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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 28 Apr 2022

Vol. 284 No. 9

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The ambassador is very welcome to the Chamber this morning. I congratulate her on her appointment and wish her every success during her stay in Ireland. I pay particular tribute to the enormous generosity and heart that Polish people have shown their neighbours. Some 3 million refugees from Ukraine have either arrived and stayed or passed through Poland. The humbleness of the response and generosity of the Polish people is something of which we should all be in awe. It is definitely something to bestow. I thank the ambassador.

The Order of Business is No. 1, Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 – Committee Stage (Resumed), to be taken at 1.15 p.m. and to adjourn at 3.30 p.m., if not previously concluded.

Along with the Cathaoirleach and the Leader, I welcome the Polish ambassador to our Chamber and recognise the great generosity of the people of Poland to those who are fleeing Putin's war in Ukraine and the contribution of Polish people in Ireland. The ambassador's first trip outside of Dublin following her appointment was to Gorey where we have a very active Polish association. An enormous contribution is made by Polish people where I live and, indeed, throughout the country.

I apologise for the absence of the deputy Leader, my party leader, Senator Chambers, who is organising a very successful women's health conference that the Leader acknowledged yesterday. We all wish her well in that.

Yesterday, the Minister for Education signed the statutory instrument that gave students a seat on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. The president of the Irish Second Level Students Union, which has campaigned actively for that recognition, will be a member of the NCCA. This action by the Minister, Deputy Foley, shows how the Minister and the Government put students at the heart of the education process. It is very welcome.

I hope that we have a debate on the recently announced leaving certificate reforms which also put the students at the heart of the process. I ask for an update from the Minister on that. I hope we also have a debate on the role of students and young people within our education system. They have contributed enormously during the pandemic. We have talked about the impact the pandemic has had on young people. A debate on that subject would be very welcome.

PwC has published a global economic and fraud survey which found that cybercrime has overtaken customer fraud as the most common type of fraud that is experienced by companies. As we saw during the pandemic, there has been a rise in phishing and ransomware. I have regularly talked in this House about the challenges around cybercrime. We saw the cyberattack that took place on the HSE. We will see many more of those cyberattacks.

I continue to have concern, even though great work is being done by the National Cyber Security Centre, that we are not sufficiently prepared for some of the attacks we are likely to see. We are not dealing sufficiently well with phishing, cyber-extortion, identity theft or data breaches. I hope that we would have a debate on that.

This is poetry day Ireland. It is appropriate that we celebrate our Irish poets. We are rightly proud in this country of the contribution of poetry. I tried to think of a quotation for a little bit of inspiration for us here in this Chamber, and if the Cathaoirleach will indulge me-----

I cannot wait to hear what the Senator has come up with.

It is not quite a quote from one of my favourite poets and writers, Brendan Behan. We might reflect on this when we get all the brick-bracks thrown at us from those online who constantly attack us:

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.

I hope that when we face unfair criticism, we reflect on Behan's words. I celebrate the considerable contribution of our writers and poets.

I think it was also Brendan Behan who said he was a drinker with a writing problem. Would any other poets like to contribute? I call on Senator Buttimer for poetry.

How does one follow that? "Whispers informed strangers" is one of my favourite lines from Heaney. I commend the ambassador of Poland on the wonderful generosity of the Polish people and their government in the ongoing horrific Ukraine situation. I thank the ambassador who is very welcome to Ireland.

I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate on the national development plan 2040.

The Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, has appointed five members to the oversight body. That is important. This morning, the CSO published figures for the first quarter of 2022 regarding housing construction which showed 5,699 new dwellings were completed, a 44.5% increase and a further increase since the beginning of the pandemic. We welcome that significant increase in home completions, while recognising that we have a huge journey to go yet.

Yesterday, the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications heard from the Construction Industry Federation. A clear warning was given to all of us regarding major infrastructure projects being stopped, not being completed or not starting at all due to rising costs, inflation, hyper-inflation, skills shortages, construction companies not being prepared to tender and a decline in the number of construction companies in the sector. Our national development plan is very important, and it is important that we have a debate with the Ministers, Deputies Michael McGrath and Ryan, on that. As I have said, it is the driver of the regions at a time when we want economic development outside Dublin. Therefore, it is important that we have that debate.

I commend Senator Malcolm Byrne on his Commencement matter on the Moorhead report. The plan is to devolve more powers to local government. As part of the change the Cathaoirleach has initiated in the Seanad, it would be important that he give consideration to inviting members of local authorities to address the House, not as a political exercise but in order to extend the franchise in terms of the outreach of the Seanad to different groups. Local government and local authority members offer expertise in many different aspects of life. The Moorhead report can be compared to a house, in that if a roof is not on a house it is not complete. We need to have a debate on local government.

I welcome the Polish ambassador to the House and wish to mark International Poetry Day. Today is also international Workers' Memorial Day. It was a privilege to attend the event organised this morning by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, IBEC, the Construction Industry Federation and other employers, in conjunction with the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, to mark the lives lost in workplace accidents. Some 481 workers have lost their lives over the past decade in workplace accidents. In the first few months of 2022 alone, seven lives have been lost. While we have decent health and safety legislation in this country, deaths are still happening within workplaces, deaths that are completely unnecessary and should never have happened. That is because of laziness and a disregard for regulations.

While we know that farming and agriculture is the sector with the highest number of workplace fatalities, there are also very serious issues in construction, in particular in smaller companies and self-employed tradespeople. We have had a number of fatalities in ports and docks in the past year. SIPTU has called for the HSA to inspect the ports and docks sector on a much more frequent and aggressive basis. Of course, workplace accidents are not the only source of death arising from a person's workplace. We know that occupational illnesses are a significant and growing source of workplace death. It is incumbent on all employers to make sure that as many measures as possible are taken to protect workers.

There were reports earlier this week that senior management within the HSE is attempting to prevent the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, from engaging with local disability managers. That is absolute madness. I am well able to be critical of Ministers, but it was only when we asked the Minister of State to intervene in an issue with regards to schools for the deaf in Cabra and Cork and two other schools last year that she engaged with those disability managers and we managed to resolve the problems. I know that the transition under progressing disability services and the set up of the children's disability network teams is an enormous challenge against a crippling recruitment shortage in the HSE. It is only through engagement with disability managers that we have any hope of trying to ensure that those services can be delivered and waiting lists dealt with. What has happened is regrettable and the HSE has to be called out. The Minister of State is doing a very good job in difficult circumstances, and needs to be supported and not muzzled in her functions.

I welcome the ambassador to the Chamber and commend Poland on its neighbourly and humanitarian support for the people of Ukraine.

I ask for a debate on the smoky coal ban and its implications for turf cutting. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has quite rightly looked at the ban on smoky coal which is part of the programme for Government and has been supported by previous Ministers. I support that ban. The concern that has been expressed over the past number of weeks relates to the knock-on impact on the cutting, burning and distribution of turf in certain parts of the country. Clearly, this was communicated badly. In fact, it was not communicated at all. Instead, a reply was given to a parliamentary question that gave a date of 1 September 2022 and referred to the banning, sale and distribution of turf without any caveats or information being provided. That scared and upset people.

I understand that the Minister is not targeting turf. Rather, he is targeting smoky coal and this is an associated fallout. I appreciate and acknowledge that. Previous Ministers have attempted to do this and all have hit the same stumbling blocks. Clearly, there needs to be a solution. However, the solution cannot be an arbitrary ban from 1 September this year. Such a ban would target many elderly and low-income households in certain communities. We are having debates about whether a community comprises 500 people or more, how we define that and whether the regulations should refer to a town, village, centre or hinterland. There is a lot of concern out there. While we have had good engagement with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, in meetings of the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parliamentary parties, we need to bring this important matter to the Chamber for a fuller debate.

I raise two issues, both of which the Leader has heard me raise in the past. One is University Hospital Limerick. There were 111 people on trolleys there yesterday. This day last week, there were 125 people on trolleys. It is unbelievable. Nothing has happened and things are not improving. Huge money has been thrown at the hospital and things are now at a critical stage. Many of the elective surgeries that were due to happen in the hospital today and tomorrow have been cancelled. The situation will be revisited on Monday to determine whether some surgeries can be rescheduled. While a wonderful job is being done in St. John's, Nenagh and Ennis, the situation is not acceptable because many people are dependent on these surgeries and reviews. I raised this issue with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, when I met him recently. It is something that needs to be resolved not only for Limerick but the mid-west.

Yesterday, in the absence of the Leader, I raised the issue of the Limerick Shannon metropolitan district review of public transport.

The Government in the past has invested huge money in the northern distributor road. The road is three-quarters built. The other part of the road has disappeared from the review. It is a road linking Moyross to the Clare side, which would bypass the University of Limerick and complete the northern distributor road and the outer ring road of Limerick. This road is necessary for businesses to start to thrive in the city centre. There is investment in enhancing public transport, trains and buses, and I do not question that. Everybody is in support of public transport. However, to build three-quarters of a road and for the rest of the road to disappear is not acceptable. I ask the Leader to write to the Minister for Transport of her support in relation to this. My understanding is that it was through intervention from the Department that the road disappeared.

Yesterday evening I took the unusual course of action of going back home to Cork to attend an event. I went back to Dunmanway at 5 o'clock yesterday evening. There was a commemoration of an event that happened 100 years ago, when 13 Protestants were shot in a 24-hour period in Dunmanway. Hundreds were relocated out of the area. It was an unfortunate and ugly part of Irish history. It is a part of our Decade of Centenaries, where we have to celebrate the good, the bad and the ugly. Unfortunately, this was one of the ugly parts of what happened 100 years ago. Church of Ireland families in that part of Cork were isolated, relocated and 13 of them were shot in a 24-hour period. I commend Bishop Colton on his amazing ceremony yesterday. The way he handled this sensitive issue needs to be acknowledged.

It was a sensitive issue for the people of Dunmanway, in particular, and the entire Bandon Valley area. We had families come from the North and the UK to attend the event. Their loved ones were tragically shot 100 years ago in that 48-hour period. It brings home that this is about reconciliation, trying to move forward and to acknowledge exactly what happened. It was not all triumphalism or saying it was all for the greater good. Unfortunately, people on all sides were grossly affected and, 100 years later, they carry their scars. It was a privilege for me to be there, meet the families and talk about it. They were talking about their great-great-grandfathers and great-great-granduncles. That was an acknowledgement that we need to start talking about moving forward but we should never forget what happened. It is important that, at some stage, we should have an acknowledgement in this Chamber of what happened in the Bandon Valley. Eleven men and two teenagers were slaughtered on that occasion.

I thank the Senator for bringing up that important topic from 100 years ago that is still relevant today. He is right that it would be appropriate for this Chamber to discuss that issue. It is important to acknowledge the past in order to make a better future. I call on the Leader to respond to the Order of Business.

I thank Senator Lombard. The key to reconciliation is owning our past. There are parts of it we are all incredibly proud of. The bits we are not proud of sometimes get swept under the carpet or we pretend they did not happen. I am glad the Senator brought up the Bandon Valley. There is no finer man than Paul Colton to deal with something in an empathetic and emotionally appropriate way.

To Senator Maria Byrne, I am at a loss that week in, week out she has to bring up University Hospital Limerick here. There is a plea to recognise there is clearly an emergency and a crisis and other issues we do not talk about or acknowledge and which are not being resolved. I will contact both the Minister and the Taoiseach's office today because it is long beyond time that the people of the Senator's part of the world, and indeed Clare and Shannon, deserve recognition that there is a problem and that a task force be set up to solve that problem sooner rather than later. I will also send a letter to the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to try to figure out where the missing quarter of the road has gone and what the intention is. We need a debate, as Senator Buttimer said, on the national development plan and the bits that were on it but are not on it and when they will be returned to it. I will do those two things for the Senator today.

Senator Kyne requested a debate in the Chamber, as opposed to the rooms of this Parliament, on turf. The most unfortunate part of what has happened in recent weeks is that we have created a crisis where there should not be one. It is a crisis of communications more than anything else. What is unfortunate is the response of senior politicians, telling people they have nothing to worry about when the thing they are worrying about was caused by the carelessness of the communications over recent weeks. I will arrange a debate in the next couple of weeks and we will see if we can find a resolution collectively to something we all know has to come to an end. It has to be done in a meaningful way, so that it does not upset people's lives in such a disastrous way as would have unfolded on 1 September. I am glad the Taoiseach announced yesterday that no changes will be made this year and that we will sit around the table and find resolutions.

Senator Sherlock talked about it being Workers' Memorial Day. It is hard to fathom that 481 people have lost their lives in the last ten years in the three professions with the most dangerous circumstances, yet we know it and it is not a surprise to us every year. We need to redouble our efforts to make sure that, in the industries with the most work accidents, namely, agriculture, construction and ports and docks, we do as much training as we can and create as much awareness as we can to highlight the lost lives. I thank the Senator for bringing that to our attention.

Senator Buttimer asked for a debate on the national development plan 2040. I will ask the Minister, Deputy McGrath, to come to the Chamber in the next couple of weeks. The Senator also asked for a debate on Moorhead and our local government. The Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, is coming to the Chamber on 12 May to talk about local government. That is already in the diary.

Senator Malcolm Byrne is looking for a debate on leaving certificate reform. I welcome the announcement by the Minister, Deputy Foley, in the last couple of weeks. It is dispiriting but not unexpected to get the response from the teachers unions we did. After 20 years of trying to grapple with this, we now need to once and for all address the issues teachers are raising. It concerns the interactions with parents and the fear we saw they experienced during Covid, when the assessments took place. I do not think teachers have any real issue with continuous assessment other than the ones they have laid on the table. Where there is a will to find a solution, which could be with neighbouring schools, there will be a way. I will arrange that debate in the next couple of days.

It is frustrating that these things take so long but I welcome students finally having the seat on the NCCA. It seems silly to make a statement that we want to put students at the centre of student education. That is exactly where they are but they cannot have their say unless they have a seat at the table.

I thank the Leader. I was disappointed we did not get her poetry. I thank Members for their attendance and the ambassador for being here. It being international poetry day, it would be remiss of me not to mention our most famous poet. It is not Senator Norris, but W.B. Yeats. I am informed that the ambassador has a picture of Yeats and his muse Maud Gonne on the fridge at home. At least they got together on the ambassador's fridge, though not in real life. It is lucky for us they did not, or we would not have such poetry. If it was not for the fact W.B. Yeats kept getting rejected, I do not think he would have written all that torturously sad poetry we are familiar with. He described her beauty as "beauty like a tightened bow" in "No Second Troy". We all know "Easter 1916", where he spoke about:

MacDonagh and MacBride

[...]Connolly and Pearce,


Wherever green is worn,

[All] changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

On international poetry day, we recognise the great contribution of our greatest poet in the Senate 100 years ago, as well as to poetry.

Order of Business agreed to.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 12.40 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 1.20 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 12.40 p.m. and resumed at 1.20 p.m.