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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

Vol. 282 No. 2

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

I welcome colleagues back to the Chamber. It is my first Order of Business of the new year. I am looking forward to a robust and very productive number of months ahead of us. Today's Order Paper is actually quite short.

The Order of Business is No. 1, Organisation of Working Time (Reproductive Health Related Leave) Bill 2021 – Committee Stage, to be taken at 1.30 p.m. and to adjourn at 2.30 p.m., if not previously concluded.

This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of when, on 22 January 1972, the accession treaty for Ireland to join the then European Economic Community, EEC, was signed by Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Minister for Foreign Affairs Patrick Hillery. They built on the work of Seán Lemass and others who very clearly argued that Ireland's future rightly lay in Europe. In May of that year, 83% of voters endorsed the decision and as the Leader knows, on 1 January 1973 we joined the EEC. I have always been very proud of my party's consistent pro-European stance because it has been shown that our membership of the EU has benefited citizens, workers and businesses and allowed Ireland to influence global affairs in a collaborative manner. The project has at its core always been about two key things - peace and prosperity - and it has succeeded in those.

We sometimes forget about what has been achieved. I refer to the free movement of citizens and how easy it is for us now to travel around Europe, to make a phone call when roaming or to do business. It is the world's biggest market. The EU sets high environmental, health, safety and labour standards that influence the rest of the world. We have seen EU investment in research. Yesterday marked the 35th birthday of the Erasmus programme, which is one of most successful exchange programmes in the world. Is teanga oifigiúil oibre iomlán de chuid an Aontais Eorpaigh í an Ghaeilge anois. This year and next year, it is appropriate we mark and celebrate our EU membership. This Chamber should do it. We should contribute to the debate on the future of Europe and how Europe can tackle global challenges such as the climate crisis and how we interact with and regulate technology. This is also the European Year of Youth. We need to look at how young people can be involved in that discussion on the future of Europe. Roberta Metsola MEP was elected President of the European Parliament two days ago following the sad and sudden passing of David Sassoli. It is noteworthy that this was the election of a young woman from a small member state. She is someone I know to be thoughtful and with vision. I suggest we consider inviting her to the House to address and talk about the future of Europe.

I briefly raise another issue which I and others have raised previously, concerning the Passport Office and foreign birth registration. I praise the office in terms of renewal of passports. One cannot praise it highly enough. It is highly efficient when it comes to renewal but for first-time passport applications, the delays are now beyond frustrating. It is taking at least eight weeks. For people who have children it is just crazy. Some Senators may know Councillor Racheal Batten from Dublin City Council. She posted last night that she applied for a passport. She posted a photo of her baby when the passport photo was taken and one of her child now and they are like two different children. The length of the delays is just not acceptable. I therefore ask we have a debate on the continuing delays around foreign birth registrations and first-time passport applications.

I welcome the comments by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on the Cabinet meeting scheduled for Friday to look again at the restrictions based on the NPHET advice due to be relayed to the Government today. The people have endured so much over the last 22 months. They need to look forward now with hope to an easing of restrictions of all kinds over the coming months, starting with whatever decisions the Cabinet makes tomorrow. I welcome the positivity the three leaders have expressed in the media over the last number of days that the people can get back a sense of hope and freedom in the coming weeks and months, given the Omicron variant tends to be less impactful, as well as the success of the vaccination and booster campaigns over the last number of months. This all leaves us in good stead with respect to reopening.

I welcome also the €1,000 tax-free Covid recognition payment that is to be made to front-line health workers, especially those who have endured difficult periods in our emergency settings over that last number of years caring for people who have suffered with Covid, who are suffering with it or who have unfortunately passed away from it. The payment is due recognition of the difficult job front-line workers within healthcare settings had to endure over the last number of years. It is a positive recognition of their work. I think especially of nursing staff, some of whom are perhaps nearing retirement and have suffered a huge level of near-burnout. Some are considering early retirement due to the level of pressure of work and stress they have endured over the last number of years. It is therefore important recognition.

I welcome also the confirmation yesterday of a public holiday next year for St. Brigid's Day and also the additional public holiday this year for a long St. Patrick's Day weekend. Hopefully, it will be the first St. Patrick's Day in three years that can be fully celebrated by Irish people at home and across the world. I hope we will see the full range of diplomatic visits by Ministers and ambassadors across Europe and in capital cities and other cities around the world. I hope there will be a full reprise of the proud Irish role of celebrating St. Patrick and all that is positive about this country across the world and celebrating with our diaspora.

I wish all Members well in their important work as they embark on another term in the Houses. The Order of Business gives us as Senators an opportunity to raise issues with the Leader. I am conscious that one of the strongest roles we have here in addition to legislating is advocacy. I have always said one of the great powers we have is to shine a light in dark places, speak for the voiceless and bring the concerns of people and the nation in through the Leinster House gates.

I focus today on the Irish Thalidomide Association's requests, which have been ongoing.

I do not need to rehearse the history of the year of ongoing frustration on the part of the association as it tried to get the Minister of Health to meet it and honour a commitment to meet these people who have serious concerns and issues for which they want to advocate. Honour is a very important word in public life and politics. I actively engaged with the Minister and the Department over a long period, trying to seek an opportunity to meet but it was not forthcoming.

Many of us have received correspondence in the past two weeks on this. I read something by Finola Cassidy which really stood out which I will quote as it sums it up well:

Thalidomide caused severe foetal damage. We were born without limbs, with limbs foreshortened, with impairments of hearing and vision, as well as injury to internal organs. This caused pain and suffering, not only to ourselves, but also to our parents, siblings and to our own children and partners. Now in middle age we are looking back at our lives and looking forward to our futures.

That is not an unreasonable request. Senators will have received an email this morning with a press release from the Irish Thalidomide Association. It was headed "U-turn by Donnelly welcomed by Irish Thalidomide Association":

The Irish Thalidomide Association thanks the more than 40 TDs and Senators who lobbied the Minister for Health to reset a meeting he cancelled last year. In a parliamentary question reply last night he said he would meet the association having said only days before he couldn’t.

We welcome this handbrake turn by the Minister and look forward to meeting him soon.

I want to take this opportunity to highlight once again the importance of these people's plight and their reasonable call. They are people who want justice. They want their day to set out their concerns. They want us to advocate for them and to assist them with moving on with their lives while addressing the many travesties that have affected them. I thank all the Members, acknowledge the Minister, even at this late stage, and thank him one year on for agreeing to meet this group. I thank the group for its persistence. I am glad this House is able to shine a light and give voice on an important issue.

I will raise two issues, if I may. The first is one about which the Leader has raised concerns, namely, what we are going to do about this year's leaving certificate. I welcome the very significant comments by the Ombudsman for Children who said very clearly that the leaving certificate should not proceed in the traditional format this year. Dr. Niall Muldoon said that current small adaptations to the traditional format were insufficient for children who had experienced two years of disrupted education due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I can testify to that. I have a son doing the leaving certificate this year. I think he will do fine but the fact is it is a two-year course and the first year suffered massive disruption. We know that online learning is not an ideal replacement for in-class learning. There are many students throughout the country who have not had the opportunity to cover the course. If they have not had the opportunity to cover the course, there needs to be a choice in this year's leaving certificate. We have heard people from all parties make this point but, crucially, the Government is making decisions today. I urge the Leader to re-emphasise the broad cross-party consensus we need to keep a hybrid model for the leaving certificate this year because it is the fairest option available.

The second issue is the standard of housing, particularly for those in receipt of the housing assistance payment, HAP, or the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. I have come across a couple of horrendous examples in Limerick. One really shocked me. The family has been living with the worst conditions in a HAP house for the past three years. The ceiling has fallen in, the cooker is smashed to bits, and water drips down from the top floor onto the fuse box so they cannot use any electronic equipment. The family has lived there four years. The house has failed seven separate HAP inspections but they are still in the house. I suggest one reason they are still in the house is because the landlord owns another 11 properties in the same building, all of which have HAP tenants in them. I suspect the consequences of having to find new homes for these people are such that they have been left there. There are six children in this house. There has been an infestation of scabies. These children have raw skin. They have put up with it for years. The thing is the State knows this. The house has failed seven HAP inspections and still the family is left there. I spoke to another poor young woman with a young child in a different, RAS, house which is literally freezing through the winter. It is so hard to get an inspection to show it is not up to RAS standard. These are not isolated examples. There is a real issue around housing standards linked to the housing crisis and I am calling for an urgent debate on this.

First, I raise an announcement on promised legislation in recent days. I spoke recently to the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, on when we can expect a long-overdue gambling control Bill. Colleagues have mentioned this previously. I congratulate the Minister of State on bringing this Bill through Cabinet and preparing it for debate in the Houses. However, we cannot afford to wait much longer for that debate. Recently, Drogheda United joined the growing number of League of Ireland clubs that have rejected sponsorship from gambling companies. This is a very important and welcome step. In recent months, I have spoken to families and individuals who have been devastated by gambling addiction. I look forward in the coming term to moving our own Bill on regulating gambling advertising and regulating this industry that has become a very serious public health problem in this country once and for all.

I also raise the forthcoming commission report on the future of our Defence Forces which we are now told will be due at the end of the month. It is very important we get the chance to debate and consider this report when it is published here in this House. It is even more important there are clear guidelines and timeframes on the report's implementation. It is vital the representative associations of the Defence Forces are to the fore in how these recommendations are implemented. I look forward to the report's publication and its discussion in the House.

I also support what Senator Gavan and the Leader have said about the hybrid leaving certificate for the class of 2022. These students have gone through so much and are now dealing with freezing classrooms and revised class schedules due to the unfortunate absences of their teachers. There cannot be a normal leaving certificate this year. The mental health of our young people is a subject that is thrown around too often, but this is a real worry for me and for so many people I speak to, parents, children and students alike. I hope the meeting today will provide the solution that many in the leaving certificate class of 2022 richly deserve.

I also want to raise the topic of housing because issues in south Kildare have some to my attention in the past two weeks in particular. I normally deal with one or two notices to quit in a week or maybe a fortnight, but I have come across many multiples of these in the past two weeks. It is extraordinary. There have been about 20 to 30 notices to quit since the start of the year. We hear the same stories about family members coming back or that the house is for sale, but there is a crisis in towns such as Athy, Monasterevin, Kildare and Newbridge. I receive queries about the lack of accommodation and social housing, as I am sure do others. We are expecting the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to come before the House again. Given this and Senator Gavan's remarks, I call on the Leader to organise such a debate.

I welcome the clarification given yesterday evening that the €1,000 tax-free bonus for health workers will be extended to home helps. We very much value the role home helps play in keeping people safe in their own environment, especially keeping them safe from Covid so that they did not have to go into nursing homes or hospitals. That is very welcome. I appreciate there are calls from many other groups and organisations that cannot be met.

I would like to suggest something, however. Many different organisations actually did very well during the pandemic in terms of their business. That is welcome. It is good that there was a silver lining for some people. If there is a situation where they want to reward those who worked really hard for them then there should be a facility where they could give a tax-free bonus. The Minister for Finance should be able to bring in an incentive for employers.

We can look outside to different types of retail industries even in terms of pharmacies and GPs, who worked really hard. Great gratitude goes to them, particularly in terms of the vaccination levels before Christmas. However, they were well-paid for that and the staff put in huge work. There should be something for GPs and pharmacies and, indeed, other organisations that are privately owned to be able to give that tax relief. I really would appreciate if the Leader would take that up.

RTÉ made headlines yesterday when it spoke about the need for more people to get involved with the actual licensing system. The licensing system and the lack of funding going in is a huge issue for RTÉ. It is definitely worth a debate at some level.

One of the key issues I had with RTÉ over the last eight or nine months was the lack of a correspondent to cover agriculture and that entity. Agriculture plays a pivotal role in our society. It is one of the leading drivers. I welcome the announcement at 11 a.m. today that RTÉ has appointed a new agriculture correspondent. It took nine months to get there. That is the real issue. It has been nine months since Mr. Fran McNulty left the role, which was left idle. That was really disappointing. Now, at least we have an agriculture correspondent for RTÉ. We need to build on that, however. It really has to be about agriculture only and not agriculture and consumer affairs.

Agriculture has been one of the biggest drivers of our economy for the last 100 years. It is still the biggest driver of rural economies. It has a really important role to play. When it comes to telling the good news story about this country having the ability to supply enough food for 50 million people, we need to start talking about it directly. RTÉ has come on board at long last and appointed its agriculture correspondent but that is only the start. We need to now start telling the true story of what our agricultural community does on the ground and what its true potential actually is.

Last week, a group of third level students released the findings of research they conducted into the operation of the HSE My Options helpline regarding the advice given to women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy. The findings of the research are truly horrifying and include evidence of the various My Options counsellors urging women to make their first abortion appointment, even in cases where the women made it clear that they were still very conflicted about whether to proceed with the abortion. It is obvious from the research that My Options is effectively all about abortion and not equipped in any way to talk to women who may wish to explore other options, including keeping their baby.

I read the HSE deflection statement from earlier this week. I await with interest its statement on the recent evidence that has come to light about its My Options hotline and what it proposes doing about it. The public is owed such a statement from the HSE and I hope it is issued very soon. Women and their unborn babies deserve better.

On 31 January 1984, one of my childhood friends, Ann Lovett, died with her baby son at a grotto in Granard. She had moved to Granard after her first year in St. Clare's convent. Our class was told of the death. Two pupils were chosen to go to the funeral and the rest of us were left to grieve in our own way. I am told I was one of the girls who mitched out of school to hitch a lift to her funeral. I have no memory of that day. My thoughts last week after the horror that took place in Tullamore were also with the tragic death of Ann in Granard. The country shared its pain with the Murphy family. I am sure the national solidarity gave comfort to the friends, family and colleagues of Ashling in Tullamore. I contrast that with Granard in 1984. The village of Granard is still healing from that tragic loss 38 years later. I often wonder if Ann had options. I am sure she could have aborted her baby but she did not. Today, we are in such a great place for young girls who find themselves pregnant unexpectedly. There are teen support groups-----

I actually cannot believe I just heard that.

I am sorry; Ann Lovett was a friend of mine. I cannot believe that I have to deal with this every single time I get up to speak in this Chamber.

The Senator, without interruption.

I am spoken down to in here every time. It is nothing short of bullying.

Hear, hear. Well said.

The Senator's time is up.

Gianna Care is also available to help and support young girls who find themselves pregnant. These options must be given to young girls seeking options from the HSE through the My Options helpline. I am hoping that the HSE, if its representatives are listening in today, will come out strongly stating that the services it is providing give options to those seeking help. If not, maybe they should rename the site "My Option" and not My Options.

I wish to again raise the issue of the Ashling Murphy trial. I think it is important for us to highlight the sub judice rule, not only for this House but for people who are following our proceedings online. As we know, the sub judice rule is Latin for legal proceedings becoming active. In Ireland and other common law jurisdictions, it is not appropriate to comment on matters that are awaiting judicial decision. As we all know, this is to avoid circumstances where the trial will be affected by adverse comments.

In a time when it is so easy for all of us to publish content on different social media platforms and with the proliferation of social media, it is important in this matter not to comment on this court case and for our followers and supporters to do the same. If we are to give justice to the Murphy family, it is important to refrain.

The second issue I wish to raise today is regarding huge delays in the probate office. We are talking 12 weeks for a probate to be dealt with once an application has been submitted. It is causing huge frustration to families. There is also another issue in that the HSE is now not processing applications for birth, death and marriage certificates online. It is saying it is because of Covid-19. This is counter-intuitive. We are meant to be going online and not having face-to-face meetings. I cannot understand why the HSE has closed its online applications for certificates we all require. Could the Leader bring this to the attention of the Department of Justice?

I will begin by welcoming the swearing in of the new American ambassador, Ms Claire Cronin. The house majority leader was sworn in yesterday in Boston in a very historic setting on the house floor. I congratulate Ambassador Cronin on her appointment and wish her every success as she takes up her role here in Dublin. I propose that we invite Ambassador Cronin to address the Seanad as soon as possible. She comes to the House and to her post as American ambassador with impeccable credentials, not least her Irish ancestry but also being the house majority leader in Massachusetts.

I also ask the Leader for a debate on aviation and do so in the context of two points, the first being the announcement today by Ryanair of its largest ever announcement of flights for the summer schedule out of Dublin. I congratulate Ryanair on that, conscious of the fact that a report by PwC shows that it will take at least three more years for aviation to recover.

We need a debate on the issue of the aviation sector and also on the travel recovery support scheme being used by Government. I hope that the Government will not cease that scheme immediately, that we will have a debate and there will not be a cliff edge. It is important that we have this debate on aviation urgently. I would appreciate if we can do so.

Today, the State Examinations Commission, SEC, will be meeting to discuss the arrangements for the leaving certificate and junior certificate examinations this year.

I want to support the Irish Second-Level Students Union, and secondary students generally, who are very unhappy with the arrangements that are being put in place for the leaving certificate this year. I support their call, which the Leader has also sought, for the hybrid option to be put in place. I believe that the students need fairness, clarity, an answer and a commitment today. It is only fair.

The past 22 months have been very challenging for everybody. I acknowledge that every school community has played its part. I also want to acknowledge the Minister for Education and her Department because hundreds of millions of euro in extra funding have been provided by the Government to open schools and ensure they are safe. That is really welcome. However, the only people at the end of this pandemic whose performance will be graded will be leaving certificate students. The grades that they receive will affect their next steps in life. I refer to the important part of life when people are young adults and about to leave school and set out into the world in an independent way. We need to support them with clarity and fairness.

I believe that they deserve the hybrid model option. I also believe that the State Examinations Commission should make a decision today to put the hybrid model in place until such time as there has been two years of uninterrupted senior cycle secondary school because of the associated realities. Covid is not just a physical illness. There is all of the emotional damage that, potentially, comes with it. We do not know what the long-term effects will be. It is not just the students who are affected; it is all of the teachers and SNAs and all of the school community. Many people have been bereaved. There are physical lasting effects. There are emotional lasting effects. It is unrealistic to suggest that this pandemic is going to end as easily as turning off a switch.

I ask the State Examinations Commission to be compassionate and fair and to give a commitment today to retain the hybrid model for 2022 and leave it in place until there has been two years of uninterrupted education in secondary schools.

This week, Ballinasloe has seen its third win in the High Court. This is a win for the families and communities of Ballinasloe. Close to 3,000 families submitted objections to Galway County Council from 2018, even during the pandemic and the severe lockdown, to make their voices heard. Ballinasloe said no to hundreds of 10-tonne, 15-tonne and 30-tonne trucks being forced through the town centre, past residential areas and Portiuncula hospital, to access the site. We said no to air pollution from diesel-powered trucks for the second largest town in County Galway. We said no to the environmental impacts on the low-lying flood plains of the River Suck in Pollboy and on European protected conservation sites along the River Suck callows.

A group of volunteers set up Ballinasloe Says No to challenge the decision by Galway County Council to grant a permit to operate a waste transfer station in Ballinasloe. This week, the High Court quashed that decision. My involvement as a co-founder and public relations officer for the group set me on the path to becoming a Senator. The group has a strong committee that includes, as chair, Dr. Vincent Parsons, who is a consultant radiologist in Portiuncula hospital, and the residents' founder, Mr. Brian Dolan, and is supported by public representatives, including committee member and Galway county councillor, Dr. Evelyn Parsons. In 1999, a previous generation of families, which included my father, Mr. Tony Dolan, challenged the landfill and won their case in the High Court in 1999.

Ballinasloe Says No has successfully challenged the permits to operate the waste transfer station in 2018 and now in January 2022. I thank the incredible committee, the volunteers, the people of Ballinasloe, the clubs, schools and community groups, the business community and the public representatives who time and again have fought for the town. I thank the experts who gave in-depth reports on the impact to the region. I thank the people who joined our legal case. I thank our fantastic legal team, including Gearóid Geraghty and Company Solicitors; and our barristers, Stephen Dodd, Christopher Hughes and Michael O'Donnell. Ballinasloe is now going to be a stop on the multi-million euro Galway to Dublin cycleway project that will run through the same area of the Grand Canal, the River Suck callows and the unique boglands in Pollboy, which are full of biodiversity. It will be a treasure for years to come.

I welcome the comments made by Senator Dolan. I wish to say that I disagree with hit-and-run heckling. I refer to the idea of a Member getting up and making a loud noise to disrupt a speaker without even giving that person the courtesy of a full hearing as he or she walks out of the Chamber. I do not think that is any way to behave.

Today, I call on the Minister for Health to honour a commitment to tender openly for an independent chairperson for the three-year review of the 2018 abortion legislation. I also call on the Minister to account for a Department of Health press release, dated 8 December 2021, which falsely claimed to have published an open tender for the independent chairperson. The press release states:

.... a request for tenders to carry out research into the views of service providers has also been published on the eTenders website today, 8 December 2021.

That statement is false because the only request for a tender that was published by the Department was for a person or organisation to carry out research. There was no reference to a chair.

On 8 December, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health had a meeting that was attended by the Minister for Health and his officials. At that meeting it was made clear that the appointment of a chairperson must legally go to published tender as the costs could be up to €100,000. In a reply given yesterday to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Michael Collins, the Minister confirmed:

.... a small number of candidates, identified as having suitable experience .... were contacted and invited to apply for the role of independent Chair.

I think that the Minister must now account to the Oireachtas for the discrepancy between his statements and actions. We need to know whether, at the time of claiming that a request for tender had taken place, the Minister knew that that had not happened, and that it was not going to happen.

Last Thursday, the Minister told The Irish Times that he had to go through a process for the appointment of a chair. He did not disclose that it is now a secret closed process instead of the open one that he said had been launched. He needs to explain why he misled people. He must explain the lack of transparency in his approach. It raises the question of whether the person being picked will be really independent. Many voices, perhaps including that of the Leader, have stressed the need for that. I worry now that this is about getting somebody who suits the preferred views of the Minister and his Department. We heard criticism of the closed approach by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to his climate council picks, and the accusation of cronyism was levelled. I believe that ideological cronyism is just as bad. I ask the Leader for her support. Regardless of people's views, a commitment was given that there would be an open tender process for a chair. That has not happened. They have done something different and they have not even told us.

I ask the Senator to stick to the allocated time, please.

This matter is somewhere along the spectrum between sloppiness and sneakiness. I would like to find out where exactly it is.

I wish the Leader and all our colleagues a happy new year.

As stated earlier, the State Examinations Commission is meeting today to discuss the leaving certificate examination. I support the calls made by the Leader and other Members for the introduction of the hybrid model. I agree with the call for two years of full uninterrupted learning for students to take place before we return to the original structure of the leaving certificate.

As discussions are taking place today, and I think the National Parents Council is involved in the discussions, I wish to repeat something I mentioned nine to 12 months ago. I refer to the fact that a significant number of the parents' associations for schools in my county and other counties are not represented. The National Parents Council only represents 15% of schools because there are no directors from the two largest school parents' organisations, which are the education and training board schools and the Catholic schools network. I ask the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, of which Senator Dolan is a member, to consider this issue. I ask because it is important that all parents in this country are represented at these discussions.

I wish to raise the issue of the N4. We got notification from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, on the day the Seanad commenced its Christmas break that there is no funding for the N4 project from Mullingar to Rooskey, which is 50 km of motorway. This means that the design office and consultants in place, which have not picked an identified route after nearly 12 months of public consultation, will close. As a Government, we prioritise connectivity in all parts of the country. As I have said on a number of occasions, when one looks at a map of Ireland one will see that the region which does not have a service to the capital city is the north west, which is served by the N4 to Sligo and the N5, which veers off near Longford. This project must be prioritised ahead of any other roads project and I mean the likes of connecting Limerick to Cork, with which a large number of my colleagues will not agree. In order to connect the entire country to the capital, the N4 project must be prioritised. I call on the Minister to come in here and explain to me, as a representative from Longford, and my colleagues who represent the entire north west why the decision was taken not to allocate funding. That decision must be changed.

Today I want to bring good news to the Seanad that yesterday a memo went to Cabinet regarding the special purpose surrogacy committee. This special three-month committee, with the possibility of a fourth month, will deal with complexities and hopefully find a pathway to parenthood for mothers of children born via international surrogacy. I thank the three Ministers - the Ministers for Health; Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth; and Justice - who have driven this initiative. Particularly, I want to thank Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, for her drive. She has taken this on board and has been particularly passionate about it.

Children have a right to a legal relationship with their mother in our State for the entirety of their life, not just until they are 18 years of age, as the law provides for at the moment. Women who are represented by the likes of Irish Families Through Surrogacy talk about the devastating health issues they have had. Others have suffered multiple miscarriages on the pathway to holding their baby for the first time. They deserve not to be discriminated against in that pathway to their parenthood. Their parenthood should be acknowledged in the State. It is not reasonable that they are reduced to guardianship and custodianship as the only solution. While that is something, it is not parenthood of much longed-for and much wanted children. There are also issues regarding same-sex couples and making sure they have the recognition of parenthood.

As a final point on this, surrogacy is not the only area where mothers are discriminated against at the moment. When a same-sex female couple whose child was born in natural birth outside the State comes back to Ireland, the spouse of the birth mother is not necessarily entitled to become an acknowledged parent. There are other anomalies here, not just international surrogacy, that we need to address. I look forward to that.

I wish the Cathaoirleach and everybody a happy new year. The Leader will know that I and many of my colleagues in the Fine Gael Party fought for weeks and months to get roads projects on the national development plan and to convince the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of the logic of this. I do just not stand just literally behind Senator Carrigy in the Chamber; I stand with him to fight for road projects around Ireland. The N24 from Limerick to Waterford is a key project that needs to be continued within the lifetime of this Government. In fairness to the TII, it is committed to these projects but funding is needed for them to go ahead. For example, €5.1 billion will be used from now until 2030 to fund roads projects, but only €1.1 billion of that will be used in the next four years. The other €4 billion will be used after that. There is no point in having €4 billion for the end of the decade, when we cannot progress projects now. The N24 has two stages to it, one from Cahir to Limerick Junction and the other from Cahir to Waterford. The Cahir to Waterford section has been taken off the shelf with no consultation. This happened the very last day before Christmas. This is my first opportunity to rise to speak on this subject, five weeks after it happened. One would assume that did not happen by accident.

I ask the Leader to write to the Minister for Transport so that we can have a debate in the Seanad about this matter. It is wholly unacceptable. There will be a meeting tomorrow of the South East First Citizens Forum, which comprises the chairpersons of all the local authorities. My colleague, Marie Murphy, has been working on this extensively over the last number of months with me. It is not acceptable that this can be just shelved overnight. The Minister needs to reverse this decision, which is unacceptable given that we received assurances a number of months ago. I went home to representatives and said that this was seen by the Government as a priority. Then, a week before Christmas it was taken off the list. The most frustrating part is that we have a buffer zone adjoining that road where one cannot build any one-off houses because a road will be built. Now that the Minister has taken it off the shelf, it is effectively paused. It is not ended, but just paused. We have no road being built and no houses being built. It is just bonkers. It is absolutely bonkers. The Minister needs to come in here and tell us why he put it on the national development plan three or four months ago, but now it is gone without telling any of us.

I want to welcome the one-off €1,000 bonus payment to healthcare workers. It is a good initiative. It is better, more efficient and more impactful than giving days off.

I want to raise three distinct issues. First, as hospital admissions and ICU cases plateau, thank God, we have a new crisis looming. We now have a long waiting list for elective surgery, for various procedures and indeed for diagnoses. We need a special emergency plan that harnesses the public and private sectors to deal with these waiting lists and to get them sorted. I want the Leader to invite the Minister for Health to the Seanad to outline a proposed response to this. This needs urgent address.

Second, before Christmas I raised with the Leader the waiting list for child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. I ask the Leader for an update on that. I do not have to tell the Leader, who is a particularly compassionate individual, that this is a real crisis that needs to be dealt with.

Finally, I join my friend and colleague, Senator Wall, in calling for priority for the gambling regulation Bill and for a well-resourced regulator. The Leader constantly acknowledges the fact that right through this Seanad, from day one, I have been raising this issue. It would be wrong not to salute the commitment to this project of the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne. He has taken it and is running with it. It should happen. I ask the Leader to address those issues in her response.

I would like to put on the record our thanks to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, for finally agreeing to meet with the Irish Thalidomide Association. They requested a meeting almost two years ago, when the Minister first took office. He agreed to the meeting, but it was cancelled. A number of my colleagues have put in requests for that meeting to be rescheduled. I welcome the confirmation that the meeting will now take place. I sincerely hope it takes place urgently because we are all fully aware of the distress, the sickness and the ill health this drug has caused to pregnant women who were dealing with morning sickness. I welcome this. I sincerely hope that measures can be put in place to support these women, because this drug should have been taken off the market in this country a long time before it was. The Leader might consider a debate on this House on the consequences of that drug.

I ask the Leader if she could bring the Minister for Health in here for a debate and discussion on long Covid. We are now, thankfully, moving into a sphere of living with Covid. The pandemic is not over, but it is certainly looking like we are moving into a phase of the pandemic where we will co-live with it. We will be careful but at the same time people will be able to get on with their lives. There are many people in this country who suffer the effects of long Covid and who have had their health very much impacted as a result of Covid. This is particularly the case in the effects of the first wave and the Delta wave. Measures need to be put in place. There has been talk of a strategy on long Covid. This problem will affect many of our citizens who have had and who still have long Covid. Some people who had Covid over a year ago still do not have their sense of smell and taste. I would like to know what the Minister's plans are to support and help these people, and to put proper medical resources and a strategy behind them to try to help them to return to full health.

I am not sure how many colleagues had the opportunity to watch "Prime Time" during the week. It was really quite harrowing to see what the family of Eden Heaslip has been put through over the last number of months. Bullying has existed for time immemorial, and it will continue to exist.

When children were bullied previously, it would have ended at 4 p.m. when they went out the school gate. Of course, the feelings would have followed them home but the actual physical bullying would have ended at 4 p.m. Now, in the age of social media and modern technology, it follows children home, it follows them into their bedrooms, and it follows them into safe places where in general they would have felt safe. We can see that in Eden’s case, and it was put across very forcefully by his father, Raymond, and his mother, Maggie. It was one of the most heart-wrenching interviews I have watched in a very long time.

As to why I am raising it, this is something I am going to write to the Minister for Education about and I think this would be a very valuable idea if it was to happen. I genuinely think that programme should be shown in every classroom in this country as a deterrent and as a simple way of showing how horrific bullying is and what it inflicts, not only on other children but also on their wider families, and, in cases like Eden’s, what the worst-case scenario could be. If that segment of that episode of “Prime Time” with Maggie, Raymond and the family was shown in every primary school class and in particular every secondary school class, that would be a good way of hammering home the message of how bullying is such a horrific act to take part in.

I wish everybody a happy new year. I tabled a Private Members’ motion in May 2021 regarding the search and rescue contract. At that time, I warned that the procurement process was certainly questionable. Since then, I have sought for the business case to be released in order that we would understand how we have moved from four helicopters to three, and why a fixed-wing aircraft is now being included. I warned that the business case was put together by Frazer-Nash with KPMG. Frazer-Nash is a subsidiary of Babcock, which is now merging with CHC, the incumbent contractors. I have been refused the business case time and again. I wrote over Christmas to the Cathaoirleach, Ceann Comhairle, Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Chairs of both the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications and the Committee of Public Accounts. I got what I regard as an earth-shattering reply, which I believe the Cathaoirleach was involved in, with the Ceann Comhairle. It stated that a committee of this House is entitled to see all documentation it requests and is entitled to have a Secretary General come before it and lay documents before the committee in order that we can understand and provide the oversight that is required. This spills over into legislation, given we are currently looking at the air navigation Bill. Woe betide that we can have any sort of amendment. Why is that? There is no oversight. The issue of oversight is one on which we are losing the public. Democracy is falling apart right around the world because we are not able to stand up and demand oversight.

I called yesterday on, and got the agreement of, the transport committee to get the business case. I believe we should bring in KPMG, Frazer-Nash, the Air Corps and everybody who was involved in the generation of this procurement process to find out exactly how we finished up having only three helicopters on the pre-qualification questionnaire, PQQ, that went out on 24 December, Christmas Eve. Where are we going with this?

There is a motion on the Order Paper regarding that particular issue.

It is on the Order Paper and I will be talking about it next week.

In a bombshell allegation made by a senior Tory MP, he has accused No. 10 government sources of blackmailing elected members of parliament. That would potentially strike at the very heart of democracy. It is a timely reminder to never take things for granted and to never become complacent. Maybe it is a time to cherish and celebrate the lack of such allegations in this celebrated democracy but to do so with our eyes wide open, always being prepared to take the steps necessary and to report it to our Government leader, the Cathaoirleach and the forces of law and order to make sure that never ever could even the allegation be made in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

I am conscious also of county councillors who have that huge power of zoning, one of their few powers, and the pressure they must be under in that regard. RTÉ did a documentary some years ago called “The Pressure Zone”. I ask that we keep that in mind and that there is support and access for elected members of local government and central government.

As the Russians seem to be on the cusp of invasion, as is reported, I would question where is the voice of the great EU. We are told it is a celebrated project of peace between former foes who have united people, and that is its greatest achievement. If that voice is effective at the moment, I cannot hear it. It is not loud. The Ukrainian ambassador came to address the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence and said that Ukraine would love to join the family of EU states. I find it disappointing. I am open to correction and maybe there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes, but I have not heard the voice of the EU standing against such threatened aggression, which must be faced head-on.

I call the Leader to respond to the Order of Business.

I thank colleagues for raising a wide variety of topics. Senator Martin is right. We are lucky that we do not have, or have not yet had, in this House or in the Dáil the kind of allegations that have been made against our UK colleagues, so we will thank our lucky stars if it remains that way. The Senator highlighted a specific concern that we had over a number of years with regard to the zoning responsibilities of our county council colleagues, and the Office of the Planning Regulator was a direct response to that. To my mind, although this might be out of step, assisting and helping our councillors to make sure the correct zonings are happening as opposed to the actual activities of the planning regulators of minutely dissecting all of our county development plans, which is going on at the moment, might be more of its business.

Senator Craughwell raised the topic he has raised most often in my time in the Seanad: the search and rescue contract. I am very pleased that he has finally found an outlet between our Houses and our committee structure to have his concerns listened to, given I know he encountered closed door after closed door in the past couple of years. I look forward to the Oireachtas committee seeing that business case because maybe the Senator's fears will then be allayed or, indeed, his fears might be realised. I wish him well in his deliberations and thank him again for bringing it to our intention because some of us were not aware of the powers of the Oireachtas committee. I thank him for being so tenacious.

Senator McGahon raised this morning, as Senator Keogan has done in the past, the absolutely heartbreaking visual impact of the loss of the life of Eden Heaslip only four months ago. It was genuinely heartbreaking to watch. Any parent who has ever had any fear with regard to their child could see the broken family and the reality of the lived experience of his mam, his dad, his brother and his sister. They are absolutely a broken family and it is heartbreaking to see people grieving in public, in effect, which it was the other night.

Senator McGahon might be right. I have spoken in this House previously of my own circumstances of bullying with my daughter. I have said previously, including to Senator Keogan, that I do not believe that children - in this case, they were young adults - really get the consequences of their actions. We have talked a lot this week of the culture and society that we have, particularly against women, but bullying, harassment and violence do not just happen to women, and it happens to a tremendous number of our children and to some of our vulnerable men. Unless we have a real conversation about how society treats other people, how we treat each other, how there are real consequences to the actions of our ten-year-olds, 15-year-olds, 20-year-olds and every other person in society, and the impact those actions have, then, if it is not quite that talk is cheap, it is that we are not taking the responsibility ourselves for the outcomes of what is the lived experience of the Heaslip family in the north east. It is heartbreaking. Maybe to see that programme in some of our schools might hit home in the way I know it hit home to most of us to watch it the other night.

I want to put on the record that the family will continue to need the support of the entire community. Every family that has ever been impacted by suicide or by self-harm needs support and I do not think we do enough in this country, by a long shot.

Senators Conway and Boyhan talked about the agreement by the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, to meet the survivors of thalidomide and the Irish Thalidomide Association, which is really welcome. For the last two years we have been consumed by Covid and the public response to same, and rightly so. That did not mean that all the other issues we have been talking about here for time immemorial ever went away. It is important that we get back to dealing with the relevant issues that affect smaller numbers of people in our communities but that massively impact their lives.

Senator Joe O’Reilly mentioned the CAMHS waiting list, the gambling regulation Bill and the elective surgeries that have been postponed and cancelled in recent years. I do not have answers to those three questions he has asked but I will come back to him within the next couple of days. He also raised the €1,000 bonus that is being awarded and the decision that was made by Cabinet, which has been welcomed by everybody today.

Senators Ahearn and Carrigy talked about the national development plan and how certain roads have suddenly and miraculously disappeared from the plan for the coming years. It is timely at the beginning of the year for us to have a debate and conversation with the Minister about the plans. It could be something as simple as only €1 billion is available in the coming years because we are spending money on other items such as housing and that the €4 billion is being back ended. We should have that conversation with the Minister so I will try to arrange it as soon as his diary allows.

Senator Seery Kearney normally comes in on a Thursday morning and talks about the Committee on Disability Matters but I am so pleased she did not do so this morning because I know the issue she raised is particularly personal and incredibly important to her and to all the friends and colleagues she has made over the years because of her personal journey and story. The Senator paid particular tribute to Deputy McEntee and to the other Ministers but she should take some of the credit. I do not say that lightly because one can be talking to Ministers until one is blue in the face and if they do not listen it does not work. However, the Senator has a personal story and a passion and commitment to make sure the reality she lives is understood. I do not know if that has been understood because I have said to her before that I have been listening to Ministers for justice talk about that for ten years without us ever moving on. I want to pay tribute to the Senator. She should take a bow because we would not be where we are without her.

Senators Carrigy, Gavan and other colleagues raised the issue of the leaving certificate. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to have a Commencement matter yesterday which the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, attended, and I was incredibly grateful for that. The first thing that needs to be said is we are all on the same page and the same side, including teachers, the TUI and the ASTI, although I know they are getting a bit of stick for their opposition to the hybrid model. I have no doubt in my head and heart that the compassionate thing to do is to offer the hybrid model to our leaving certificate students this year, not just because I have one at home but I do have one at home. That young man went through an incredibly different two years than his older sister did when she got a hybrid model leaving certificate a couple of years ago. They have had an incredibly abnormal 22 months and there is nothing normal about the educational experience they have had.

I wish the steering committee well and I hope the voices of the students, parents, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, and everybody are heard as to the extent of their experiences in recent months. It is very difficult to understand how teachers' unions were looking for extended closures before Christmas because of Covid, the lack of teachers and the impact Covid was having on their lives and that they are now turning around and saying we should discount the 22 months of learning experience our young students have had towards what are life changing exams this year. I thank the Senators who raised that issue.

As a former teacher I might say I admire the Leader’s leadership on this particular issue. She is to be complimented for it.

It is personal so it is probably easy for me to say that but I thank the Senators who raised that issue. Senator Mullen raised an important topic. I have said to him before that sometimes when one stands one can see people’s eyes rolling in this House because of the topic that one raised.

I have never seen that.

I 100% agree with the Senator. It is not that we agree on the final outcome but if we do not listen to people’s concerns and voices we can never learn. The respect that needs to be afforded this process and the absolute independence that is required should not be feared by anybody, including people who are pro-choice or pro-life. The spectrum of people who are in the middle of those two polarised positions is probably somewhere the rest of the country lies. If there are frailties in the laws that have been passed in recent years we should not be afraid to admit that and change them. If they also need to be strengthened then we should not be afraid to admit that and change them. Closing down an independent review and a hearing of all voices will serve nobody well.

I go straight to Senator Keogan’s contribution. If the reality is highlighted by what the research of the students showed last week then we should hang our heads in shame because giving people support and the space to explore all their options is what the State is supposed to do. It is not supposed to funnel anybody into a particular category, opportunity or option available to them. If what the Senator has learned turns out to be true then we have a serious issue and I ask her to continue to investigate and bring back those issues, not only just to the Joint Committee on Health but also to the new Joint Committee on Gender Equality that has been established just before Christmas. I thank the Senator for raising that.

Senator Dolan talked about the High Court win in Ballinasloe and it is an example of how communities work together to say they will stand up for what is right for them. I congratulate her and I wish continued success to Ballinasloe. Senator Fitzpatrick talked about the leaving certificate, which I have already spoken about. Senator Buttimer asked if we could invite the newly appointed US ambassador to Ireland, Claire Cronin, to the House, which is a great idea. He also requested a debate on aviation, which I will sort out in the coming weeks because it is timely. Senator Ardagh spoke about sub judice and making sure we are all incredibly careful because we all want to see justice for Ashling Murphy and solace for her family. She spoke about the probate office delays in the HSE and I will go and find out what is going on because I do not have an answer to that.

Senator Lombard spoke about the new agriculture correspondent who was appointed by RTÉ this morning. It is a real pity that the only way RTÉ could appoint somebody was by making it a double job between consumer affairs and agriculture. It reflects what our national broadcaster, which is looking for an increase in its licence fee, thinks about rural Ireland and farming. The Senator has asked for a debate on rural economies and how they thrive. I will organise that debate. Senator O’Loughlin spoke about the €1,000 bonus and how some sectors that did well from Covid might like to give a tax-free payment to their employees. That is a good example of something we could ask of the Minister for Finance and we will follow up on that.

Senator Wall talked about the gambling control Bill and the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, which I will organise a debate on once I get a date. He also spoke about the leaving certificate. Senators Wall and Gavan asked for a debate on housing and I will organise that as soon as I can. What Senator Gavan described this morning is particularly outrageous. No HAP payment should continue if the person has failed the HAP standards inspection seven times. It is a disgrace and I commend him for bringing it up. The Senator also brought up the leaving certificate because like me he has a son who is doing it this year.

As I said, Senator Boyhan brought up the acquiescence of the Minister for Health to meet the Irish Thalidomide Association. The Cabinet meeting on Friday on the easing of restrictions was brought up by Senator Kyne. There is nearly a galloping pace for all of us to say that is done and dusted and let us get back to normal but all of us probably need to caution that reopening will bring its own set of idiosyncrasies. We all have to genuinely be careful. Senator Malcolm Byrne opened today’s proceedings by talking about the influence and impact of the European Union and our membership thereof. He spoke about all the positives that come from it, of which there are many. We need to have another debate on the future of Europe and it would be nice to have Roberta Metsola, who is a young woman with major ambition, over for a conversation. The Cathaoirleach might send the invitation because such a debate would be nice. I also want to say to the Senator that there are some delays in the Passport Office and I will write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to see what is going on.

I thank the Cathaoirleach; I rambled on a bit.

Order of Business agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 1.08 p.m. and resumed at 1.30 p.m.
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