The Order of Business is No. 1, Adoption (Amendment) Bill 2016 - Second Stage, to be taken at 4.45 p.m., with the contributions of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes each and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes.
Order of Business
I welcome my colleagues back and look forward to an excellent 2017 working with them all.
I am disgusted and shocked by reports that staff working at Dublin Airport have been arrested and are being investigated as part of a major immigrant smuggling racket. It is believed 100 or more people per year have been getting into the country as part of this scam. This alleged exploitation is of great concern to me.
It is clear that the authorities in Dublin Airport and the Garda need to examine carefully the alleged failures in security that allowed such exploitation and abuse to slip through the system. Of further concern is the apparent simplicity of the scam, in that the illegal immigrants were being brought to areas of the airport on arrival and given the necessary clothing to allow them to slip undetected through parts of the airport. In a busy international airport, this must cause alarm bells to ring and security concerns must be prioritised. We have a duty to allow the Garda and the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate the case thoroughly and proceed as they deem fit, but it is incumbent on us to call on the authorities to take any measure necessary to protect the security of the airport and ensure human beings who are attempting to enter the country illegally are not being exploited. I call on the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to take an active role in this matter so as to ensure the DAA will bring Dublin Airport up to the standard required of an international airport.
With regard to Brexit, the most recent Bord Bia report shows that the value of Irish food and drink exports has decreased by €570 million since 23 June 2016 owing to the fall in the value or sterling. We all heard the recent speech by Prime Minister May in which she outlined her plans for a hard Brexit. A hard Brexit, with the potential introduction of trade barriers, is a threat to our economy. The decrease in exports shown in the report has been a tangible blow to rural Ireland and the economy as a whole, even before a hard Border has been implemented. This shows that we must take the issue of a hard Brexit even more seriously and demand again that the Taoiseach appoint a Minister for Brexit before it is too late. Brexit is in the here and now and there is no point in waiting until Britain has decided on physical barriers or otherwise. This is a small economy and we need to protect it.
The Supreme Court in the United Kingdom delivered its Brexit judgment this morning. There has been much focus on its implications for votes in the UK Parliament. Considerable attention has been drawn to the other aspects of the decision, in that the consent of the Northern Ireland and Scottish assemblies is not legally required before the Prime Minister can formally initiate Article 50.
There has been little focus on a key passage of the judgment which I had the opportunity to read this morning that has implications for the Good Friday Agreement. The Supreme Court in the United Kingdom was asked to consider this: "Does any provision of the NI Act, read together with the Belfast Agreement and the British-Irish Agreement, have the effect that primary legislation is required before Notice can be given?" According to the court, at paragraph 131 of its judgment:
[It] is unquestionably right, however, to claim that the NI Act conferred rights on the citizens of Northern Ireland. Sections 6(2)(d) and 24(1), in imposing the EU constraints, have endowed the people of Northern Ireland with the right to challenge actions of the Executive or the Assembly on the basis that they are in breach of EU law.
While the court has ruled that the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly is not required, it did not make a judgment on the necessity or otherwise to amend the Northern Ireland Act of Westminster which put into law the Good Friday Agreement, but it has made clear that Northern Ireland's citizens were given EU-based rights as a result of that legislation. Its citizens, the majority of whom voted against Brexit, will see these rights stripped away from them two years after the United Kingdom formally invokes Article 50 without having any say on the matter. The citizens of this state who voted in record numbers to amend the Constitution to enable Ireland to sign up to the Good Friday Agreement will equally have no say on the stripping away of the rights enshrined in the Agreement, yet we hear nothing from the Government on what it intends to do to protect Northern citizens' rights and prevent a unilateral breach of the Good Friday Agreement by the UK Government. The Agreement was probably one of the greatest achievements in my lifetime in bringing peace and stability to this island, but the Government has no strategy to defend against its imminent destruction. This is not something that can wait to be kicked down the road because it will then be too late. Once Article 50 is activated, the irrevocable process will have begun and essential clauses within the Good Friday Agreement that confer rights on Northern Irish citizens will vanish in two years' time with no recourse to protection.
Amendment of the Good Friday Agreement is not the concern of the European Union. Neither is it a unilateral concern of the British state. It is the concern of Ireland, the United Kingdom and the elected members of the Northern Ireland Executive. The UK Prime Minister cannot ignore her obligations to this state and the Taoiseach cannot ignore its citizens who voted overwhelmingly in favour of ratification of the Good Friday Agreement. I, therefore, request the Leader to urge the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to come to the House today to explain how the Government intends to defend every line of the Good Friday Agreement before the UK Prime Minister triggers Article 50. I propose that the Order of Business be amended to allow him to do so.
The Senator's contribution was more like a statement than one in which he asked questions. Is he proposing the following amendment to the Order of Business: "That the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade be asked to come to the House today?"
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will be in the House on Thursday.
I second Senator Gerard P. Craughwell's amendment. I, too, wish everybody a happy and healthy new year and best wishes for 2017. Much has happened since we last met. Of significance to Sinn Féin as a party and the country as a whole is the resignation of our leader in the North, Martin McGuinness. I wish him, Bernie and his family the very best of health and happiness. I hope he will make a full and have a speedy recovery. I thank him for the great work he has done in reaching out to people and communities and showing true leadership when required, including by putting his life on the line on many occasions. I encourage everybody to show the same leadership as he has shown and reach out to other communities to ensure it is a given that there is room for everybody on the island, for every opinion and people of every persuasion. I again thank Martin for all he has done and wish our new leader in the North, Michelle O'Neill, the very best in her new position. She is a fantastic choice. With our party president, Deputy Gerry Adams, she has a huge job of work to do to resist attempts at the destruction of the Good Friday Agreement. I wish her well in her attempts to secure special status for the North within the European Union. I ask the House and the wider Oireachtas to do everything possible to help her to secure this special status to ensure all citizens will be looked after.
I would like to comment on the report presented yesterday on rural development. I welcome any investment in rural Ireland, but I am at a loss to understand what is new in the report. For example, in terms of rural infrastructure and connectivity, the key objectives include high speed broadband provision, improvements to rural transport services and implementation of flood relief measures. These are all measures that have been announced previously. I am sure we will be forgiven in rural Ireland if at this stage we say there is report fatigue. We have had spatial and many other strategies which have never amounted to anything more. It is welcome that the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, will come before the House soon when I look forward to having an indepth discussion with her on the report, but to me it is a regurgitation of a series of actions denounced previously. I know that the Government will spin it as being the first comprehensive cross-departmental report, but that is something of which we should be very ashamed. That the Government has been in office for seven years and only now are all Departments agreeing on a strategy begs the question of what have they been doing up to now. What people in rural Ireland want to see is proper investment. We want the neglect of rural Ireland by this and successive Governments to be addressed once and for all and it will only be done through proper investment.
I welcome the necessary focus on rural Ireland. Little as it is, I welcome the plan. As the previous Senator said, most of it is a rehash of the broadband strategy and other elements.
One of the things that has concerned me since the Government came to power is its total disregard of and lack of focus on disadvantaged urban areas. The issue has totally dropped off the radar. From Blanchardstown to Finglas and Cork to Limerick, there is no longer a focus on revitalising disadvantaged areas. The Revitalising Areas by Planning, Investment and Development, RAPID, programme was introduced by the former Minister of State Eoin Ryan, whom I commend for introducing such a focused and targeted measure. Unfortunately, the areas included have been forgotten by the Government. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate, at his earliest convenience, on the need for investment in urban areas, especially disadvantaged areas that have dropped off the radar and been left behind. In many cases, the only time one hears about disadvantaged areas in Dublin and Cork is when some unfortunate person has been murdered and a task force is then established. We need a planned response to tackle disadvantage in urban areas.
I do not support the call for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to attend the House today because he is scheduled to attend on Thursday. I ask Senators to make an effort not to score political points when debating the issue of Brexit which presents one of the greatest challenges Ireland has ever faced, both North and South. I will not be preached to by Sinn Féin that the Taoiseach must look after the interests of Northern Ireland. He will look after the interests of the Thirty-two Counties as best as he can, but four Sinn Féin Members have been elected to the parliament at Westminster and collect expenses of £500,000 a year. They, too, must play their role by going to Westminster to fight for the Six Counties to make sure the North will receive special status. Yes, the Government here must do its upmost to ensure the best possible deal is done for the Thirty-two Counties, but I will not be preached to by Sinn Féin that the Government must carry the load on its own. If one takes the Queen's shilling, one should do the work. Let the Sinn Féin Members go to Westminster to fight to secure a proper deal for Northern Ireland. Let us fight alongside them to make sure we get the best possible deal for this country in the Brexit negotiations.
I agree with my colleague that the four Sinn Féin Members should take their seats in the House of Commons and have issued a press release to that effect. The party would have four crucial votes in debating Brexit as it would affect Northern Ireland. It is important that they exercise their right and make the interests of the people of Northern Ireland their first priority. That is what Sinn Féin should do.
The European Medicines Agency is based in London and employs over 900 people. Once the United Kingdom decides to leave the European Union, the agency will have to relocate. I am delighted that the Minister for Health was in London yesterday to discuss the issue. We must fight tooth and nail to bring this important agency to this country. I would like it to be located in the Cork region where nine of the top ten pharmaceutical companies are based and where it would contribute to the research and development sector and thus encourage more companies to locate in the region. Will the Leader convey to the Minister for Health the urgent need to make the best case possible at European level to have the agency relocate to Ireland?
In particular, I am hopeful it would be based in the south, if at all possible.
On the rural programme referred to by previous speakers, it is important that disadvantaged rural areas or CLÁR areas receive the funding they need. Small post offices, shops, schools and GP surgeries in rural Ireland are in decline and unless money is put into a proper programme, the plan announced by the Government will not work. It is important that Senators make sure the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged areas receive the necessary funding.
I received several telephone calls last night from county councillors. It appears that yesterday evening the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, announced a new funding programme for councillors. Most of us in the Seanad were councillors previously. The abolition of town councils has had a detrimental effect on towns. Their loss has devastated many towns. Funding has halved in many instances and the amount of funding provided for towns is unacceptable. It is good to see that the Minister is willing to work with councillors. Last June the Fianna Fáil group tabled a motion in the Seanad supporting county councillors, criticising the loss of town councils and supporting calls from councillors for additional funding in view of the fact that their workload had trebled. As Senators will be aware, that motion had the support of various groupings within the Seanad. In that context, I am very disappointed that the Minister made an announcement on councillors yesterday and did not inform Members of this House. We received no text messages or e-mails and were not made aware of the details. I received telephone calls from the councillors with whom I work, but I was unaware of what was happening. That is unacceptable. I ask that the Minister be called to the House to address this issue and explain what is involved.
As Senators will be aware, €1,000 per annum has been provided in the context of the new municipal authorities, which I welcome. However, there are no municipal authorities in places such as Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Therefore, over 250 councillors in these areas are not entitled to receive that €1,000. That is unacceptable and suggests these councillors do not represent their areas as well as others do. There is no need for that. I understand the Association of Irish Local Government will hold a meeting on Thursday next. I call on the Minister to explain what he has in mind. The text message sent to councillors today does not contain any detailed information on the proposed new vouched scheme. There is a lack of information and, as Senators, we do not know what is happening, which is unacceptable. It is not good enough. I want the Minister to address the House on the issue.
I commend the Irish Family Planning Association, IFPA, which I was delighted to host this morning in the audiovisual room of Leinster House for a presentation on screening for cervical cancer. The awareness event was part of the Europe-wide Pearl of Wisdom campaign, which aims to highlight the importance of women undertaking regular smear tests. The IFPA is running many events throughout Ireland to raise awareness. Each year 300 women in Ireland are diagnosed with cervical cancer and as many as 90 lose their lives. As public representatives, we all have a responsibility to promote this progressive public health measure among our sisters, aunts, mothers, daughters and nieces and encourage them to register and avail of this life-saving service. We have many bad news stories about the health service and public health, but this is a good news story. Let us play our part in promoting this effective public health measure. I encourage all women between the ages of 25 and 60 years to avail of the free test. Over 4,500 registered practitioners are available to help to bring down cervical cancer rates. Again, I thank the IFPA.
I refer to the announcement made by the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, that he will increase the pay of some councillors by €1,000 but not those councillors serving in certain local authorities, including the four local authorities in Dublin. While it is good to see some increase in salary, however miserly, for councillors, given their working conditions and the stress councillors are under since the reform of local government, it is unfair to leave out those councillors who represent large urban centres such as Cork and Dublin.
Equality needs to be built into the process. I plead with the Minister to increase the salary of these councillors in line with that of other councillors across the country.
I am concerned that the equity houses, the so-called vulture funds, have snubbed the Oireachtas by failing to appear before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Taoiseach. When I was a member of that committee in the previous Seanad, I proposed and it was agreed that we invite them to appear before it, but they more or less told us to mind our own business. I understand it is possibly happening again. That is not good enough. The committee - one of its members is seated to my right - has engaged with the Central Bank, the banks, individual borrowers and market experts, all of whom had valuable things to say about the banking and financial crisis. These funds which collectively own billions of euro worth of distressed debt are refusing to engage with the committee or allow the legitimate concerns genuine people have put to all Members to be addressed. I urge the Leader to explore measures to seek to compel the funds to attend before the Oireachtas and explore what legal steps are required to ensure their co-operation. Their stake in the lives of thousands of citizens is too ingrained to allow them to shun the legitimate and well intentioned work of the Oireachtas. The people in question do not understand the softly softly approach. Compelling them to attend may be the only way to go. I ask the Leader to pursue this further as it would be of assistance to the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Taoiseach.
I wish everybody a very happy 2017 and hope we will have a good year.
Like other Members, I welcome the Government's announcement of the action plan for rural development. Those who will be affected by the plan have been consulted widely. The plan promotes cross-departmental co-operation and has some solid proposals to make it easier for people to continue living and raising families in towns, villages and rural areas. I was particularly interested to see included measures oriented towards revitalising the main streets of rural towns and villages, something the Green Party is particularly keen to encourage. However, there was one aspect of the realisation of the scheme that, as a Green Party member and a proponent of local banking models, I did not welcome. As part of the programme for Government, the Fine Gael Party committed to creating the legal structures necessary to permit a local banking model to emerge in Ireland. Such a model could emulate the best aspects of the German Sparkassen model and New Zealand's Kiwi bank model, allowing focused regional banking orientated towards investment and loans within communities and avoiding many of the pitfalls and inefficiencies of scale that conventional banking models can produce. With this in mind, representatives of the German Sparkassen model had offered their services and advice to the Government in the establishment of such a system in Ireland. lf one looks at action point No. 23 in the section on enhancing local services section, it commits to investigating the potential of the German Sparkassen model and the Kiwi model for the development of local public banks that would operate in defined regions. That is a very welcome action point for any supporter of a more decentralised banking model, yet the delegated bodies for its development are the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the Department of Finance, An Post and the Irish League of Credit Unions. No mention is made of Sparkasse Bank as a partner, delegating the task rather to our own very fine institutions of An Post and the Irish League of Credit Unions. How are they, as representatives of the existing savings systems, meant to be the best people in promoting its alternative? I would like to ask the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, as the person with responsibility for regional economic development, to reconsider action point No. 23 and open up the process to the consultation and advice freely offered by the representatives of the Sparkassen model.
They should be fully included in this process, as should other examples of best practice in regional and local banking models.
I start on a positive note with the unveiling yesterday of the action plan for rural development. I also fully support Senator Grace O'Sullivan's comments on the German Sparkassen and the banking system. I hope Senators will attend a briefing in the audiovisual room next Wednesday by a group that is trying to develop a public banking service. Notwithstanding my positive comment on the rural action plan, my difficulty is that it contains 276 actions. In my experience in politics, no document with such a large number of actions has ever been followed through. The €60 million allocated over three years for 600 towns nationwide equates to €30,000 per town per annum. Based on an interview given by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, this will mean that every year one shop would be converted into a house and two public lights erected in each of the 600 towns. That is not redevelopment and revitalisation of rural Ireland.
The proposed revaluation of rates in nine counties and the exclusion of the other 17 beggars belief. I do not see how this proposal will be workable. I am also concerned about the proposal to convert shops into homes because it is intended that this measure will bypass the planning system, which means bypassing local democracy and local government. This is a no-no and an insult to elected councillors.
The proposals to improve councillors' terms and conditions of employment are also an insult. An increase in pay of €20 per week for people who work up to 50 hours per week does not amount to an improvement in terms and conditions. Furthermore, the exclusion of 250 councillors in the greater Dublin area, Galway and Cork from access to this paltry increase also beggars belief. Senator Jennifer Murnane O'Connor called on the Minister to come to the House to discuss this issue. I understand from the circular issued yesterday that the proposed changes will not take effect until 1 July. Therefore, we have time to review the proposals made and I ask the Minister to come to the House to discuss them.
Much has been made of the improvement in rural broadband services. If one casts a cold eye over the figures, they show that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in the previous Government, Deputy Brendan Howlin, allocated €200 million for rural broadband provision, a single programme, yet rural areas are supposed to be revitalised with a sum of €60 million. The Fianna Fáil Party has been very good on the confidence and supply agreement, but there is no confidence or supply in the document on rural Ireland. It is time Fianna Fáil stood up and supported rural people on this specific issue.
I support Senator Máire Devine on cervical cancer services. I only managed to attend the end of the briefing provided by the Irish Family Planning Association and hosted by the Senator and Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. Every year approximately 300 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and approximately 90 women lose their lives to this preventable disease. As part of cervical cancer prevention week, Senators should play their part in spreading the word about cervical cancer prevention. Cervical cancer which involves slow changes in the part of the body affected can take years to develop. This makes it all the more tragic that lives are lost as a result of the disease. Screening saves women's lives. The Seanad should play its part, whether via social media or otherwise, in spreading awareness and making information available. A total of 4,500 practitioners are registered with CervicalCheck which is an excellent screening system.
We need to get the word out to a greater degree and I commend those involved in the presentation.
I call on the Government and the Leader, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to liaise with the archbishops, Eamon Martin and Diarmuid Martin, on the proposed visit of Pope Francis to Ireland. It would be an ideal opportunity to address the joint Houses of the Oireachtas. He has a natural connection to Dublin as he lived here for over three months and this would be an apt forum from which to reach out to the whole country. I call on the Leader to speak to the Taoiseach and, when plans are being made for the Pope to visit the country, arrange for him to address the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I welcome the slight improvement in councillors' pay and conditions, but Senators of my own party have discussed the issue today and we cannot stand over the exclusion of councillors in Dublin, Galway and Cork. If the Bill is brought before us - it is due to be brought before this House in April - we will not support it. There will have to be amendments to enable its passage through this House.
I will raise two issues. One relates to the Road Safety Authority, while the second relates to Northern Ireland.
I have received a lot of correspondence in the past couple of weeks on the Road Safety Authority. Members will recall that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, was before the House recently when he gave himself a substantial amount of time to read a script, but he gave Members very little opportunity to ask questions or, more importantly, get comprehensive answers from him. The many controversies surrounding the RSA have been debated in the Irish Independent and other media. There seems to be a struggle which is being carried on by letters and references to letters in the media. I do not doubt the commitment of the Minister or the RSA and its chairperson, Ms Liz O'Donnell, a former Deputy who is familiar with politics in this House. It is important, however, that the relevant Minister with responsibility come into the House to answer some questions on the Road Safety Authority. We know from public correspondence that there are vacancies, but is it his intention to fill them? There has been a constant flow of communications to try to reach a compromise and a resolution of the dispute and I would like to question the Minister about that matter. It takes 20 weeks for people living in Buncrana and 25 weeks for people living in Letterkenny or Galway and other places to get a driving test. There is a huge backlog for young people who are waiting to sit their driving test to help them to obtain gainful employment. I respect the fact that the Minister is the Minister, but it is important that we apportion time between the Minister and elected Members.
I acknowledge the role played by Mr. Martin McGuinness, the former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. He has been courageous in his conversation with the nation, through the media, about his illness and I wish him well. It would be wrong not acknowledge his role. We have all suffered losses. Many people in Northern Ireland, on this side of the Border, in Britain and further afield have suffered pain as a result of parliamentary activities or legitimate political organisations through word, deed, bullet or bomb.
However, we must move on. We must acknowledge the statesman that he was, particularly during the past ten years, the way in which he dedicated himself and was a hand, with many others, in bringing peace to the island of Ireland. It is very important that we acknowledge the role he played. Having said that, I say to his colleagues in this House that it is important that we also acknowledge the pain and suffering endured by others.
I join the female Senators who highlighted the cause of National Cervical Cancer Awareness Week and pointed out how easy it was to have early intervention. All I will add to what they said is that a smear test only takes five minutes and it could save a woman's life. The battle against cancer is always on. A smear test is a simple procedure and women should have one regularly. I encourage women who are entitled to a free smear test to avail of it.
I echo the call for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, to come to the House. The hands-off approach he has adopted to the Bus Éireann crisis which is looming and upon us must stop. The company is in serious difficulty having sustained losses of €6 million a year. We face the prospect of bus drivers going on strike and 22 Expressway routes are under threat. In the immediate term if the bus drivers go on strike, vital public transport to many areas of the country will not be provided. It is not today or yesterday that people have begun to talk about the paucity of public transport. At this point the Minister must come to the House. I understand he is one step removed from the independence of Bus Éireann, but we must have a proper debate on public transport because it seems to be a cyclical requirement. The public transport system must be sustainable, but clearly it is not. We have to put our money where our mouth is and have a public discourse on public transport and set out the standards we require. For environmental reasons, the push is towards investment in public transport, yet we seem to lunge from one crisis to another. In November a rail review commissioned by the National Transport Authority revealed that there was a €103 million deficit in the rail service. One of its proposals was to shut down major passenger services serving places such as Ballina and Westport in the part of the country I am from. We have four Expressway services, without which we would be lost. Even at this, we do not even consider we have a great public transport service. There must be a big debate on public transport, otherwise we are only paying lip service in saying the future goal in a progressive country such as ours is to have a proper public transport service. Such talk is meaningless. The buck stops with the Minister. He should be here to answer questions on public transport and allay fears. We should not have the repeated threat that services will be lost. There needs to be more than merely a reaction; there is a need for a proper plan for the future, not fire-fighting action on each and every occasion there is a crisis.
I want to set my comments in the context of Senator Kevin Humphrey's earlier contribution, which was telling at a time of such significant political crisis in the North, given the potential for instability. I wonder whether it was the SDLP, or perhaps the remnants of the Sticks, who telephoned him to let him know that there was an election coming up and that he had to get at Sinn Féin. Perhaps he might have the same view as Ms Arlene Foster who tells us that we are in for a brutal election campaign. It is telling that Senators come into this House and make that type of contribution during the current climate in the North when we are trying to offer rational, coherent and responsible leadership. It is important to state that, unlike failed Deputies such as Senator Kevin Humphreys and current Senators, Sinn Féin MPs do not receive a salary. They do not receive any golden handshake. They will not receive a pension as a result of being elected. I remind Members that Sinn Féin MPs are mandated not to take their seats at Westminster. I wonder if Fine Gael is having a laugh when it issues press releases telling Sinn Féin MPs to take their seats at Westminster when it does not even bother to seek election in a significant part of the country. I remind it that we have bigger fish to fry at this time, on which all of our minds should be focused.
We are mandated not to take seats at Westminster and, unlike other parties, will not break promises we give to the electorate.
On the situation in the North, one of the big things that has added to the tipping point has been the ongoing series of disrespectful words and also manifestations of disrespect from the DUP in recent months. That is seen most acutely in its mistreatment, disregard and disrespect for the Irish language and the Irish speaking population. I acknowledge that the Minister is due to make a statement on the North on Thursday, but as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and in this case the St. Andrew's Agreement, the Irish speaking population in the North and the broader Nationalist family are extremely energised on this issue. Ten years after the Agreement, Edwin Poots of the DUP, in a further indication of disrespect and disregard, is telling us that the DUP did not sign up to an Irish language Act as part of the St. Andrew's Agreement. The British Secretary of State, Mr. James Brokenshire, who recently told us that the British Government owned Lough Foyle in its entirety went on "Morning Ireland" today to say we needed to command cross-community confidence before we introduced an Irish language Act. They are already regressing and reversing the terms of the Agreement of ten years ago. They are providing a cover for a Unionist veto on the issue. Members, some responsibly and others irresponsibly, are pointing to the added crisis as a result of Brexit. It is past time for the Government to cease being a hurler on the ditch. It needs to step up, be proactive and engaged, not just with the British Government but also the population in the North. This crisis has not fallen from the skies. It has come as a result of ten years of disrespect. The position has become intolerable in recent weeks and it is time all of us, collectively, told the DUP that the time for poking us in the eye is over and for us to tell the British Government that it can no longer provide political cover for it.
I wish everybody a happy new year and a very successful 2017. Many of us have been back for a number of weeks as we had committee meetings to attend last week and earlier today. The finance committee raised the issue of the common consolidated corporate tax base, CCCTB, with the European Commissioner, Mr. Moscovici. This House and the wider public need to be aware of the proposal and what it might mean. We must be vigilant in protecting Irish interests.
At first I thought the Senator was talking about CCTV cameras.
No, it is not that, a Chathaoirligh, but the common consolidated corporate tax base. A total of 80% of corporation tax receipts is coming from multinationals. We need to protect the tax base. It is what keeps the lights on and the country running. It is a very significant part of the overall revenue stream and we must be vigilant in how the CCCTB will develop.
I echo the concerns of other speakers. I welcome what the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government has done for councillors, but I am concerned about the idea that 232 of 949, almost one quarter of councillors, including all 183 in Dublin, 31 in Cork city and another 18 in Galway city, will not receive the municipal district allowance. My former local authority is Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council where we had two area committees with 20 members each. These area committees were larger than many county councils throughout the country, for example, Sligo, Leitrim and Cavan in terms of numbers of members, and the chairperson received no allowance. That was fine, but those chairing municipal district committees which had as few as six members were receiving an allowance of €6,000 a year for chairing them. Equally, we are now being told that members of municipal district committees which account for about three quarters of councillors will receive an allowance. They deserve the money, but I question the idea that councillors in Dublin city, Cork city and Galway city will not receive an allowance or recognition that they are working as hard as everybody else. In fact, it is often as a result of having better broadband that one tends to receive a lot more queries. For that reason, more immediate responses are required. Councillors in Dublin, Cork and Galway should be included in any measure introduced. I do not believe it is appropriate to have a two-tier system for councillors. I would like the Minister to come to the House to address us on the issue.
I congratulate and thank the Minister for Health for travelling to the United Kingdom to invite the European Medicines Agency to relocate to Ireland. I remind the House that I was the first Member of the Oireachtas to mention that if Brexit occurred, 700 to 900 jobs would leave Canary Wharf.
I called on him to bring these jobs to Carrick-on-Shannon which I believe would be a great area to which to locate, but we must get them into Ireland first and then fight over where they should be located.
I, too, want to be associated with the remarks made about Mr. Martin McGuinness, whom I wish him. He certainly made a difference in the history of the country. He was in the vanguard in securing peace through the Good Friday Agreement. I wish him well in everything he does.
I highlight the fact that on 4 February 100 years ago we had the famous election of the snows in Boyle, in north Roscommon, in which Count Plunkett was elected as the first Sinn Féin MP at Westminster. He did not take his seat. My grandfather, Mr. James Feely, who was a Sinn Féin councillor, a commander in the IRA and imprisoned and who subsequently joined An Garda Síochána was instrumental in that campaign. We are very proud of this in Boyle, regardless of whether one supports Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin or any other party. It is part of history.
With regard to the institutions, we must work together, North, South, east and west, to unite the people of Ireland because in terms of Brexit, we must examine all options. More than nine months ago I called on us to consider aspects of association with the Commonwealth through sports, cultural, political and economic activities because this is the new dispensation. We cannot be defined by our narrow Nationalist or Unionist view. This is an independent republic, of which I am very proud, but we must examine all possibilities to secure the best option for the people of Ireland and our near neighbours in the United Kingdom.
Belatedly, I wish everybody a very happy new year.
I express my disappointment at the contribution made by our colleague, Senator Kevin Humphreys, whom I respect immensely. I do not know what it is about the Labour Party, but it has never really got the North. I do not know whether it is the legacy of Conor Cruise O'Brien, but it is a pity because we have a good platform in so many areas on which we agree. However, it is a shame there is not that understanding. For our part, our socialism does not stop at the Cavan border.
I refer to Bus Éireann. I was at a meeting with union officials in the past hour. The situation is extremely serious. I want to point to how we have got to where we are. The Fine Gael 2011 manifesto states: "We will completely overhaul the bus market in Ireland by introducing competitive tendering for all bus routes in the country as soon as practicably possible". Unfortunately, it is an issue of ideology; it has not come about by accident. Fine Gael has been in government for the past six years. That is why Bus Éireann is in the current mess. It is a combination of ideological commitment to competition at the cost of rural communities coupled with a refusal to consider the issue of public service obligations. I agree with Senator Michelle Mulherin that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport must come into the House, but, with all due respect, the Members opposite are in government. As he is their Minister, they should sort it out. The top wage for a driver after 20 years of service is €624. The solution which was given to us at our meeting is to put in place a sectoral employment order to have a level playing field on wages, whether it is in a private or a State operator. As our colleague, the Leader, is a good union man, I ask that, in addition to inviting the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the House, he might also commit to the reasonable proposal that we establish a sectoral employment order to protect decent bus workers who have given a lifetime of service but who are facing the prospect of ruin, unless the Minister acts.
I, too, support the comments made about the former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Mr. Martin McGuinness, and wish him well in his retirement.
I support Senators Michelle Mulherin and Victor Boyhan in inviting the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, to come to the House to address the issues they raised but also the increased number of pedestrians who have been killed on the roads, as well as the increased number of cycling accidents. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Denis Naughten, was recently involved in a cycling accident.
There has been a huge increase in the numbers of people walking, cycling and engaging in other forms of exercise. I constantly see people walking and cycling along various routes, but for the life of me I cannot understand how they are allowed to cycle along national primary routes. One regularly sees people cycling in the hard shoulder of such routes, but doing so should be outlawed completely. The relevant Minister should attend the House to discuss the increase in the number of accidents, particularly involving pedestrians and cyclists. The Minister should also give an overview of what the Government and the Department are doing on the issue of driverless cars which are not that far from being introduced in many countries. We need to plan for the driverless car era. To be honest, it will be a welcome addition in rural areas where it might be the only thing to revitalise rural pubs. In that way, people could be driven home after having a few jars at night-time.
I also offer my best wishes to Mr. Martin McGuinness, a man I always found to be affable. He clearly was very able and served his community extremely well. We all hope he will recover soon.
I agree with Senator Paddy Burke on people walking and cycling along main roads. I do not necessarily want to ban cyclists from using national routes, but we need to promote safer ways for people to travel. We also want to encourage them to exercise to tackle the national obesity problem. There are opportunities all over the country to provide safe cycleways and paths. Parents should be able to bring their children out safely, but there are many roads in north County Dublin on which parents could not possibly allow their kids to cycle, but there is a wonderful opportunity in Fingal to do so on an excellent facility along the coastal route from Portmarnock and Malahide to Rush, Skerries and Balbriggan.
I wish to address an issue that was raised by the Leader of the Opposition. I congratulate members of An Garda Síochána on their great work in breaking up the ring which clearly had an international component, the members of which were smuggling illegals into the country. The actions of the few in no way reflect the excellent work done by the thousands of people who work in Dublin Airport and for Aer Lingus.
Brexit was mentioned. In that context, I commend the Minister for Health for trying to bring the European Medicines Agency to Ireland. If those involved would find the journey to Carrick-on-Shannon a little long, they could always stay in Fingal where the Dublin Airport Authority has great plans to develop its lands as a business park. One small example of the opportunities Brexit could bring involves Kelloggs which has an operation in Swords where it employs 300 people. It sells its product worldwide, including into the European Union, as well as to South Africa, Australia and elsewhere. On a positive note, while I know that people are concerned about Brexit, we must also keep looking at the opportunities that may be available to us.
I again congratulate An Garda Síochána on its great work.
Before calling on the Leader to respond, I also convey my good wishes to Mr. Martin McGuinness in his recuperation and wish him a pleasant retirement. It is a loss that he never visited Seanad Éireann. We had anticipated that he would attend the House before the month was out, following approaches made to his office by my predecessor, Senator Paddy Burke, in the last Seanad. The reason it did not happen was that it was presumed and hoped by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister would both attend. However, there was a reticence on the part of the First Minister to do so. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges then suggested and agreed that Mr. Martin McGuinness would address the House. It is a great loss to the Seanad and the Oireachtas generally that the address did not happen as he would have shared a lot of views and we would have had the opportunity to ask many important questions.
That has passed and I wish him the best of luck in his retirement.
As Leader of the House, I pay tribute to a former Member, Dr. T. K. Whitaker, and express my condolences to his family on his passing since the House last met. He played a huge role in building a modern Ireland. It is appropriate and important that I pay tribute to him on behalf of all Members of the House and sympathise with his family on their recent bereavement. He was a statesman and a state builder. In time we will have expressions of sympathy, but it is important on our first day back to sympathise with his family and pay tribute to him for his legacy and the work he did in building a modern Ireland.
I join the many Members who paid tribute to the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Mr. Martin McGuinness, who has announced his intention to step down. As Leader of the House, I join the Cathaoirleach in lamenting the fact that we will not have the opportunity to have him in the House to listen to and engage with him not only on Brexit but also on the future direction of the island. It is important to wish him well in his recovery from ill health and thank him for the role he has played in bringing an end to paramilitary violence and building a solution to events in the North. It is fair to say we would not have had a peace process without him. I thank him and his family for his work. We may disagree with some of his past actions, but as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, he was instrumental and a key, pivotal and monumental figure in the building of a peace process based on the Good Friday Agreement which he helped to negotiate. I wish the new leader of Sinn Féin in the North, Ms Michelle O'Neill, well in her job and hope she will play a positive role.
It is regrettable that we are in an election cycle in the North. Those of us who watch events recognise that it could have been avoided. It is a pity that we have an election and I hope all of the parties will not play the political card, green, white or orange, but rather will play the card of community to build on the Good Friday Agreement, to the implementation of which the Government, like the last one, is committed. Senators Michael McDowell and James Reilly are former Ministers who engaged in North-South ministerial contact and played roles in different ways. It is incumbent on all of us who are custodians of politics to play a role in continuing to build on the political goodwill that has been achieved and the changes that have happened. I do not want to be divisive, but I note that the comments made by Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile about Senator Kevin Humphreys and the Labour Party were not helpful. Such partisanship does not help. Therefore, I ask the Senator to cast his mind back to the role played by Mr. Dick Spring in the building of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and in government with Fianna Fáil in the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement and beyond. We must recognise that all political parties have a role to play. I very much hope we will not go down the road taken by the Senator.
Many Members spoke and some themes emerged. Senators Rose Conway-Walsh, Kevin Humphreys, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Ned O'Sullivan and Denis Landy referred to the launch yesterday of the action plan for rural Ireland. I heard Senator Rose Conway-Walsh on radio yesterday. It is important to welcome the fact that an action plan with 275 action points has been put in place. Senator Michelle Mulherin has left the Chamber, but at meetings of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party in the past five years she called weekly for an action plan for rural Ireland. Following on from her interview yesterday, Senator Rose Conway-Walsh should listen to Mr. Pat Spillane. We now have an action plan which involves a whole-of-government approach. It is a plan for investing and reinvigorating the fabric of rural Ireland. It contains 275 action points. Not even Sinn Féin can disagree that the Action Plan for Jobs was a success. Unemployment is at its lowest level in a decade. There are now more people back at work. The Government is aiming to create jobs to have 135,000 people back at work in rural Ireland by 2020 in the towns and villages about which Senator Rose Conway-Walsh speaks every day.
The action plan is about developing primary care services and supporting rural postal offices and education services. It is also about supporting over 4,000 community projects, in addition to putting in place the building blocks to work with and improve the Leader programme and the rural development programme. It is also about investing. A total of €37 million will be invested under the village and town renewal scheme, while €275 million will be invested in broadband provision, the very thing we need in rural Ireland. A total of €4 billion will be invested in developing and enhancing the rural development programme between 2014 and 2020, while €250 million will be allocated to the Leader programme.
The aim is improve life in rural Ireland. It is a tangible list of projects that can be measured and delivered. Rather than lamenting that it has taken until now to have an action plan, Members should remember that we have been through the worst recession in the history of the country when there was no money available. The previous Government was able to put in place the foundations and the economy is now doing better such that we can invest in the very fabric of society in rural Ireland. I hope Members will welcome the action plan for rural Ireland which has been built on five pillars: creating sustainable communities; supporting enterprise and employment; maximising rural tourism and recreation potential; fostering culture and creativity in rural communities; and improving rural infrastructure and connectivity. This is a plan that will deliver for rural Ireland. It deserves to be worked on and a chance to be implemented. People can then come back and review and critique it. If it has not worked, let us have another one, but let us not come here and engage in old politics where we criticise the Government for investing in the development of rural Ireland.
Senators Gerard P. Craughwell, Rose Conway-Walsh, Victor Boyhan, Paddy Burke, Colm Burke, James Reilly, Paul Gavan, Niall Ó Donnghaile and Kevin Humphreys all paid tribute to Mr. Martin McGuinness, for which I thank them. I wish all those running for election in Northern Ireland well and thank those who are stepping down. I pay tribute to Ms Caitríona Ruane who is stepping down. I got to know her at the Constitutional Convention and we became good friends. I wish her well and thank her for the service she has given, with all of the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who are stepping down.
Senators Catherine Ardagh and James Reilly referred to the Garda operation at Dublin Airport yesterday. It is important that we congratulate An Garda Síochána on the role it played in targeting illegal immigration and people smuggling at the airport. The Senators are correct to raise the issue of security and highlight the importance of securing all airports. It is important that we commend An Garda Síochána and work to ensure immigration officers at Dublin Airport who process about 50 million passengers every year will be resourced and that there will be constant vigilance to ensure safety and security at airports and ports. This is an evolving issue. I know that people are before the courts today, but it is important to commend those involved in the Garda operation and thank them for the role they played and the work they did yesterday.
Senators Gerard P. Craughwell and Catherine Ardagh raised the issue of Brexit. I will not be accepting the amendment proposed, not because I do not want to but because the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will be coming to the House this week to discuss matters pertaining to the issues raised. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges is progressing Senator Michael McDowell's proposal of a motion on how this Chamber can play a role and influence the stance on Brexit. To respond to Senator Gerard P. Craughwell's comments on the role of the Government, it is worth noting that it has been preparing for Brexit for over 18 months. Part of the difficulty is that it is an issue which is evolving, a term I used earlier. The Supreme Court in the United Kingdom decided by eight votes to three to refer the matter back to the UK Parliament. It is about prioritising what is best for us, regardless of whether it is a hard or a soft Brexit.
The important point is we should take an island approach and that people on both sides of the island should work to protect our interests. To be fair, the Taoiseach and the Government are doing so. The Taoiseach has engaged with a host of leaders throughout Europe in promulgating and advocating on behalf of Ireland and prioritising our national interests. As a consequence, he has made European leaders much better informed of the challenges and threats to us as a country and Ireland's position. In the coming weeks in Warsaw he will meet the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Theresa May, who is travelling to Washington DC on Friday. I hope she will not take an insular approach to her meeting with President Trump and that she will use it to outline to him that the devolved assemblies in Northern Ireland and Scotland must also have a role to play.
We all wish the United Kingdom was not leaving the European Union. The Taoiseach is the line Minister responsible. Many have jumped on the bandwagon and argued that there should be a specific and specialised Brexit ministry. The Government is taking an holistic approach. The Taoiseach has strengthened his Department and the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Murphy, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, are playing a role. It is important that we continue to keep a watchful eye on events which are evolving. In saying that, it is important that Ireland play a strong role in the European Union and that our voice be heard. That is why the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, will be before the House this week.
Senators Colm Burke, Frank Feighan and James Reilly made reference to relocating the European Medicines Agency to Ireland. Senator Frank Feighan deserves praise for being the first to mention the issue, while the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, deserves credit for making an attempt to bring the agency to Ireland. Nine of the top ten pharmaceutical companies are located in County Cork. As a Corkman, like Senator Colm Burke and the Cathaoirleach, I hope it will be the location chosen for the agency, given that we already have located in it the Tyndall Institute, University College Cork and Cork Institute of Technology which play a strong role in research and innovation in the region.
We can discuss later where the agency should be situated in Ireland, but the important point is that the Minister for Health has made an attempt to have it located here.
It will probably be located in County Wicklow.
I forgot to mention that on 9 February the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, will come to the House to discuss the action plan for rural development.
Senators Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Máire Devine, Denis Landy, Aidan Davitt, Gerry Horkan and Victor Boyhan spoke about councillors' pay and the decision made yesterday by the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney. The announcement made means that for the first time in 15 years a Minister has done something about the pay and conditions of local authority members.
What about the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar?
It is important to recognise that decision. The days of the Progressive Democrats are over.
Do not forget the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar.
Let us not forget him. That is not fair.
It is not Harney versus McDowell, with O'Malley and Cox. We will not go down that road, although we could play that game, too. Seriously, it is an important point. An attempt has been made by the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, to improve the terms and conditions of councillors.
Tell that to city councillors in Galway and Cork.
And in Dublin.
Let me finish, please. We read Senator Gerard P. Craughwell's pronouncements during the Christmas holiday period. Will he, please, allow me a chance to respond?
He had to raise the issue.
Please allow the Leader to respond because he might actually answer the queries Senators have in their heads.
What about the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar?
He helped on the issue of class K PRSI. The Minister has written to the CEOs of the councils-----
The Leader is covering all bases.
These are the Members who come into the House week after week stamping, shouting and roaring about councillors' pay and conditions.
Suddenly, when something starts to happen, we get the opposite.
No, please rephrase that.
The Leader is leaving someone out.
My apologies. I omitted to mention the Senator.
I said we wanted more than a bag of sweets for councillors.
Please let me finish.
Please allow the Leader to finish.
The Senators are great at playing to the gallery, but when Deputy Alan Kelly was Minister, they did nothing.
Fine Gael blocked him.
We did not.
The Leader is also transgressing.
The Leader should confine himself to the points raised on the Order of Business.
The Minister has written to the CEOs of councils. There will be regulations which will come into effect from 1 July. We will, therefore, have an opportunity to debate the matter again. I will finish on this point. I heard Senator Aidan Davitt's remarks in opposing the measure. This is the first time in 15 years that anything has been done for councillors. I accept that Senators have an issue with the anomaly which affects city councillors, in particular, in that they do not necessarily cover municipal areas under the terms of the electoral-----
That was my point.
I accept the point, but the Minister will be before us again and we will have an opportunity to try to effect change quietly, calmly and under the radar, as opposed to shouting, roaring and writing populist material.
Correspondence has been sent already.
We are discussing our electorate, but I encourage Senators not to play politics and hype expectations and demand. Sinn Féin Members have changed their terms and conditions and given themselves more money, on which we congratulate them. I say, "Well done," to them.
I thought the Leader said he was wrapping up.
I have still a long way to go. Many points were made by Senators.
On the matter raised by Senators Máire Devine, Catherine Noone and Michelle Mulherin, I congratulate Senator Máire Devine on conducting the awareness campaign. I apologise for not being able to attend. As a former Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health, what she-----
It was well attended.
Unfortunately, I had other meetings to attend. What the Senator has done today in Leinster House and, I hope, beyond is raise awareness of the importance of screening for cervical cancer. As Senator Catherine Noone rightly stated, it is treatable and screening can prevent deaths. I thank the Senators for their efforts and hope we will have a cross-party group in the House to raise issues to do with health and well-being. The matter raised today has touched the lives of many of our family members and friends. We must at all times be vigilant and work to prevent it.
Senator Paul Coghlan referred to vulture funds. I agree that their representatives should appear before the relevant Oireachtas committee. I support the Senator in that regard. Perhaps we might take up the matter with the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
Senator Aidan Davitt mentioned Pope Francis. It is probably a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. Perhaps the Senator might submit it for consideration and, as Chairman, the Cathaoirleach can put it on the agenda.
Senators Victor Boyhan, Paddy Burke and James Reilly raised the issue of road safety. I will be happy to have the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, attend the House to debate it. On a general note, it is important that we have leadership from the Department, the National Transport Authority and the Garda in resourcing the traffic corps to enhance road safety. We should continue to provide extra resources in that regard.
Senators Michelle Mulherin, Paul Gavan and Paddy Burke referred to the Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, in the context of Bus Éireann. There are ongoing issues in that regard that do not concern Fine Gael policy, despite Senator Paul Gavan's allusion. They date from long before then. The Government's priority is to ensure commuters have access to the best quality public transport service.
The Government does not invest in it.
That is about frequency, choice of routes and investment. The Labour Court has extended an offer of talks to the unions in Bus Éireann and I hope they will engage. The acting CEO of Bus Éireann will appear before the Oireachtas transport committee tomorrow.
As we have seen in the past, a resolution can be reached through engagement, consultation and discussion such that the public will not be discommoded, jobs can be saved and we will have a viable Bus Éireann into the future. That is what we all want.
Senator Gerry Horkan referred to the common consolidated corporate tax base, CCCTB, about which he made a very good point which was lost on some Members that 80% of corporation tax was paid by multinationals. It is incumbent on us to be careful and vigilant in that regard. I will be happy to invite the Minister of State, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, or the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, to come to the House to discuss the issue.
Senator Frank Feighan spoke about the historic election 100 years ago of Crown Plunkett in Boyle, County Roscommon. I hope the cross-party initiative to which the Senator referred can continue in the new modern Ireland.
I have responded on the issue raised by Senator Paddy Burke.
I advise Members that on 9 February the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, will be in the House to discuss the rural development plan and that the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, will be here on Thursday, 2 February, for statements on the Irish language.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell has proposed an amendment to the Order of Business: "That the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade be asked to come to the House today." Is the Senator pressing his amendment?
I do not want to play politics on the issue, but I want the Leader to inform the Minister that the ruling today by the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom is a game-changer in the context of Brexit, one that will have to be discussed on Thursday. In view of the Leader's response, I will withdraw the amendment.