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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 9 Mar 2022

Vol. 283 No. 8

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. 1, statements to mark International Women's Day 2022, to be taken at 12.45 p.m. and to conclude at 2.15 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes and those of all Senators not to exceed six minutes, with the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate; No. 2, statements on brain health and dementia, to be taken at 2.15 p.m. and to conclude at 3.45 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed eight minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed six minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, with the Minister to be given no less than eight minutes to reply to the debate; No. 3, ráitéis maidir le Seachtain na Gaeilge, to be taken at 6.15 p.m. and to conclude at 7 p.m., with the opening statement of the Minister not to exceed five minutes, the contributions of all Senators not to exceed five minutes, with the Minister to be given no less than five minutes to reply to the debate; and No. 4, Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) (Amendment) Bill 2021 - Second Stage, to be taken at 7 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, with the Minister to be given no less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.

I thank Senator Keogan and a number of other colleagues who organised a very successful coffee morning in aid of Ukraine earlier. The event reflected the enormous cross-party support for the humanitarian efforts of the Red Cross and many others.

This year marks 50 years of Ireland's membership of the European Union. In that context, I call for a debate on the future of Europe which also celebrates that milestone. Ireland's EU membership has allowed us to step out from the shadow of our nearest neighbour, to prosper economically and socially and to take our place among the nations of the world. In celebrating that, we also need to look at how we can support Ukraine and the other countries of central and eastern Europe that want to become members of the EU. We must do whatever we can to assist Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, all of which have now applied for membership, as well as those countries in the Balkans that want to accede. Given our experience of membership of the EU, we should assist them in every way that we can. As part of that debate, we must also include the question of our Common Security and Defence Policy. We must co-operate closely with our friends in the other non-aligned countries of Finland, Sweden and Austria. We can learn from their experiences and share their views. In fact, a closer partnership with those other non-aligned countries in the EU will be important.

I also want to acknowledge that my local radio station, South East Radio, and the Wexford People newspaper group have organised a day to recognise the contribution of the people of Ukraine to Ireland and to highlight the impact of the abominable Russian invasion on the people of Ukraine.

On a separate issue, I welcome the Minister for Education's plan to appoint a representative of the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. The ISSU has grown in strength in recent years and was particularly active on some of the challenges around the leaving certificate in the last year or two. The union has shown itself to be a very professional and capable body. I have always advocated for strong student representation at decision-making tables and this move on the part of the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, is very welcome.

I thank my colleagues, the Members of this House and the international community, including the ambassadors representing Turkey, Korea, Cyprus, Singapore, the Vatican City, the Philippines, Jamaica, Colombia, Spain, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Chile, Croatia, Iceland, Portugal, Georgia, Norway, Indonesia, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Australia, Estonia, Latvia, Israel, Greece, Lesotho, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, Lithuania, Guatemala, Slovakia and Kenya who showed up to show solidarity with our Ukrainian friends and with the Ukrainian ambassador. I thank them all for turning up to support our coffee morning.

I contacted the Irish League of Credit Unions to see if it would be interested in partnering with the Irish Red Cross so that its community banking facilities could be used by people who may not necessarily want to donate online, for whatever reason, to the Irish Red Cross. Credit unions are the grassroots banks in our communities. I wanted to see if they would team up with the Irish Red Cross and they willingly got involved. That donation facility is being launched in more than 500 credit unions over the next week and that should bring in lots of money for the Red Cross. It is heartbreaking to hear the stories of what is happening on the ground in Ukraine and it is incumbent on all of us to do whatever we can. This is just the start of what I would like to do. I thank my colleagues for their support.

I thank Senator Keogan. On behalf of colleagues and everyone in the House, I warmly congratulate her on the wonderful initiative this morning, which was hugely successful. Ambassadors from all over the world attended, which has never been known to happen previously. It was a wonderful, very well organised event for a hugely important cause. Out of evil and bad, good can sometimes come and this event was an example of that. There is great unity among peoples now, forged for the wrong reasons. The people who met here today have a new-found unity and solidarity. Again, I congratulate Senator Keogan on her initiative.

I thank the Leas-Cathaoirleach for allowing me to contribute at this point, even though my name was not on the list. Yesterday, I mentioned my disappointment that the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill was removed from the schedule. Today, I am still unsure as to what is happening with the Bill.

It is a programme for Government commitment that commenced Committee Stage on 16 February. Since then, we have had less than two hours of debate and it is now 9 March.

Next week, mink-breeding season starts again. I can only come to the conclusion that this is being drawn out. This was initiated in the Dáil back in October. If anybody wanted to have any discussions in the background, there was ample time to do so. There was also ample time in the programme for Government to discuss it. Mink farming is a cruel practice and we all acknowledge that. It must end. There has already been a commitment on compensation for the three farms that do it. Those farms had 120,000 mink in very confined circumstances.

We all know that it has to be ended. Given that, the very fact that it is removed from the schedule with no notice, begs some questions. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, who is anxious to put forward with this. He gave a commitment last week on redundancy payments. However, everybody knows that redundancy payments cannot happen until the Bill is signed into law and it is a matter for statutory instrument. That is the same practice all of the time.

I would like for it to be put back on the schedule. I would like an explanation from Fine Gael, in particular, to its electorate as to why it is drawing this out month after month and going into another year of fur farming and this hideous practice.

I call on Senator McGahon.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach-----

Senator O'Reilly asked a question and will not even stay for the answer.

I will be back. The Leader could have called me.

Senator McGahon, without interruption.

I pay tribute to Mr. Stanislav Lapko, who many of us have seen on our national broadcaster over the past couple of days. Mr. Lapko is from Dundalk. He is a Ukrainian national who came to our town and set up a life there. Just two and half weeks ago, he was working in PayPal in Dundalk. He is now on the front lines fighting a Russian oppressor in Ukraine. He is there with a number of other Ukrainians who have left Ireland to go back in defence of their native country.

The greatest act of bravery and heroism is to run into a war zone to defend one's country. It would be so easy for people to sit in the safety of Ireland or western democracies where they have been for the past ten, 15 or 20 years. To go back to one's country in its greatest hour of need is an incredible feat of heroism and bravery. A number of Irish people have also gone to help in Ukraine, whether that is with first aid or medical supplies or to act as ambulance drivers, stretcher carriers and a whole range of stuff.

I pray this awful episode in our world and continental history will be over, as soon as possible. When those individuals come back to Ireland and the lives they have built in our country for the past ten or 15 years, they should be honoured by the President in some form of a State civic reception at the highest level in Áras an Úachtaráin, to say that we greatly appreciate them in our country and what they have done here and wish to recognise the bravery they have shown in the defence of their own country. We also want to recognise the bravery of Irish people who have gone over there to provide any sort of help. We should seriously consider doing that. When this whole godawful episode is over, we should put clear plans in process for that.

I will also acknowledge the work of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, in respect of what she has done to provide absolute clarity. When Ukrainian refugees come to this island, they will have a PPS number; will be able to avail of social welfare supports; will be able to get housing assistance payment, HAP, and to rent, if that is the case, and will have access to all of the social welfare protections of which we are able to avail in this country.

The greatest testament of any country is to be able to welcome refugees from a war-torn country with love, compassion and open arms and make sure they are valued, safe and appreciated members of Irish society for however long they want to stay here. It may only be for a couple of months or years or they may want to stay here for even longer. They are very welcome here and it is very important. It is a testament to the Irish personality of hospitality and warmth. That has to be remembered during these dark days.

I had the pleasure of attending the original London Irish soccer club, Tottenham Hotspur, on Monday evening. It was very moving to see the ceremony beforehand in support of Ukraine. There was a fantastic song from local schoolchildren and huge solidarity from supporters of both clubs. However, the topic of conversation before and during the match was the appalling stance of the British Government in terms of visas for Ukrainian refugees. Conservative ministers made appalling comments the previous week that they could come if they wanted to pick fruit. It really speaks in shameful terms of the values of that government.

I commend our Government on the positive moves it has made to welcome Ukrainian refugees. It is very important we have joined-up thinking throughout this. The challenges will be great but it was wonderful to be able to say to people at that match that the Irish Government was taking a proactive attitude to welcoming people to our country in response to the horrors we were seeing throughout Europe.

One of the other aspects of this crisis is the issue of rising costs for Irish families. I am pleased to see the Irish Government finally take a stance on reducing excise duties. My fear is that whatever is announced today will be swallowed up by tomorrow. What is very important is that the Government take Sinn Féin's advice to fix a price for petrol and assure the public it will not go beyond that price during this crisis period. I was speaking to a woman from Limerick earlier today who explained to me that her pay-as-you-go electricity costs have effectively doubled. Pay as you go goes half as far as it used to go which is an appalling prospect. We need to see very clear commitments. I do not understand why home heating oil will not be included. I hope there is a late change in stance on that. Home heating oil costs have doubled. It is now €400 for half of a fill of heating oil. Working families cannot afford those sorts of costs. We need to see joined-up thinking.

A number of people have raised the issue of education in the past couple of weeks. It is high time we had a debate on the future of education. I see we have had correspondence from the Catholic education group in terms of its stance on integrated education. We need to talk about integrated education. As an old-fashioned republican, I believe in the complete separation of church and State. We have not gone half as far as we need to in terms of our schooling.

The other issue in education on which I want to have a debate is the subsidy to private fee-paying schools. It was €111 million last year. I have no problem with anyone choosing to send their children to fee-paying schools. I have a massive problem with those people expecting Irish taxpayers to subsidise those fee-paying schools. When one thinks of the back-to-school costs that we talk about every year, €111 million would go a long way towards solving those costs for ordinary families in our public school system. It is high time we had a debate on education, our priorities and the need to move to a separation of church and state in our school system.

Mine is the only party whose leader who did not go to a private fee-paying school.

No interruptions, thank you.

I show my solidarity with the Ukrainian people, those who are fleeing war and Russian aggression and those who are still in their country. I am very proud of our country. I am very proud of Ireland for standing in solidarity and supporting Ukrainian people at this time to seek refuge in the unfolding crisis. I would like to see an important step in our rethinking of how we deal with humanitarian and refugee crises around the world. I wish our country would offer the same solidarity and support to all refugees that they rightly show Ukrainian people.

Seeing these events unfold over the past two weeks has been extremely disheartening and difficult to process. Every day, we see innocent victims of war. We also see these victims in Afghanistan, Palestine, Syria and Yemen. I call on the Government to show the same solidarity that is rightly shown to Ukrainian people to people in these countries.

Violence is violence; war is war. We should give all people the same dignity to be able to cross our borders. We should look after all people in that respectful way.

A well known broadcaster recently referred to an image of a blonde Ukrainian schoolgirl as "looking like us". To get protection in the world one should not have to look like an Irish person. I do not know in what way a person would have to look like an Irish person to seek refuge in this country. Many other people, including Muslims, have travelled here in the past from other war countries. Two years ago, we had a refugee crisis. Last year, we had a refugee crisis. This time last month, we had a refugee crisis. Unfortunately, we could not deal with those refugees. I hope to God that going forward we are going to treat people equally.

I am worried about the Roma people in Ukraine at this time, in particular whether they are being treated fairly and are getting equal access to safety. Yesterday, a book was launched entitled, End Direct Provision AND Tackle the International Protection System. There are people in direct provision in this country who are living in horrible situations.

Today I again call on the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, to come into this House to outline what is going to happen to other people here, such as the Muslim people, who are fleeing wars. Are these people to be provided with protection and to be given PPS numbers? Are we going to end direct provision for all or for just some countries? As a Traveller woman, I am concerned that we are leaving too many communities behind.

I want it to be very clear that I stand with the Ukrainian people and with all people who seek protection, including people from Palestine, Syria and Afghanistan.

I was intrigued by the exchange between my colleagues, Senators Gavan and Malcolm Byrne, on the subject of education. It should not be a matter of either pride or shame to have not gone or sent one's children to a fee-paying school. It seems that the difference between fee-paying schools and non-fee-paying schools is that fee paying schools get less of a subvention from the State because those who pay fees are presumed to be able to pay more. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea that parents should subvent their children's education if they wish and still expect to get a measure of State support by virtue of the fact that they are also taxpayers. The idea that faith communities cannot establish schools or that fee paying schools should be somehow looked down on is not republicanism; that is statism and that one-size-fits-all approach. Let different kinds of education flourish and let those who can afford it pay more. Every taxpayer in this country is entitled to expect a certain level of State support for the education of their children. That is an important principle.

I want to raise the credit that is due to Senator Keogan for bringing us together in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, rescuing us temporarily from the impotence that many of us feel in the face of this crisis. Enormous credit is due to those who are taking practical steps to be of assistance. Last Monday, outside Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe, there were people loading up a van with blankets and anything else that people were in a position to contribute, people taking active steps in solidarity with others in their need. That is where the good stuff is to be found. I would rather lead by example than criticise other countries for what they are not doing. It is our deeds that will speak much louder than our words of criticism of others. Let us seek to encourage that spirit of solidarity. We may all individually and collectively be asked to make sacrifices in terms of the space we enjoy in our homes, the property that is available to us and so on in solidarity with people. Let us do it. Let us go for it. Let us encourage each other in the effort.

I ask that we would keep Ukraine on the agenda so that we can continue to reflect on the geopolitical issue. Small as we may be, we have things to say. There are things we need to be thinking about, such as how we get to a solution where there is a prosperous, neutral and free Ukraine again.

I must interrupt at this point to welcome to the Visitors Gallery Ms Mary McDonagh and her fellow senior executives from Ifac, which is a friend of the farming community and an integral part of rural Ireland. It provides an enormously professional service to our farmers and a support to our rural communities and, by extension, our small urban societies around the country. They are an appropriate delegation in the present context. They are accompanied by our distinguished and esteemed colleague, Senator Ahearn. I welcome Ms McDonagh and her colleagues.

I call Senator Hackett.

Am I coming in ahead of someone else?

Senator Boyhan will follow Senator Hackett.

I think I may have skipped about two people.

No. It is Senator Hackett's turn.

Senator Boyhan was only indicating to me in case I missed him. Senator Hackett may proceed.

I need to speak doubly quick now or I will run out of time. Our economic system is having detrimental impacts on our planet. While the current crisis in Ukraine is first and foremost a humanitarian crisis and we cannot and must not lose sight of that reality, it highlights nonetheless just how quickly difficulties can arise when our needs are dependent on imports. The past few months, indeed days, have highlighted our reliance on imported energy, food, fertiliser and animal feed. This has brought into sharp focus how quickly a major supply chain breakdown, such as is happening now, can expose so many of our families and farmers to spiralling costs.

The Government is working with all sectors to try to address these serious issues. As we do so, it is important that we also think about the future. One solution is to implement system change by working with nature, within its ecological boundaries, to produce high-quality food in a profitable way. I agree that is easier said than done, but we must not use this catastrophic situation in Ukraine to discontinue action on climate and biodiversity. That would put even greater strain on our long-term future and that of our already stressed environment.

Planning for short supply chains and circularity must be part of our solution as this will help to prevent future crises in sectors such as agriculture being compounded by events outside of our control. Our very presence on this planet impacts the natural world as we draw on its resources to survive. Every home we build, every field we plough and every tree will plant will have an impact. While we may not be able to mitigate all the impacts, we need to ensure minimal impact and to balance inequalities across our planet, not just societal and economic, but environmental too. As we assist those affected by the devastation in Ukraine, we should do so with an eye to the future. An eye on how change is brought about as a result of this horrific crisis can help make food production here more resilient.

I join with others in thanking my colleague and friend, Senator Keogan, for organising the coffee morning. It was fantastic. It was great to see such diversity, different backgrounds and different traditions, all together. It is important to acknowledge that.

I ask the Leader for a debate at some point on the Children's Rights Alliance Report Card 2022. I want to dwell on the positives of that report, which was circulated to all Members. It was confirmed by the Children's Rights Alliance that the Government has made very positive progress over the past 12 months in the following areas: children living in direct provision, which is interesting; pathways for undocumented children; reform of early childhood education and care; and harassment and harmful communication and related offences. They are the four areas singled out by the Children's Rights Alliance as areas where the Government has made substantial and real progress.

I want to acknowledge that and to ask that we would have a debate on the report. If ever we needed to be mindful of undocumented children coming into our State, now is that time. While it is great to have people welcoming children and supporting them, we have to be careful about the areas they are arriving into, where they are to be housed, cared for and supported, and their welfare.

We have always got to be vigilant where there are children. That is important. I ask the Leader if we could have a debate on that.

There was some discourse about mink earlier, which I watched on the monitor. The way we order business in this House is a matter for the Leader and I have every confidence in the way that is being done. I accept there are controversies about mink, but the one thing I can say from the debate in this House is that no one is in favour of continuing mink farming. Let us clear up that misconception. I am totally against mink farming. There is nobody in favour of mink farming right across this House. What everyone wants is a fair deal for mink farmers. That is all: a fair deal for them and their workers.

It is spring and the mink are raring to go. If ever there was a headline for a press release it is that: "The Mink are Raring to Go, and it is Spring". Legally, they can mate from 1 March. All mink farmers today are currently in possession of a full breeding licence. My last word on the matter is that there are only three mink farmers in this country and they are acting fully within the law. It is legal for them to do what they want. Let us just take time and get a fair deal for mink farmers.

I thank Senator Boyhan for the inspirational-----

For giving us a mental image none of us wanted to have.

It is my pleasure now to call on the Leader to respond to the comments on the Order of Business.

I did not expect to be called so soon to respond. The last speaker, Senator Boyhan, raised mink farming, but Senator Pauline O'Reilly - in some strange tones - expressed her concerns publicly this morning on the drawn out delay, month after month, with the animal health and welfare Bill. I was here last Thursday debating it, as I am sure all of my colleagues were. As Senator Boyhan says, there are some concerns, but it has nothing to do with mink. There is some element of trying to pit this as anti-Fine Gael, anti-Fianna Fáil and anti-Independent and to say that some are pro-mink farming. I do not think anybody I have ever spoken to is pro-mink farming.

As Senator Boyhan says, the mink farmers do have a licence to continue farming, but there is no breeding going on in this country and there is no intention of allowing the breeding of mink here. The intentions of the Members of this House are to make sure that the 30-plus workers who are losing their jobs and the three farmers who are losing their income, get a fair deal. Until that is ironed out, concerns will continue to be raised by Members of this House, as one would expect in a democratic society. I just want to put that to rest.

Senator Boyhan and a number of colleagues spoke about Senator Keogan. I want to put on record our compliments to what is the powerhouse of a woman called Sharon Keogan. I know she is new to most Members in this Seanad, but I have known her for many years. While she can talk the talk, she also walks the walk. She is nothing short of a powerhouse. Whatever she puts her mind to has an impact. I acknowledge and congratulate her and everyone else, including the ambassadors who came this morning, to support the Ukrainian coffee morning.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, spoke this morning. She was dead right in her tone. While we are all consumed by the atrocities of war and the impact of it on the cost-of-living crisis and potential shortages of food and energy in the coming weeks and months, climate change will wait for no man and no woman. That should not deflect us from any of the changes we must make within this country to ensure we meet our climate change targets.

Senator Mullen spoke about fee-paying schools. He makes a good point but there are two sides to the argument. I do not come from an area where there are incredibly wealthy people, but there are a number of people in my town who do choose to send their children to fee-paying schools. The sacrifice they have to make is that they do not have fancy cars or holidays every year, so there is a balance. I take on board what Senator Gavan said as well.

Senator Flynn spoke about her solidarity with Ukraine. She has requested a debate on the future of the Government's plans for the ending of direct provision. I have arranged to have such a debate, but I do not have a date for it yet. I made the suggestion to the Minister a number of weeks ago. Such a debate is timely given that a stalwart of the direct provision community passed away this week. It has caused major sadness in the community that she has spent all of her time in Ireland in direct provision. We need to put a roadmap on the table so that people can see what our aspirations are for those people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, asking for refugee status in Ireland. I will organise the debate as soon as I can.

Senator Gavan said something that I only said to my husband this morning. While the 20 cent and 15 cent decrease, respectively, on excise duty on diesel and petrol are very welcome today, I fear that by this time next week the prices will have gone back up again. The Government must continue to keep an eye on the situation and make sure that the decisions it makes are reflective of that and that they are made in a timely manner. We will have to pass that order both in the Dáil and the Seanad in the coming days and we will try to arrange that as quickly as possible.

Senator McGahon paid tribute to a gentleman called Mr. Stanislav Lapko, a resident of Dundalk and an employee of PayPal. In a way, he spoke with pride at the fact that the young man has gone back to fight for his nation's freedom. I am not sure I would have the same pride if I was related to him. There is something awful about sending men - anybody's man, whether it is a husband, child or brother - into a situation where we have no knowledge of whether they will be safe. We must double down, first, on sanctions and, second, on diplomatic efforts, to make sure that this war is ended in a way that perhaps does allow Putin to save some face, because ultimately it will allow the saving of thousands of lives.

I cannot even begin to understand or appreciate what 2 million people fleeing a country looks like. As someone said yesterday, it is the equivalent of the entire population of Northern Ireland just getting up and leaving. It is hard to get one's head around how that would impact on us. I pay tribute to the bravery of the Ukrainian people and recognise the response from the Government to the Ukrainian people coming here, which is done with an enormous heart. We have opened the social welfare system and the housing system, albeit that they are under pressure. We must make sure that we look after these people with a heart and a half.

I spoke already about Senator Keogan. Senator Malcolm Byrne spoke about the Common Security and Defence Policy. He acknowledged the move by the Minister for Education to appoint somebody from the Irish Second-Level Students Union to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. That will make a massive difference.

Order of Business agreed to.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 12.27 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 12.53 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 12.27 p.m. and resumed at 12.53 p.m.