Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 25 Jan 2022

Vol. 283 No. 3

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. a1 on the Supplementary Order Paper, report of the Committee of Selection, to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business, without debate; No. 1, motion regarding Fisheries (Commercial Fishing Licences) (Alteration of Duties and Fees) Order 2022, referral to committee, to be taken on conclusion of No. a1 without debate; and No. 2, statements on climate and agriculture, to be taken at 5 p.m. and to conclude at 7 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, and all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, with the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.

Most in this House will agree that, in the words of the Taoiseach, Friday was a good day. The extraordinary vaccination programme and its success led us to where we are. There may be a few twists and turns yet but there is an air of optimism around the country. I know plenty of people who abandoned their plans for dry January over the weekend, after the difficulties that we have had. We have spoken often in this House about hospitality, tourism, the arts, live events and the entertainment sector. It is important that we give our support to them. I ask that we consider replacing the Government advertising campaign, which tells us that restrictions have been lifted, with encouragement to people who are in a position to do so to go out and support their local bars and restaurants and to buy tickets to the theatre or a gig, stating that it is their patriotic duty to do so.

We need to recognise the sacrifices that young people have made, which we have talked about in this House. We now need to give young people their freedoms back, because they have missed out on two formative years of their lives. We have to be conscious, within our education system, that a certain number of young people have been left behind over the last two years. We have to put supports in place to make sure that this does not become a long-term issue. We raised this with the Minister, Deputy Foley, last week.

I have a question about the online safety and media regulation Bill. It will soon come before the House. The Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media recommended, and the Minister accepted, the establishment of an online safety commissioner. We would like to see the introduction of an individual complaints mechanism. The Minister is committed and will recruit the online safety commissioner.

With regard to the individual complaints mechanism, she has appointed a panel of six to look at how this mechanism might operate. That in itself is welcome. The Minister has required the panel to report within 90 days. I hope it will look at international models. The Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht wanted it to look at the Australian eSafety Commissioner model, which has been successfully operating for six years.

My worry relates to the terms of reference given to the six persons appointed to the panel. To be honest, in many ways it is being set up with the possibility that the system will fail. The language used includes that the panel is to "consider the scope of such a scheme, taking into account the nature and volume of online content and the overall purpose of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill." While we accept that a threshold must be established, I am concerned that the joint committee was not consulted about the terms of reference for this expert group. I ask the Leader, on behalf of the House, to seek assurances from the Minister that she remains committed to the process.

I welcome the announcement yesterday by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, on active travel funding. Some €289 million is being spent on walking and cycling across the country. Tipperary was successful and secured €6.6 million, which is very welcome. However, as I stated last week, it is extremely frustrating for us to be told before Christmas that the N24 road project from Cahir to Waterford was being shelved because of a lack of funding. The Department of Transport has lots of money. All we were asking for was €1.5 million to continue the design phase of a strategic route between Limerick and Waterford. I ask the Minister to reflect on that decision, reverse it and continue the investment in the design stage of the N24. It is a key project which needs to be supported. It is all well and good to give €170 million to the greater Dublin area. We are asking for only €1.5 million to continue a road project which is hugely important.

At the weekend, I went to apply for a passport for my two-year-old son's first passport. I visited a pharmacy to get his photograph taken. There was a queue in the pharmacy of people getting pictures, predominantly for young children. I then went to the Garda station with my wife to sign a consent as a guardian. The garda said the station had been inundated with people looking for passports. I then went to the post office where I had the exact same conversation. There is huge excitement with the country reopening. Part of that excitement is people looking forward to the opportunity to travel in the summer. In the next number of weeks, public representatives will be inundated with questions about passports. If we thought it was bad a couple of months ago, the queries will skyrocket in the coming months. In 2020, 450,000 passports were issued. In 2019, which is probably the best barometer, 900,000 passports were issued. It is expected that between 1.3 million and 1.7 million passports will be delivered this year. The majority of those are processed in January and February each year but that will increase this year on the back of the announcement last week and Government advertising on applying for passports.

I welcome that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, is increasing Passport Office staff by 300, from 600 to 900. That is a 50% increase in staff but we have a threefold or fourfold increase in passports. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs to come to the House to talk about passports as a priority this year in supporting sectors such as aviation as well as travel agencies which have had a difficult two years. I also ask that the appointment of the additional 300 staff in the Passport Office happen immediately. We should look at introducing a seven-day rather than five-day roster system in the Passport Office. This needs to be treated as an emergency in the coming months to ensure that everyone who wants a passport can get one in time in order that we can support the aviation industry and travel agencies and get back to normality.

That may be a topic for a Commencement matter.

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that No. 96, motion 3, be taken before No. a1.

I am pleased we are moving forward with the reopening in recognition of the reality of the state of play with regard to Covid and I look forward to the full relaxing of restrictions as soon as possible. As much as we can enjoy ourselves now, we must not forget what still needs to be done, both in moving forward and in assessing what is now in our past. A full inquiry into the effectiveness, the necessity and the scope of each Government restriction put in place to combat Covid must be carried out and begun no later than this year.

The Covid certificate, which has been discontinued for domestic use, leaves behind it a massive haul of personal data. The public needs to be told exactly what data is being held by the Government and how it is going to be held, processed or deleted in the near future. The same request must be made at the EU level. On the retirement of the certificate as a prerequisite for international travel, what will happen to the data in Brussels? We need certainty on this. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, to come to the House to make a statement on the matter.

Not all to do with the pandemic response was an imposition. The move towards outdoor dining last summer brought with it great developments to the atmosphere in our towns and villages. As we come out of the winter months, I would like to see the regulations allowing restaurants and bars to continue to operate these outdoor spaces extended indefinitely. Many owners put a lot of money into these spaces, as did the Government, in order for them to be able to trade in accordance with the Government restrictions. The least we can do is allow these spaces to continue to exist into the summer and beyond. Perhaps we could ask the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to update us on the extension of this provision.

In the same vein of helping hospitality, I am sure no one in this Chamber has been a stranger to passport requests over the past two years. Much of this arose from the closure of the Passport Office for a time over the course of the pandemic. I do not think that should have happened, given the essential nature of the service, but it did, and we are still working through the fallout.

I was contacted by a number of individuals who have been in the hospitality industry for years. They told me hoteliers are tearing out their hair over the delays in processing visas for skilled industry workers, particularly chefs. Backlogs have been experienced since last June regarding visa decisions for young chefs from outside the EU. It is causing real difficulty in the industry, an industry we should be doing all we can to help.

I ask the Leader to check with the Ministers to see what can be done in regard to these issues and perhaps ask each of them to come before the House to make a statement.

There is much optimism around at the moment. It is a new year and green shoots are already appearing, while the crisis of Covid is hopefully showing signs of disappearing. Behind the optimism, there still lurks another crisis which shows no sign of going anywhere, the climate and biodiversity one. We are all very aware of it but, understandably, we wonder what we can do about it. One thing I am asking everyone to do this year is to talk about and think about trees.

Trees matter. When it comes to climate, they sequester and store carbon and, apart from providing us with beautiful surroundings and amenities, in the right place they also provide a whole range of biodiversity, water and ecological benefits. They also, of course, take a long time to grow and leave quite a gap when they are felled, which is why the questions such as where, how, when and why trees are planted need to be answered.

One of my remits is to oversee the way in which we incentivise tree planting. Our forestry programme is the means through which we do this and a new one is due to come into place this time next year. Before it does, I want to make sure people get the opportunity to engage with all of the issues, become informed about trees and forestry and then give their opinion. The decisions we make this year will shape our woodlands and forests for generations to come. We have a much lower level of forestry cover than almost every other country in Europe and our level of native woodland is particularly low. How do we up it? How do we decide what is planted where and by whom? That is why we need to talk about trees.

We started already with a behaviour and attitudes poll before Christmas. Its findings were encouraging in that it found that we, as a nation, value trees, we love to walk in woodlands and we want and like our mix of both conifers and broadleaves. I can certainly identify with that, living so close to the wonderful woodlands of Emo Court and Charleville Castle. However, the poll also showed that we have not really noticed much talk about trees in the media and we are much less aware than I would like of the benefits of timber for construction, something that cannot be ignored.

This is why we need that conversation about trees, which continues this evening when I will engage with the group from An Foróige, a representation of the young people who will be most impacted by the decisions we make this year. This national conversation will continue with the citizens' assembly-style deliberative dialogue with 99 members of the general public, along with further online public engagement.

Two weeks ago, the chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council, Marie Donnelly, said that we are in a serious hole in terms of the afforestation rate in this country and that it is an immediate and urgent challenge to get the policies right so as to reverse that. She is right and I hope that this year, this national conversation on trees will play a big part in addressing that challenge.

I also join colleagues in welcoming the easing of restrictions North and South over the past number of days, including in this House. I am sure that, like me, the Leader has missed seeing the school groups going around the building and members of men's sheds groups and other community organisations enjoying the tours and stopping and having a bit of craic in this House. It has been a real deficit for us all. I have missed bringing people into this House to engage with me in my role in the Seanad and hosting important and worthwhile campaign and lobby groups in the audiovisual room to give them an opportunity to engage with all Members of the Oireachtas. I am really looking forward to a time when we can do this as safely, compliantly and responsibly as possible.

In saying that, I also hope we do not forget the fundamental lessons we have learned over the course of this awful pandemic - the lessons of community and social solidarity and who front-line and emergency workers are when it comes to such a horrible crisis. We must learn the lessons of a lack of investment in healthcare provision and infrastructure across the State and redouble our efforts in this institution to address those deficiencies.

I also wish to discuss organ donation and the human tissue Bill, which the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, indicated at the end of last year would be a priority for him early this year. While it would do a lot of things, one of its core components would be to create a soft "opt-out" option for organ donation. Similar legislation is going through the assembly in the North. Given that organ donation operates on an all-Ireland basis in terms of the list through which people can hopefully obtain an organ, it is important that we harmonise that legislation and approach. In calling for that legislation to be brought forward under Government time, I respectfully ask people, because it is a personal issue, to consider becoming an organ donor if they are not already one and indicate to, and have a conversation with, their loved ones and those closest to them about their desires in this regard as quickly as possible.

This does not happen very often but I fully agree with Senator Ahearn about the issue of passports, an issue I have raised consistently. Like him, and, I am sure, many others, I have been inundated. It is going to be a bigger issue. The additional staff are welcome but we need more staff and infrastructure. We cannot become passport offices or passport office workers. The workers there do fantastic work in meeting the needs of people but there is a clear and identifiable need for more and we need to ensure it is met.

I raise the very pressing and worrying issue of Russia's plans to conduct a military exercise in waters off the Irish coast next month. The area is about 130 nautical miles off the coast of Cork and is firmly within Ireland's exclusive economic zone. We can all agree that there is grave concern in both military and political circles in Ireland. I will certainly not pretend to be a military expert on this but I note that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has told Russia that the exercise is not welcome.

We can all agree, given the current escalating situation in the Ukraine, that the timing of these drills is possibly quite provocative. One has to wonder if these drills are part of Russia's mind games with NATO but, unfortunately, for us, it means we get dragged into the row also. It has also been pointed out that these drills will take place in an area with a lot of sub-sea infrastructure running along the southern coast and connecting Europe to North America, beneath the nexus of many of the Internet cables which connect these two continents. If there was to be any damage, accidental or otherwise, to these cables, it would cripple the economies of NATO countries and our economy.

Fishermen in Cork have expressed grave concerns at the environmental damage that would be caused to biodiversity and marine life in the area and have indicated their plans to peacefully protest against these drills. The chief executive officer of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, Mr. Patrick Murphy, has said there is currently 500 million tonnes of blue whiting in the area. Whatever munitions Russia plans on testing there, it will have a detrimental impact on the environment. Many of the warheads will likely contain depleted uranium. Any submarines involved will be using sonar, which can be devastating to larger marine life, particularly whales. We have a responsibility to protect the environment and larger marine life such as dolphins and whales. Seismic activity can have an impact for years. There is one example of a change in the migratory pattern of tuna, which is yet another example of human activity having a long-term impact on nature. War ships engaging in war games off our coast can and will have a devastating impact on the environment and marine life and has the potential to have a devastating and detrimental impact on our economic industry if things go wrong.

It is important we in the Upper House have an opportunity to ask the Minister for Defence what is being done. We need to have an opportunity to have a discussion and to raise concerns around these international affairs. This particular topic is very time sensitive.

I want to again mention the leaving certificate. Time is very much ticking on. There was a meeting of the advisory group and we were informed in a response to a Commencement matter earlier that there is a plan for yet another meeting. However, the time for a decision on this issue needs to be made very soon. It is unfair to string out the students, their families and teachers. We need to a decision fairly quick smart on this.

The Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, of which I am a member, has been dealing with reform of the leaving certificate. The committee has heard from many experts and civil society actors that the current leaving certificate system favours the well off and badly fails those who are marginalised. It inflicts trauma and stress on students without any real preparation for life after second level education. We should be rewarding children’s learning abilities and not just their memories.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended that Ireland should reform the leaving certificate as it inflicts mental distress on young people. It is now 2022 and we have made no effort to change the system. The best interests of children should be the main priority. Young people are the main stakeholders.

Delayed reform means that more than 800,000 students will have gone through the leaving certificate system, some of whom will have fallen through the gaps, most likely not have progressed to third level education and will have experienced poverty, unemployment and homelessness due to a stressful, unequal system. I propose school-based assessments similar to the ones introduced by the Department of Education during the pandemic until the total leaving certificate system is reformed, as expected by 2030.

I have received many emails from students throughout the country stating that they want calculated grades this year. These young people need to be listened to. Their voices must be part of this conversation. Young people bring new light to this discussion. What we have now is not working for all our students. The leaving certificate, as it stands, is not an equal opportunity system. It needs to change and it is our job as legislators to change it.

I am also delighted to have the opportunity to work without lockdowns and restrictions in Leinster House and I look forward to welcoming young people from ethnic minority groups to their Parliament. I would also like to bring up the issue of young people getting work experience in Leinster House. As it stands now, young people between 16 and 18 are not allowed to get work experience here and that is something we also need to look at.

First, I want to welcome Senator Flynn back and congratulate her. I was not in the Chamber last week on her return.

Yesterday, County Roscommon and the Galway part of the Galway-Roscommon constituency welcomed the great announcement on active travel. A great many issues have been with us for years like the need to extend footpaths, walkways and cycleways, to take away dangerous bends and so forth. For the first time, we have seen a Government providing money to sort out such problems. I was in contact with a number of local authority members yesterday evening and I must say that the announcement got a great welcome. Of course, the fact that it is a roll-over fund is very important. The situation where local authorities are forced to spend money coming up to the end of the year or else send it back will not apply. This is a roll-over fund which is really important for some projects.

We also had school announcements from the Government recently. Six schools in my own county of Roscommon and the Galway part of the Galway-Roscommon constituency received very good news under the summer works scheme. On the subject of education, I have spoken to the Minister for Education about giving some sort of break to leaving certificate students this year and of course, the Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Niall Collins, was in the House earlier to respond to the Commencement matter raised by Senators Dolan and Carrigy. The news was positive and of course, the reopening is also positive news. It will be lovely to see a real buzz back in Leinster House, with the groups coming in and out from our constituencies and from different areas to meet us.

During a Commencement debate earlier today Senator Boyhan raised the issue of neurological nurses and the shortage thereof. This is an issue that I brought to the House before Christmas and at that stage we got good news in relation to University Hospital Galway to the effect that three or four neurological nurses will be appointed early in 2022, hopefully. There is a shortage of eight or nine in the hospital. I fully support what Senator Boyhan said earlier but I believe that the Minister for Health and the Government are committed to making more nurses available in that sector because many people are affected by neurological issues.

It is great that we are in the Chamber and are able to have such very different conversations and consider such very different points. One of the announcements that I really welcome is the one on the right to request remote working that was made by the Tánaiste and more details were provided on that today. I have heard various debates and interviews over the course of the day on the issue and am aware of the concerns of both employees and employers. Issues like health and safety, access to broadband and related matters that are a concern for both employers and employees can be addressed by the Connected Hubs initiative launched by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys. I took the opportunity today to explore that initiative further through the website connectedhubs.ie and found, to my surprise, that there are two hubs in Dublin 8. Even in my home constituency of Dublin South-Central there already are desk space and meeting room options available. There are 177 hubs up and running already and by the end of this year, there will be 400. As we move on and go back to being an open society, we can live our lives in a newly envisioned way and have many opportunities to do so. I really welcome the hubs and draw Members' attention to connectedhubs.ie, which is a fantastic resource. The hubs are all over the country and they enable people to consider different spaces in the context of working from home.

If there are worries about not having a suitable, safe space within a house, it is important that we start looking creatively at how to address employers' concerns. It is a good resource to go onto for employees wanting to do that.

I second the amendment to the Order of Business proposed by Senator Keogan.

I was delighted to hear that Rescue 117 in Waterford has been saved. We now have four SAR bases in the country that are guaranteed by the Government. That is welcome and I thank all the Members of this House and the Lower House who got behind that campaign to ensure that we kept four helicopters. I have asked on a number of occasions for the business case for this to be released. This is part of the reason we asked for the debate in this House. The Air Corps was assessed as providing one base in the country. In order to provide that base, it was expected to have three helicopters rather than five for four bases, to be available 100% of the time rather than 95% of the time and to fund spare parts at a premium of 60% above that which would be charged to a commercial supplier. I can see no reason why the Irish Air Corps would not provide the fixed-wing element, but it looks like we are going to have a fixed-wing element provided from the UK. That aircraft will be flying across Ireland with sophisticated surveillance technology on board. None of this makes sense. In agreeing to have four helicopters for SAR or four helicopter bases, we have altered the business case that was put together to form the pre-qualification questionnaire in the first place. In addition, they added on the fire-fighting equipment after the business case was put together. Everything about this is shambolic. It seems to be a case of making it up as we go along. It is vitally important that the business case is published and that we have an open debate in this House. It is not the Minister or any politician that is making these decisions. Sadly, politicians are losing the plot when it comes to civil servants taking major decisions. The cost over ten years is €1 billion. We need this opened up to debate.

I welcome the approval by Government for the development at O'Devaney Gardens. For more than a decade, the site at O'Devaney Gardens has been plagued by political and planning arguments. For all of that time there has been nothing but dereliction and antisocial behaviour on that site. Today's announcement means that in the next quarter of this year, not in ten or 20 years' time, construction will commence in respect of more than 1,000 A-rated social, affordable and private homes, a community crèche, a community centre, shops, and a playground. Most importantly, there is an apprenticeship and local employment clause in the contract. This is a really good day for the area. The building of more than 1,000 homes means that thousands of people who are on the housing list, those who are unable to afford their rents and those who are unable to afford to buy will now have the opportunity to do all three in Dublin city.

The second issue I wish to raise relates to how we educate our children. This House is the ideal place to debate this issue. Specifically, I refer to the organisation of the education of our children in same-sex schools. It is beyond time that we debated this issue. We need to look at how we organise ourselves as a society. When we are born into this world, we are all born equal and we do not have the barriers or the taboos of being male or female. We talk a good deal about wanting to equal things out, equal things up and have women earn the same money and be treated as equals. We are the ones creating the barriers for children at a very early age. When we send boys and girls to segregated schools, we tell them they are different. We do not do this in crèches and we do it to increasingly less in primary schools and new schools that are being built. We need to look at our secondary schools. We need to look at what that to which I refer is instilling in our society. I would like the Leader to arrange a debate on the matter.

I welcome the new legislation on the right to request remote working and I look forward to the pre-legislative scrutiny of it.

Let us be clear. This legislation alone will not revolutionise the way we work. It is part of a bigger national remote working strategy that recognises the economic driver that remote working can be for places that do not have red ribbon job announcement moments and it can also invest in communities, community infrastructure and hubs.

We are helping communities transition, but we need to help employers transition as well. There is more research now emerging where employers are not as in love with remote working as they have been over the past two years, whereas employees are still as in love with remote working. We have to help them through that transition. We do it through skills, by training them, by talking in this Chamber about remote-first, remote only and best practice hybrid companies. We can do it through talking about companies such as HubSpot, Flipdish, GitLab, Dropbox and Shopify, which are not normally part of the employers that we talk about, as well as the Grow Remote alliance of top CEOs who are committed to leading the transition. We need to implement their learnings.

Employers need to provide credible and demonstrable reasons they would refuse remote working. Nobody wants a box-ticking exercise that enables them to refuse requests without an effective challenge and consideration. Many employers have already shown much goodwill. Many employees have already demonstrated that their productivity is just as good, if not more. Therefore, we should be building on that goodwill and that trust.

The double tax needs to be sorted out for residents of the South who work in the North and will not be able to work from home unless the waiver is extended. This brings our attention to the bigger issue of flexibility for all. There is legislation that will be coming forward from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth for parents and carers. However, we know that my view is that flexibility should be available to everybody.

This morning, there were 97 patients in the University Hospital Limerick, UHL, on trolleys. This is the highest number of patients without a bed recorded in any Irish hospital ever. I cannot tell you how many times I have raised this issue over the past six years and yet things continue to go from bad to worse. Indeed, in November, I predicted that hospital would hit 100 patients on trolleys this winter and this morning it was just three away from that.

I joined with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, in calling for an urgent investigation into this long-standing and ever-worsening overcrowding by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, and I invite the leaders to join the INMO in making that call. We cannot keep on going like this. The staff, patients and wider Limerick community need to see a plan to resolve these long-standing issues. The fact of the matter is there has been an abject failure by successive Governments to deal with this crisis.

We are promised a new 96-bed unit late next year, but half of those beds will be replacing existing ones that are being phased out. Therefore, we will be getting just 48 new beds. The problem is that according to hospital management, today we are 200 beds short. The people in Limerick and the mid-west will have to wait the best part of another two years before these beds open. Even then, there will still be a deficit of 150 beds. I ask the Leader, respectfully, what the people of Limerick are supposed to do in the meantime.

Recent research from the UK indicates there is one excess death for every 67 patients who stay in the emergency department for eight to 12 hours. This begs the question of how many lives are being lost each week because of the ongoing crisis in UHL. This crisis did not happen by accident; it was predicted a decade ago by health workers and trade unions. However, 11 years on, this Government is floundering.

I am asking for a dedicated debate on UHL. We have gone on for more than a decade. It has gotten worse year on year. We need to take action. I call on all of us, on a cross-party basis, to address this issue.

Like every Senator - I have been listening to debates from my office before I came into the Chamber - I want to welcome the restrictions being removed as much as they were. It probably caught everybody a little by surprise, but it was very positive.

There was a great mood around all of our towns, villages and cities in the past couple of days. We will remember those we have lost and those who suffered significantly in terms of illness and their businesses being impacted. I support the calls by other Senators that we support all of those businesses that were really badly affected during the pandemic, including the restaurants, pubs, play facilities and the arts, entertainment and tourism industries generally.

Similar to Senator Currie, I think that some small benefits have arisen out of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the move from cash to card payments, which was happening anyway but which happened much more quickly. All of a sudden, we realised that things we never thought we would be able to do remotely we were able to do. There are thousands of people no longer getting into their cars at 7 a.m. to travel to the office for 9 a.m., while others who live in particular locations and do not have access to good public transport are no longer stressed about having to get up early in order to get somewhere in order to access public transport.

We need to have a proper debate. Many employers appreciate the benefits they are getting from their employees and the employees realise that their work-life balance is better. Employees are more productive, they have a better work-life balance and they are able to look after their children in a different way than they were doing before the pandemic. We need a debate so that we might ensure that all of those benefits are acknowledged and that employers appreciate that in order to retain talent, they need to keep employees happy.

I welcome the reopening of this House. Some Senators were never in this House prior to the introduction of Covid-19 restrictions. I hope they enjoy the easing of restrictions here and that we can soon invite former Members and councillors to visit to the House again. This is the people's House. The sooner those restrictions can be lifted, the better.

I would like to comment on an issue that has been raised by several Senators, namely, the proposed Russian exercised in the waters off the coast of County Cork in the coming weeks. I spoke to several fishermen this morning. I also spoke with Patrick Murphy, the chief executive officer of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation Limited. They are deeply concerned about this proposal. It is nonsensical in so many ways. From an environmental point of view, to have this so-called testing of arms happening off our coast makes no sense. It is within our economic zone.

In my part of the world, fishing is a really important to the economy. Fishermen work exceptionally hard. That the biodiversity and fishing stocks could be disrupted, if not destroyed, by these exercises is unbelievable. We need to have a real debate in the Seanad on this issue. We should ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, to come to the House to update Senators on his views on this matter and on what he proposes to do to stop these exercises. The proposal from the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation that fishing boats go out there is very dangerous. I would be deeply concerned for my fishing community that they could become embroiled in an international incident off the south-west coast of Cork. We need to make sure that these waters are safe. To permit such exercises at this stage is beyond belief. Our neutrality has been a really important part of our history. To have these so-called exercises happening makes no sense. The Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation has offered me a place on one of the vessels going out to there, which I will probably decline. It is important that we support the fishing industry. Following on from Brexit, up to 60 ships will be dismantled in the next few years. What is left of fish stocks will be disrupted by these testing exercises. This is a significant issue that we need to address.

I want to request a debate on special needs assistants, SNAs, within our schools. The Leader will be aware that there are approximately 18,000 SNAs working within our school communities and looking after our children. I would like a debate primarily on the Department's plans for the future of SNAs within our schools and on how we go about looking after them and protecting their contracts.

It is also about protecting them as really valuable people and as being different but equal to the teachers in their own schools. We must remember the inclusion we speak about, in that we cherish having children with additional needs in our mainstream schools, is only permitted and facilitated by having SNAs within our schools. The schools we want and the communities we want are facilitated by these great workers. They deserve to be recognised as a profession in themselves. It is sad to think we have nearly 18,000 people who do not have a proper contract and who wonder every year if they are going to have employment in the following year. That has its own knock-on effects, such as on getting a loan or a mortgage and all those things you have in normal life. It is predominantly women who work in this role, as all Members know. That is another example of how gendered roles in our countries have been neglected, seen as a part-time gig or just a bit of pocket money for a woman. That is not correct; this is a profession. It is really valuable and an integral part of the community and country we want to have in future, one that is truly inclusive.

I highlight also the fact that SNAs are put on a course in UCD and they have not been accredited. It is a year-long course with no transferable qualifications if they go to another country. It is a 12-month course that is not recognised on any of the scales for qualifications. That is atrocious.

I raise the plight of the leaving certificate class of 2022. It is an issue on which the Leader herself and many others in the Chamber have spoken as well. We all know the leaving certificate period is an extremely stressful time for both the pupils themselves and their parents and indeed the entire household of a pupil going through the process. That stress is now compounded by what the leaving certificate class of 2022 has gone through with the additional stresses Covid has brought along. I have received many telephone calls from students and parents in recent weeks who are calling for finality and for a decision to be made sooner rather than later on this issue. For anyone to suggest this leaving certificate class should be treated differently to those of the preceding two years is grossly unfair. This year's class have been impacted as much as the classes of 2021 and 2020. I compliment the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, and all the stakeholders including parents, students and the Department on the work they have done in the last number of years to come up with a model whereby predicted grades were able to satisfy the vast majority. It is impossible to satisfy everyone with these things. I appreciate this is difficult and talks are ongoing on this issue. I ask that a final push be made on behalf of the students of the leaving certificate class of 2022 so they too can get a fair crack of the whip, so to speak, and that some form of predicted grades could be adopted to facilitate them. That decision would remove some of the stress they are currently experiencing.

I wish to raise the better energy warmer homes scheme that delivers a range of energy-efficient measures free of charge to low-income households vulnerable to energy poverty. The scheme is funded by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI. By March 2021 over 142,000 homes have received free upgrades, leaving their occupants better able to afford to heat them. The scheme provides support for attic, internal and external wall insulation, draughtproofing, window replacement etc. where occupants are in receipt of carer's allowance, domiciliary care allowance and fuel allowance. This includes a high number of elderly people.

However, on behalf of a colleague of mine, Councillor John Paul O'Shea of Cork County Council, I note that on the application for completion of works nationally, the waiting time is now 26 months. That is not 26 weeks but 26 months. In my own county, 56 homeowners are currently awaiting works through the scheme with an average wait time for contractors of 22 months.

These figures are shocking. By their nature, the people applying for these schemes are the most vulnerable. Therefore, the application process and completion times need to be condensed. The Government has allocated extra funds for the retrofitting scheme from the carbon tax. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to examine these measures, speed up the assessments and make sure the jobs are completed in a shorter time.

I wish to raise another issue on which I have spoken a number of times and bring it to the attention of the Leader. I refer to funding for autism spectrum disorder, ASD, classes. We welcome the funding when it is made available, but I take issue with the term "ASD". The reality is that autism is not a disorder but just a different personality. I would like the term to be changed. I have written to the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, about it. I would like the term to be removed from the language all of us use. We welcome funding when it is announced by the Government because it is needed, and more will be needed. However, autism is not a disorder; it is a different personality.

Many colleagues will have seen the harrowing "Prime Time" report on the tragic death of Eden Heaslip, who was a victim of extreme bullying. I acknowledge that Senator Keoghan and, subsequently, Senator McGahon have raised this matter with the Leader and she responded, but I wish to bring it up again.

A real hero of the "Prime Time" report was Fr. Jason Murphy, a confidant and counsellor of Eden. He similarly featured in "Operation Transformation" a few nights later. It more than merits mention here that in recent years priests and religious have suffered collectively for the inexcusable criminality of a tiny minority. Most priests and religious, like Fr. Jason Murphy, work daily to bring comfort, solace and practical assistance to vulnerable people. It is only right that in this House of the national Parliament that such unsung, quiet, daily work would receive acknowledgement, in light of what priests and religious have gone through in recent years, and especially in the light of Fr. Murphy's work, which shone out that night. Raymond, Margaret and the family shone out too. What is extraordinary about the family is that rather than being bitter and cynical - it would be excusable if they were both - they have set about a life of helping to prevent the bullying of others and eliminate bullying in schools. They have said, "Let us be buddies, not bullies". They have a campaign going in that regard, which is admirable. I call on the Leader to support me in the view that our unsung heroes of priests and religious across the country, like Fr. Murphy, who work daily, are saluted here in this Chamber.

They should not be victims of bad publicity because of the actions of a few.

I acknowledge the funding announced yesterday for active travel. The fund is €184 million, which is nearly €200 million that has been allocated this year to local authorities. Some €11 million has been allocated to Galway and Roscommon for walking and cycling routes. Some might say that is grand, but in many rural towns there are no footpaths. It is dangerous to go out walking in the evenings or any time of the day on a busy country road. It is important that we are seeing this type of development and it is brilliant that it is having such an impact in rural areas as well. As I mentioned, there are projects for walking schemes, footpaths and the cycle way will come in to the west as well. I hope that will make a huge impact.

An amount of €4 million was also allocated for the summer works scheme for many schools in rural areas. Such funding is used to provide improvements to windows and ventilation for children in schools and for roof works and external areas, in other words, playgrounds. Schools are trying to encourage more use of outdoor areas.

Safe routes to schools was another thing being funded as part of active travel. Having safe drop-off and pick-up areas where cars are able to stop outside of schools is a big issue in rural areas.

Some 97 people are on trolleys in the University Hospital Limerick emergency department today. It is a disgrace. It is indefensible and a poor reflection on us as a society. It is an indictment of our health service and our Government. In spite of tens of millions of euro being spent building modular units and additional accommodation, there is a situation in Limerick where there are more people from the mid-west on trolleys than anywhere else in the country. I want to know why. Is it a lack of funding, resources, available nurses, beds or Covid? Is it due to a difficulty with management or is it down to incompetence? The people of the mid-west deserve answers at this stage. The only way to find out why 97 of our citizens are sitting on trolleys in Limerick today is if there is an independent inquiry that does not involve people from the UL hospital group or its management. It is not good enough. I am blue in the face standing up here year after year, month after month, highlighting this. The people of Limerick, Clare, Tipperary and the mid-west deserve better from this Government and our health service. I want answers and the only way to get those is an independent inquiry. It could be HIQA or an outside agency, but it must be independent because we need answers. It is not good enough, it is indefensible, it is not acceptable and it cannot continue.

I wish to support Senator Conway's call for an independent review into University Hospital Limerick. I raise the matter every second week and have done so for the last year. The problem is ongoing and it is not good enough.

Yesterday was international day of education. The Minister, Deputy Harris, was in Limerick yesterday. I had the pleasure of visiting some schools with him. He spoke about CAO offers and the choices to be made. We had good engagement with the students in St. Mary's secondary school and Coláiste Mhichíl CBS secondary school. They are both DEIS schools. The students were delighted to have engagement with the Minister and to be able to discuss their upcoming leaving certificate, college places and what they are thinking about doing. I was interested by the number of people who were interested in apprenticeships, which now appear on the CAO form and which did not before. It is also on the website. This is really encouraging. Since the previous year, there have been some 1,500 extra applications for apprenticeships. It is really encouraging. While a degree course suits some, it does not suit all. It should be highlighted and people who are interested in apprenticeships should be encouraged. It is a form of education.

Senator McGreehan raised the course SNAs are encouraged to take yet their qualification is not recognised in their pay and it is not accredited. Something has to happen. Education is the order of the day but it needs to be looked at. I would like the Leader's support.

Last week on the Order of Business I raised local concerns about Rescue 117 and its base at Waterford airport. I said that I did not share the down-beat concerns while understanding the pressing need for clarity.

I welcome that clarity and today's Cabinet decision that the four existing bases of Waterford, Sligo, Shannon and Dublin will be specified in the new tender document. I have been raising this matter with the Tánaiste for several months, as I am sure the Leader has been doing with regard to the Dublin base. It is a matter of the utmost importance. Everyone in this Chamber is in awe at the dedication and bravery displayed by the crews of all our search and rescue services on a daily basis.

I also raise the issue of the N24, to which Senator Ahearn also referred. It is the primary connection between the mid-west and the south east, which is of particular importance in the context of Brexit and the onward connections through Rosslare Port. The decision was made just before Christmas to pause funding for this year for the Cahir to Waterford section of that road. That decision needs to be reversed and I ask for a debate with the Minister for Transport on it. Six or seven roads have not been allocated funding for 2022. Some €1.5 million would allow that project to continue through the planning and route selection stages. This has to happen because in order for us as a State to be ready to spend the envelope of more than €5 billion on roads post 2024, we have to have the projects ready to go. It would be prudent of the Government to allocate that small sum of €1.5 million and to change the decision.

Given the week we are in, I wish to raise the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday events this year. It is ironic that the 50th anniversary falls on a Sunday. The Bloody Sunday Trust in Derry has duly titled its work One World-One Struggle and has organised events from this Thursday, 27 January, until Sunday, 30 January. I ask people to engage with those events over that four-day period. A play titled The White Handkerchief will take place at 4 p.m., the time of the shootings 50 years ago in 1972. I saw some very good interviews during the week, including one with Denis Bradley, a great man who was there on the day. I ask for the support of the House in offering our support to the committees and organisations in the efforts they are making to get truth and justice about all that happened, the cold-blooded murder and shootings that took place on behalf of the British Government by British armed forces.

We should also offer our support in opposing the amnesty proposed by the British Government. In light of this, and in light of the discussions on the amnesty, I ask that we have a debate in the House and invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs to have a discussion around the Bloody Sunday events and other legacy issues in dealing with the past. It is a very sore point when it comes to dealing with Northern Ireland and what took place over those decades of struggle. It would be timely to have a debate on it.

I thank the Senator for raising that important issue. At the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight today we will be discussing the matter of having a minute's silence tomorrow for the victims of Bloody Sunday.

Before the break, Senator Chambers spoke about hunger in Afghanistan and the very severe food crisis there at the moment. Yemen, as we know, is also experiencing a very serious famine.

Perhaps a debate on food security and famine would be appropriate.

An issue that has arisen over the course of the Order of Business relates to the proposed military activities within the 200 nautical miles of Ireland's exclusive economic zone, EEZ. There has been much focus on the Irish Aviation Authority and the information it has sought and received but the key issue relates to the marine information, particularly that which relates to sonar and noise levels. That information is relevant because Ireland has responsibilities under the habitats directive and Natura 2000. The EU law is clear that environmental responsibilities extend throughout a country’s EEZ.

Given that is Ireland's responsibility as part of EU law, it would be appropriate for the Government and others to regulate sonar and noise activities in that area and, as well as using those instruments of regulation and taking account of that primary law, to ensure we monitor, seek and require relevant environmental information on sonar. That is important particularly for the habitats of cetaceans, given that in the past, links have been drawn between naval and military exercises and the mass stranding of whales and dolphins. Ireland, as a neutral country, has always been strong on international law being the way in which we engage constructively. This environmental law is an appropriate instrument through which we can engage, and we can then partner with appropriate civilian or scientific partners. Those are areas we might want to consider and that might be useful. Perhaps if we have debates in these areas, those issues should be part of that, as well as being instruments we can begin to use now.

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

To respond to Senator Higgins, a number of requests for debates were made last week and this week and some have been carried over from before Christmas. I will put together a list and send it to the relevant Ministers to remind them of the requests that have been made. I will add requests for debates on Yemen but also on Afghanistan. It is important we have a debate on events there, not just because of the serious famine conditions the population is living under but also because of the damage being done before our eyes to the female population.

On Senator Blaney's point, it is important that we have a debate on the amnesty he mentioned, an issue other Senators have raised previously. I will make that request as a matter of priority, and I am happy to support the Cathaoirleach's call at the meeting of the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight, CPP, this evening that we would hold a minute's reflection tomorrow, on the 50th anniversary. It is appropriate that the Senator brought to our attention the events being held from Thursday to Sunday and asked people to support them, so I thank him for that.

Senators Cummins and Ahearn spoke about the absences from the review of the national development plan that was announced before Christmas. I made a request last week to the Minister for Transport to appear before the House for a debate on the plans. To be optimistic about it, perhaps the backloading of the money from that Minister's Department is a reason for the absence of the roads from the list that was published before Christmas. As soon as that debate has been scheduled, I will let both Senators know, although I am sure it is of interest to many other people throughout the country. Senator Carrigy's area also has an important road to talk about.

This is not the first time the issue raised by Senators Maria Byrne, Conway and Gavan today has been raised. I say this advisedly so as not to get myself or anybody else into trouble. It arises in the House almost every other week, and it is surprising nobody else is talking about the same issues in their local hospitals to the same extent as the three Senators. If it is not arising in Beaumont Hospital, the Mater hospital, Letterkenny University Hospital or wherever, there is a reason for that, although we do not know what that reason is. As Senators Gavan and Conway said, there have been announcements of spending commitments at the hospital in recent years. It is not that the State is not putting the money there but that it seems to be just gobbled up, and as soon as new beds are provided, they seem to be gobbled up too and the problem seems to return. Not only do I concur that a debate is needed but we need a wider examination of the exact problems. On behalf of the three Senators, I will write to the Minister for Health today, conveying their serious concerns on behalf of everyone in that part of the country and will revert to them.

I wish to acknowledge the contribution on apprenticeships that was made by Senator Maria Byrne. For far too long in this country and somewhere after the 1980s, and maybe when the Celtic tiger came in the 1990s, we all got a little above ourselves thinking that we all had to be brain surgeons or stockbrokers. The traditional professions that had been the backstop of hardworking, decent people in this country were suddenly uncool and yet we find ourselves at the moment with not enough bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and mechanics because they all left or did not train. So it is certainly welcome that young people are looking at those professions again.

I saw an article the other day on how people pick their careers and research shows that people with a higher intelligence quotient, IQ, are usually employed by people with not as high an IQ. Moreover, we have far more entrepreneurs in the sectors that have been mentioned concerning apprenticeships than we have in any other part of Irish society. It is welcome that we have got back to our roots and basics.

Senator Dolan spoke about the welcome announcement by the Minister for Transport yesterday on active travel. Sometimes when these announcements are made, people say that we always talk about greenways or cycling but the bread and butter of yesterday's announcement is to fix the pathways in housing estates that are 20 and 30 years old, which are uneven because of trees growing. It is the real, normal bread and butter stuff that county councillors work on day in, and day out, and lots of us here were county councillors. It is not just about the wonderful advantages that we are going to have from a tourism perspective or even the exercise and health perspectives because of the greenways, walkways and blueways but is also just about the normal common or garden problems that we have in all of our villages and that are going to be solved by this money, which is great.

I wish to say to Senator Joe O'Reilly that I was struck by Fr. Murphy last week because of the hurt and the pain that young Eden's passing caused him. He really did reach out and not just to the family and the wider community. I refer to how touched Fr. Murphy was interacting with that young man and the devastation caused by the passing of Eden's life. The Senator is right, and Senator Keogan has mentioned it here before, that people are very quick to stand up and give out about religious staff and sometimes that is deserved but not always, and certainly not everybody. It is very few and seldom that we see people laud the work that they do in communities. I know for sure from my own parish, and the priests who were in our parishes but who have gone to different parishes, and Senator Keogan will probably know who I am talking about, they are wonderful men who support communities and they certainly do not get the praise they deserve. I thank Senator Joe O'Reilly for bringing up this matter.

Senator Carrigy talked about the warmer homes scheme and the fact that we need to examine measures to speed them up. I will write a little note to the Minister this afternoon to ask him to come back to us with the plans for the short and medium term. I take on board the use of language that he raised here this morning. The language that we use is very important but it is something that has become accepted now but it should not be and should be challenged. I thank the Senator for bringing the issue up this morning.

Senator Gallagher and others talked about the leaving certificate today. I nearly feel sick listening to myself talk about it but that is probably because I have a young man at home who is studying and he will not let me forget about it. My son constantly quotes to me what Deputy Barry says every single day because he is so impressed by him.

It is wonderful that 17 and 18-year-olds in the last couple of weeks have become politically attuned to what it is that we do because they are interested in the decisions that we are going to make, as they have a direct impact on them. We read, periodically, how political parties are going to engage young people. When one talks about what is important to them then they get engaged and that has really been shown in the last couple of weeks. What is crucial this week is that we show that we have listened to young people and have heard what they have had to say. I hope that the Minister and, indeed, the steering group really do understand the effects that stress due to Covid has had on them in the last number of years. While we all welcome the fact that today we are going back to whatever the new normal is, their normal has not been anywhere near normal for the past 24 months and we need to take that into account.

Senator McGreehan sought a debate on the future of SNAs. At the moment the unions have a campaign on respect for SNAs. We have spoken about this issue here before and it is something in which we should engage. The 18,000 people who look after the care needs of children in school, and do it so well, should be applauded and supported, so I would agree with that.

Senators Lombard and Hoey spoke about the Russian interactions and intentions over the next couple of weeks. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, is obviously far more diplomatic than I would be when he described these things as unwelcome and unwarranted. I think that there is something incredibly sinister and menacing about the actions. We all know that this is far more than training with live missiles off the coast of a neutral country that does not have the monitoring capabilities.

Whether it is from a sonar perspective, as Senator Higgins has spoken about, from an ecological perspective or to pick up the tab for the damage it will potentially do, we all know something sinister is going on. It is far from innocuous training that was going on. I will leave it the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and his far better diplomatic skills to deal with it and to ensure we have the support of the European Union. To that end, this morning I asked for a debate, because it is timely, and I have no doubt that they will not pull out between now and next week. As soon as I have a date for that I will organise it in the schedule for next week.

Senator Horkan asked for a debate on remote working. There will be one because the heads of the Bill that were passed by Cabinet this morning will go to the committee for pre-legislative scrutiny but it is probably important that we have a debate here to highlight all the good measures we have seen over the last two years and to weed out some of the harsh practices employers sometimes use. We should make sure we see them coming before they sneak up. I will organise that in the coming weeks.

Senator Currie has been speaking about remote working for years, long before it became cool during Covid. It has accelerated people’s acceptance of it and their appreciation of the fact that the two hours most people spend commuting every day do not need to be so spent. The appreciation of being able to spend more time with our families is lovely. One thing that was nice about the last two years was that participation in the workforce by women, or returnees as we call them, has increased by 3%. That is massive and it is to be welcomed and worked upon.

Senator Fitzpatrick talked about O'Devaney Gardens and the welcome news that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage got the go-ahead from Cabinet this morning to proceed with those 1,000 plus homes that are so badly needed in that area.

I am sorry to say this to Senator Craughwell and I hope he understands but I cannot accept his amendment to the Order of Business only because I cannot get anybody today. In the time since he raised the issue – and Senator Keogan first proposed it - I have secured a debate for next Wednesday on the search and rescue tender. I have also instructed that without having the business case in our hands before the debate then the debate is fruitless. To that end, I have also extended the time for the navigation Bill in order to get the Minister here for the afternoon. I ask the Senator to accept that I will have that debate next Wednesday but not without the business case, which has been altered on the basis of the announcement that was made for the Cabinet this morning. We all need to see it and I am surprised that the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications has not received it yet, given that it had requested it. I hope that suffices and that we will have the debate next week.

The Senator is dead right. If nothing else he has the passion to keep bringing something he cares about to this House and to everybody’s attention every week. I have no doubt, whether he is right or wrong, that his bona fides will be appreciated by the end of this.

Senator Seery Kearney talked about the massive increases in remote working hubs she will see in Dublin 8, which is welcome. Again that forms part of the requirement for a debate on remote working. Senator Murphy talked about the active travel money announcements yesterday. He also talked about the paths and dangerous bends on our roads. These are the bread and butter issues that we know mean so much to the people in our communities so I thank him for bringing that up.

I was not here last week to welcome Senator Flynn back and I know she is not in the Chamber at the moment but like Senator Murphy I would like to welcome her back. She is a massive addition to this Chamber. We have probably been talking about leaving certificate reform since I did my leaving certificate and that is not today or yesterday. It was appropriate and it stuck in my mind when she said the end of our school days should be about rewarding learning abilities and not just rewarding people who have good memories. Unfortunately that is the way our leaving certificate model is established.

The CAO points and the fact that there are only ten places for 25 people even though we need 30 nurses are bizarre and bonkers. The last couple of years have forced our teachers' unions and the entire school community to do something they would have never done in a million years if we did not have to and if we did not have Covid. It is a difficult task and I do not envy the Minister for Education because it is a difficult job. Where there are people and negotiations there is always difficulty but we have shown that we can do it and that we can do it fairly. There is grade inflation and that is the downside to it but we must increase the number of places we have on offer. We acknowledge that if we had 1,000 new nurses tomorrow the HSE would be able to employ them and yet we only train 400 or 500 every year. It makes no sense. Let us find the places because we need the resources of the young men and women who want to be in those professions. I welcome Senator Flynn back and thank her for her contribution.

Senator Hoey talked about the Russians and I will organise a debate on that issue.

Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke about welcoming Dáil tours back, whether it is active age groups, school tours or Tidy Towns organisations. It really will be lovely to see this place buzzing again the way it used to be over the last four years. As the Senator said, a number of people who have been elected to both the Dáil and Seanad in the last couple of years have never experienced this place when it is at full tilt so it will be really welcome.

Senator Keogan asked about bringing the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, into the House to make a statement about Covid certificates. She is absolutely right. I will contact his office this afternoon to try to arrange a date and come back to the Senator. She is right, however. Some of the things that have happened in the last number of years such as outdoor dining would never have been accepted in the psyche of Irish people. We have always been these cold creatures who would sit outside and freeze. The reality has been entirely different. People have genuinely enjoyed the pedestrianisation and friendly family atmosphere that became evident in their towns and villages, and long may it last. Whatever extensions to legislation or by-laws that need to be done should be done. I will certainly bring it up with the Minister of State.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, talked about green shoots and her plans and ambitions for tree planting in this country which, again, is very welcome. When somebody is talking about something they love, the passion just exudes from them and comes naturally, which is great.

Senator Ahearn spoke about passports with equal passion. Again, we talk about the bread and butter issues that people bring to us. It was an unprecedented disaster last year and given what we know about the pent-up backlog, I am not even sure that 300 staff will be enough. It is welcome but as the Senator said, we absolutely need to see them now. We need to see them immediately. We need to see accelerated processes because the priority passports are no longer priorities. People who apply online get them within two or three days while the priorities are waiting weeks. As Members will know, a person cannot do his or her first application online when it comes to new children, plenty of whom have not been outside of the country in the last few years. I will certainly bring the request for statements to the Minister as a priority.

Senator Malcolm Byrne opened today by encouraging those people who can afford to do so to go out and look after the people who have been absolutely crippled for the last couple of years, whether it is going to Copper Face Jacks, a local burger joint or even just out for a pint - a real pint of Guinness as opposed to a home-made one. It is something we should all do to genuinely enjoy the company and sociability we have missed so much for the last 24 months. There is an awful lot to be catching up on. On a more serious note, the Senator talked about the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill and the need for the Minister to come back with reassurances that he and his committee colleagues made. I will certainly send that note to the Minister today and hopefully be able to come back to the Senator as soon as I can.

Is the Leader inviting us all to Coppers?

It was just Senator Byrne.

That is a matter for the Leader. I do not know if anyone has the Copper Face Jacks gold card but if they do, they should please share.

Senator Keogan has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 96, motion 3, be taken before No. a1." Is the amendment being pressed?

I would like to withdraw the amendment.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Order of Business agreed to.
Top
Share