Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 17 Apr 2018

Vol. 257 No. 4

Order of Business

Today's Order of Business is No. 1, Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2016 - Committee Stage, resumed, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to be adjourned at 6.30 p.m. if not previously concluded; and No. 2, Private Members' business, Declaration of Independence Day Bill 2017 – Committee Stage, to be taken at 6.30 p.m. and to adjourn after two hours, if not previously concluded.

I know the Cathaoirleach and the House will join me in expressing sympathy to the family of the late Big Tom, as he was known. He was the king of country music and a legend in his lifetime. To his four children we express our deepest sympathies on his sad passing and on the passing of his wife, Rose, in January.

I am aware that we shall discuss the issue of the Good Friday Agreement, which is on the work schedule for the House this week. In the context of the Border, the report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland stated, "We have had no visibility of any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border." In other words, there is no solution beyond the theoretical that would keep open the Border between the North and the South of Ireland.

We all know that at the height of the Troubles, of the 275 Border crossings between the North and the South only 20 remained open. Between Norway and Sweden there are only ten border crossings across which goods can actually go and only 40 border crossings in total. Much praise was heaped on the Government when the backstop was announced but it now seems that the British Government is backsliding on it. It is quite clear from all the negotiations that there is no clarity on what it actually means. Until such time as that is clarified, there is great jeopardy that the Border will be reimposed as a result of the British refusal to honour their commitment that there would be an open border between the North and the South. I ask the Leader to outline what the Government intends to do in making sure the Border remains open for goods and services.

I ask the House to support the motion we will be bringing forward in respect of the Pulitzer Prize which was won by a small newspaper, The Storm Lake Times, in rural Iowa. That newspaper has a circulation of only 3,000 and a catchment population of 10,000. Its editor won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017, and the new Pulitzer Prize round is being announced this week. The family running this business are the Cullens, originally from Kilkenny, five generations back-----

What did he write about? That is more important.

This issue is the acknowledgement of their great achievement of winning the Pulitzer Prize. The Iowa state Senate refused to acknowledge their winning of the prize because they had been critical of President Trump. The most important thing in any democracy is a free press. A free press should criticise politicians when they need to be criticised and should point out where wrong is done. When it achieves greatly, as this small newspaper has done, winning the most prestigious prize in journalism, I think it would be fitting and appropriate that its own state Senate would acknowledge that. In light of the fact that the Senate has not done so, it would be appropriate for the land of the ancestors of the Cullen family to acknowledge their great achievement. I ask the Leader to support that motion.

Tell us about one of his articles.

Like my colleague, Senator Mark Daly, I would like to mark the passing of Big Tom. I remember him packing dance halls in Seapoint in Galway when I was a boy, and later on when I was a man he was still packing them. Now I am a grandfather and he was packing them up until fairly recently. That is some achievement and he will be sadly missed by many people in Ireland.

The time has come to bring the Taoiseach to this House to discuss the crisis in the Defence Forces. We can no longer continue to keep our heads buried in the sand or pretend nothing is happening. Critical, highly qualified people are walking out of the Defence Forces on a daily basis. We are finding ourselves struggling. While high-profile missions such as the mission to the Mediterranean and the LÉ Samuel Beckett are laudable and we should be very proud of them, they are at a massive expense. Recently, in the Leader's own county of Cork, the P52 LÉ Niamh sailed with just four able seamen and women on board. It stayed out for a day and had to return.

Were they rowing?

In respect of recruitment in the Naval Service, at the moment there are fewer than 20 recruits training out of thousands of applicants. What is wrong? Anecdotal evidence suggests that EU and nationally mandated patrols in Irish waters, which are funded through the EU and the taxpayer, are not taking place because there simply are not crews to man the ships.

In the Air Corps, four pilots have recently gone to the private sector. Last week, Etihad Airways was in Dublin recruiting. Any pilot in the Air Corps worth his salt will have applied for a job. Unilateral changes to the apprentice contract in the Air Corps occurred a couple of weeks ago.

Apprentices were forced to sign new contracts that will make them liable for their training costs and for all salary paid to them during their training.

Another issue is the lack of qualified CASA pilots. Recently, we experienced the R116 disaster and there are not enough CASA pilots in the Air Corps. Due to the lack of resources, I understand it will now take five years to train a fixed-wing pilot.

Let us move on to the Army. In Dundalk, 27 Infantry Battalion is currently controlled by just five officers; that is, three captains, one lieutenant and one second lieutenant. That means an availability of just four officers on any given day, as one would always be resting off duty. There has been a 600% increase in the fuel costs in Finner Camp, County Donegal, as soldiers must cross the country to take up barrack duties in Dublin.

The Taoiseach is the Minister for Defence. The problems in the Defences Forces must be addressed and must be addressed now. This is a national crisis. My colleague mentioned the Border a few moments ago. We have no idea what is really going to happen with the Border but if it requires patrolling and manning, we will need the Defence Forces. We do not want to get caught like we were in 1969, without troops on the ground.

This is a serious crisis affecting the State. It is time we had the Taoiseach in here to discuss it, because he is the de facto Minister for Defence. I will not put pressure on the Leader today to get the Taoiseach to appear but I will put pressure on him by the end of the week and I will seek the support of the entire House to have him called before it.

On the edition of "Prime Time" broadcast on 10 April, a story was told about a young boy named Adam King, who is less than four years of age. His mother outlined his wheelchair needs. He is one of 53 children and 207 adults in this position in the Cork-Kerry region alone but I revert to the story about Adam because what appals me and is really serious is that at the end of that programme, the HSE was able to confirm that his wheelchair needs had been met, yet they had not been met in the previous month or six months or whenever. This is a child younger than four, whom we were told also had the potential for scoliosis.

In recent weeks, when Ms Vera Twomey was again in the media talking about the cost of treatment for her daughter, we miraculously were told that the health services could pay it. Must every mother and person with a disability prostrate themselves in front of our national media to get something sorted out? This is an issue for our public bodies, the HSE and the Department, as well as for Members. They come up with answers when they are put to the pin of their collars and embarrassed publicly. That is no way for any state to run public services. While we cannot magic money out of the air, a child of three or four - who thankfully has the possibility of going on to get a decent education - does not have the equivalent of a pair of shoes that fit. That was an issue for a lot of people who went to school in their bare feet 60 or 70 years ago. We are not able to deliver that.

I will conclude by noting that two days from now, 19 April, will be the 30th day since the Tánaiste lodged the papers for the commencement of Ireland's implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. These are the issues that must be acted on fairly rapidly and now is the time. I have written to the Taoiseach on this, and in this House and elsewhere I have commended him on catching that issue by the scruff of the neck and getting it ratified after 11 years. Together with all his Cabinet, he must now publicly state this is a big-ticket item in Ireland and we are four-square behind it.

That is the challenge for the Government. The challenge for the rest of us is to support it.

I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Leader of the House and my colleagues on the Vótáil 100 committee, Senators McFadden, Conway-Walsh and Higgins, and Grace O'Sullivan, who stood in for Deputy Catherine Martin, for all the work that went into making this morning's event such a success. I also thank the other colleagues who dropped in to observe Díospóireacht na nÓg, whereby 16 transition year students from all across the island, North and South, took part in a public speaking competition as part of the celebration of the centenary of women's suffrage in Ireland. The 15 year olds and 16 year olds who spoke today showed us a thing or two about how to construct an excellent speech and how to speak in a compelling way, with passion and rational argument, and in a well-informed and articulate manner. I congratulate all those involved and the Oireachtas staff, who also made it such a success.

Since we were last in this Chamber, there have been dreadful developments in Syria, with a chemical attack perpetrated by the Syrian Government on its own people. I ask the Leader whether we can make another attempt at constructing a cross-party motion. It is unfortunate that we could not do it on the previous occasion but the need for concerted action to seek a resolution to the horrific ongoing conflict is even more pressing. I commend the Irish Government, the response of which - both to the chemical attacks leading to the appalling deaths of civilians and to the attacks by the US, France and the UK - has been measured. It has expressed understanding of, rather than given support to, the counter-action led by the US and there has been an emphasis on urging all sides to get back to the negotiating table, particularly next week when the EU-UN conference on Syria will take place in Brussels. We need to support the Government and recognise that, while all of us would wish to see multilateral UN-sanctioned action against the Syrian Government, Russia has vetoed 12 UN motions on Syria in recent years. That is a major reason the conflict has continued for so long.

I request a debate on press freedom in light of the ongoing action in the High Court, particularly the application by the ODCE which has now been adjourned. It raises serious concerns about alleged data breaches in respect of journalists and about the need to ensure that journalists have the right to protect their sources because, in a democracy, freedom of the press is a vitally important principle. We should all be concerned at any attempt to erode that.

Does the Leader know when it is proposed to conclude the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in the Dáil? We have concluded it in the Seanad. A report published by Trinity College academics Professor Joe Barry and Dr. Ann Hope put the impact of serious and heavy drinking on others at some €873 million per year. The clearly articulated findings, about the substantial impact heavy drinking has on the family and friends of drinkers, are groundbreaking. This is like the reports we saw on the environmental impact of tobacco and cigarette smoking on others in the vicinity of smokers, as well as the health impact on the smoker, and it deserves to read by all of us.

The last item is a matter for the Dáil and I am not sure the Leader is equipped to answer it.

I pass on the condolences of the Sinn Féin team in the Seanad to the family of Big Tom and I acknowledge all the years of entertainment he provided for his fans, not only in this country but also on the international stage. He helped keep the connection with the diaspora. For those of us who lived in London and frequented the Galtymore, the Gresham and other venues, he will be sadly missed.

That brings back fond memories.

I know. He and people like him do so much for Irish society by bringing people together. May he rest in peace.

I acknowledge also the quality of the debate among the young people who were in the Chamber today. It was absolutely fantastic. Anyone who missed it should tune in to look at the substance that was there. It is something which is often absent from debates not only in the Chambers in the Oireachtas but in chambers across the world. I acknowledge the work of our chairperson, Senator Bacik, and my fellow committee members in that regard. Anyone who doubted that people of 16 years of age had the ability, awareness or analytical capacity to make decisions around voting should watch the debate. If they do, they will be left in no doubt about the huge contribution young people can make to the decision-making process in Ireland.

I raise the issue of transport in the regions. I raise the matter here because I tried to table a Commencement matter on route No. 52, which is the bus route connecting Ballina in north Mayo to Galway, particularly to University Hospital Galway. A review is currently taking place, in which regard I raise the issue of the lack of consultation with people in the area who use the route and with those who use regional routes in general. I want the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to come to the Chamber to have a proper discussion on connectivity and accountability regarding services and, indeed, his own accountability. It is not good enough to get a letter which says the Minister has no official responsibility. If he is Minister for transport, it is his responsibility and he needs to make sure he meets it. I ask that the Minister come to the House to discuss the matter further in circumstances where this route in particular is a vital link between north Mayo and University Hospital Galway. Those people who do not have access to other forms of public or private transport need the route to be left in place. It is a viable service and the Minister must look at it again in the context of rural transport. People in rural Ireland deserve a public transport system and the Minister must acknowledge that.

I rise today to speak of one matter alone. I express my deepest sympathy to the family of Big Tom McBride. As a neighbour from Cavan and as someone who had the privilege of meeting him on a couple of occasions, I can testify to the fact that he was one of nature's gentlemen. All of the things that have been said about his benign nature, his goodness of personality, the way in which he reached out to people, his ordinariness and lack of nonsense are true. I can testify to that having met him on a number of occasions.

He was the voice of, and a voice for, a generation and a very important one in those times. He brought a great deal of joy to people. We all have a tendency to romanticise the past and to look back at it as a wonderful time, but the period during which Big Tom was huge throughout the 1960s and 1970s was difficult for people in terms of income, social infrastructure and entertainment. Big Tom's performances and dances around the country were a source of great joy and brought people together in big numbers. They relieved what could be the tedium and difficulties of life. His appearances were accessible to ordinary people because of the price and the huge numbers attending.

Big Tom was not merely a huge source of joy to many, he was also an extraordinary link with our emigrants. He was the one great link in particular for the cohort who went out in the 1950s and 1960s to the well-known Irish places in England and around the globe. He meant a great deal to those people and represented a very important link.

We should not underestimate or overestimate his impact and importance, as well as what he meant to many people. While, during his lifetime, a slight elitist attitude among a small pocket of people who are truly ignorant might have existed - it is not worthy of recounting it today - the great mass of the Irish people and the diaspora loved this gentle giant from Monaghan.

I also want to sympathise with the family of Big Tom.

There are days when we walk past many doors on our way to our own door but we do not know what nightmares could lurk behind them. Today, the 2017 Women's Aid impact report was released, revealing over 19,000 disclosures of domestic abuse against women and children were made to the organisation last year. These figures take into account emotional abuse, as well as actual violence. The report revealed 15,833 disclosures of domestic violence against women and 3,552 disclosures of child abuse in the context of domestic violence. In the report, the numbers tell a story. Up to 21,451 contacts were made to Women's Aid services in 2017, of which around 10,000 related to emotional abuse, such as verbal abuse, or violence. Around 1,500 reports were of a financial nature where free access to money was denied or controlled.

These numbers are about real women who have nowhere to turn. I meet many of these women in my clinics and I am sometimes shocked by how little I can do. I try my best to access some help for them because they need support. The report looks at these numbers and highlights how separation does not always mean safety. Up to 28% of women which the organisation worked with in 2017 were enduring abusive treatment from a former partner. There is currently no law against contacting a former partner, even if the partner does not want that contact. Leaving a bad relationship is often not the end of that relationship. If children are involved, it becomes even more complicated.

We fail to protect women in this country. That is a fact. We leave them alone with our fingers crossed that they may get in touch with a service which may help them. Often that service cannot give them what they need, namely, a safe harbour or a place to be free. We urgently need to look at how we can help women in bad situations to get out and to be free before it turns more sinister. I encourage the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, to examine how we can serve Irish women better. I know the Leader will bring my concerns about this serious issue back to the Minister.

Tá mé ag iarraidh ar an gCeannaire cuireadh a thabhairt don Aire Iompair, Turasóireachta agus Spóirt teacht isteach agus labhairt linn faoin bplean nó an straitéis atá ag an Roinn Iompair, Turasóireachta agus Spóirt ó thaobh Brexit de, agus cúrsaí taistil in Éirinn. Will the Leader invite the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to give the House an outline of his Department's strategy for transport after Brexit? I also support Senator Conway-Walsh's request to have the Minister come to the House to speak about rural transport, which is critically important.

Last week, the European Commission Directorate General for Mobility and Transport issued a document to European transport users, particularly in the aviation sector, with regard to its serious concerns about transport between Ireland and the UK after Brexit. London is the busiest air route in Europe. All EU primary and secondary law will cease to apply to the UK on 30 March 2019, less than a year from now. EU civil aviation safety requirements and regulations will no longer apply to the UK after that date. The European Aviation Safety Agency, EASA, which creates certification for all European airlines and air transport, will not apply to the UK. How does that affect transport and movement in Ireland? What are the Department's plans and strategies in this regard?

I believe it very appropriate that the Minister come in and speak to this House about this really important issue and from that, the Irish public can become aware of what the Department's plans and strategies are.

I also acknowledge and strongly support the strategy and plans relating to SMEs in Ireland as promoted by the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the support that is available through various initiatives, Enterprise Ireland, local employment services and Údarás na Gaeltachta relating to SMEs and the challenges they face with regard to Brexit. I would love to see a similar strategy from the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and for him to share that with us in the House.

I wish to address the issue of local authorities privatising traffic warden services in rural towns. This is being done to let private companies come in to be ruthless. The service was privatised in Navan in my county, Meath, around eight months ago. A company came in and was absolutely ruthless over the Christmas period with people trying to do their Christmas shopping. I believe that in Trim and Navan, they are putting the traffic warden service out to private companies.

Local authorities want to close down town centres in rural Ireland. What is happening is a disgrace. Traffic wardens were put on streets to stop illegal parking and to keep traffic moving, not for profit. We had the personal touch with local authority traffic wardens who would always give that extra ten or 15 minutes and basically give people the benefit of the doubt but these companies that are coming in are absolutely ruthless.

What has happened is that people are going to the bigger or out-of-town shopping centres to avail of free parking and small independent businesses are suffering. The last time I spoke about this issue, I said that there is a solution. If local authorities are prepared to give these big multinationals free car parking spaces, it should be free in the centre of towns to help small businesses because they have rates and are trying to keep their doors open. It is very tough out there. I can see what these private traffic wardens have done in Navan. They have decimated business on the main street in Navan. I would like the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to come in here to discuss this issue to see whether privatising all traffic warden services in rural Ireland is now local government policy.

The Senator is right. It is not a level playing field.

I want to convey my sadness at the passing of Big Tom. He was an absolute legend - a gorgeous man who was so talented and gave so many people an awful lot of joy with his music. He will be sadly missed. I also commend Senator Bacik on this morning's event as part of Vótáil 100. It was so inspiring to see so many fantastic young people speak from the heart and speak so passionately.

I strongly welcome the landmark study published by the HSE yesterday, which makes a really important contribution at a vital time for public health policy in Ireland. I warmly welcome the report The Untold Story: Harms Experienced in the Irish Population due to Others' Drinking. It is like a breath of fresh air. It is the result of three years of extensive research from Dr. Ann Hope, Professor Joe Barry and the economist Sean Byrne. It shows in stark detail the impact that alcohol harm is having, not just on the individuals but on their families, friends and wider society around them. I know I have been speaking around this issue and work at the coal-face as I see clients every single day. I still see clients, still work the programmes solely with family members and see at first hand the worry, stress and anxiety that comes from having a loved one with an alcohol problem and how devastating it is.

The authors go into great detail about the economic impact of alcohol harm in terms of things like crime, the burden on the health service, chronic illness and road accidents. All of this is very important but they also give a voice to the costs that are not captured easily by the numbers such as the stress, worry, depression, lost sleep, harassment, verbal and psychological abuse and the damage to family life.

They also emphasise that children are most negatively affected. This is the piece that I really want to highlight, particularly in terms of witnessing violence or verbal abuse in the home. As a country we have got to face up to this reality and our harmful relationship with alcohol.

I want to thank the HSE. I want to thank the authors for providing more solid evidence. This is something I have been working on for the last ten years. We do need to progress the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. I will welcome it when it comes to the Dáil. It is a matter of urgency. I would like to ask the Leader if the Minister can update us on when it will be coming back in. We need to look at taking alcohol harm seriously. We are not talking about addiction here. We are talking about our culture, the alcohol harm and the impact it has on the individual, families and work colleagues - the people around them. I really believe we need to provide renewed and improved funding to services, not just for those with the problem but especially for the families.

Like Senator Murnane O'Connor, I want to highlight the Women's Aid report Against the Odds. The report was launched today supporting women and children experiencing domestic violence. The report is quite apt in an atmosphere worldwide where the examination of the treatment of women is rising on the agenda. The report certainly shows stark, disappointing and frightening statistics for our country. Some 28% of women disclose they have been abused by an ex-boyfriend, partner or ex-husband. The report deals with the whole game of snakes and ladders in trying to get out of those relationships and the physical and psychological terror that is so damaging to women and children in our society.

Like Senator Murnane O'Connor, I share the sense of knowing when one knocks on doors, or knowing who one comes across, one has an idea of what might be going on behind that door, but one feels inept and numb as to how to respond. I commend the advertisements nationally on radio and on billboards that ask people to try and do something if they believe that some woman or child is being harmed. I would like the Minister to come to the House and to ask how it would be feasible, or how to implement Women's Aid's priority rule that there should be no contact until contact is safe. That is what it believes will make the lives of women and children safer, and I think the Minister would be able to guide us as to how we can go about implementing it.

I welcome the announcement last week by the Minister for Education and Skills of 42 new schools to be opened in the next number of years. This is a highly positive move for the country as a whole, but particularly in the area from which I come. I would ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Education and Skills to the House for a debate on this announcement to work out the timeline for when these schools will be opened, when the patronages will be awarded and how communities can feed into that. I would also like to see an update on those schools recently opened that are still awaiting permanent accommodation, be it Ballinteer Educate Together national school in my area that is waiting on a planning application, or Stepaside Educate Together secondary school that is still in prefabs shared with the local national school. These are all fundamentally important and need to be debated as soon as possible.

Thank you for your brevity. I call Senator Ó Ríordáin.

I join others to extend the Labour Party's sympathy to the family of Big Tom. It is fair to say he was a music legend in his part of the world, but also nationally and internationally. I met him on a number of occasions at Monaghan GAA matches and I think that is where he got his nickname as he was a formidable midfielder in his club football days. I pass on the Labour Party's condolences to the McBride family.

I wish to raise two issues. Will the Leader ask the Minister for Education and Skills to come to the House to discuss the 42 new projects? This was welcome news for many people across Dublin, in particular, and in my own part of the world who are seeking an Educate Together second level school in Dublin 13. The Minister for Education and Skills might come in and discuss that and other projects about which there is concern that they will not be progressed as a result of that announcement.

The second issue for the Minister for Education and Skills involves concerns about the imminent closure of a Traveller school. It is not a school for Travellers, but 100% of the intake are Travellers. It just happens to be that way. They have been told only last week that they are to close immediately in June, which will have a detrimental impact on the students in the senior cycle.

I contend that the school needs to be phased out rather than closed overnight in June and I would like the Minister to come in to discuss that. I had sought a Commencement debate on it but have not been successful in getting one.

I will raise two issues for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. The first relates to the strategic housing development process trying to fast-track housing. I understand the reasons behind it because of the nature of the housing crisis but we need to discuss the effect the strategic housing development process is having on zoning across Dublin city and wider afield. It is effectively open season for development on Z15 lands, in particular, institutional lands and schools. In many communities, that might be a positive but in others it is not. The protection of Z15 must be considered by the Government because An Bord Pleanála is not taking it into account.

Lastly, I need to talk about the Shanowen shakedown protest that took place outside Leinster House this afternoon. I welcome that the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, went out and spoke to the students, which is to her credit. However, the rising rent costs for students in this city and across the country is troubling and the students have recommended that an amendment be made to legislation to facilitate a rent cap for students. Rent increases of that nature are detrimental to their capacity to have a student life and proceed with their studies. In fairness, the Minister of State did come out and talk to them. I would like an opportunity to discuss the matter with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy.

I, too, support the call of my colleague, Senator Conway-Walsh, to bring the Minister, Deputy Ross, into the House to talk about connectivity in public transport, especially in rural areas.

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 63, motion 12, on the Seanad Order Paper be taken before No. 1. My bias is known. As the Cathaoirleach will be aware, I am a general practitioner, GP, by profession. The cuts sustained by general practice during the austerity years in Ireland were among the highest sustained by any group of workers in the State - more than 35% before tax - without taking into consideration the cost of running practices. At the recent National Association of General Practitioners, NAGP, annual general meeting, together with the platitudes offered by the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, he stated that FEMPI would be reversed but that it would be linked to service improvements across general practice. Along with the debilitating cuts, GPs have seen an increase in workload and a decrease in the number of their colleagues. With over 600 GPs over the age of 60 and more than 10% of Ireland's 2,440 GPs who are involved in the GMS scheme due to retire from that scheme in the next 24 months, it is hard to see how or where these service improvements can be made. I propose this motion to call on the Government to expedite the negotiations on a new GP contract and to accelerate the FEMPI cut reversals and restore the viability of general practice.

I wish to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to the family of the late Tom McBride. He was truly a legend in the music business and he will be sadly missed.

I congratulate the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the opening of trade in beef to China. This is a phenomenal achievement and I congratulate the Minister and all concerned - the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Bord Bia and everybody else involved.

The Oireachtas itself should take some credit for that trade deal as well. Some time ago, the then Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Seán Barrett, and I, as the then Cathaoirleach of this House, led a delegation to China, along with members of the various joint Oireachtas committees including the former Deputy, John Lyons, and Deputies Breen, Doyle and Calleary. The then Chinese ambassador, Mr. Luo Linquan, was adamant that this would be a delegation of the Chairs of both Houses and the Chairs of the joint committees. At the other end, we had our own ambassador, Mr. Declan Kelleher, who was based in Beijing, who is now our European ambassador and who was heavily involved in the Brexit negotiations.

We met the president of China, Xi Jinping, and five members of the standing ruling committee of China. It was unbelievable to think that a delegation from Ireland could meet five of the ruling standing committee. Our agenda included opening up of the beef trade and allowing horses to be exported directly from Ireland to China, because at that time horses had to be quarantined in Europe before they could go on to China. That ban was lifted and now horses can go straight from Ireland to China and the beef trade deal has been agreed. Sometimes when credit is being given, the power of the Oireachtas itself can be underestimated. I have no doubt that the Houses of the Oireachtas played a huge role in opening doors on that occasion and probably on several other occasions too. I want to put that on record that sometimes we underestimate the power of the Oireachtas. It was a high-powered delegation, with the Chairs of both Houses and the Chairs of the joint committees who met the president in China, and it was well received. I thank the Chinese ambassador to Ireland at the time, H.E. Luo Linquan, and our ambassador, Mr. Declan Kelleher, who played a huge role at the time. I have no doubt that it prepared the ground over the years for this historic trade deal. We are the first country in Europe to supply beef to China.

I wish to raise the new rates Bill and I will begin by giving an example. There is a complex in south county Dublin which is owned by one of the biggest multinational IT companies in the world and it was opened by the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar. It is wonderful to have inward investment, something with which I agree. This building is purpose built, with the capacity to hold a workforce of 3,000. According to its website, the complex is twice the size of Croke Park and is the height of three double decker buses. This company has never paid a single penny in commercial rates to Dún Laoghaire Rathdown council. I am not blaming the company or the council. The council knows the square footage of this building since it granted planning permission for it and oversaw the planning regulations in relation to its construction. The problem is that the Valuation Office tells us that there are thousands of properties which need to be valued and it does not have enough resources, support or valuers to carry them out. It is estimated that the local authority is losing €1 million annually. One cannot charge rates until a property is occupied. The property in question has been occupied for nine months at most. The Taoiseach opened it officially in February but it was operational last year. Local authorities rely on commercial rates, local property tax and central intervention to fund the core activities of local government.

The Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, has responsibility for this area and I have spoken to him about a general review of new rates. We need to take a whole new look at how we rate commercial properties, how we apply rates and how we can bring in different bands. It is an archaic system. I am not talking about scrapping it but about reforming it. There had been a suggestion from Government that we would have a new rates Bill but when one of the biggest companies in the world is not paying rates here not due to any fault of its own, but because the Valuation Office says it cannot prioritise properties, it is a very serious issue. I ask the Leader to speak to the Minister of State and ascertain what is happening regarding a new rates Bill.

I congratulate everyone who organised the Vótáil 100 contributions in the House earlier today. I came in to listen to some of it, and I congratulate all the young people who spoke. They all spoke exceptionally well. Their content was very good but I was more impressed by their delivery and in their art of communication. They could teach some Members in both Houses the art of imparting knowledge and communicating with people. They did themselves, their communities and their schools proud and I say well done to them and their families.

Hopefully in the not-too-distant future some of those people will be here taking seats in the Oireachtas. I congratulate all those involved.

I believe we all find it intolerable that anyone could steer or attempt to steer a public company in favour of a select few shareholders, rather than in the interests of all, as required under company law. It is clear from what we already know that there has been a major data breach regarding the 19 so-called persons of interest. These 19 people with links to Independent News and Media, INM, had their emails accessed under the alleged data hack. The 19 included those who had previously worked for INM, as well as current employees and journalists. Also included were two lawyers who had worked on the Moriarty tribunal. They were obviously never informed of the data breach and the Data Protection Commissioner is investigating the matter, as we know.

These 19 people had their data wrongly accessed, contrary to law. A fair and free press is a cornerstone of our democracy. I support what has already been said. I believe it is now overdue to have an examination of media ownership in Ireland to protect against monopoly dominance or control, contrary to the common good. I fully support the call made already that the Leader invite whoever is necessary to have a debate on the matter in early course.

I join colleagues in paying tribute to Big Tom McBride from Oram, County Monaghan. I express my sympathies to his family in Oram and Castleblayney. He was predeceased by his wife, Rose, a short number of weeks ago. Those who were closest to him have said that he never recovered from her death.

He initially came to fame with the song, "Gentle Mother," and went on to have numerous hits, including "Four Country Roads to Glenamaddy", and more recently "Going Out The Same Way You Came In". I say to his family that he is not going out the same way he came in. He brought many nights of joy to tens of thousands of people nationally and internationally, and particularly, as Senator Conway-Walsh noted, in our neighbouring island of Britain to where our diaspora fled in the 1950s and 1960s.

I wish to clarify the record for Senator Ó Ríordáin, who suggested he got his name from Monaghan football. He did not; he got the name "Big Tom" from a very famous Cavan footballer and a player from my own club, Cornafean, County Cavan, the winner of three senior all-Ireland titles and one national league medal, Big Tom O'Reilly, who incidentally was also a politician.

I again express my sympathy to the McBride family, to the people of Castleblayney, in particular, and County Monaghan, and to his many thousands of supporters in the country.

I echo Senator Craughwell's comments on the Defence Forces. Senator Craughwell, I and others have raised this very serious issue in the House on many occasions. Our Defence Forces are in crisis and we need an urgent debate with the Taoiseach. It is not appropriate for the Minister of State to come before the House; the Taoiseach needs to come before the House to outline his plans to rectify this serious situation for all sectors of the Defence Forces. It is a sad day for us, as an independent nation, that if we are to be invaded we can only be invaded by appointment. That is how ludicrous the situation at the moment is. We need to have that discussion.

I believe Senator Wilson rose initially to second the amendment, but got lost in Big Tom's-----

I second Senator Swanick's amendment to the Order of Business.

It was a great honour and privilege to be at Queen's University in Belfast last Tuesday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the Belfast Agreement.

All of the major players were there - Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, David Trimble, Peter Robinson, Seamus Mallon, Deputy Adams and the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney. The event drew on what has happened in the past 20 years within a different space. We sometimes do not recognise the significance of the Good Friday Agreement on the island of Ireland or, indeed, on the two islands. Most people spoke but two certainly captured the imagination. The first was George Mitchell, who said the real heroes of the Good Friday Agreement were the people of Northern Ireland and the political leaders. We need those political leaders today more than ever. The second speaker who captured the imagination was Seamus Mallon. It really resonated with those in the hall when he said that nationalists must be able to persuade unionists that Irish unity is a good thing and that they should not fear constitutional change. He said that unionists are afraid and need space to breathe. He said it is the wrong time to call for a Border poll. He said unionists need to “feel part of this island, part of the land which they farm, part of the country they belong to. I don’t care what they call it, as long as it has one name: home." That is something we need to consistently say. If we want unity, one Ireland or an Ireland together, the people should be comfortable that it is known as home - not a united Ireland, not Ireland, but home. We need to do an awful lot more of that, as Irish nationalists and Members of the Oireachtas, and we are not doing enough of it.

Before I call the Leader, I would like to place on the record of the House my congratulations to all those concerned in Díospóireacht na nÓg as part of the Vótáil 100 celebration, chaired by Senator Bacik. I thought it was a momentous occasion for this House. I was highly impressed by the quality of the contributions made by these young people - 14 girls and two boys - all of whom are in transition year. I thought it was a massive occasion and one that shone a very positive spotlight on this Chamber. To any who missed it, it is worth listening to the contributions. They were much easier to control on time than many of the Senators here and they spoke very passionately on a number of issues. I was very impressed and grateful I had the opportunity to be in the Chair.

I join those who have paid tribute to Big Tom, the late Tom McBride. I had the pleasure many years ago of going to see him in the Galtymore. I wish I was that young again but, unfortunately, the years have caught up with me and my dancing shoes are worn out. I call on the Leader to respond.

I hope the Cathaoirleach's dancing shoes will never be gone. I thank the 18 Senators and the Cathaoirleach for their contributions. On behalf of Fine Gael, I join those who sympathised with the McBride family on the sad passing today of Tom McBride, better known as Big Tom. As Senator Wilson said, he was predeceased by his wife, Rose, who was his friend, companion, confidante, helper and adviser. On behalf of all Senators, I extend our deepest sympathies to Thomas, Dermot, Aisling and Siobhán. All of us who are of a certain age will always have an affinity and love for "Four Roads to Glenamaddy" and "Gentle Mother". Given the contributions of so many here today, from some who knew him well and some who did not, I believe "humility", "gentle", "humble" and "shy but passionate about his music" are words and phrases that described the late Tom McBride.

All of us who heard the news this morning got a jolt and were shocked and saddened.

The tributes paid to Big Tom on "The Ryan Tubridy Show" and "Today with Seán O'Rourke" this morning by those who work in the music industry and people who knew him, including a former Leader of the House, Donie Cassidy, left a very strong impression of a man who became famous by accident but who loved his music. His best legacy is the fact that country music in Ireland is still strong and that he is synonymous with it. He brought Ireland to the dance halls of the United Kingdom and to the emigrants who had to leave our shores. My father spent time in the UK and I know from him that Big Tom was always spoken about. When we chatted this morning, he spoke about his time in Cricklewood and going to dances on Saturday and Sunday nights. The Cathaoirleach mentioned his dancing shoes. Big Tom was a gentle giant and is a true loss to the nation. Ar dheis láimh Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

I join Senators Bacik, Conway-Walsh, Boyhan and the Cathaoirleach in paying tribute to the students who participated this morning in Díospóireacht na nÓg as part of Vótáil 100. Recently, we had a debate on the voting age and young people. Today, the students who were part of the wonderful showcase to which I refer left us with a huge positive feeling about their intellect, debating ability and presentation, and also their sincerity and the convictions they hold. It was a wonderful exercise to have the debate in the Seanad Chamber as part of Vótáil 100. I commend all of the students who participated and I thank their parents and schools for being part of today's event. I thank the members of Vótáil 100. Senator McFadden was probably the architect of the idea but bringing it to its conclusion today took the combined effort of the committee. I thank all of the members of the Vótáil 100 committee for their work on this matter and I congratulate them on bringing Díospóireacht na nOg to our House of the Oireachtas. It showcased all that is good about young people. We can have another debate on the merits and demerits of the voting age but today was a good day for this House and for the Oireachtas. I congratulate everybody involved.

Senators Mark Daly and Feighan referred to the Good Friday Agreement and commended all who were part of the celebration last week in Belfast. Senator Mark Daly rightly referred to Border. The issue of Border crossings will have to be addressed in future negotiations on Brexit. The Senator referenced the Norway-Sweden model and the number of crossings there. I completely share his view that we need to find a solution that does not bring back a hard border. This has been the Government's view. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, will be here to debate the Good Friday Agreement and the North. Senator Richmond has resumed work on the Brexit committee. In the coming weeks, it is the intention to have a debate on Brexit in the House, in tandem with the Brexit committee, and I will be happy to have this as part of the work schedule. It is important that we all wear the green jersey and put this issue to the fore of what we do as a State. The Tánaiste, the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, and the Taoiseach have been very strong on this.

I join Senator Mark Daly in wholeheartedly commending the awarding of the Pulitzer prize to the newspaper editor in Iowa. The Senator mentioned that the latter, Art Cullen, has family links to Kilkenny. I commend Mr. Cullen not least because of his ability to stand up and be counted. I also commend him on the way in which he has achieved the award in terms of his writing, his flair and the temerity he has shown not just in terms of writing about but also, perhaps, challenging the President of the United States. I certainly join the Senator in congratulating him. He is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa. It is always important that we commend, support and salute the type of tenacious writing and reporting and the impressive independence that allows journalists to challenge and question those of us in the political class and that allows people to be curious. This is something we should always support. I join Senator Mark Daly in supporting it today.

Senators Craughwell and Wilson referred to the Defence Forces. I commend the men and women of our Defence Forces on the work they do.

All of us are proud of the work they do, whether in the Mediterranean or on UN missions. Senator McFadden has always been a strong exponent of the Defence Forces. To be fair, the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, has been in the House on a number of occasions regarding the Defence Forces. I hope that we would not politicise the Defence Forces. Listening to Senator Craughwell, one would never know that the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, has commenced a review of the 1994 to 2006 Acts in terms of conciliation and pay or that for the past two years a greater number of people have joined the Defence Forces than have left them.

Approximately 800 people were recruited, the cadet class for last year, and this year, is 100 and all Defence Forces personnel have received a pay increase.

Why are there only five officers running a battalion?

The Defence Forces has introduced a new payscale for recruits-----

-----which gives them an additional €5,000.

I appreciate that Senator Craughwell is on a journey.

A journey to where?

I will not go into that now. One would never know that recruitment is ongoing in terms of cadets, general services staff and Air Corps apprentices.

We are failing, failing, failing.

Allow the Leader to respond.

For the past few months, through pay agreements and sectoral changes, the starting salary for three-star privates has increased by 25%. Listening to Senator Craughwell one would think he has never heard this.

Everything I have said is factual. It is not fake news.

I am afraid part of it is.

It is not. Unlike others, I do not deal in fake news.

Experienced people cannot be replaced by recruits.

If the Leader allows a debate Senator Craughwell can raise the issue then.

The Minister has established a pay commission and €500 million capital expenditure has been provided under Ireland 2040.

In fairness, a Chathaoirligh, we asked for the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence to-----

I am responding to the Senator's request.

Let the Taoiseach come in and do so.

I appreciate that Senator Craughwell had the airwaves to himself over the Easter recess but we all believe that Defence Forces personnel deserve to be paid properly and fairly. Recruitment is ongoing and discussions and negotiations are under way as we speak. I believe it would be a wrong move to have An Taoiseach come into the House for a debate on the Defence Forces. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, is the line Minister for the Defence Forces and I am happy to ask him to return to the House for that debate. I am happy to discuss the matter further with Senator Craughwell following the Order of Business.

Senator Dolan raised the issue of Adam King, in respect of which I do not have information to hand. I agree with the Senator that it should not take a television or radio programme or an article in a newspaper for a person to get that to which he or she is entitled. If that is what happened in this case, that is unacceptable. We employ people in the HSE whose job it is to deliver services, provide equipment and manage facilities. I am happy to ask the Minister for Health to come to the House for a debate on the matter.

Senator Dolan is correct that provision of services and facilities for people with disabilities is at the core of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is about people, men, women and children, who deserve to be treated with respect and in a dignified manner. I make no apology for saying that. The Senator will be aware of my involvement in terms of disability issues. The Senator is correct that it is not good enough that the HSE would only respond when a matter is highlighted on a television programme. We need proper planning on behalf of people.

Senator Bacik raised the issue of Syria. I thought we agreed a cross-party motion on the last occasion we discussed the issue. I join with Senator Bacik in condemning the attack in Syria last weekend. Ongoing counter military action is not the way forward. We need to bring about a resolution through the United Nations. I am of the view that the United Nations, in not doing its business, is failing the people of Syria. Senator Bacik is correct that the Russians have vetoed 12 UN motions on Syria. This is not only about the United Nations.

I am on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, OSCE PA, and the Russians there are equally obdurate. However, I believe a concerted effort must be made to ensure that we end the slaughter and killing in Syria and the awful treatment of the people by their own. I commend the Senator on that.

Senators Bacik and Coghlan raised the freedom of the press and the ongoing issues around INM. All democrats recognise the importance of media and respect their independence and the need for a free and democratic press. Senator Coghlan spoke about media ownership. I believe his remarks are right. If we are going to have a small number of owners and a monopoly situation, that would be contrary to the common good. I agree with Senator Coghlan. In the Dáil this afternoon the Taoiseach said he would look at other reports on media freedom and that he would consider legislation, if required, to protect journalists' sources. All of us agree that we must have an independent, free press and strong, independent media. Any alleged breach of personal data is worrying and wrong and we should utterly condemn it. I realise the matter is before the courts as the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement has made an application to the High Court, but all of us agree on the need for strong, independent media.

Senators Black and Bacik raised the report on alcohol published by the HSE and Trinity College and commended the three authors of the report. It highlights what we on the Oireachtas joint committee began, which led to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill being passed by this House. That Bill is on Committee Stage in the Dáil and is navigating its way through that House. The report highlights that we, as a people and a society, must have a serious conversation about our relationship with alcohol, how we misuse alcohol and the impact it has on people's lives, their work output in the context of the loss of hours and public health in terms of bed nights in hospitals. It is something we will have to return to again on a number of occasions.

Senators Conway-Walsh and Swanick raised transport and bus route No. 52 from Ballina to Galway. I am not familiar with the issue they raised. I am of the view that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport should not be au fait with all transport routes and links in the country, but it is a matter for the Department. The Senators said it was TII or the NTA that has overall responsibility, but I will be happy to invite the Minister to the House to discuss transport matters. I believe that, in general, there must be more accountability on the part of Bus Éireann and the NTA regarding the provision of bus service routes and bus shelters across the country. There is no accountability. Equally, in health matters, the HSE must step up and be held to account for the management of the resources it has been given. To be fair to the Minister, Deputy Ross, he is not responsible for the planning of bus routes but I will endeavour to bring him to the House to discuss transport.

Senators Murnane O'Connor and Devine raised the publication today of the Women's Aid report. The figures in that report are very worrying. I commend Women's Aid on its invaluable work. The Government is committed to supporting the victims of domestic violence. When we previously discussed the Domestic Violence Bill all of us spoke about the need to end the menace of domestic violence. The programme for Government is committed to the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It is important to add the latter as well. The ratification of the Istanbul Convention is part of that. The Domestic Violence Bill that was passed by this House is also navigating its way through the Dáil and is on Report Stage. I hope it will be passed because it is important that we send a strong message to society in general regarding the issues raised by Senators Murnane O'Connor and Devine. It is also about raising awareness and I hope we can have a debate in the House on the report in the coming weeks.

Senator Ó Céidigh raised Brexit and the issue of aviation policy.

I will be happy to have the Minister come to the House to discuss this important matter, particularly aviation safety after Brexit.

Senator Ray Butler raised the issue of local authorities using private traffic warden services, specifically in Navan. As I am not familiar with the issue, perhaps he will submit it as a Commencement matter.

Regrettably, I cannot accept the amendment proposed by Senator Swanick. It is not that I disagree with the sentiment the Senator expresses but rather that talks on a new contract for general practitioners, including remuneration, are about to begin between the medical organisations, the Department and the Health Service Executive. I agree that progress must be made in this matter. Rather than divide the House, I ask the Senator to withdraw the amendment. I will ask the Minister to come to the House for a debate on this important matter. I appreciate the work being done by general practitioners in the primary care setting, which is of great importance in the future health landscape as we enter the era of Sláintecare. I will be pleased to hold a debate on the matter at a later stage.

I compliment Senator Swanick and Senator Conway-Walsh on accepting, on behalf of the people of Erris, an award at the People of the Year Awards. Senator Hopkins also attended the event with members of her local community. The attendance of Senators showed that politicians are members of the community and are not aloof and isolated. Comhghairdeas le na Seanadóirí.

Senator Richmond referred to the 14 new schools announced last week. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, is committed to coming to the House in the weeks ahead to discuss the Action Plan for Education. I will be glad to have the matter raised by the Senator discussed in that debate.

Senator Ó Ríordáin also raised the issue of education. I am not familiar with the important issue he raised regarding a school for Travellers. Perhaps he will consider submitting a Commencement matter on the issue. Regarding housing and land zoning, it is important to strike the right balance between our desire for more housing and the need to keep open spaces open to the public for recreational and leisure use. I agree with the Senator on this point. I also welcome today's meeting between the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills and students to discuss the need for a cap on rents for student accommodation.

To respond to Senator Paddy Burke, I congratulate and pay tribute to all of those involved in the opening of the Chinese market to Irish beef. The Senator correctly noted his role in this matter and the role played by others, including the former Ceann Comhairle, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. I compliment the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and his officials on the work they did to deliver access to this significant market for Irish farmers.

I concur with Senator Boyhan on the need for a complete reform of the rates system. While the system cannot be abolished for obvious reasons, I agree it is archaic and needs to reviewed, not least the matter of the role of the Valuation Office in determining the moneys being paid by a sizeable company. I will ask the Minister to come to the House to debate the issue.

On Senator Feighan's comments on the Good Friday Agreement, he can raise these matters in tomorrow's debate with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney.

If Senator Swanick agrees to withdraw his motion, I will have the Minister come to the House for a debate in the coming weeks.

Senator Swanick has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 63, motion 12, be taken before No. 1." Is the amendment being pressed?

In light of the Leader's response, I am happy to withdraw the amendment. I look forward to having the Minister in the House to debate the matter.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Order of Business agreed to.