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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Vol. 285 No. 1

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. a1, report of the Committee of Selection, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; No. 1, Finance (Covid-19 and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2022 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to conclude at 6.15 p.m., with the opening contributions of the Minister not to exceed eight minutes, all Senators not to exceed six minutes and the Minister to be given not less than seven minutes to reply to the debate; No. 2, Birth Information and Tracing Bill 2022 - Second Stage, to be taken at 6.30 p.m., and to conclude at 9 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed 15 minutes, group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, and the Minister to be given not less than ten minutes to reply to the debate.

I agree with the Order of Business. The first issue I wish to raise, and which I have raised previously, is the ongoing cost of childcare, the difficulty in accessing places and reliable childcare services. I request that at the earliest opportunity the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, come before the House to engage with Senators on the matter. Everyone is aware that new core funding has been announced.

This is initially to stabilise the sector and ensure we pay people properly and that early years educators get a fair and reasonable wage for the very high level of qualifications and skills they have. We also want to ensure we can reduce costs for parents, and in order to do both we must invest significantly in childcare in this country. We must get away from the culture we have had for many years that this is just about minding children; it is not. It is about providing education in those formative years, between birth and five years, before the children go to primary school. It is really important we invest in our children so we can offset the damaging effects that can be seen in early years and prevent problems down the line. In the end this will save the country so much more.

There are challenges with the core funding scheme as announced but they can be worked through. The feedback I have received to date has been quite positive in that providers are really happy to see there is a commitment to core funding. It requires tweaking, however, and I would appreciate a chance to discuss it with the Minister. In particular, we are going to try to use the core funding as a mechanism through which we will curtail increases in costs of fees for parents. I am interested in hearing how that will work in practice, with the State trying to control the private sector, and how the Minister believes that will work in the long term. It is important to get this right. The kind of childcare provision I see as being the gold standard in the country would be a public system provided by the State. It would probably take a decade to deliver that but if we do not start now we will never deliver it.

A second issue I raise is the funding of large marine projects across our coastal areas. It is easy enough to secure funding, for example, for a feasibility study for a marina project but it is almost impossible to get the millions of euro required to put those projects in place. Very often it falls back on the local authority because there is no core funding stream within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to fund bigger projects. It is a deficit in the Department. In the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, for example, there is core funding for urban regeneration for large-scale projects in towns across the country. Something similar is required in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to fund large marine projects. We have a policy now in the country of trying to invest and grow our marine sector but we have not backed that up with funding to action the policy. We could do with a debate on marine projects with the Minister with responsibility for the marine.

I am almost out of time but we must have a discussion in the Chamber on the review that has been announced by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, of all road projects planned for the next number of years in light of inflation, particularly the increased cost of building materials and labour. I understand TII is reviewing projects to see what it can deliver within its budget. That is a cause for concern for the entire country and we would like to hear what projects might be dropped from the list because of rising costs. I would welcome a debate with the appropriate Minister on that particular review.

Before calling the next speaker I welcome to the Chamber Councillor Tony Fitzgerald, who served as the Lord Mayor of Cork for a number of years. He is welcome to Seanad Éireann.

The schools building programme in this country has been very successful over the past number of years but many more schools are needed. I have a concern that I know is shared with colleagues, which is that come 4 p.m., many of our fantastic school buildings cease being in use. The Department of Education really must formulate a strategy to use these well-funded and beautiful public buildings for social, community, cultural, arts and music events and so on after hours, along with adult education. Some schools do this all the time and some do it very successfully but some literally close their doors at 4 p.m. and that is it. They are shut over the evenings and the weekend.

We need a national strategy to use the space that is available in schools after school hours and at weekends to benefit the community and youth groups and the citizens of this country. We should bear in mind that hundreds of millions of euro are spent every year building beautiful school buildings and it is a shame to see them closed and not used for months in the year from 4 p.m. onwards.

I commend and congratulate school management and principals who let their schools be used after hours. For those who do not, there is a duty, in my view, to change that approach. I call on those boards of management to do this on a voluntary basis but, really and truly, we need a strategy on this at a departmental level. Perhaps the Minister could make a statement in that regard at some stage because it is a shame to see those facilities going to waste in the evenings and at weekends.

I have been calling for the 9% VAT rate for a long time. It should be permanent. The hospitality industry has been through a bruising three years and that is continuing with the war in Europe and the difficulties in finding staff. I welcome that it has been extended to the end of 2022. It will provide relief to the many thousands of people who are running small hospitality businesses throughout the country. These people want to look to the future with more certainty. We need a discussion now on applying the 9% VAT rate permanently for our hospitality, leisure and tourism industries.

The biggest problem that tourism and hospitality industry has is with shortage of staff. We need an urgent debate in the House on expediting work permits, which take too long. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment should come to the House to discuss how we can take a common-sense logical approach to speeding up the granting of work permits. Many restaurants and hotels are on their knees because they cannot get staff. I hope the Leader will be able to facilitate a debate on that as a matter of urgency.

It has been widely reported that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, will come to the House at 6.30 p.m. and that prior to his discussion of the Birth Information and Tracing Bill, he will apologise on behalf of the Government to those affected by illegal birth registrations. While I welcome this apology and what I am about to say is not a criticism of the Minister, I have some concerns about the timing and nature of the apology.

To put it in its context, the special rapporteur on child protection, Professor Conor O'Mahony, has stated that up to 20,000 Irish children may have been affected in this way and that the Government knew about it, collaborated with it through various Departments and officials, and effectively allowed the transport of thousands of Irish children out of the State. It was a shameful episode in Irish history.

I am minded of this because in recent days, I have been writing about the situation in Ukraine, particularly the war in Donbas. One of the concerns raised by the international humanitarian agencies is the movement of Ukrainian children out of Donbas to Russian territory and then being stripped of their documents and further dispersed through the Russian Federation. That is exactly what I am talking about in respect of those affected by illegal birth registrations in this country.

Throughout Europe, there has been a history of transporting children very often for ideological reasons during the Second World War, during the 1950s and during the period of the Soviet Union. What is particularly shameful and pernicious about Ireland is that much of the motivation for the transport of these children was monetary gain on the part of the State and those religious orders that were relied upon to provide services that the State was either unwilling or unable to provide in their absence.

For fear that this apology might be misinterpreted, for fear that its timing and context does not add insult to injury, however unintended, I call on the Taoiseach to apologise in the Dáil on behalf of all the Irish people for the egregious harm visited upon all these Irish citizens, many of whom are elderly people trying to reconstruct their identities while experiencing ill health. It is the very least we owe them.

As a representative from the midlands, it has been a very busy few weeks in my office. Many people have been in touch to say they must burn turf to warm their homes. People with turbary rights have been in touch concerned that they were at risk of criminalisation. This narrative fuelled by some who should know better. My office has replied to the majority, outlining my position, and where possible, we have been able to alleviate concerns.

A few weeks ago I stood in this Chamber and I committed to advocating for a balanced approach on the draft clean air strategy. I did this knowing that turf burning pollutes the air we breathe, causing ill health and death. I did it also with a clear awareness of the drastic environmental cost of each passing turf harvest. However, I did it because I felt that, on balance, it was a socially just thing to do and I will continue to advocate for additional supports as homes transition away from a reliance on turf. I was, therefore, quite taken aback to read an article last week in The Guardian in which the journalist Rory Carroll reported that for some who knowingly extract turf from bogs in special areas of conservation, it is not about the cost of alternatives to turf but he wrote that for some it was about identity and, to paraphrase him, “showing the wildlife crowd that flexing their muscles won't have any impact here”.

I stand proudly with the wildlife crowd and I am asking them today to keep flexing those muscles and fighting for the preservation of nature and to keep calling out unacceptable behaviour where people are proudly destroying habitats. I also plead with those who think calling for improvements in air quality or habitat preservation is some form of an attack on them to think deeply about alternatives and to think about the damage that is being done. We are depleting one of our largest carbon stores and the habitats of some of Ireland's most important species. These bogs have taken thousands of years to form yet just 1% of Ireland's active raised bogs now remain after years of land reclamation and peat harvesting. It is not true to say that because you love the bog, you are doing no harm. Peat is a fossil fuel and a precious natural resource. Yes, turf burning will continue for many people but it is reducing every year as more people move with the times and find alternative ways to heat their homes. However, a person's identity should never be so entangled with a tradition that they can justify harming our landscape in the name of that tradition.

Our days on the bog are numbered. I think everyone accepts that because we will look back with mixed views; some of us with reminiscence, some with resentment and some with relief. However, what the debate must focus on is clean air and the health of people in the midlands. I will continue to fight for that. I hope that when future generations visit bogs of the midlands like Clara and Abbeyleix, they will be thankful for the preservation of these wonderful natural resources that many of us stood up to protect when we had the chance.

Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom labhairt faoin toghchán ó Thuaidh. I am sure the Leader will agree that the people of the North have spoken at the election last week to the Assembly, and they have spoken clearly. They have, in the first instance, elected a majority of MLAs who support the protocol and want to see it embedded, resolved and continuing to work for everyone. They also elected a majority of MLAs and parties who want to get back to work and who want to see the institutions, or the Good Friday Agreement in the form of the Assembly and the Executive, back around the table and delivering for people. We are all very conscious of the difficulties facing people across Ireland not least with the cost-of-living crisis.

In my own capacity, I want to congratulate Michelle O’Neill, my party colleague and our First Minister elect in the North. Her election represents a very important historic, symbolic and seismic change in the politics of the North. When someone like Michelle, a very proud Irish republican and nationalist can take that position in a system and a state that was designed to ensure that such a thing would never happen, the historic significance and the political significance of that is not lost on me or on many people in the North and beyond.

I want to take the opportunity today to call on the DUP to stop holding people to ransom and stop punishing the public by not returning to the Executive. More than £300 million is waiting and ready to go to be directed into the pockets of workers and families. We can invest more than £1 billion in the health service over the next three years and we can continue the work of building 100,000 social and affordable homes over the next 15 years. Those are the issues that people want to see addressed. I know the Leader will agree with me on that.

Those are the issues that fall within the remit of the Assembly and the Executive. The protocol is an issue. There is no doubt there are issues that need to be and can be worked out, but they will not be worked out in the Assembly or the Executive. It is an issue for the British Government and the EU institutions. In the meantime, I encourage colleagues from every party to recommit to the institutions, get back into them and get to work. In congratulating Michelle O'Neill - I know the Leader would not expect me to be partisan - I also congratulate all those who put their names forward, which we know is not easy, and were returned and commiserate with those who did not make it across the line on this occasion.

I have a couple of issues I am going to try to fly through. First, I ask the Leader to invite the Minister for Health to appear before the Seanad to discuss workforce planning within the health service. I know it sounds a little bit niche but I believe it is an issue that goes to the heart of many of the issues facing healthcare staff, most especially nurses.

As the Leader may have seen, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO, at its recent conference launched a report on the experience of physical assaults against nurses in Irish hospitals. The statistics are really shocking. On average, seven nurses and midwives are assaulted in work every single day in Ireland. How we plan for future staffing levels in the HSE is essential to staff well-being in those settings. As a member of the Joint Committee on Health and the Labour Party's health spokesperson in the Seanad, I think it would be valuable to have a dedicated discussion in the Chamber with the Minister on this issue.

Second, if the Leader feels it is appropriate, I ask that she write on behalf of the Seanad to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence and ask that time be given over at committee to discussing how Ireland could provide true and meaningful international solidarity to women around the world in the face of gender-based discrimination. I am thinking particularly of the women in Afghanistan, who have suffered terribly under the Taliban regime which has most recently directed that all women must now wear a full burka when outdoors, regardless of their personal wishes. I know the Seanad has long been a place where matters of international affairs have been given priority. I believe it was a group of Senators led by Senator Norris who set up the first foreign affairs committees. I feel, therefore, it would be appropriate for such a request to come from this House.

Finally, on a more positive note, I want to take a moment to commend the work of the international Dublin Gay Theatre Festival. Following a really considerable cut in its funding this year, there was a fear that the festival would not go ahead after 19 years in existence. Thanks to the hard work of the committee, however, the show did indeed go on with many plays happening all this week and last week. I have been to many already myself and there are plenty left in the days ahead. I really encourage any Members of the House who may find themselves floating around Dublin over the next few days to head along. I have programmes available in my office if anyone needs them. I want to take a moment to congratulate the committee, actors, writers, producers, set builders, the venue and volunteers for running an incredible festival despite all the hiccups over the past two years and the shortage of funding.

Under the programme for Government, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage established a working group to examine defects in housing. I want to concentrate today particularly on apartment stock and multi-unit development stock. It is important that this working group does not pit homeowners against each other. There should be no discrimination between owners of homes and owners of apartments. We know many apartments in Dublin city and Cork city are affected by fire safety defects and other structural defects. Many of them are going to be landed with huge lump sums in their management fees to remedy these defects. Because regulation at the time was so low, it is important that the Government steps in to ensure they get a fair chance and that they have some sort of consistency and reliability in terms of the redress scheme. It is important that schemes such as the pyrite and mica schemes are not differentiated from schemes that will affect apartment owners. It is important that they get 100% redress.

We also need to look at the retrospective aspect of these schemes. As we know, apartment owners and multi-unit developments are run by management companies, which have an onus to take out insurance each year. If steps are not taken to remedy fire safety defects, they will not be covered. There is a sort of differentiation between homeowners and apartment blocks.

I want to make sure this is a priority for this Government. I ask through the Leader when the Minister expects to publish the final report. Will there be estimates included in next year's budget? It is important that homeowners get 100% redress. Many owner-occupiers cannot get any tax deductions if they have to put up lump sums for remedial repairs whereas a landlord can set this off against his or her tax.

We need to look at the way the scheme works, not only for homeowners who have an income but also for the many apartment owners who do not and who will not have the means to remortgage in order to pay these huge lump sums. A fair scheme must be put in place for apartment owners.

I welcome the decision of the Minister for Finance and the Government to extend the 9% VAT rate to February 2023. This is a very important decision that is designed to support the sector most hit by Covid-19 in order that it can continue to operate in the shoulder season.

Senator Conway asked for a debate with the Minister for Education and for a review of the use of schools and related buildings outside of school times. I join with him in that request. Considerable Exchequer funding is spent, has been spent and will be spent on school buildings to create school communities. They do not operate in a silo; they are immersed in communities. I commend Deputy David Stanton on his work seeking the use of school buildings outside school time, in order that they can be availed of for community use by sporting, cultural and other organisations. It makes sense. The Minister for Education has established a review group to look at how we can use school buildings. I am asking her and the Government to expedite and fast-track this review so that in the future, and, hopefully, in the autumn, school buildings, grounds and facilities, which are funded in the main by the taxpayer, can be used by myriad groups, organisations and people around the country.

I will conclude by again referring to the good news of the 9% VAT rate extension. It will be pivotal to the tourism and hospitality sector in places like Cork, Kerry and other locations outside Dublin. However, I would ask those in the hospitality sector not to engage in rip-off Ireland tactics with the prices for hotel rooms in the summer season. It is incumbent on them to work with the Government to make sure hotel rooms are affordable and accessible to all.

I am calling for a debate on the content of the interim report from the UK Government on the Cass review and the implications it has for Irish children being sent to UK-based clinics. The Cass review is the UK's independent review of the gender identity services for children and young people that have been offered there since 2011. The HSE has sent 234 Irish children to the UK for treatment for gender dysphoria in response to the recent unexplained exponential rise in young people experiencing severe gender distress. The clinic in question, run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, has been the subject of numerous serious allegations regarding the quality of care being given to the children and young adults in its care. The interim Cass report details that the standards of clinical care, assessment and treatment there do not match those enjoyed by children accessing other health services elsewhere, and that-----

We are all about open debate here but the Senator must be careful of the Standing Orders relating to the Kerins case that we have adopted in the context of naming people who are not in the Chamber to defend themselves. I would just make that point. The Senator is aware of the Standing Order.

Have I mentioned somebody who is not here?

No. If the Senator is making allegations, however, she has to be very careful.

I have not made any allegations.

The Senator is saying this clinic been subject to numerous reports about its level of care and that therefore-----

This is documented.

I am just saying-----

I understand the Cathaoirleach's concern. I would not be coming in here to voice any untruths that have not been stated in a report elsewhere. I assure him of that.

I am just urging caution.

I thank the Cathaoirleach.

Second, there has not been routine or consistent data collection, which has made it impossible to accurately track the outcomes of clinical intervention in solving gender dysphoria. Third, due to the explosion in demand, the clinic has not been subjected to best practice quality controls, which are usually required before a new treatment is approved.

This interim report has prompted a call for an urgent inquiry into the service from the British Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Mr. Sajid Javid, amid fears that the system is failing children and that vulnerable children are wrongly being given gender hormone treatment. Mr. Javid was particularly alarmed by the pressures on staff to adopt an unquestioning affirmative approach to physically transitioning children over any form of psychological care or assistance. A concern among UK clinicians is that this recourse to the clinical approach is becoming a form of gay conversion therapy as a result of frequent cases of people who started identifying as trans after months of experiencing-----

The Senator's time is up.

Do I not get extra time?

I gave the Senator extra time.

May I finish briefly?

I was made aware of an incident in this country a few weeks ago where a teenage boy came out as gay in confidence to a group of his female friends. They responded by saying that, if he liked boys, he must be a girl and, therefore, must be transgender. He rejected this, saying that he had never felt like a female and that he was simply attracted to men. As a result of his not accepting his friends foisting a gender identity on him, his female friends in whom he had confided broke contact and refused to speak to him. This scenario was never envisaged by those who fought for equality - a gay man being pressured to change his gender in order to have his sexual orientation become straight. A debate is in order so that we can find out the Minister's view on the Cass review and discuss the level of care that we in this Chamber want Irish children to receive.

I agree with Senator Buttimer and others who have welcomed the extension of the 9% VAT rate, for which we have all been lobbying. It is important for businesses that there be such incentives to help them recover from the pandemic. The recovery is still ongoing, and if our tourism season takes off in the way we believe it will, the extension will help the sector to recover. I wish to acknowledge the wonderful support given by the Government to the sector. It is acknowledged widely throughout the sector.

I commend the management and staff of Roscommon University Hospital who, in a recent patient survey, got the thumbs up for the way they run the hospital, its cleanliness and their friendliness. We are always quick to talk about the negatives in the health sector, but we should also talk about the positives. This is a positive story. I went through the battles when we lost our emergency department in 2011. It was a battle lasting a number of years, but that is the way these things go. It is still a matter of contention for people, but the management, staff and services available at Roscommon University Hospital are exceptional. I visited it with the Minister for Health prior to Christmas. He was impressed with the layout. Speaking as someone whose family member has used it, it is wonderful to see the patients and public saying that what is being done there is good and that most people have a positive experience there.

If possible, I would like a debate on the roll-out of Local Link rural transport. In those parts of the country that do not have public bus or train services, Local Link is the answer, but there are many shortcomings. We need to debate this matter because, while Local Link is doing a good job in parts of our regions, many people who want to go to day centres, villages and towns are being left behind. They are being told that they cannot be collected because they are too far away. The purpose of Local Link is to accommodate all of these people. Perhaps the Leader will consider arranging a debate with the relevant Minister.

Senator Ward and I had the harrowing but insightful experience of visiting Kyiv in Ukraine for two days at the invitation of the Chairman of its parliament. We were the first two parliamentarians to visit that parliament, and it has asked that people keep visiting because doing so shows the EU's support for Ukraine and opposes Russia's propaganda.

We visited Bucha where 117 people from ten years of age upwards were murdered simply because they were Ukrainian citizens. We visited Borodianka which was the first town that was essentially decimated by missile strikes. The Russians chose buildings they knew would crumble and collapse quickly on top of people who were hiding. People from the age of four were found crushed. It was an awful experience.

We are part of a group of parliamentarians from across the world, which is called United for Ukraine. The sole mission of the group is to try to get the Ukrainian Government’s message across to as many governments around the world as quickly as possible. Part of that is in terms of more weapons because the type of war has changed. The Russian forces have retreated so the types of weapons Ukrainians need are different. They need more sanctions against countries that are in some way facilitating Russia; they need sanctions against Russian television which is spreading propaganda by the people who support this war; and crucially, they need support for EU candidate status for Ukraine in June, a role in which Ireland can play a part.

As Members know President Zelenskyy and most MPs are in Ukraine all the time and have not fled. Many of the citizens, in particular women and children, have fled. A number of Ukrainians have travelled to countries around Europe and to Washington to continue delivering the message President Zelenskyy wants to get across, which is unity within Europe towards Ukraine and to fight and defeat Russia.

While I was there, I invited those MPs from the Ukrainian Parliament to visit Ireland to deliver that message. I have written to the Cathaoirleach and the Leader to request them to open up the Seanad for those MPs when they come here. They have accepted my invitation and they will be here in a number of weeks. It would be a great opportunity for the Seanad to give them a platform to deliver that message in regard to more weapons, more sanctions, EU status and funding to pay for essential services they are going to have challenges with over the coming months.

There is a real opportunity for them to make their statements on the floor of this House. We have done this with MEPs over the past number of months and that has been really successful. In their roles as Cathaoirleach and as Leader, it would be a wonderful opportunity for them. I do not think anyone in this House would disagree with having three or four MPs from Ukraine speak on behalf of their president and to show the unity for which they are so grateful. At every meeting we had, whether it was with the vice prime minister, the chairman of the House, the minister for defence or the minister for internal affairs, all they kept saying to us was that Ireland had been supporting them from the very start and they asked if we could convince other European countries to step up as well because there is a narrative that they have, but they have not fully. We can play a role to make sure that happens.

I thank Senator Ahearn for his letter. I think it is a proposal that we would support. It would be unusual but we are living in unusual times. I think it would be appropriate that if MPs are travelling from the Ukraine that they would engage with the Seanad and Senators to discuss the issues in person. I thank the Senator for his visit to the Ukraine. It is important that people visit Ukraine and Kyiv, see for themselves what is happening on the ground, and bring back the message as the Senator has done. The opportunity for further engagement with Members of Parliament is important.

I wish to raise a number of concerns regarding the Stardust inquest. Tomorrow there is a preliminary hearing into the inquest. It is being held at Store Street coroner's court. The families have been invited to attend. However, Store Street is the venue where the original inquest was held. It holds many bad memories for the families. The backyard of the court is where their loved ones' bodies were examined. The coroner's court was where the families sat through the original inquest which Professor Phil Scraton referred to as an abject failure. The concern of the families is that they are not going to be able to attend this preliminary hearing because it brings back so many hurtful memories of their last experience in that courthouse.

They are asking why, when the Government has taken out a lease on the Pillar Room of the Rotunda, that is not the venue even for the preliminary hearings. Even if that venue is being used for other inquests, they should obviously be given priority because the lease is specifically for the Stardust inquest. Could we write to the Minister to express our concern on this? It seems to be deeply insensitive of the Coroner’s Court to pick this location without considering that this would be very hurtful for the families in attending it.

The other issue around the Stardust is the Bill I tabled in February about the selection of the jury for the formal inquest that would have it done in the same manner as juries are selected for criminal proceedings. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, gave assurances to the families that while my Bill might not do the job, she would bring forward her own proposals. I am concerned that we have very few sitting days left before the summer break to get legislation through both Houses and to have it in place when the inquest starts. We are not back here until the autumn and the lease on the Pillar Room runs out in February 2023. We are running out of time.

My issue is trite in light of the previous two contributions. However, I want to raise an issue and ask for the support of both the Leader and the Cathaoirleach in the matter. Heritage and Tidy Towns groups go to enormous effort to ensure the upkeep, care and love for their communities. They are to be lauded. I have a group in the Dublin South-Central constituency that works extraordinarily hard. They have applied to Dublin City Council to build a commemorative garden, which was at the great suggestion of the Cathaoirleach. They have made representations to Dublin City Council which has agreed to the replica of the 1916 Proclamation and the seven trees that represent the seven signatories. However, it will not agree to the third element, which is the flagpole, on the basis of flagpole protocol. I already got the assistance of the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, who wrote an excellent protocol surrounding everything to do with flags, which is great for the Taoiseach’s office. He very kindly shared that with me. I empowered the group with that and along with it wrote a letter to the council myself. I still have not received anything back.

Apart from standing on its own merits, these commemorative gardens are also a feature for Tidy Towns groups. There are huge community and heritage efforts and a whole community mobilised and incentivised to act, and now Dublin City Council is saying that the protocol for flags cannot be adhered to. However, it is well established by our own learned Cathaoirleach that street lighting is sufficient to ensure that the flag is illuminated 24 hours of the day. That is being sufficiently done.

I am asking for the Leader and Cathaoirleach to support me in writing to Dublin City Council in support of this group. I would be obliged if they did that. I can send them on the details.

I thank the Senator for her work in this regard. She is correct. I was working with the Taoiseach’s Department in the lead-up to 2016 commemorations. One of the issues that kept coming up was the issue of the flag flying overnight. Protocol comes from precedent, as we know. The precedent in relation to the flying of the national flag comes from Thomas Francis Meagher flying it for the first time on 7 March 1848, where it flew continuously, day and night. We know this from the records of Dublin Castle. It was flown continuously until it was removed by the authorities.

The second recording of it flying was in 1916, and the Senator can imagine that it was not taken down each night during the 1916 Rising because going onto the roof of the GPO would have been a life-shortening exercise. Again, that was one of the precedents that helped create a new protocol which, as the Senator outlined, has been adopted by the Taoiseach’s Department regarding flying the national flag by day and by night, following the precedent that was set by Thomas Francis Meagher, but also the during the 1916 Rising, where it can be flown at night where it is illuminated, preferably by spotlight, but not necessarily so. Street lighting will do. I hope Dublin City Council will respond favourably. I will engage with it on the Senator’s behalf on that matter.

The Senator said it is a small issue, but the national flag is flown every morning on the lawn of Leinster House, along with the Ukrainian flag.

There are parts of Ukraine that can no longer fly their own flag, as Senator Ahearn and others know. Flying our national flag should be something we never take for granted. I call on Senator Carrigy.

Following on from the earlier contribution by Senator Pippa Hackett, I do not accept the comments made by her that turf burning days are numbered. Coming from a county where more than 20% of households use turf as fuel to keep people warm, and particularly people of the older generation, I do not believe it is acceptable to make a comment like that. As a county, the same as other midland counties, we bought into a just transition up to 2027. Unfortunately, objections from green-supporting organisations led to the closure of the Lough Ree and Shannonbridge power stations and the boglands in the midlands. I am not going to accept comments like that. Until people's homes are insulated to a standard where they do not need solid fuel, and particularly homes in rural areas, then we should be allowed to keep our houses and homes warm.

I compliment the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, on the VAT rate. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media. We have been pushing for the extension of the VAT rate, following discussions with the Irish Hotels Federation and the Restaurants Association of Ireland. I thank the Minister for putting this forward to the Cabinet today and for supporting the industry. People have mentioned Cork and Kerry, and I too look forward to the summer when people are organising their breaks. We in Ireland's Hidden Heartlands are an unhidden gem. I would recommend people pay visit during the summer months in particular.

I want to touch base with regard to RTÉ and the fact we have no midlands correspondent for the midland's region since Ciarán Mullooly retired a number of months back. I wish Mr. Mullooly well in his new role in the Roscommon Partnership. I met with Mr. Mullooly recently at the Irish Rural Link national conference. He is doing an excellent job. It is important that all regions in the country are covered by RTÉ. Perhaps the Leader will write to RTÉ and ask for an update as to the date by which we will have our correspondent put in place.

I support Senator Murphy's call for a debate on rural transport. I raised this previously in the House. We have had the very welcome reductions yesterday of 20% and 50% for youth travel cards but, unfortunately, many of the people I represent and live beside will not see the benefit of that because they are on commercial operators, which are still not included under the scheme. Last night I was contacted by a number of people who are still bypassing their local train station to drive to Sallins to benefit from the local short hop zones there. Public transport, particularly for those in the commuter counties, as well as rural transport, is still very costly. We need to address it. I support Senator Murphy's call for a debate on that.

I also wish to raise an issue on which I have been working with a local councillor, Angela Feeney. The Kildare Down's syndrome group is a wonderful organisation supporting 235 families across Kildare and west Wicklow. In December 2021 the group received notice from the Kildare Education and Training Board, ETB, that for health and safety reasons, it must remove itself from the prefabs where it is located in Naas by October 2022. We can just imagine how the parents and the students felt when they received this news. The group is a magnificent one. Among the many services it carries out are: early development for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers; adult education classes; literacy; work skills; horticulture; social and political courses; and social activities from primary age activities to teen youth groups. It does wonderful work for so many families in the Kildare and west Wicklow area.

The group is seeking a new premises. I have written to the chief executive of the Kildare and Wicklow ETB, Dr. Deirdre Keyes. I am also putting out a call today to anyone who may have a suitable premises in the Naas or Sallins area, where the group is based and centrally located. This group cannot be allowed to lose its premises. It needs to encourage and develop the children and young adults it works with on a daily basis. If anyone in that area has a premises, it would be most welcome. I thank the Cathaoirleach.

I join with my colleague, Senator Ahearn, in calling for an invitation to be extended to our Ukrainian parliamentary colleagues. We saw terrible things there and the terrible devastation being wreaked by the Russian forces. The takeaway message for me, however, was the resilience of the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian politicians. Their extraordinary determination to overcome this is actually very encouraging.

We should be doing whatever we can to support them. The four messages that Senator Ahearn mentioned were repeated to us at meeting after meeting and I am pleased to say that Ireland has responded on most of those issues. The military issue remains a difficulty for us but in the other areas we have been supportive.

I would like to raise another international issue, namely, the installation of John Lee as the new Chief Executive of Hong Kong. He is the former Secretary for Security of Hong Kong and was sanctioned by the United States in 2020, primarily because of his involvement in enforcing the appalling national security law that exists in Hong Kong, which essentially removes the right of anybody to get involved in political opposition or protest. Under the then Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, he was foremost in enforcing that law and in cracking down on any vocalisation of opposition to the Hong Kong Government. We should consider sanctioning him in Ireland too. He was not elected but installed by a tiny committee that is controlled by Beijing. The extraordinary thing is that so many Irish people have lived in, worked in or are connected to Hong Kong. It is a place where we have many connections and we are watching it slip away as any kind of a normal society. I do not understand why the Chinese are doing it because they are killing the goose that laid the golden egg in terms of the capital that is flowing out of Hong Kong and I know about the difficulties ordinary people have there. Ireland should also be taking a stand and acknowledging the fact that John Lee's appointment or installation as Chief Executive is not valid, democratic or wanted because of his track record.

If the Leader is writing letters about correspondents, Dún Laoghaire does not have an RTÉ correspondent either. We are an important region and I do not seek to disagree with Senator Carrigy in any way. I would love to see an RTÉ correspondent in Dún Laoghaire as well.

I ask Senators to be cautious in their comments on appointments.

I want to pay tribute to our Seanad colleagues, Senators Ahearn and Ward, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. It was a difficult experience to travel to Ukraine and to bring back the real experiences there and tell us what it is like on the ground. That helps our resolve and helps us to show how important peace will be. I know that on Sunday, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy put out a video that was so strong. It was in black and white and he spoke with such heart. He spoke about the walls of buildings coming down, saying that these walls held photos and that on those photos were people who had fought in the Second World War. Those walls are crumbling and falling apart. It was powerful and it shows how important that type of leadership and that soul he has given to Ukraine is. There is such pride in him as a leader. It is important for Ireland as an observer with the United Nations to play our role as well.

I would like to acknowledge that we had the Fine Gael agriculture and rural development conference in Tullamore last weekend. It was fantastic because I had an opportunity to meet the principal of Mountbellew Agricultural College, Dr. Edna Curley, who spoke about how getting training in farming these days is like passport to the future for farming. In other words, training in agriculture is the passport to developing a future but it is important that we see alternative forms of income in agriculture. It is true that what we saw over that day was how important it is that we, as a group, develop our policies in Fine Gael to fight for farmers across the country, be they dry stock or suckler farmers. That is particularly true in how we are looking at supports coming in to aid those farmers who will potentially face fodder shortages later this year, especially with the rising costs of fertiliser. The silage measures that have been brought in, to the tune of over €55 million, will be crucial to offer support to farmers of up to €1,000. It will be so needed when times are tough, especially when we know that farmers potentially will not be making a second cut. Gabhaim buíochas; I thank our colleagues.

I agree with Senator Dolan about the conference. We all know that from a party perspective it is nice to get together with friends from around the country because we only get to see them every couple of years and it is a lovely event. For me, the vibrancy, engagement, grit and determination that can only be got in rural Ireland were evident in the room on Saturday and it was lovely to see that our rural cousins are in fighting form and are not taking some of the issues we talk about in here week in, week out lying down.

I will first reply to Senator Garret Ahearn, and to Senators Ward and Dolan who touched on the issue. The video that President Zelenskyy did on Sunday really shows how important leadership is, and particularly at times of crisis. For a gentleman who has not been a political leader for very long he has some metal and support in Ukraine. I say that because, as Senator Ahearn has spoken about, we can all see the crumbling buildings and talk about the history, and events, that have led to such a situation. What certainly is not crumbling is the spirit, determination and resilience of the Ukrainian people. Anything that we can do in Europe, America and anywhere else in the world to keep that spirit alive and provide support is definitely what we should do. I refer to sanctions and military weapons from other countries, which do not have the position that we do. An absolute sheer determination from a political perspective that supports them is definitely something we can do. I will liaise with the officials to see how best we can facilitate them within the next couple of weeks. I will liaise with the Senator's office to make sure, if it is not within the three days, that we accommodate them for maybe some of the time that we are not sitting but it is really important that we do this.

Regarding Senator Ward, I sometimes think that I have a magic wand but I definitely do not have a wand that extends to RTÉ correspondents for Dún Laoghaire. I will convey his concerns about the appointment of John Lee to the attention of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and ask if it is appropriate for us to respond or at least have a debate on same in this House. I will get back to the Senator on that.

Senator Carrigy, earlier I found myself considering whether I would respond to some of the comments that were made because it might be better to adopt an approach of the less said the easier mended. I will tell him what really is important. When we have difficult transitions to go through, and this is one of them, we must not poke people in the eye. Communications are absolutely crucial. A just transition, and the funding that is needed to make that transition easier, is crucial. No amount of bandying back that one is green and someone else is blue is ever going to fix that. What we need is proper communication and to respectfully show that people's lives and identities are equally important. However, the money to make transition easier is the most paramount thing that will resolve this issue. Finally, the Senator also welcomed the 9% VAT rate as did other colleagues, which is a very welcome move by the Cabinet this morning.

Senator Seery Kearney asked for us to write to Dublin City Council on the protocol that governs flag flying for her heritage groups. I will liaise with her office and we will help that situation as much as we can.

I assure Senator Boylan that I will write to the Minister and contact her office today. It seems a logical thing for us to not cause distress where unwarranted and to move to the Pillar Room for which we already pay. More importantly, I will ask what the status of the legislation is that is required for jury selection and get back to the Senator.End of Take

Senators Wall and Murphy sought a debate on rural transport. Given that it is an advantage, which we have seen in Dublin this week, and I refer to the reduction in fare prices and the introduction of the 90-minute ticket, and as previously done in some of the cities around this country, it is pity that the fare reduction does not extend to operators in the rest of the country. We should push for an extension of the scheme and I will organise a debate as quickly as I can.

Senator Murphy recommended the 9% VAT rate. He also paid tribute to the people who run his local hospital, which has gone through a difficult and painful transition. It is nice to see the hospital staff and management be rewarded for the excellent services that they provide.

Senator Keogan asked for a report on the interim Cass report and I will try to arrange it. What might be beneficial first is to write to the clinical lead of the HSE to find out his opinion of the report and then we can frame a debate around the report. I make that suggestion because I fear that if I sought a report now that I would be told that it is an English report and that the Department does not have anybody to meet and discuss it with us here. Let us find out how the clinical lead views the interim report, find out whether it will change the practices in terms of clinical referrals done by the HSE, and then I will get back to the Senator to arrange a specific debate that is tailored to her needs.

Senator Buttimer talked about the 9% VAT rate. Like Senator Conway, he supported the call made by Deputy Stanton this week to open the educational buildings that are in every single town, village and city. The real concern, and I suppose this has been highlighted because of the conversation on the national maternity hospital, is that when patron bodies own the buildings then they are the people to whom we must beg to use those buildings. Right now, the vast majority of the patron bodies in the educational system are not the State. They are either the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, the Educate Together sector or Gaelscoileanna.

We do not have any uniformity in the provision of services either before schools open or after they close and definitely not at the weekends. For the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of euro we spent on the construction of those buildings it is an absolute crying shame our sports clubs, community facilities, creches and after-school clubs do not have access to the buildings the State helps supply the funding for. It is beyond time we had some sort of a protocol and direction from the Government. I will ask for that debate as quickly as I can.

Senator Ardagh spoke about the working group on housing defects, looked for the publication of the final report and a debate to accompany that. I will ask the Minister for that.

Senator Hoey spoke about workforce planning within the health service and looked for a debate on that, which I will arrange. She also talked about the international Dublin Gay Theatre Festival and the success of it this week and last, despite public funding being pulled.

Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke about the elections in Northern Ireland last week. I suppose Members are all political animals so like me they were glued to the television watching the returns in the different constituencies. What really is incredible is both Michelle O'Neill and Naomi Long proved to everybody this weekend there is no glass ceiling in women in politics either in Ireland or elsewhere. I congratulate both of them on their wins. As Senator Ó Donnghaile said, we hope minds will be focused and everybody will now sit around the table and provide an Assembly and an Executive, get back to work and spend the £300 million he mentioned, which would be lovely to see.

I am not really sure how to diplomatically answer Senator Clonan's question because I fear I probably agree with everything he said. Every other apology, heartfelt, has come from the Taoiseach and it probably would be appropriate but the Minister, to be fair to him, has taken real initiative in trying to resolve this issue in the last two years, as a new Minister with genuinely heartfelt concern to try to resolve this issue. Today was the first opportunity he saw to do so sooner rather than later. While I hear what the Senator is saying, the Minister probably is the most appropriate person because he is the reason we are where we are today. I am aware not everybody is happy but he has made some serious inroads into trying to resolve this situation that has gone on for far too long. I will pass back the Senator's concerns.

I absolutely respect his utmost good faith-----

-----but I think it would be great for the country if the Taoiseach would do that.

I absolutely hear the Senator on that.

I am sure Micheál Martin would have no problem with that.

I will pass it on but he will be here at 6.30 p.m. but we will pass on the Senator's concerns before that anyway.

I thank the Leader.

Not at all. Senator Conway talked about the school building project and looking for a debate on it. The 9% VAT rate and staff shortage within the hospitality industry were also raised. The industry tells us often about the latter issue but I am not sure work permits for people from outside the EU are consistently the answer when we have 150,000 people on the live register. We need to think outside the box sometimes.

Senator Chambers opened today requesting a debate on childcare. I am in the lovely position of being able to say it will be happening next Tuesday.

Go raibh míle maith agat. I join the Leader and colleagues on the elections in Northern Ireland. I congratulate all those who were elected and commend all who put their names forward for election. It is never an easy thing. We wish all the best in the future to those who had seats and lost them.

Order of Business agreed to.