The Order of Business is No. 1, Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015 - Committee Stage (resumed), to be taken on conclusion of the Order of Business and to be adjourned not later than 2.45 p.m., if not previously concluded.
Order of Business
I call on the Deputy Leader to organise a debate in respect of unifying the people of Ireland. There was an interesting RTE "Prime Time" and BBC opinion poll carried out for what Tommy Gorman, on "Morning Ireland", described as a show rather than an actual serious debate. According to the poll, there are many issues that unite us in terms of civil rights and other issues. Obviously, many things are dividing the people on this island as well. The substantive issue is that of unity. It should be remembered that a previous BBC opinion poll, taken nine months before the Scottish referendum, showed that only 20% were in favour of independence. When the actual referendum was held nine months later, however, but for a 6% swing, the Scots would have ended the 300-year union. Of course, the close outcome in this instance came down to the arguments made by those in Scotland who were in favour of independence at the time.
Last night's poll showed that 73% of people down here are in favour of a unified Ireland in their lifetimes. I suggest that the Senators on both sides of the House who are members of parties that have the achievement of this goal as an aim should work together to that end. I was interested to look at some of the statistics in this regard. Mark Twain famously said that facts are stubborn but statistics are more pliable.
I would like to mention a statistic that was highlighted last night. According to the most recent census in Northern Ireland - I am not talking about a survey here - just 40% of people in the North describe themselves as British. Another statistic worth mentioning is that 43% of people are not in favour of a united Ireland. As the Deputy Leader will appreciate, it depends on which way one plays the statistics. I am more interested in an analysis of a report on the UN Human Development Index, which shows that Ireland is ranked 11th in the world in terms of education, health and income. The UK is ranked 14th and the Oireachtas Library and Research Service has used the figures in the report to extrapolate that the North of Ireland would be ranked 24th if it were considered on its own. The citizens down here are way better off. Those in the North would be better off in a unified state.
When the Northern state was drawn all those years ago, Carson and Craig, who were its architects, wanted to create the largest majority. That majority was 336,000 at the time, but it had decreased to 58,000 at the most recent census. Thankfully, the religious issues no longer apply. I refer to the religious divide of Catholic equals Nationalist and Protestant equals Unionist. It has been shown that 30% of people in both communities do not have any opinion on whether Northern Ireland should stay within the UK or join a united Ireland. Those people will decide the future of Northern Ireland by virtue of the arguments that are made. The Human Development Index shows that they would be better off here in the South. Along with Congressman Brendan Boyle and his brother, Kevin Boyle, who is a state representative in Pennsylvania, I will be working to arrange conferences in the United States, Ireland and Britain at which the question of what represents the best future for all the people on this island can be discussed. I ask the Leader for a debate in this House for the same reason. Those who are in favour of it must make their points. Obviously, those who are against it will argue their way too. The important part of all of this is that we have the debate and the discussion. I will explain what we are trying to achieve together. We are trying to ensure all the people on this island enjoy the best possible future, regardless of what religion they do or do not practise. We are trying to guarantee the best future for children on this island for generations to come, regardless of their religion. It is not about borders; it is about new horizons. That is what we should be talking about and that is what we should be creating.
I did not see last night's programme, to which Senator Daly has referred, but I heard some commentary on it this morning and I am looking forward to watching it on the RTE player. It has thrown up some interesting commentary and debate. I would certainly support the idea of having a discussion on all the issues that were raised by the programme in question.
I welcome the signature by Ireland of the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
The signature by Ireland of that convention marks a very important milestone for all of those who have campaigned for better protections and supports for victims of domestic violence. I am pleased to note that the Minister has published an action plan for the implementation of the Istanbul Convention in Ireland. I do not doubt that we will have an opportunity to discuss this matter in the House in the near future.
I welcome the attempts that are being made today by the Workplace Relations Commission to bring about a resolution of the Irish Rail dispute. I urge unions and management to engage in meaningful discussions so that the threat of strike action can be dissipated. In my view, it would be totally unacceptable for the travelling public to be severely discommoded again. It would have serious effects on individuals, families and businesses. I refer, for example, to those who are travelling for hospital appointments and other important commitments. Everyone involved in this dispute needs to realise that the taxpayer is seriously subsidising Irish Rail at a time of limited resources. Heads need to be knocked together as a matter of urgency. It worries me when I hear unions looking for recognition and compensation for past productivity. I think it sends out the wrong message. I ask everybody to redouble their efforts so that a sensible and meaningful resolution to this dispute can be found.
I will conclude by calling on the Deputy Leader to arrange for a discussion and an update on the 2015 Action Plan for Jobs in the near future. It is welcome that the unemployment rate dropped to 9.3% in October and that an additional 24,900 people are at work compared to this time last year. Indeed, the latter figure is the highest one in the past six years. There is still much more to be done if we are to achieve full employment. Some regions of the country are still not feeling the effects of the upswing in the economy. I hope the regional action plans will be a very positive development. I note that the jobs action plan for the western region will be launched on 16 November. This is important because parts of the west have fared poorly enough in relation to job creation in recent years. I am sure there is a great deal of debate to be had on these regional plans. I would like to have a discussion on the regional action plans in the House. I ask the Leader to organise that in the near future.
I thank the Members on all sides of the House who spoke in favour of the National Mortgage and Housing Corporation Bill 2015 last night. I think the records will be most interesting. We were asked to combat the problems of homelessness and high housing costs in Ireland. I do not believe the financial institutions or the building sector, as they are currently constituted, will solve those problems. That is why I am proposing the changes set out in the Bill. It is particularly important for the Senators on the Government side who supported the Bill so strongly last night, and whose support I deeply appreciate, to raise this matter within their parties, because the permanent government does not like what we were doing last night. I think the Seanad has to assert itself. The fear was that even though everybody spoke in favour of the Bill, it would not have passed if it was put to a vote. It is still on the Order Paper. I hope there will be a more open mind in the permanent government in the future. We have to look at these institutions. Why is there such a huge mark-up on mortgages? Why are house prices rising so rapidly? Why is the ratio of house prices to average earnings so high in this country? While it was important to rescue the banks, it is equally important that we tackle homelessness and the housing crisis. I hope the debate will continue on the Government side. It is very important that it does, especially in light of the interesting and informative statements that were made last night.
I congratulate Senator Barrett on his National Mortgage and Housing Corporation Bill 2015, which was debated yesterday. It was an incredibly interesting discussion. I would like to reassure the Senator of my personal support for the issues raised in his legislation. I assure him that I brought the matter to the attention of the Labour Party Parliamentary Party last evening. It is an issue that will not be going away, as we all know.
I would like to bring it to the attention of the House that the ESRI has published a report on the impact on Ireland of a British exit from the European Union, or Brexit. Dr. Edgar Morgenroth, on behalf of the ESRI, has estimated that the impact of a Brexit on this country, measured in lost trade alone, would be approximately €3 billion per annum. He has made it clear that this would be mainly felt by domestic companies, rather than multinationals, with a particular impact in the Border region, which, as we know, has experienced significant difficulties over many years. On top of that, Dr. Morgenroth estimates that it would cost us €10 billion to re-establish an electric interconnector to replace the one we currently have with the United Kingdom. Many other issues are raised in the report, which echo the concerns raised in the report published earlier this year by the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, of which I am a member.
I am somewhat concerned about the complacency that exists in this country regarding the possibility of a Brexit. I ask the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate in this House with the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs. There has been a certain amount of reference to the fact that Mark Carney of the Bank of England and David Cameron appear to be in favour of the UK remaining in the EU while, at the same time, polls in the UK show that support for a Brexit is growing. I am concerned to hear people on the Irish side commenting that England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity and suggesting that this is a great time to be looking for foreign direct investment in Ireland from those who cannot locate in the UK. I am glad the ESRI has put a stop to that by making it absolutely clear that the impact on Ireland of foreign direct investment relocating here from the UK would be minimal. In fact, it is more likely that companies would relocate to France or Germany. There is a massive cost to the uncertainty. I would like to hear what the Government has to say about how it intends to tackle this issue.
We cannot interfere directly in what happens in another jurisdiction but there is no doubt that we must have a voice within the European Union. There are millions of Irish people living in the United Kingdom who must understand the impact a Brexit would have on this country. It is a very important issue and 2017 sounds like it is a long way away but it is not. It is only around the corner and it is a matter of national importance to this country.
Later today there will be a demonstration outside Leinster House and a briefing in the audiovisual room on hydraulic fracturing, so-called fracking. My colleague, Senator Mooney, has championed the movement against fracking for many years in the House and it pertains specifically to the north west where there are plans by various companies to engage in fracking for their own gain. The citizens of that part of the country are very concerned about the economic and, more important, the environmental impact of this practice in the north west. There is something of a crisis of confidence in the Environmental Protection Agency which has appointed a company, CDM Smith, to investigate the effects of fracking. Unfortunately, this company is linked very strongly with the commercial side of fracking and so we in the north west do not have any confidence in this company's involvement with a so-called impartial investigation of the environmental impact of fracking in our part of the country.
We are very concerned about this as the industry is controlled by profiteers who ultimately do not care about or have an interest in the people or the environment in the north west. For this reason I encourage anybody who is available today to attend the demonstration and the presentation in the audiovisual room, join the support and voice the concerns of the people of the north west. They are concerned about their environment, particularly the quality of the air and the water table. Ultimately, the people of the north west will not accept fracking. This or the next Government - whoever it takes - should make it clear to these companies that fracking will not be accepted in the north west or any other part of Ireland.
I support my colleague, Senator Hayden, in her call for a debate on the matter of the Brexit. It is a serious matter and we should discuss it in the House.
I also welcome Ireland's signing of the Istanbul convention on domestic violence. Domestic violence has been the poor relation of crime for far too long, but this is a step in the right direction and a sign that the Government is concerned about domestic violence. We await the domestic violence and victims of crime Bill to confirm these steps in the right direction. It will take much training, time and resources and a change in culture relating to domestic violence for it to become a crime far less prevalent than it is today.
I again raise the matter of undocumented migrant workers in the fishing industry in Ireland. Before proceeding, I should make it clear that I am one of the people who is not saying that everybody involved with the fishing industry employs undocumented or migrant people. That is not the case and it is not the argument offered by The Guardian. It is not the truth of the matter because there are many fine and hard-working people in the fishing industry. Where people who are undocumented and migrant workers have been employed and where they have been deceived, controlled or exploited, there is a matter of grave concern to the fishing industry. People who have consented to come to work in Ireland find themselves in the very awkward position of being told they have not been trafficked, because if they have consented, it appears they have not been trafficked. These people need to be assessed by senior members of the Garda to find out if they have been exploited, controlled or deceived. That is one of the contradictions at the heart of this matter. We should discuss whether people are being asked if they have documents, if they are in the country in a proper fashion or whether they have been deceived in their right to come here. We should debate this in the Seanad, perhaps with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, or the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, as it is a cross-departmental issue.
Demie Omal from the Philippines is a very ill man and his case would break one's heart. He is now in a position where he has been exploited but what knowledge did the various Departments and State agencies have of his case? We need to discuss that. Does the Garda north Atlantic maritime project still exist and is it still working on the matter? Does Bord Iascaigh Mhara offer training to migrant workers without checking whether they have their papers, whether they are here officially and if they are being treated properly? There are many matters we need to raise. It is the responsibility of either the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, or the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, and perhaps the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, could be brought in afterwards. It is not a matter we should ignore. If a small number of migrant workers are being trafficked, it could lead to further people being trafficked, as has happened in our nearest neighbours, Scotland and England.
I raise the matter of charging and sentencing in the criminal justice system. I am quite concerned about the practice of a charge of manslaughter continually being put when the evidence and circumstances suggest an offence of murder has taken place. I can understand how this happens as when the death sentence applied, a jury would have been loath to find somebody guilty of murder. It seems we now regularly see cases that are clearly identified as murder but the State is willing to accept a charge of manslaughter instead. This is worthy of a debate and I hope we can find some time in the near future for the Minister for Justice and Equality to come here for a debate on sentencing, especially in criminal areas. It is worthy of a discussion and although it may not be urgent and it does not sound very friendly, there are many cases in which a charge of murder should be pressed but a manslaughter charge is substituted.
I fully support the idea that we should have a debate on fracking but I do not support the belief that fracking is automatically bad and should not take place. The use of fracking for oil in America has been a major boon with practically no instances of problems. It is worthy of discussion and I therefore support Senator MacSharry and Senator Mooney in that I would like to see a debate in the near future.
As I speak, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, are holding a consultation conference with sport stakeholders to develop a national sports policy framework. This is the first of its kind in more than 20 years and it is to be welcomed. Central Statistics Office figures released yesterday confirm a very strong performance by Irish tourism for the period from January to last September. All our main overseas markets continue to show significant growth and all stakeholders must maintain this positive momentum in the years to come. I congratulate Loop Head tourism and particularly the voluntary committees of the Loop Head Peninsula in County Clare, as they were awarded gold in the culture and heritage category at the 12th World Responsible Tourism Awards held recently in London. It is a significant achievement for a community which, as it were, got up off its bottom and promoted the Loop Head Peninsula and attractions.
Congratulations are likewise due to Cnoc Suain in County Galway, which won the silver medal in the same category, and to Connemara Wild Escapes, which won silver in the Best for Engaging People and Culture category. It shows what can be done when communities work together to promote their local areas.
I call for a debate on where Government policy and strategy stand in respect of the proposed technological universities. A commitment was given in the programme for Government to allow institutes of technology to make joint applications to obtain the status of technological university. A number of such applications were submitted, with some applicants being more advanced than others. There has, however, been no progress to speak of. In the south east, the joint application by Carlow Institute of Technology and Waterford Institute of Technology came to a halt when one of those institutes paused the process. Since then, we have had the report published by Professor Michael Kelly, and the two institutes are currently trying to work through the issues identified in that report.
This is very important for a region like the south east which does not have a university. I am unclear as to the proposed next step for progressing the application by Waterford and Carlow. There have been no briefings for Oireachtas Members since the Kelly report and no real information has been given to people in Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny or Wexford. We are left wondering what Government policy might be on this issue and how it is intended to proceed. These are legitimate questions, but the answers do not seem to be forthcoming from the Government. Will the Deputy Leader invite the Minister to the House for a debate on this issue? It affects not only the south east but also the south west, Dublin and other locations where applications have been made. We need the Minister to outline the status of each of those applications, how advanced they are, what supports are being provided by the Higher Education Authority and the Department, and what efforts are being made by the individual institutes to progress matters. The proposals for technological universities were a strong platform of the Government's education strategy and we need to know what is happening in that regard.
I wish to raise the plight of rural GPs, many of whom find themselves in something of a crisis. While the average patient panel per GP is made up of approximately 1,600 patients, many rural GPs have fewer than 600 patients on their books. There are 21 vacancies for rural GP posts at this time, 17% of which have not been filled for more than one year and 22% for more than two years. Investment in rural practice in this country amounts to 2.5% of the total health budget, compared with 9% in Britain. During the crash, rural GPs lost 40% of their incomes, including the rural practice allowance and the allowance previously given to cover travel to see patients. Back in the 1980s, doctors were entitled to a call-out payment, with a higher rate applying the greater the distance travelled. These allowances were revoked under financial emergency measures in 2008 and 2009 and, now that things are improving, they should be reinstated in order to entice people to take up rural GP posts. I understand the matter is currently under review, but that review is not scheduled to conclude until the end of 2016, by which time we will have lost another tranche of rural GPs. Another problem is that where GPs are forced out of a practice because it is not sustainable, their patients cannot transfer to another GP but must instead make do with a series of locums who do not know their history. I am aware of cases in which rural GPs are earning less than their practice nurses. The only way to solve this crisis is via investment. I will be asking the Cathaoirleach to allow me to raise the matter on a Commencement debate next week.
I have raised on several occasions now the issue of the suffering endured by girls who have been administered the Gardasil and Cervarix HPV vaccines. Without seeking to extend the debate at this stage, I draw Members' attention to a report in the Irish Independent by Eilish O'Regan, that newspaper's health correspondent and a very able and well-respected journalist. I was very disappointed to see the headline of that article, "27 girls report abnormal symptoms after receiving the cervical cancer vaccine," because, unfortunately for the paper and its reporter, it is wildly inaccurate. In fact, 120 girls are suffering as a result of having the vaccine. I also am concerned that the report does not give any indication of the attention that has been given to this issue, not only by Members of this House but also by colleagues in the Dáil. Only this week, the Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, was in this Chamber to take a Commencement matter tabled by me on the issue before, later in the day, answering a similar matter in the names of several Deputies in the Dáil. There is no reference to these proceedings in the Irish Independent report and no hint that the Houses of the Oireachtas have taken a keen interest in the issue.
If Members have not already done so, I advise them to consult the website of the support group, REGRET, which will help them to inform themselves about this growing controversy - which is affecting girls worldwide, not just in Ireland - and learn more about the concerns regarding the side effects and efficacy of the vaccine. I understand REGRET has been in touch with the Irish Independent to request that Ms O'Regan's report be updated. I am delighted to see her taking up this issue, because the rest of the national media seem to be silent on it. It is unfortunate, however, that the headline was not more stark and more accurate, reflecting the reality that 120 girls, not 27, are affected by this.
Senator Feargal Quinn and I have jousted on more than one occasion, in parliamentary terms, on the issue of fracking. We have since agreed to disagree on it. I welcome the comments by my colleague, Senator Marc MacSharry, on this important issue. I certainly welcome the people who are travelling from Leitrim and elsewhere in the north west today to inform Members of both Houses about the fracking issue. It is a very regionalised issue that does not affect people in large areas of the country. Tourism is the backbone of the economy in my county of Leitrim and in the north west in general, and any actions which might upset the very sensitive environmental balance of the region must be opposed. We are primarily a lakeland area and, as we know, millions of gallons of water are required for fracking activities. I join Senator MacSharry in reiterating my complete opposition to fracking, which is in line with Fianna Fáil policy.
Irrespective of any survey that is carried out by the Environmental Protection Agency, flawed or otherwise, we are opposed to fracking, full stop.
There was a very interesting debate in the other House this week on the question of whether members of the Traveller community should be recognised as a separate ethnic community in our society, although it sometimes seemed essentially to be a battle between the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, and Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn for the "most righteous person" award. Nevertheless, some interesting issues were raised. From my contacts with the Traveller community and people who work in and with that community, there are very mixed opinions about whether its members should be recognised as a separate group. Some of them take the view that even if they do have access to all the legal protections under the law to which they are entitled, their distinct cultural tradition and shared history mean they do, in fact, qualify as an ethnic group. Some Travellers make the case that the disadvantage they experience is so acute, there is a need to seek to alleviate it by way of formal State recognition of their status as an ethnic group. Others worry that such a development would be a form of tokenism and nice talk which would make no real or tangible difference in the lives of Travellers. Some Travellers want to be respected first and foremost as Irish citizens but also as Travellers. There are those, too, who see the concept of ethnicity as old hat, theoretically speaking, a view that is prevalent in academia.
Some people claim the debate has moved on and become more nuanced to incorporate factors like ethnicity, nationality, social and cultural factors. Other people wonder whether designation as ethnic would act as a two edged sword and undercut Traveller culture and identity in the long term, thus doing the opposite to what is intended. It is interesting to look at what has happened in Britain which we should find instructive and examine carefully. In Britain, Irish Travellers have been recognised as an ethnic minority and as distinct from non-Traveller Irish people for nearly 20 years. If one were to ask Irish Travellers in Britain whether such designation has made a huge difference to their lives or improved respect for their culture, one would get a very mixed response. We need a debate in this House but it should be framed by Travellers and engaged in by representative bodies for Travellers located throughout Ireland and not simply be contributions by lobby groups or State orientated think tanks. I hope such a debate and whatever recognition emerges helps to create a new healing and a more just and positive dynamic between members of the Traveller community and the settled community in society.
I want to comment on the Finance Bill 2015. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation states constantly that he wants Ireland to be the global centre for start-ups, but I do not think he has spoken to the Department of Finance. He keeps saying these lovely words but in reality Ireland has not delivered for start-ups. In fact, the Finance Bill which has been delivered by officials in the Department of Finance penalises start-ups. It is no wonder, therefore, that we have missed out on massive business opportunities like the Web Summit when the Government clearly has not communicated and liaised with people who try to develop start-up businesses. Paddy Cosgrave is the founder of the Web Summit and he summed up the situation well when he said:
I have absolutely no record of a single Irish minister ever meeting a single high-level delegate. Last year the British Government sent a Minister here for two days. He didn't look for photos beside Enterprise Ireland or the equivalent of IDA stands, instead he spent two days doing non-stop bi-lateral meetings.
That British Minister spent two days in bilateral meetings with potential start-ups with an interest in coming to Ireland which is the reason the British are great business people.
As I have mentioned here before, the capital gains tax relief regime here does not compare with the UK regime. In Ireland such relief is restricted to the first million of profit gained. In contrast, the UK has a simpler, clearer and more attractive relief because a flat rate of 10% is applied to entrepreneurial gains of up to £10 million. The initiative has increased threefold since the relief was introduced because the UK has an entrepreneurial economy and society. The UK woke up some years ago to the fact it was experiencing a brain drain due to people choosing to leave its shores as they found they could not do business there anymore.
I would like to raise many other issues but I will return to them at a later stage. Inheritance tax was only tinkered with in the Finance Bill.
The Senator can raise the issues when we debate the Finance Bill.
I have many points to make about inheritance tax. The Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has let himself be rolled over by the people in the Department of Finance. They do not have a clue what it is like to do business and are suspicious of every business person. The Finance Bill is a disgrace as far as potential start-ups are concerned.
Aontaím leis na ráitis atá déanta maidir leis an tionscal iascaireachta. It is important we examine the allegations of human trafficking and exploitation of migrant workers in the fishing industry and I would welcome such a debate. The debate that took place in the Dáil last night raised many issues concerning the rights of Travellers. Perhaps the Seanad Public Consultation Committee might do a piece of work on the matter and compile a report on Traveller ethnicity. It has had great success in the past.
The Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality has compiled a report on the subject.
Yes, but it is quite clear that the debate is ongoing. We need a debate and possibly more work could be done on Traveller ethnicity.
On Operation Thor and the Government's efforts to tackle crime, my party welcomes increased funding and resources being made available for this type of operation. I note, however, that there has been quite a lot of media speculation that when one scratches under the surface of what has been announced, it seems to be a lot of hype with quite a dearth of detail on what will happen. For example, The Irish Times has reported today that €5 million has been earmarked to fund the operation but no detail and timeline has been given on when the money will be spent. When the newspaper followed up on the matter it was told the funding would last for six months. It has estimated that if one divides the €5 million that will be made available between the 28 Garda divisions in the State, €27,800 will be available each month to each division. To put that figure in context, the overtime budget in the Dublin area alone can reach up to €2 million per month so an outlay of €5 million seems minuscule. It seems the Commissioner and her deputies have been used for a PR stunt to show that the Government is getting tough on crime. There is little substance to back up such rhetoric and, therefore, it is important that the Minister comes to the House to give a detailed explanation of Operation Thor and how the money will be spent. It would be an opportunity for her to refute the newspaper's contention that the allocation will be used to pay a little bit of the overtime bill and provide a few new cars to prop up the current depleted fleet of spluttering bangers. Crime prevention is a serious issue and it is one I have raised previously, particularly in the context of what has happened in many housing estates in Galway. We need to get serious about the matter and we need more detail from the Minister about Operation Thor. I call for a debate to be organised as soon as possible.
Yesterday a number of Members raised the issue of decisions taken by the Bank of Ireland. It has rowed back somewhat but in a meaningless way by identifying vulnerable customers and it has not rowed back on its decision to go cashless. Yesterday evening the Consumers Association of Ireland identified four retail banks that will follow suit. Such a move will have a major impact on the viability of branches, especially in rural areas where the average customer will not have 30 cheques to deposit and machines may not be available. Bank branches will be closed throughout the country unless the Minister for Finance or the Central Bank intervenes.
To date, the Central Bank has been very weak and poor. Its attitude seems to be to protect the customer but protect banks first. By protecting the banks the Central Bank allows them to make profits, but the banks seem to be able to use the argument that to make a profit they have to charge extraordinary interest rates, a discussion we had last night, and they have to rationalise services, which is what is being done. The Central Bank does not protect customers or fulfil its obligation to them. The new head of the Central Bank is Professor Lane and the big question is whether he is willing to challenge the consensus. If not, then without the intervention of either the Minister for Finance or an overarching authority, which would have responsibility for the Central Bank, banks will continue doing what they are doing.
I call on the Deputy Leader to arrange a debate on the future of this island in the context of the ESRI's report on a Brexit that was announced this morning. Last night RTE broadcast a great television programme and I declare that the public broadcaster did the State some service. The emergence of that programme has generated many discussions in communities in the North from both backgrounds and the engagement that takes place between institutions of State and local communities. The Brexit issue is an east-west issue. If the British Government, following a referendum, takes the decision to withdraw from the European Union, it would have major economic and social implications for Ireland and its citizens, not least of which is travel. When travelling home to Donegal, as I will do tomorrow, will I need to show my passport at the Border? There are questions on fundamental issues that need to be answered. I am not sure what engagement at Government level has taken place to date but I suspect there has been very little. We must invite the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and any other relevant Minister to come to the House to discuss this major issue.
While I support those who call for an investigation into human trafficking in the fishing industry, based on a British newspaper report, which has obviously prompted politicians to comment, it raises certain questions. We should not just be looking at fishing in isolation. Human trafficking is far more extensive than just the fishing industry, and people are trafficked for both labour and sexual exploitation. As usual, many politicians are jumping on a bandwagon just because the media have raised a particular issue. We need to be much stronger in the areas of surveillance and detection in this regard. It is astonishing that the Minister is only now coming to realise what is happening in the fishing industry. We have many public servants going around in all sorts of employment agencies, which I have criticised in the past, tormenting small businesses in general, which are trying to get on with business, and imposing all sorts of bureaucratic regulations on them, whereas in fact these much more fundamental breaches of employment law are not being touched at all. The laissez-faire approach needs to be challenged. We should have the Minister come to the House to have a debate on the whole area of human trafficking and sexual and labour exploitation in this Republic. It is quite extensive, as anybody who takes an interest in the topic will know. It is a global issue, but we should be trying to do what we can here.
I agree with Senator Mark Daly on the need for a debate not just on Northern Ireland but on the reunification of the island of Ireland and the policies we should be looking at introducing in order to facilitate and achieve that aspiration. One sees people saying that they support a united Ireland under certain circumstances, but if it comes to paying more tax, they are not as enthusiastic about it. We could all draw on the spirit of the men of 1916, who obviously did not take a view that they would pursue independence from the British oppressor in that era by asking themselves whether it would cost them more tax. In fact, they were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and give their lives so that we would be independent and enjoy freedom. We need to reconnect with that spirit of self-sacrifice in the national interest. Particularly as we become more multicultural, it is important that this particular value, which stood us in good stead over many centuries, is adhered to and is balanced. As a result of the Good Friday Agreement, we now have a template for pursuing a united Ireland in a peaceful way, which is ultimately the only way we are going to achieve it. We can put the troubles of the past behind us and build on the foundations that are there to achieve that. I support fully what Senator Daly has said. A debate on this topic in this House is long overdue and it should be done on a regular basis.
I welcome the wise comments of Senator Feargal Quinn on the fracking debate. We are all very ill-advised as to the scope of that industry. A lobby group is presenting here today and I am sure it will make a valid contribution to the debate. We have to be willing to examine all these possible sources of energy in a balanced fashion. Senator Quinn has pointed out the difference it has made to energy supplies in the United States, but we all have to start from the perspective that current energy sources and supplies are not sustainable and if this country and Europe and the developed world are to grow, we need safe and secure forms of energy. Everything must be on the table for consideration. Whether it is fracking or anything else, we need to listen to both sides, but we must do so with an open mind. I look forward to having that debate in a fuller fashion over the next few months.
I was not here for the early part of Senator Daly's contribution following last night's programme, but I heard some of it on the phone-in service. It would be helpful if we reflected on that programme, but it was no surprise to me. The public, both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, are much more concerned about the here and now and living a decent, peaceful life on this island. They do not allow themselves to be as hung up about flags, emblems, symbols, borders, territories and solutions as the politicians sometimes are. We have come out of appalling conflict on this island. If we can ensure the current generation lives in peace and harmony and develops this island, North and South, I would be more than happy to let the next generation or the one after that worry about borders, flags and so-called solutions. I do not like the word "solution" in relation to the conflict we have had on this island, because one person's happy solution is somebody else's sad and tragic solution. We should simply build on the progress that is being made, secure the peace process and let someone worry in 50 or 100 years' time about borders and so-called solutions. I welcome the progress that has been made and recognise that for most people, North and South, a job, a career and a future are of much greater importance than the flying of flags or the singing of anthems.
I got quite a reaction this morning to the Taoiseach's comments in the Dáil yesterday that he did not understand the crisis in emergency departments and why it cannot be resolved. This is an incredible statement coming from the Taoiseach of our country. He listens to people talking about this every day in the Dáil and we are listening to it every day in the Seanad. One lady who contacted me this morning said there were 120 people in the emergency department again last night at Galway University Hospital. One woman was sent in as an urgent case at 5 p.m. yesterday, and at 7.30 this morning she still had not been seen and no decision had been made about her care. Is it possible that the Taoiseach could not understand that we are lacking space in the Galway emergency department and that we do not have enough nurses and doctors? That is at the front-line level. Behind all that, we have a dysfunctional system. Surely he must know this. This is our Taoiseach. He oversees the Cabinet. He has a Minister for Health there, the Minister for Health whom we were questioning last week. What difference has he made?
We have a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs who was previously the Minister for Health and was stonewalled by everybody, but he was trying. When every new report said more things needed to be done in the hospitals, he was not given extra budgets. We are talking about health, the health of the Irish people. It is the one thing our State should always facilitate. Health must come first. Please can someone inform the Taoiseach about the root of the problem?
He might send the Army in.
I know there was a vote yesterday on bringing in the Minister for Health and it was voted down. What are we going to do today about it? Now we realise there is a gap at the top. There is a gap of understanding. Our Taoiseach does not seem to understand the problem. If he does not understand it, how will resources ever be devolved?
I am exasperated.
Senator Daly spoke first about the poll that was carried out and that was reported on by "Prime Time" on RTE last night. Unfortunately I did not see it, but I did hear the findings of the poll, which are most interesting. It is especially interesting to hear the views on the unification of Ireland and whether people wish to see it in the short to medium term or in the long term. I would be very happy to accede to Senator Daly's request to have a debate on the issue of unification. That is the debate he sought. I take his point on the pliability of statistics. One has to be careful. For example, it would be wrong to say, just because of statistics produced by the UN Human Development Index on quality of life North and South, that people would be better off in one jurisdiction or another. I would be very careful about that. As the Senator would be well aware, there are far more complex issues going on. In respect of the political situation in Northern Ireland more generally, which was raised by a number of people, talks are continuing in a constructive atmosphere to try to resolve the issues around the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and dealing with the legacy and impact of paramilitarism.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, is representing the Government at the talks and has been co-chairing talks in Belfast since September. He and the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, have been very engaged on the issue. Those pressing matters are being dealt with. I like the idea of the debate the Senator mentioned and I will be happy to request it.
Senator Mullins also spoke on the "Prime Time" debate and welcomed the signing of the Istanbul Convention on domestic violence. I endorse the Senator's welcome, also expressed by Senator O'Keeffe. It is an important milestone in ensuring we have adequate protections for victims of domestic violence. People would give a general welcome to it. Senator Mullins also raised the Irish Rail dispute and the talks ongoing at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. We would all join the Senator in hoping efforts to find a resolution may be redoubled. There has been significant engagement in recent weeks through the WRC to resolve the issue. Everyone will hope the strike will not have to go ahead tomorrow. Senator Mullins also raised the regional plan for jobs. Earlier this week, I welcomed the fall in unemployment to 9.3% which the Senator mentioned and I also said it is still too high. I support the Senator's call for a debate on the regional action plan for jobs in particular.
Senator Barrett raised the issue of his mortgage Bill, which was debated in Private Members' time last night. I join with Senator Hayden in congratulating the Senator on the Bill and the excellent debate, which showed the engagement of Senators with the need to think constructively about how to fix the current dysfunctional construction situation. I agree with the Senator that the debate should continue and offer my personal support.
Senator Hayden raised the matter at last night's Labour Party parliamentary party meeting. Senator Hayden spoke on the Bill and offered her personal support, and spoke on the ESRI report and the impact of a Brexit. While she was first to mention Brexit, others subsequently raised it. The Senator pointed out that it is a very important issue for Ireland, given that the report stated the potential for lost trade for Ireland from a Brexit would be €3 billion per year. The Senator and others are correct that the significance it would have for Ireland has been underestimated, and I support her call for a debate with the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs.
Senator MacSharry raised the issue of fracking and brought to our attention the demonstration and briefing in the audiovisual room. No licences have been issued in respect of fracking. I note the Senator's comments and also comments to the contrary by Senators Quinn and Bradford. It shows the need for a debate and I support the call for a debate on the matter.
Senator O'Keeffe supported Senator Hayden's call for a debate on the Brexit and welcomed the Istanbul Convention and pointed out that we await the domestic violence Bill and victims of crime Bill. During the past week, we have had pre-legislative scrutiny of the criminal justice (victims of crime) Bill in the justice committee. It is progressing. Senator O'Keeffe also called for a debate on the exploitation of migrant workers in the fishing industry, revelations about which were reported in The Guardian earlier this week. Senator O'Keeffe, other Senators and I have already raised the issue on the Order of Business and called for a debate with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney. I support the Senator's call. The Minister might come here to update us on the task force he has established, which is very welcome, to investigate allegations of exploitation. Senator O'Keeffe also raised the role of BIM, and this would also be a matter for the Minister to address.
Senator Quinn called for a debate on homicide law generally. As the Senator knows, it is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, to direct which charge will be brought, be it murder, manslaughter or another charge, in individual cases. The bar for proving murder is significantly higher than for proving manslaughter, given that murder requires an intent to kill or cause serious injury. I agree that it would be a useful and very timely debate to have. The Law Reform Commission has reported on it in the past, not just on the demarcation between murder and manslaughter but also on the mandatory sentence for murder. I have spoken on the need to change it from a mandatory sentence in order to offer judges more discretion to reflect the reality of the scale of severity between murder and manslaughter. Some cases of manslaughter, as judges will say, are much closer to murder and some are very far from murder. I will call for the debate. Senator Quinn noted that a debate on fracking would be worthwhile, given the difference of views even in this Chamber that have been expressed this morning.
Senator Brennan raised the consultation being engaged in by the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, with sports stakeholders and the very welcome development of the sports policy framework. The Senator also noted the strong performance by Irish tourism and congratulated a number of bodies, namely, Loop Head tourism, Cnoc Suain in Galway and Connemara Wild Escapes. We will all want to join him in congratulating those organisations on their great achievements in the Irish Responsible Tourism Awards and to note the positive performance and momentum in the tourism sector.
Senator Cullinane asked for a debate on technological universities. The Senator has put down Commencement matters in respect of the university in the south east and we can call for a debate. I am sure the Senator will put down Commencement matters specifically relating to the south east in the future. The Minister for Education and Skills will be here next week to debate a Labour Party Private Members' Bill and we can raise it with her.
Senator Kelly called for a debate on the crisis in rural GP practices. This might be a matter best placed as a Commencement matter for the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, given that a review of the issue is under way. Senator Mooney raised the cervical cancer vaccine. Given that Senator Cummins gave a full response on the issue during yesterday's Order of Business, I will not repeat it.
For the record, it was 110 girls, not 120 as I said.
The Senator raised a specific point about a report in the Irish Independent which I have not seen. If any Senator has an issue with any such report, it would be best to take it directly to the newspaper concerned. Senator Mooney also supported Senator MacSharry on the fracking issue.
Senator Mullen raised the issue of Traveller ethnicity. The Senator did not refer to the report the justice committee produced which made a unanimous recommendation for the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. The Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has done a huge amount of work on trying to make progress on the recommendation. I am puzzled by the Senator's suggestion that some Traveller groups or representatives do not seek, or are not supportive of, a declaration of ethnicity. Based on the hearings and consultation the justice committee conducted, there is clear support for a declaration of ethnicity.
I personally very strongly support it, and there is a consultation process under way, led by the Department of Justice and Equality, to develop a new Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. I very much hope the recognition of Traveller will be achieved in the context of the development of the strategy. The justice committee has done a great deal of work on it and I urge any colleagues with an interest in it to read the report of the committee which achieved unanimous, cross-party support.
Senator White referred to the Finance Bill and support for start-ups, and we might seek a debate on it in the future. The Cathaoirleach intervened on this point. Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to the trafficking allegations, on which I have already spoken, and he noted that there are concerns about trafficking and exploitation in other sectors, which is undoubtedly the case. The Migrant Rights Centre has done much work on it. Senator Walsh also raised the issue and referred to other sectors. The Migrant Rights Centre has concerns about other industries, particularly the domestic care industry, and we can seek a debate on it more generally. However, a specific concern arises from the report that has been conducted into the fishing industry, and we might seek a specific debate on it. Senator Ó Clochartaigh also spoke on Traveller ethnicity, which I have dealt with, and on funding for fighting rural crime and the issue it poses in Galway. The justice committee had a hearing on it with Muintir na Tíre, whose representatives expressed great support for Operation Thor and the work they hope will be carried out as part of it to combat rural crime.
Senator Ó Domhnaill referred to Bank of Ireland, and we all very much welcome the bank's change of heart that followed the heavy criticism it received yesterday from Members of both Houses, other groups and members of the public. I agree with the Senator's comments on the banks generally. It shows public pressure can have an impact, which is important. Senator Ó Domhnaill also supported the calls for debates following the RTE "Prime Time" programme on a Brexit. I have already responded to Senator Walsh on human trafficking. Senator Bradford supported Senator Quinn on fracking, again showing the difference of view, and spoke on the "Prime Time" poll. Senator Healy Eames referred to the accident and emergency crisis and we can seek a debate on health care, although I note, as every commentator has, that it is not a recent issue. Unfortunately, it has been a major problem within the health care system through the boom years and following the recession. I will seek a debate on it.