Last updated: 19 Feb 18:05
Sitting in my office at home I can’t help but notice the daylight. The brighter evenings are nearly upon us and in five weeks time the clocks will be going forward again! I would encourage you all to take advantage of these evenings: get out for a walk, go for a run or do some activity with your family. Our overall well-being can be helped considerably by the simple act of getting out for some exercise when we have the opportunity. I know that everyone is working hard but it helps to take time away from the desk in the morning, during the day or in the evening to give yourself some extra headspace.
Reviewing the news this week, there are many stories which give us hope. There has been a 25% decrease in the number of people admitted to hospital; 280,581 doses of the vaccine were given up to Monday of this week with a planned 80,000 vaccines due to be given this week and 1 million doses a month coming in April, May and June – so there is progress being made on the roll-out which is very good news. Our colleagues in the health service are doing an immense job in rolling out the vaccine for everyone. And we know that it will make a difference to how we look at life and as to what the future may hold. We can see that from the situation in Israel where 30% of the population has been vaccinated and it has made a huge impact on reducing transmission. Let’s hope that we can get to that position as soon as possible.
The schedule of sittings for the Dáil, Seanad and Committees took place over five days this week and will probably be the same again next week. The Business Committee will begin reviewing the schedules next week. The purpose of the review will be to see how we can match the demand from members for more sitting time and the requirement to deal with essential business or important legislation with the need to keep staff and members safe and to continue to operate within public health guidelines. I will continue to keep you briefed on developments. This week the House considered the Land Development Agency Bill while next week should see the introduction of the bill dealing with mandatory quarantine.
Tomorrow, February 20th, is World Social Justice Day. It focuses on looking at how social justice affects poverty eradication. It also focuses on the goal of achieving full employment and support for social integration. One of our strategic goals is to foster a culture of dignity and respect, diversity and inclusion in the Oireachtas Service. In 2021 we will be working on the Equality Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and with your support we will continue with the development of very worthwhile initiatives such as the OWL programme.
My final thoughts this week are with those preparing for the Leaving Certificate exams. It is a stressful time for students, teachers and parents as the Leaving Cert has achieved such an immense status as a point of departure for students from the second-level system to access opportunities in further and higher education or employment. This year it is also a significant challenge for those who are organising the exams, the practical course work and in resolving the issue of predicted grades. I wish our colleagues in the Department of Education and Skills, and all those working together to reach a successful outcome, well in their endeavours.
Enjoy your weekend, stay connected agus fanáigí slán.
12 Feb 17:55
I hope you are all well and had a good week. As the days get noticeably longer, we are all looking forward to the vaccine being rolled amongst the general population and the unveiling of the plans for the gradual easing of the lookdown. On Thursday’s Six-One News there was a report about the reopening of our 124 special schools. It featured Rosedale Special School which is in Renmore on the outskirts of Galway. It was so uplifting to see the children returning to their classrooms, full of joy at seeing their friends and teachers again. Scenes like these give us hope and remind us of the goodness that is in our world. While the return to normal may be slow, we know that there are brighter days ahead.
This week the Seanad sat on Monday and Friday, Committees met on Tuesday and the Dáil sat on Wednesday and Thursday in the CCD. These are very challenging weeks for our staff but through your cooperation, professionalism and great goodwill, we have managed our way through the week as safely as we possibly could. I’m pleased to confirm that there were no new confirmed cases of Covid-19 or close contacts / suspected cases reported in the parliamentary community in the last week. I wish to thank all of the staff involved in supporting the sittings and the committee meetings. We have agreed that the closing time for all buildings and car parks in the Houses of the Oireachtas complex next week will continue to be at 7pm each day and that the restriction on visitor access to the Leinster House complex and to The Convention Centre Dublin remains in place. We have issued further guidance to everyone in the parliamentary community to wear masks except while alone, eating, drinking or contributing to debates. And we have made it clear that an exemption that may apply for anyone with a relevant medical condition is subject to the provision of a doctor’s certificate. More than ever we need to protect each other so we will continue to encourage everyone with these timely reminders.
Since Covid-19 began, many people have asked why we can’t simply switch to a full or partial virtual parliament. The answer lies in the fact that we have a written constitution which we are obliged to uphold. There are three main constitutional imperatives which Ramona Quinn calls the 3Ps and these explain why the Houses and Committees must operate from a physical location as opposed to virtually.
- Place: The constitution addresses the location of the exercise of parliamentary power in Article 15. It unambiguously states that (1) the National Parliament will conduct sittings (2) that those sittings will be in public and (3) that they must be conducted in a place chosen by the Houses.
- Presence: Article 15.11.1 requires that all questions in each House shall be determined by a majority of the members “present and voting”.
- Privilege: Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any democratic Parliament and to facilitate this, Articles 15.12 and 15.13 provide for absolute privilege for members’ utterances. The language in Article 15.12 is clear that the privilege attaches to utterances made in either House. Therefore, the protections afforded by the Constitution only apply to utterances made by a member when physically in the House. We might wish it were not so and we might have the technical capability to host a virtual parliament, but the constitution is sacrosanct and we are obliged to respect it.
Tuesday, 9 February, was Safer Internet Day; an important event for the promotion of online safety among young people. This online information will be of interest to parents and a helpful resource to everyone on the safe use of internet. The theme for 2021 is online well-being and digital resilience which is timely given that we are going to issue the updated Covid-19 Working from Home Policy and launch the Health, Wellbeing and Inclusion Strategy in February.
To conclude, this Sunday is Saint Valentine’s Day. The saint’s remains are to be found in Whitefriar Street Carmelites Church in Dublin not too far from the Houses. For those of you interested in the story and who would enjoy reading a small piece of Dublin history, this is a good explainer. Whatever about the story behind the day, do make sure to look after the ones you love and care for and who love and care for you this weekend.
I will leave it there, stay connected agus fanáigí slán.
05 Feb 17:45
We have come to the end of the first week of spring. It began, as always, with Saint Brigid’s Day on the first of February which is also known as Imbolg in Celtic mythology. St. Brigid is remembered through place names, stained glass windows, her iconic cross but mostly, for her generosity towards the poor. On the same day at the other end of the world in Myanmar there was a military coup which began with a takeover of their parliament. It helps in times of difficulty to recognise and be thankful for the political and administrative stability we enjoy in Ireland. Although we may have arguments and disagreements, our democratic system has been stable for the last 102 years.
The Business Committee discussed the business for next week and the schedule of sittings. Committees will meet on Tuesday with an increase in the number of Committee meetings from 8 to 12. Having successfully and safely run 8 meetings for the past few weeks we are confident that we will be able to scale up to 12 meetings to accommodate the essential business of the committees. The Dáil will again meet on Wednesday and Thursday in the CCD.
Over the past few weeks we have had a small number of people who contracted Coivd-19. We wish them a speedy recovery. The Covid-19 national 14-day cumulative incidence rate and the transmission rate are declining but case numbers are still troublingly high. It is worth remembering that the 14-day incidence rate is still 5 times what it was when we finished the parliamentary term on 17 December. It is therefore more important than ever that everyone in the parliamentary community should continue to play their part to minimise contacts, wear a mask, follow the basic hygiene guidelines and act consciously to protect everyone else. Our Compliance Team are doing a fantastic job. Their job isn’t easy but they do it with great commitment, courtesy and good humour. Please give them your full support as we strive to keep Leinster House and the CCD Covid-19 free.
Yesterday was World Cancer Day 2021 which had as its theme: “I am and I will”. The purpose of the day was to allow people to share their stories and also to thank those who care for cancer patients. Many people in the parliamentary community have unfortunately been touched by cancer. On World Cancer Day we think of them and their families in particular. Thankfully, there have been enormous advances in the treatment of cancer so there is light and a way forward for most patients.
Incidentally if you had a moment I hope you got an opportunity to read the first edition of the 2021 Oireachtas Newsletter under its new title Aon Scéal which you can access here. One of the main good news items in Aon Scéal is that we have new staff joining us. I wish to send a broad welcome to the 13 new staff who have joined the Houses of the Oireachtas Service since October and I hope we can all meet in Leinster House in the near future.
Can I finish with a gentle reminder that we are in PMDS season? We would like to finalise our 2020 annual reviews and have commenced the goal setting and planning process for 2021. This can be done as one process. I would like to thank those who have already done so and I would urge others to complete it as soon as possible. To make it easier, all of our PMDS information has been updated on the Plinth. This page was updated to include the PMDS 2020 FAQs (2020-2021). The 2020 PMDS form is available to download here. The 2020 final review form can be uploaded to 2020 PMDS Final Review and the 2021 form to 2021 PMDS form.
I will leave it there. As always, enjoy your break at the weekend, stay connected agus fanáigí slán.
29 Jan 17:45
With February just around the corner we can just see the first daffodil tips emerging with promise of more green shoots as we head towards spring. January is always a difficult month but it’s now almost at an end. Please know however that if you have any issues that need to be talked through you can go to your manager, HR or the Employee Assistance Officer who are available to assist staff on a confidential basis. The Civil Service Employee Assistance Service have many useful resources and a recent publication on Physical Exercise will be useful as we are looking forward to the longer spring days ahead. We are also publishing our Health Wellbeing and Inclusion Strategy soon in which we will have more information on resources to increase individual resilience.
During the week you will have received an update from HR/DPER on Guidance and FAQs for Public Service Employers during COVID-19 updated 19 January 2021. The changes relate to the following two sections below which I would ask you to note:
- 4.2 Is special leave with pay available for caring responsibilities? This FAQ was updated to reflect the current position in relation to school closures.
- 4.5 What leave arrangements apply to civil and public servants on return from non-essential travel overseas? This FAQ was updated to advise that employees should be aware of the testing requirements that may be in place. However, non- essential travel, which includes for holidays, is to be avoided and employees are obliged to inform their employer of any intention to travel overseas. This is to protect everyone, including those who travel. This area is under review with changes proposed for more restrictive arrangements.
The Business Committee discussed the schedule of meetings yesterday and agreed that for the next two weeks at least the Seanad will meet in the Dáil Chamber on Monday, Committees will meet on Tuesday and the Dáil will meet on Wednesdays and Thursdays in the CCD – all for reduced hours and with reduced member numbers. This is in response to the current public health guidelines, reducing the risk of transmitting the virus and in recognition of staff union concerns. The Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach released a joint statement on this issue which you can read here.
Three specific events were marked in the Houses this week. Australia Day was marked from the Seanad Chamber on Tuesday by the Cathaoirleach as he reached out to the Irish diaspora. Wednesday was the International Day of Commemoration in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. The Cathaoirleach released a short video as part of the observances around the world of this UN and EU day which coincides with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Millions of people, mostly Jewish people, were killed during World War II in such horrific places. On a lighter note we also marked UNESCO International Education Day. Our colleagues in the Library and Research Service have put on display the seminal 1965 report on Investment in Education which identified the need for major change and investment so that children could attend second level in Ireland. This led eventually to introduction in 1966 by Donogh O’Malley of free education, a brave decision in its time which has stood the test of time and proved invaluable for us as a developing country.
Finally, this week we are saying goodbye to one of our stalwarts, Ita Ní Dhonnchadha. Ita has had a wonderful career starting as a CO in Foreign Affairs going on to work in Dublin City Council, the Departments of Social Welfare, Finance and Justice. Ita joined us as a Principal Clerk and worked on the DIRT Inquiry as correspondence manager and then on the Mini CTC Inquiry. She jointly clerked the Education and Science Committee before moving to the EU Scrutiny policy team where she worked on the concept of subsidiarity testing for Committees and revised the approach for all Committees on their implementation of their European Affairs roles. Ita has worked in the Facilities Management Unit for the past four years looking after our needs on the campus. A lover of the Irish language with a kind word for all, she was diligent, observant, calm, and she will be very much missed by all of her colleagues.
I will leave you on that note. Enjoy your weekend, stay connected agus fanáigí slán.
22 Jan 17:30
We have come to the end of a busy week in which we dealt with a motion on pay for student nurses and midwives, Brexit motions, statements on the Mother and Baby Homes Report, statements and questions on the fishing industry and the Covid-19 vaccination rollout plan. The Seanad met on Tuesday for a number of hours and with a reduced number of members. Committees met today on a range of issues. I wish to thank all of the staff who have worked so hard to support these sittings.
Three thousand miles away President Joe Biden, of proud Irish descent, assumed office in a remarkable ceremony and with a call to unity and traditional US values of global friendship and working together with allies – all of this while the US is fighting a huge battle against the Covid-19 virus with fatalities spiralling upwards.
We are also fighting that battle here. You will be aware of the concerns raised by staff, union and health and safety representatives about the staff who have to come on site to work. They have requested the restricting of activity to essential parliamentary business only and greater compliance in mask wearing. I wish to reassure you that the focus of the Service has been, at all times, to prioritise the safe operation of the workplace for the parliamentary community and the taking of measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. We will not let up on that primary focus. We have made full use of remote working and we have kept staff informed at every opportunity by issuing the best guidance available in email announcements and on the Plinth. At political level significant efforts have been made in the Business Committee to schedule sittings as efficiently as possible and compromises have been made by all political parties in that regard. Everything is being kept under review and we will respond quickly to any concerns you raise.
This week we introduced a new voluntary Covid-19 Code of Conduct and an updated Face Mask Policy for the Parliamentary Community signed by the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach and finally a note on how to use face masks. These documents are on the Plinth. The code of conduct and updated policy are in response to the concerns raised by health and safety representatives and by staff through their Unions about safety in the workplace during the Covid-19 pandemic. Please take the time to read these documents whose purpose is to highlight the need for everyone to take personal responsibility to comply with the HSE guidance and public health advice to keep us all safe during the Covid-19 pandemic.
HR have issued a reminder to complete your PMDS forms and have made it slightly easier to do so. I will come back to this subject in future updates but I would urge you to think about your priorities and tasks so that we can build up a bigger picture of what we would like to achieve in the coming year.
Today we are saying goodbye to a great colleague, John Hamilton, who is retiring after many years of service. John started his career in the old Department of Social Welfare before he joined us 24 years ago. He has clerked many committees and in the both Chambers and worked across a range of sections, including as our National Parliament Representative in Brussels and, most recently, in Interparliamentary. John is a quiet, calm, highly respected yet unassuming gentleman who is hugely trusted by members and colleagues. He was always fully briefed, no matter the issue, with that little bit of extra insight which made him a “go to” colleague for new entrants. He will be greatly missed by all.
Finally, we are at an important juncture in this pandemic and I ask that you play your part to prevent the spread of Covid-19 while we look forward to the roll out of the vaccine in the coming months. Listening to Dr. Colm Henry this morning it is abundantly clear that we are in a very difficult place and will remain in it for the next month or so. Last Wednesday was Martin Luther King Junior Day which is a federal holiday in the United States. For a good part of his life Martin Luther King was in a very difficult place himself but epitomised courage and optimism. Let’s face into the next few weeks with courage and be there for one another. And let’s look forward to a day in the very near future when we might all be able to hug again, raise a glass to a departing colleague in the Dáil bar and watch a game in Croke Park - all the while feeling safe.
I will finish on that thought. Enjoy your weekend, agus go dté sibh slán.
15 Jan 17:10
I hope you are all safe and well as we end this week. The news about the increased number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the last 14 days is worrying but we also know that the vaccine programme is being rolled out and that by autumn the majority of people should be protected. In addition, we as an organisation and individuals are doing everything we can to keep our staff and members safe by varying our work practices, setting up special teams and taking care of each other in the workplace. So let’s focus on those pieces of positive news. Inevitably though, we have had a small number of cases within the parliamentary community. To those people I would like to send our best wishes for a full and speedy recovery. Please rest assured that our Covid Compliance Team, our HR team and all of our managers are there to give us and, in particular, those who contract the virus the best support and advice possible.
The Dáil returned from recess this week and met for six hours on Wednesday and Thursday in the CCD with a restricted number of members present. The House dealt with the harrowing Report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mother and Baby Homes. The Taoiseach apologised on behalf of the State to those who had suffered so much and so grievously in those institutions. The House also heard statements on Health and Covid-19 and in particular about the vaccine programme and on education which focussed on the difficult issues of plans for sending children to school, plans for the Leaving Certificate and provisions for students with special needs. The central role of the House in giving voice to the concerns of citizens was much in evidence this week. I wish to thank the Superintendent’s section, our catering and cleaning staff for their renewed efforts this week in keeping us all safe. Next week, it is likely that we will sit for two days again but for slightly longer days and in keeping with the staff resources we have available to support and maintain sessions and the need to keep everyone safe.
Our Covid-19 team wrote to everyone this week setting out a new requirement that everybody returning to work onsite in the Convention Centre Dublin or the Leinster House Complex of buildings must, in advance, resubmit a Pre-Return to the Workplace/Visitors Form. In a really welcome initiative led by the HR team, the process has been simplified into an electronic form which can be submitted from your smart phone, tablet or PC. You do not need to print or email it as before. At the bottom of the form, once all questions are correctly completed, just click the “SUBMIT” button. If you wish to retain a copy of your reply on your smartphone, when you click “SUBMIT” then select “Print” then “Save as .Pdf” and the document will be saved to your chosen location on your phone. You must resubmit the form even if you have already done so on a previous occasion. This is the link to the new Pre-Return to the Workplace/Visitor Form and I would urge you to use it, if you are required and authorised by your manager to work on site.
On a lighter note, yesterday was a UNESCO World Logic Day. Logic is about reasoning and the ability to think and these are two of main features that define humankind. UNESCO tell us that the “Day aims at fostering international cooperation, promoting the development of logic, in both research and teaching,……and can also contribute to the promotion of a culture of peace, dialogue and mutual understanding, based on the advancement of education and science.” In the time ahead, let’s use our own power of logical thinking to protect ourselves and in that way we can also protect others – please follow the basic public health guidelines, continue to wear masks, wash your hands and reduce contacts. It helps everyone.
Enjoy your weekend, stay connected agus fanáigí slán.
08 Jan 17:30
I wish you and your families a happy and healthy New Year.
I hope you enjoyed your Christmas break and that 2021 will be a better year for all of us. Christmas and the New Year were very different, but I hope you were able to relax, switch off from work and enjoy some personal time.
Alas, the festive season had only just begun when stringent restrictions had to be re-imposed because of the spiralling Covid-19 case numbers. Many people had to change their plans to come together with family because it was simply too big a risk given the exceptionally high levels of infection in the community. We are now going through a period where we must all be extremely careful and exercise a high degree of personal responsibility. We know from the public health team that if we do certain things – stay at home, reduce personal contacts, maintain social distancing, wear masks and wash our hands - we can regain control of the situation and the case numbers will gradually decline.
On a positive note the start of the vaccination programme is a major step forward for us all. The rollout will take several months with the most vulnerable being catered for first. Can I ask you to bear in mind that January can be a difficult month for many and perhaps more so this year? Please support one another and if you need additional help, please contact HR who will give you confidential advice, guidance and support.
Yesterday the Business Committee met for the first time this year. We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of everyone in our parliamentary community. The business in Leinster House next week will be on a reduced hours and reduced numbers basis. The schedule for the week is not yet decided but our intention is to keep members and staff as safe as possible. It is likely that we will sit for around six hours on Wednesday and Thursday next week in the Convention Centre Dublin. This will minimise staff numbers on site and on public transport and will help with the overall aim of reducing the opportunities for transmission of the virus.
You will have seen a notice from our Covid-19 Compliance Team that if you are returning on site for the first time, or if there has been a change in your circumstances since first submitting the form (eg, you have been self-isolating or restricting you movements for medical reasons or on the advice of HSE contact tracers), then you must submit a Pre-Return to the Workplace Form to firstname.lastname@example.org and to your line manager. It is no longer a requirement to submit the form three days in advance of your return, but it must be submitted prior to your return on site. The form has been modified recently with a couple of additional questions and is available on the Plinth. If you are in any doubt as to whether you should submit a form, you may contact the Covid-19 Compliance Team for advice on 01 618 4398.
As we come to the end of the first week of the New Year, I want to leave you with a short paragraph from an article which I came across in a local newspaper over the Christmas. I think it is particularly apt: “What the past year has proven is that there is merit to having faith in the act of the possible. And this merit and faith is what will sustain us through 2021 until we can get our lives back together again through the vaccination programme and the creation of a safe society”.
Enjoy your weekend, stay at home, stay connected agus fanáigí slán.