizens, regardless of their educational status and by reference to the need in this House for a wide variety of different kinds of people, including protected representatives for minorities, special interests and special needs.

I am just putting it on record that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, made that undertaking to me that he would progress the matter in the period of the postponement of the Second Reading of the Bill. I remind him publicly that I have not gone away, you know.

I congratulate Senators Moynihan and Ward and wish them all the best for their future. Today is a unique day as this week many first-year university students came to campuses. I pay tribute to the people in different universities and institutes of technology who made campuses safe for students to come back on site. For many students even in second year it is their first time setting foot on campus.

I raise the serious matter of the shortage of student accommodation. There have been many reports about this, particularly in my area of Limerick, which has three third level institutes. A kitchen was advertised as being suitable for student accommodation which had a bunk bed beside the cooker. That was clearly not suitable accommodation. There is accommodation that was once used by asylum seekers and approximately 200 yd from the front entrance of Mary Immaculate College there is a boarded-up unit. We must think outside the box and for the long term. Many people might have taken in students in the past but are not doing so now because of Covid-19. It is certainly something we must consider seriously as the matter is not confined to Limerick. The problem is across the country.

I was alarmed by three phone calls I received from three businesses today. They are all being sued by people who entered the small business premises but were asked to leave or put on a mask. They are being sued because people were asked to put on a mask. The businesses have received solicitor letters and they are being backed by the workplace commission. Small businesses have suffered so much throughout the pandemic. Regardless of whether people want to wear a mask, if a business displays a sign that a mask must be worn, the instruction should be followed.

It seems that Senator Maria Byrne and I will be following each other around for the rest of our lives after the by-election. We always tend to speak before or after each other. It is interesting being on this side of the Chamber. I was the final Fianna Fáil speaker in the previous Seanad, sitting on the opposite side, and that was on 27 March 2020 and the start of the pandemic. We were wrapping up the emergency legislation. I did not think I would be gone a week later and be back this fast. It is nice to be here.

I will touch on a couple of points now we are back in this beautiful Chamber. I was not going to refer to the topic referred to by Senator McDowell but I know the Minister in question, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is incredibly busy delivering a housing programme. I am sure many Members in this House would not want him distracted too much from that particular task.

I was not here for the entire contribution because I was attending a committee meeting but I heard Senator Fitzpatrick referring to the vaccination programme. We have come so far in that respect, and even in the few months since we last sat. It is a fantastic programme.

The Seanad must also discuss some other matters. I very much welcome that soft plastics are now allowed in recycling bins.

That is a great improvement in recovering and being able to recycle product but we need the Minister in here to discuss how we will reduce the amount of packaging we get in every way, reuse what we can and then recycle everything else. We should not be allowing products that cannot be recycled through the packaging chain at all.

We need to talk about the issue of passports. It is improving but every one of us had queries over the summer about delays and about children's passports. However, we do not want people who should not get passports getting them.

We need to have a debate about post-pandemic Ireland. There are many people for whom working from home did not work but there are an awful lot of people for whom it did work. Many people benefited from not having to spend 15 to 20 hours per week in the car, saved on fuel charges, got to spend more time with their families and saved on all the costs that are involved in commuting long distances every day. We need to see that aspect of it as well as looking at the people who need to get back to offices.

I congratulate Senator Moynihan on her wedding last weekend and I congratulate Senator Ward on his engagement.

It is nice to be back in familiar surroundings. I have spoken here many times in the past about energy security. Without being a Cassandra, it has reached a critical stage. Several times during the summer, our warmest months, the warning register was showing up in amber. That means we were close enough to being at full supply and being maxed out. It is a real worry as to whether we will have an energy supply and confidence in the winter. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, was unable last week to give a categoric assurance that we would be able to meet all our energy needs. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, said more or less the same thing on television at the weekend.

It is time we woke up and started doing something about it. Moneypoint power station is just across the river from me. In the last 24 hours, Moneypoint, which is coal-fired, was putting up over 21% of the total national usage of power. In the same period, all of the renewable energies combined, including wind, came up with 14%. I am not knocking wind power. It is important and last year upwards of 40% of our requirement was met by wind power but there were many days last year when wind power contributed almost nil and several days when it contributed zero to the grid. In that context, what are we going to do? We all know, particularly those in the Green Party, that there is a problem with fossil fuels. I thought we had an understanding that in the interim period we would make use of the resources that are available to us.

There is a project which I have mentioned here many times, namely Shannon liquefied natural gas, LNG. It proposes to import gas in liquefied form into the Shannon Estuary in County Kerry. That project is before the planners so I will not say a whole lot about it. I know I am running out of time but it is important that the planning process would be allowed to proceed without any interference from outside bodies, including the Government. The promoters of the project are quite happy to accept a condition that only non-fracked gas will be used. This is important and needs to be stressed. They are quite happy to rule out fracked gas, which is something one cannot say about our current supply as it is coming from Russia. Much of it is fracked gas and a lot of it is dubious. I am speaking on behalf of the constituency I live in and which I represented at local level for 25 years but I am also speaking in the national interest. We must be mature enough to realise that despite what is in the programme for Government, we have to be able to vary it and deal with situations that are in front of us. I hope the planning process will be allowed to proceed unhindered.

I would like to join my colleagues in congratulating my colleague from the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Senator Moynihan, on her marriage last week and I also congratulate my colleague, Senator Ward, on his engagement.

I welcome the initial details of the Government's new redundancy initiative, which was announced at lunchtime today and is seeking to ensure workers do not lose out financially as a result of being laid off during the pandemic. At the same time it is seeking to prevent businesses being forced to the wall due to the costs of meeting the entitlements of staff who regrettably have to and will have to be let go. The scheme will have to be underpinned by legislation, and I look forward to it coming before the House in due course.

A special payment of up to €1,860 will be available to employees to reflect the lay-off period. Employers who are facing difficulty in meeting redundancy costs will be offered loans which will initially be interest free.

To continue where the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, who mentioned the midlands, and Senator Malcolm Byrne, who mentioned Wexford, left off, I was delighted to see that Waterford city was listed as one of the five best locations in Ireland to live. Obviously, not everything is perfect, and there is plenty of room for improvement, but often we do not realise what is on our doorstep and the level of funding provided by Government to regional Ireland under such schemes as the urban regeneration and development fund and the rural regeneration and development fund. Yesterday there was a significant announcement of €540,000 which was allocated by Fáilte Ireland to Waterford city under an animation scheme which will illuminate 21 historic buildings across Waterford city. This is part of a very good initiative by Waterford City and County Council to make Waterford city the city of light. I look forward to that project taking hold in due course, and seeing that investment realised in Waterford city.

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.

Senator Ward 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.

Order of Business agreed to.