An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

The Order of Business is No. a1 on the Supplementary Order Paper and No. 1 on the Order Paper. No. a1, Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 - all Stages, is to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business and to conclude after three hours by the putting of one question from the Chair, which shall, in respect of amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government. The contribution of group spokespersons during the debate on Second Stage shall not exceed eight minutes and that of all other Senators shall not exceed five minutes. The Minister shall be given no less than six minutes to reply to the debate, with Committee and Remaining Stages to be taken immediately thereafter; and No. 1, motion for earlier signature of the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020, is to be taken on conclusion of No. a1, without debate.

We meet in the Chamber in uncharted waters, in unprecedented times. The seating arrangements alone show the challenges that Covid-19 presents for us, as it did for the Dáil yesterday in the reduced numbers that attended the sitting.

This virus will change how we live, work and play. It will change everything from now on.

Yesterday, the Chief Medical Officer announced 191 more cases, with a total of 557 in the Republic. The Fianna Fáil group thinks of those who are unwell and wishes them a speedy recovery. It also extends its sympathies to the families of the three people who have died as a result of the virus. We wish to thank -----

I remind Members that there will be a full debate when the Bill is being debated. I do not want people to spend too long giving elaborate speeches at the outset. I am not trying to cut the Senator short but I remind her that there will be ample time for debating the substantive issues before us today.

I hope it will be said again and again, that we must thank all our front-line workers, including our doctors, nurses, hospital cleaners and catering staff. Our Seanad colleague, Senator Devine, has re-registered as a nurse, which is commendable. Nearly 24,000 people have signed up to the HSE's volunteer call. Words cannot say how grateful we are for the selfless actions of the many who are working on the front line, many of whom have separated themselves from their families because of the risk of transmission. These people should be commended all the more. They are working and living in war time situations. We have not seen the worst of it yet.

As Dr. Catherine Motherway told "Prime Time" last night, we must take this very seriously. We have half the number of beds of Italy and the EU. We must stay at home and stop socialising. Not only will there be a public health element but also a large economic element arising from Covid-19. The effects of the challenges that we will face as a society will be unprecedented. There are 250,000 small businesses in this country, the large majority will suffer and many may not survive. Today's legislation dealing with the social welfare Acts puts some supports in place to deal with this and to help those who are vulnerable and who do not have an income to get through the next few weeks. We fully support the measures. I have some questions but we may deal with them later but now I wish to raise how undocumented migrants are not catered for.

We are on the Order of Business. I usually give each Member two minutes, not five. I must be fair to everyone. This is just the Order of Business. The substantive debate on the Bill will follow and there will be plenty of time for debate.

I will not go through the elements of the Bill which should be improved or which I wish to highlighted. Once again, I thank front-line staff.

It is some time since we sat and perhaps we are familiarising ourselves with procedures once again, including myself. However, I remind Senators that we are on the Order of Business.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and the staff in the Houses of the Oireachtas for facilitating this meeting. This morning, I read with some disappointment something by a journalist in The Irish Times who is not here, I thought she might have been, which referred to the "last hurrah of the Twenty-fifth Seanad and a rubber-stamping of new laws". It is not the last hurrah. That same journalist spoke of the last hurrah some months ago when we were winding up. We are a serious House of politics, we are lawmakers, and I am tired of this Seanad being trivialised in The Irish Times and other media. It is about time we stood up as Members and said to the public that we take our work seriously. It is not a hurrah. We take our work seriously and that is why we are here today. I want that message to go to the very heart of The Irish Times and hopefully tomorrow there might be some clarification of the point made by that journalist.

We are dealing with emergency legislation to give sweeping powers to the State. I take on board what you have said, a Chathaoirligh. We do not need to go into all the detail now; we will go through the various Stages. I acknowledge the work of the Taoiseach and the Government. They have played a blinder and we must acknowledge it. It is not a time for politics, but it is a time for politicians to come together. I will say later in the day the time has come for us to focus together as a nation, as politicians, on addressing this evil, this disease which is undermining so many of us. Never has it become clearer that the so-called powerful are powerless. That is the reality of this disease. We need a national response. We need a European response. We need people who are outside the European Union but in Europe co-operating and responding also. This is a national and an international issue that needs to be addressed internationally by co-operation. I look forward to working with them.

I particularly acknowledge the work of the Minister, Ms Regina Doherty, who is no longer a Deputy. I see a woman on television every day standing up courageously at the front line doing her work for the State. I might put a bit of a plug in: there will be Taoiseach's nominees to the Seanad and she should be given due consideration for the work she has done for our country. She can be proud of that, as can the Government.

It is important that we work together. I particularly welcome the sunset clause because there are issues about people's liberties. Throughout this legislation we are curtailing constitutional rights of free movement and assembly of people. However, it is temporary, it is necessary and it needs our support. It is a national effort and a national team.

I appeal to all involved in politics. Let us at the same time as debating these issues work on a twin-track approach to getting a good strong Government in place that respects the mandate of all people who were elected in the general election. We need continuity and governance. We need stability, assurance and confidence, but above all we need to unite to protect ourselves our homes, our industries, our farms, our jobs and our loved ones. We can only do that if we work together - the great old Irish thing of meitheal. We need to pull together and work together for the common good.

On the significance of the Senate, when I was in the House yesterday a number of journalists questioned me on what would happen on this day two weeks. Forty-nine new Members will be elected on Friday, this day two weeks exactly. I was asked about the constitutional issues that might arise if there is not a functioning Senate and if the Dáil could pass legislation. I feel certain from my legal knowledge it cannot do so without the second leg of the Parliament, that being the Seanad. Sin scéal eile.

As no one is offering from the Civil Engagement group, I call Senator Devine on behalf of Sinn Féin.

It feels our world is shattered. Our way of life is being tested like never before. Our planet and our people are being tested. I commend what Senator Boyhan said. We are all sitting here united. It is a strange and eerie atmosphere. I am very proud to be part of this Seanad and to see through emergency legislation in these times. We will stand united.

As an aside, we are sitting here and it is about time for Seanad reform. That is for the next Seanad to deal with.

We will go through a range of matters today, including childcare, housing and involuntary detainment. We need to have discussions on all those Bills. It is almost akin to what my child, who is now a young adult, had - a computer game called Theatre of War. It seems like we are on a war footing. We need to act together with compassion and kindness to each other for the safety of us all and our planet. We will come out of this and maybe a beauty will be born out of this terribleness.

On behalf of the Seanad technical group, I join all others in expressing sincere sympathies to all those who have been so terribly affected by this awful virus. I look forward to the debate on the emergency legislation, which we in Labour will be pleased to support and engage on constructively.

I thank the four Members of the House for their contribution to this extraordinary Order of Business. On my own behalf and on behalf of the Government, I thank all members of staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas for facilitating today's sitting and for their presence and work. I acknowledge the gargantuan, supreme efforts of all our public and civil servants, those who work in our shops and keep our supply chain going and those who are working on the front line in our health system. We acknowledge and remember those people particularly today. We remember also the people who have lost their lives thus far in this pandemic, which, as many Members have said, has transformed our lives perhaps forever. On behalf of myself and the Government, I express our sympathies to the families of the loved ones who have died and thank all the very many people who have listened to the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, who has done great work, on socialising, self-distancing and, more importantly, taking this absolutely seriously.

I again thank the Members of the House for their co-operation thus far and thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for your courtesy in advance of today's proceedings. It is important, as Senator Boyhan said, that we as Members of the Upper House take seriously our role and our duty under the Constitution. The Senator is correct: that is our job and our duty. That is what we are doing. This sitting is not a hurrah; it is us fulfilling our duty under the Constitution. I know we will do that. Ní neart go cur le chéile.

Order of Business agreed to.