The Order of Business is No. 1, motion regarding the taking of the Order of Business, to be taken on the conclusion of the Order of Business without debate; and Nos. 2 and 3, motions regarding the election of the Leas-Chathaoirleach, to be taken on the conclusion of No. 1 and to be discussed together.
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Does anyone wish to speak on the Order of Business?
I am pleased to support the election of the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the nominee going forward.
I note that the HSE Covid app has gone live today. When I departed Mayo this morning to come to Seanad Éireann, there were just over 17,000 registered users of the app.
When I opened it just now, there were more than 250,000 users of the app. It is an extremely important step in our fight against Covid. I hope the app will prove useful in tracing contacts and will help us in the weeks and months ahead as we continue to fight this pandemic. It is worth noting that a lot of work has gone into making this app user-friendly and available to all citizens. That is positive.
I note that some concerns have been raised with regard to data protection. There seem to be good assurances, however, that the app is safe to use. For what it is worth, I believe it is worth giving it a go and trying it out. The more people who sign up for and use this app, the more it will help us trace contacts very quickly. I say this in light of the increasing pressures to open things up faster with regard to international travel and people moving between counties and in and out of the country. We need to ensure that there are robust mechanisms in place to deal with this. I believe we would all agree that, given that nearly all of the legislation we will be debating in the House in the coming weeks is related to Covid, our first priority should be to do all we can to protect our country and our citizens from a second wave. It is interesting that this useful tool was launched today.
I look forward to today's business and to debating the Microenterprise Loan Fund (Amendment) Bill 2020 on Thursday. This Bill will be important in helping our country and our businesses to get back up on their feet, protecting jobs.
I remind the House that group leaders have three minutes and all other Senators have two minutes. That was the practice in previous Seanaid. Group leaders may raise multiple topics while other Senators are asked to stick to one. For the Civil Engagement Group, I call on Senator Higgins.
Many of us who were elected to this Seanad conducted our campaigns during the early stages of the pandemic and, indeed, during lockdown. As we now convene and start our work, many months later, the virus is still very much with us. While we may be very happy that the curve has been flattened in Ireland, there are many, including myself, who have concerns about the pace at which we have opened up certain aspects of business and about some of the decisions taken as to the speed at which we are attempting to return to normal business. We need to be very cautious and to keep the impact of these decisions under review.
I note that, as was mentioned by the previous speaker, we have an awful lot of very important work to do. The fact that this pandemic and crisis are under way means that we have more work to do and that we have to pay more attention to what we do. The work of the Seanad is extremely important in that regard. It is important that each of us hold to full and appropriate scrutiny all legislation and all issues relating to Covid.
In that regard, I notice that in the Order of Business, the Leader has suggested that we start the day with the Order of Business. This follows a proposal from last week's Order of Business that Commencement matter debates be discontinued. Commencement matter debates are the mechanism by which we, as Senators, can hold Ministers to account on specific issues of concern. I hope the Leader will assure the House that, if formal Commencement matter debates are not to take place for the next few weeks and if we are not to have the resource of parliamentary questions available to those in the other House, mechanisms will be put in place to assure us, as Senators and public representatives, that we will be able to get answers to crucial questions. During this four-month period, many of us have been writing about key issues of policy. For example, I have been writing about the availability of personal protection equipment for those in the community and voluntary sector, the provision of public sanitary facilities and the rotation schedules for hospital workers. All of these issues relate to Covid but, in some cases, it has been difficult to get responses.
Recognising that we are suspending Commencement matter debates for a brief time, perhaps the Leader might be able to assure us that there will be other mechanisms by which we can do our parliamentary work and address issues of great concern.
I agree with and echo the words of previous Senators, in particular on today's launch of the Covid-19 tracking app. It will be a vital tool in keeping people safe. One of the glaring issues about the Covid-19 crisis, and preceding crises, has been the merit in the assertion that we work best when we work collaboratively together, and when we take a united and joined-up approach.
Given its presence in the programme for Government, I ask for a debate on the shared island element as soon as possible. I will not reiterate the points that were justifiably and understandably made last week about Seanad appointments and certain absences from those appointments. However, we are where we are and I accept that we have to move on as a Chamber. The programme for Government, as outlined, allows us the opportunity to discuss what exactly a shared island - a shared Ireland - will mean for us and I do not think we should shy away from that. One of the great strengths of the Seanad as an institution is that it allows this Oireachtas to become nicely representative, to become reflective of people from right across all of our 32 counties and if we so choose, from beyond, including the very important and vital global diaspora. In that spirit, I also call on the Taoiseach in particular, in addition to the Minister of State with responsibility for local government - I forget the exact title - to provide for a discussion on the much-promised referendum on the extension of presidential election voting rights to citizens outside the State. To be fair to Ministers and their officials in the previous Government, a lot of work had gone into it, in terms of options papers and looking at best practice from other jurisdictions around the world. It is something a vast range of political parties state is their party policy. It is also something the Constitutional Convention in 2014 voted overwhelmingly in favour of, so I think it is now time for the Government to focus on setting a date. We need to now see that in the spirit of a shared island and of the new political and societal realities that we show citizens we value them by entrusting them with this important franchise.
For the benefit of the leaders, the bell is going at 30 seconds to three minutes, just so speakers know they are not actually running over time. They are all sticking to the time.
It is good to be facing back into the resumption of legislative business in as near to normal a setting as we can. I am delighted to speak as the leader of the Labour group and to welcome our four other members, all new Senators - Annie Hoey, Rebecca Moynihan, Marie Sherlock and Mark Wall. We are a group that is 80% women, four out of five, so I am delighted about that. This is a Seanad that is 40% women. That is something that is worth stating and being proud of because the Dáil remains stubbornly unrepresentative of women, with only 22% of Deputies being women. We need to ensure that we are a representative House, one that represents Ireland in its diversity and that we are inclusive in all ways. I welcome also Senator Eileen Flynn, who is a Taoiseach's nominee.
I also pay tribute to the many front-line workers who have done so much in recent months to fight Covid. All of us are thinking in these times of the more than 1,700 people who died and the 25,000 plus who have suffered infection from Covid, and all the terrible suffering that has been undergone. We know that this is not over yet. Like other group leaders I welcome the launch today of the Covid app. I wish the incoming Government well in what is a hugely challenging time. We in the Labour Party group will offer a constructive opposition. There is much in the programme for Government that we welcome. I have mentioned issues such as diversity and inclusion.
I am glad to be the Labour Party spokesperson on children, equality and inclusion and, therefore, to deal with the Department of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, whom I wish the very best with his challenging brief. I hope we will see great progress made on some of the promises made in the programme for Government, particularly on the abolition of direct provision. I ask the Leader for a debate with the new Minister in due course in this House on aspects of his brief, particularly the promise or commitment to abolish direct provision and what will take its place.
I would also like a debate on the gender pay gap, on which the Labour Party group brought forward legislation in the last Seanad. It was passed in this House without opposition from the Government. Unfortunately, we never saw it progress beyond Second Stage in the Dáil. Last week, we saw a very critical report by the Council of Europe on Ireland's record on tackling the stubborn gender pay gap of approximately 14% that persists between the earnings of women and men. This is something the Seanad can lead on. I ask the Leader for a debate on how to make progress in tackling the gender pay gap and ensuring we achieve a more equal Ireland for all.
I shall finish by wishing the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, well. I know he has undergone quite a lot of horrible targeted abuse over recent weeks, including today, on social media. He will be a really strong and superb Minister. I am not biased just because he is a former student of mine and a graduate of the law school in Trinity College Dublin.
I note the Senator's use of the phrase Ireland for all. Obviously, I am in marketing so the phrase has permeated across the Chamber. I call Senator Boyhan.
I take this opportunity to wish all the Ministers and Ministers of State every success and congratulations on their appointment. Their roles are challenging, there were major difficulties of which we all know, and there is the added difficulty of having a coalition Government. A grand coalition, as this one is, poses challenges to us as the people in opposition. We are now more in demand and we have the important job of scrutinising every single line of every piece of legislation.
I, too, wish to raise the issue of direct provision. I do not know if anyone had an opportunity this morning to listen to the Ombudsman for Children or read the newspapers to hear or read the harrowing commentary from a survey that was conducted by people who live in direct provision. We are dealing with issues of widespread racism, bullying and exclusion being experienced by children who live in direct provision. In today's article and report, children were quoted as being called a "Black monkey", "a chocolate" and "a terrorist". People might say that is all very well, but it is very hard to take as a child when the first contact one has with an awareness of the colour of one's skin is a negative one, or when one receives negative commentary. That poses many challenges for many people.
Recently, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, I attended a gathering where I heard at first hand from many families, and their children, of their personal experiences of living in direct provision. I spoke to a member of the Movement for Asylum Seekers in Ireland, MASI, who spoke about how they ran away from their homeland but asked where did they run to. They feel they have been imprisoned and entrapped, with no one to turn to and no one who values them. That is not everyone's view but it is the experience of many people. There is also the lack of respect for the rights of children who are trapped in our direct provision system. Families are forced to share rooms with people who are strangers they know nothing about.
The Tánaiste, and former Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, recently said "we do not need to look across the Atlantic to find racism [because we] have many examples in our own country", which is really true. Direct provision is a profoundly racist system that violates basic human rights. Direct provision has a negative impact on the healthcare outcomes of families, of people, and particularly of children. The system of direct provision undermines people's values and harms the most vulnerable, which is an issue we need to address. The neglect and institutionalisation of disliked people in Irish society is not new to us all, and we can go on at great length in relation to that.
We need to work towards the abolition of direct provision, which I note is promised in the programme for Government.
The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is charged with a special Ministry to deal with direct provision, children, equality and integration. I ask the Leader that as soon as possible and practicable, given the constraints and the time we have, we have the Minister here so that we share our views. More importantly, we must have a conversation not only with the public but with our membership, political parties and associations and we must look at how we, as leaders, politicians and people valued in our communities, interact with other people and how we can lead and address this issue. I look forward to the very ambitious target the Government has stated of abolishing the current system of direct provision. I look forward to hearing what are the alternatives because there are challenges but we need to see them, tease them out and talk about them.
Today, I want to raise the plight of community, sporting and voluntary groups in our society. Unfortunately, their fundraising activity has been negatively impacted by Covid, which arrived on our shores last March. These groups are set for another serious hurdle as their lotto and bingo licences are due to expire in the coming months. The cost of these licences is significant to a local group, be it a GAA club, soccer club or any community organisation, with a renewal cost in excess of €500. This is a huge amount of money to a local GAA club or a community group that has been stood down since the outbreak of Covid and whose activity has been completely thwarted as a result. On foot of current indications that large gatherings will not happen for the remainder of this year, these GAA clubs and community organisations will have had no benefit whatsoever from the fee they paid for their licences. Consequently, with this in mind, will the Leader make contact with the relevant Minister to ensure these licences are extended for a period, taking account of the lack of activity for almost nine months? I am sure we in this room all agree that we owe a great debt of gratitude to all of our community organisations that have done such magnificent work for all of our citizens during the Covid outbreak. The least we can do now is use a bit of common sense and extend their licences for the local lotto or bingo, which is a significant fundraiser for that community, because ultimately we the community will be the beneficiaries of it.
I want to raise the issue of the ongoing closure of the peripheral gates in the Phoenix Park. We can all agree the Phoenix Park was a magical place to be during the Covid-19 restrictions when traffic in Dublin was reduced by up to 70%. A minimal number of cars were accessing the park through the Castleknock and Parkgate Street entrances. The peripheral gates and car parks were closed. The natural landscape was reclaimed and cyclists and pedestrians were prioritised. It showed us that we have been getting the balance wrong in the Phoenix Park. I also think the Office of Public Works, OPW, is not getting it all right at present either. The traffic has returned to 75% of where it was and there is worrying congestion on the roads around the park, creating long tailbacks in the surrounding areas. It can take an hour to get from one end of the park to the other. People who depend on access to the park have been affected, such as the Phoenix Park school, Ashtown Stables, zoo goers, employees at Garda headquarters and visitors who use the park as an amenity. Businesses in the area, which have just reopened, have also been adversely affected. The OPW has announced it will maintain the closure of the gates and it has also signalled there will be further measures to address traffic volumes inside the park but there has not been any proper consultation on it. Critically, there has not been any alternative transport strategy to deal with the 9 million cars that were in the park last year.
One cannot just close the gates, cross one's fingers and hope traffic management works itself out. I would welcome an opportunity for the Minister with responsibility for the OPW to make a statement on the OPW's plans for traffic management changes and a mobility study on the Phoenix Park, including any public and stakeholder consultation. In addition, I would ask him for an update on the restoration and reinstallation of the Phoenix Park gates, which were removed prior to the papal visit in August 2018, now nearly two years ago.
I did not get a chance last week to say I am humbly honoured to have been re-elected to the Seanad. I express my appreciation to all the councillors who voted for me and assure them of my support in their struggles to get proper terms and conditions in recognition of the great work they do in all parts of the country.
I wish the new Minister with responsibility for housing well. He has many challenges ahead. I come from Dublin 8 and am deeply concerned about the proposed development of co-living accommodation in the area. Local councillors along with community activists have objected to this type of development not only on health grounds but also on the grounds that Dublin 8 needs affordable and social housing, not more transient and short-term housing. I ask that the Minister come before the House to assure us he is committed to the provision of real homes in our area.
Finally, I thank Dr. Tony Holohan, who stepped down from his post recently to take care of his wife. He helped Ireland through one of the most difficult periods we have ever experienced, and we will be forever in his debt. I wish him and his family well.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving us an opportunity to address some important issues. I urge the leadership of the House to try to facilitate debate here on the very significant economic fallout from Covid. This issue is raising concerns in every community. In the constituency I know best, Clare, there are very many issues impacting on the lives of people, most particularly the decision by the management and the board of Shannon Airport to begin to address the Covid crisis on the shoulders of workers. Overnight they wrote to workers offering redundancies, reduced numbers and terms of sabbatical from work. This kind of approach is not what is needed. It was recognised that the Covid crisis would have a negative impact on all sectors of the economy, and the Government appealed to companies right across the board to try to work together to hold employees within their embrace until we got to the other side of this. We will get to the other side of the fallout from Covid but we cannot do so on the shoulders or the heads of workers, or by trampling on the hopes of workforces throughout the country. This is particularly disappointing given that management and the board at Shannon Airport have failed since separation to address the issues there, failed to generate more traffic and failed in their effort to ensure that Shannon Airport acts as a driver for the entire region. What we need is a debate in this House. I request that the leadership of the House bring before the House the Minister with responsibility for transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister with responsibility for tourism in order that we can have a proper debate. We should not expect the workers in those areas under pressure to take all the pain when it is a much wider issue that needs to be addressed.
I wish to raise the issue of the M1 corridor, which links Ireland's two largest cities of Dublin and Belfast and at the very heart of which lie two of Ireland's largest towns, Dundalk and Drogheda - Dundalk, naturally enough, being the bigger one, despite what the CSO says. The M1 corridor was launched in Castlebellingham, County Louth, last year and is the brainchild of Dundalk accountant Paddy Malone, who is a former president of the chamber of commerce in the town and is known to many of us in this House. The point of the M1 corridor - a part of the world the Leader is from - is to highlight how investment-ready the north east is as a region. Some 61% of the population is a commuter-ready workforce with third level degrees. It is Ireland's most densely populated region, with one in three people under the age of 25.
By developing the north-east region further, we are hugely reducing the number of people commuting to and working in Dublin. At present 77,000 people travel down the M1, M2 and M3 to commute to Dublin and I firmly believe that we need to try to reduce that number and to attract people further into our regions through jobs and investments.
There are three basic things we need to do in this region. The first one is to attract new greenfield foreign direct investment. The second thing we need to do is to have a second-site location. A second-site location is where a multinational which is already present in Ireland obtains a second site which it can move into and create further employment in that area. The third thing is very important because this area is right there on the front lines of the Border and Brexit. We have to make a real effort to try to attract businesses from Northern Ireland and the UK which may want to have a base within the EU to set up in the area. It would be timely if we asked the Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to come to this House in the next couple of weeks to debate his plans for the M1 corridor and how he is going to bring jobs, investment and growth to every region of Ireland. I would very much appreciate that.
I support Senator Dooley’s call for a debate on Shannon Airport. The experiment of an independent Shannon Airport has failed miserably and we urgently need that debate before any further attacks on the terms and conditions of the workers in Shannon Airport.
Today I want to call for a debate on the pay and conditions of our front-line workers. We have seen tremendous support and recognition of their work but I have to ask how much this Government really values the work of these front-line workers. I could give any number of examples but I will give the example of contract cleaners who put their lives on the line each day. Indeed, one contract cleaner in a hospital lost his life during this crisis. We have hundreds of contract cleaners supporting the health service across the country. They are paid the princely sum of €10.80 an hour. Imagine putting one’s life on the line each day for €10.80. They were promised under a new employment regulation order an increase to €11.20 but that was then withdrawn by the Irish Contract Cleaning Association. The Irish contract cleaning companies were too concerned about their profits to worry about what a contract cleaner in a hospital should earn.
I want to put down a challenge to this Government. Let us judge this Government by the difference it makes to our front-line workers not just in terms of applause but in terms of pay, recognition and decency in their terms and conditions at work. If any of the fine words we have heard from all sides in this Chamber mean anything, then we will change those terms and conditions. Why on earth are we outsourcing contract cleaners in our hospitals? When we tried to insource contract cleaners through my union, SIPTU, in Limerick a couple of years ago, conditions and standards improved dramatically. What happened? The HSE intervened. It said it was against its policy and that its policy was to outsource, not to insource. It is high time we got rid of these old-fashioned, failed Thatcherite notions and, more important, began to come up with real solutions to make sure that every front-line worker receives decent pay and conditions. Let us have that debate.
The issue I would like to raise today is in some ways a follow-on from what the previous speaker said. It is the issue of maternity leave for workers who have become new parents during the coronavirus crisis. In particular, I wish to bring to the House’s attention the campaign which calls for a temporary three-month extension of maternity leave for those workers who have become new parents. Many Members of the House supported the campaign outside the gates of Leinster House today. As a parent of three children, my experience was that at the time of becoming a parent, one is at one’s most vulnerable but is being given the greatest responsibility. It is a very special time. The coronavirus has had an enormous impact on people of all ages, including the elderly and teenagers, but it has been incredibly disruptive to new parents.
Speaking to the National Women's Council of Ireland representative, Orla O'Connor, today, and to parents who came out in the rain, this issue of the extension of the maternity leave benefit is a matter that is falling between a number of Ministries. I ask that the Seanad would collectively ask that the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response take on this issue, address it and look to give some certainty to parents. Give new parents a break. In my constituency of Dublin Central, childcare was incredibly scarce and incredibly expensive before the virus. There is a piece of work that has to be done to make childcare affordable and accessible, particularly for parents in the city, and parents whose maternity leave will run out and who have not had an opportunity to spend it in a quality way with their new babies should be given a break. I ask that the Seanad ask the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response to take this up with the new Ministers because there is more than one Minister involved.
Is Senator Conway there? I call Senator Moynihan.
I did not get a chance to congratulate the Cathaoirleach on his new position last week and I would like to take the opportunity to do that now.
To follow-up on the sentiments of Senator Black in relation to co-living developments, I have represented the Dublin 8 area and I am a resident there for a very long time. This is wider than simply Dublin 8. It is a question of health. I welcomed the fact that the Minister stated on radio on Friday that he did not believe that co-living was a long-term solution to the housing crisis but, as Minister, under section 28 of the Planning and Development Act, he has the power to immediately rescind co-living regulations. The development in Dublin 8 that Senator Black was referring to is currently going through An Bord Pleanála and the Minister has the power to ensure that these developments are not given planning permission. In light of Covid-19, we see co-living and student accommodation where one has shared facilities as not optimum for the future. Such accommodation, particularly co-living developments, could lead to clusters of viral-related Covid. We have a number of student accommodation complexes - 4,000 units as opposed to 78 currently planned units for residential - in Dublin 8 and there are another 414 going through. Dublin city and architecture has always had a way of responding to health's challenges of our time. Areas like Mary Aikenhead House and flat complexes developed by Herbert Sims contained room for people to be able to self-isolate. It would be a disappointment if we saw a number of co-living developments built over the next couple of years because the Minister has put this out to a review rather than use his powers under section 28 to immediately rescind the co-living development guidelines.
Apologies about earlier on. I just slipped out for a moment.
That is okay.
In the first instance, I support my colleague, Senator Dooley, in requesting that the Minister with responsibility for transport come in here for an urgent debate on the situation in Shannon because what is happening there seems to fly in the face of what companies throughout the private sector in this country have attempted, and in many cases succeeded, to do at great cost to themselves.
I would also like to make a request of the Leader that at some stage over the next couple of months we would have a detailed debate with the Taoiseach on the programme for Government. This is a new type of programme for Government. It is extremely detailed. It is nearly 150 pages long, with many aspirations and a huge amount of commitment. It is the type of programme for Government that one would see in other counties but until now, we have not seen in this country. It is a welcome type of programme for Government because many issues were stress-tested over many long days and nights in negotiation. Based on that and on the quality of the document that has been produced and the aspirations for our country and our people that are contained within the pages, I believe it would be appropriate and desirable for the Taoiseach to come in here for a detailed and comprehensive debate on the programme for Government.
In previous Seanaid, as the Cathaoirleach will know, we had the former Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, in here twice. Prior to that, when former Deputy, Enda Kenny, was Taoiseach, he visited the Seanad on two occasions in six years. In this new style of politics, I would like to think the Taoiseach will come to this Chamber at least once every three months or, if not, then definitely once every six months. It should certainly be more than once a year. On the first Order of Business of this new Seanad, I propose we start as we mean to go on and have the Taoiseach in here a minimum of twice, if not three times, each year.
I agree with many colleagues who thanked our front-line workers, especially nurses, doctors and care workers in nursing homes and hospitals around the country. I thank our immigrant workers in particular, especially nurses and doctors, who were very much at the coalface of the Covid-19 outbreak. We have learned from academic reports that black, Asian, and minority ethnic, BAME, workers have been affected disproportionately by Covid-19, which is worrying. The former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, recognised the work of immigrants in Ireland, especially in our hospitals and nursing homes. Many of them were living in direct provision centres and this demonstrated their value to our society.
I welcome the decision of the Minister for Justice and Equality to reopen the Burgh Quay registration office for the renewal of visas. It was unfair and unjust that many of our nurses, doctors and those working in care homes had to queue up on Burgh Quay to renew visas when that can be done simply online. The Minister has also expanded the online registration renewal process to visas. These are welcome steps. It only applies in Dublin, but it should be applied nationwide.
We also need to examine the fact that one in five applicants for citizenship waits for more than two years to be processed. Some 3,000 working immigrants, who are contributing to our society, working in hospitals and putting themselves at risk, are waiting for their applications to be processed. The Department of Justice has stated that is because the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, is not properly funded and that is where the delays arise. We need to examine how we treat immigrants in Ireland. The direct provision system is not fit for purpose and it needs to change, but, more broadly, however, our treatment of immigrants, including those working in hospitals, nursing homes and many other sectors of our society, has to be improved. The State must do better.
I also agree with my colleague, Senator Fitzpatrick, on extending the maternity benefit package for an extra three months. As a new parent, I know it is nearly impossible to get any childcare. If a woman is seeking to go back to work, it is going to be very difficult to secure childcare, even if she has a great deal of money to pay for it. This would be a practical step. Most women want to go back to work, and they will take up the childcare facilities if they are available. They are not available now. Crèches are reducing their capacity by more than a third and many parents are being let down. Ultimately, women are being forced to take unwanted unpaid leave that they do not want to take. It is something the Minister should look at. As the spokesperson for social protection, I will raise this issue directly with the Minister.
I congratulate the Chairman on his elevation. I did not have the opportunity to do that last week, and I am sure he will do a fantastic job. I raise an issue that has been raised many times in this House in recent years, which is farm safety. It is one of the key issues that we need to prioritise as we start off this Seanad. Unfortunately, over the past decade there has been no major change.
Some 40% of all fatalities in workplaces happen in an agricultural setting, even though the sector comprises only 5% of the overall workforce. When we first sat yesterday week, a neighbour of mine was unfortunately being buried that same day. He was another man who lost his life in a farm fatality. That was the second person I knew in Cork who had died in six weeks.
One man was killed in a tractor accident while another man over in the Rising Sun was killed by a bull.
This is a blight on our communities and on our society. It is about not only the people who are dying but about the families who are left behind and how we deal with them. As I said, the statistics have not changed and 40% of all fatalities are related to agriculture. We need to move forward and to look at changing the process because what we have done in the past decade has failed. That has to be the starting line. The Oireachtas produced a report, in which Members were involved, but there has been no major change in the percentage of people who have lost their lives.
If one looks at the basics, we are paying 23% VAT on farm safety material. That is sinful and I do not know how we can stand over the fact that if one wants to buy a new PTO shaft, 23% of the price goes to the Exchequer. This has to change. Sixteen year olds can do a theory test and then drive a tractor that can do 50 km/h with a load of more than 20 tonnes behind it. That is absolutely ridiculous. We have laws in this land that have not been updated and are for a different age. To really make a change when it comes to farm safety and to really change what is happening on our family farms, we need to make hard and somewhat unpopular decisions.
It has to be one of the priorities of this Seanad. Realistically, this group of 60 individuals has to pioneer certain issues. I will be pioneering farm safety and I will be looking for the Cathaoirleach's help when it comes to this issue because it affects all of our communities. I have seen two fatalities in my locality in the past six weeks. I do not want to go to any more of these funerals. It cannot continue. We need to have major change because what has been done in the past decade has not been successful. A Seanad Public Consultation Committee debated farm safety. We need to do the same again and to get the key principals and key actors around the table, whether health and safety or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and deliver on it.
We are going to have a farm safety week in a few weeks' time but that has to change drastically. It cannot be about promoting farm safety just for that one week. The statistics state it has not worked. We need to change because if we do not, the statistics will not change. Some 40% of all accidents and fatalities will be in a small cohort of less than 5% of the workforce, and that is unacceptable.
I want to speak briefly about some of the new Ministers, especially our colleague from the previous Seanad, the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, who has a hugely important brief concerning drug policy and the national drugs strategy. I plead with the Minister of State to slow down and to give himself time to understand the issue. I worked very closely with the Minister of State who played several football matches with people who have experienced drug abuse and drug use. Unfortunately, in the past few days, he has made comments to the effect that cannabis is a gateway to cocaine use. This is an unfounded myth that has been proved wrong time and again. Nobody would hold it against a new Minister giving himself time to get to know and understand the issue and the topic that he is about to be working on. It is one of the most important issues for me, as someone who has not only worked in addiction for 20 years, but who has lived with an addiction for a long time and who has lost many friends to addiction. The gateway to addiction, to heroin use or to alcoholism is primarily inequality, trauma, pain and poverty. It is really unhelpful to begin a brief with throwaway comments that are not helpful to the community that is going to need a huge amount of support, especially coming out of a pandemic. Drug use coming out of the last period of austerity, which began in 2008, saw many people die from overdoses due to changing drug trends and we are going to see that again as addiction increases during a time of lockdown and things become much more problematic.
As Commencement matters will not be taken for the next while, my request is that instead of thinking they have to go onto panels, appear on news clips and have an opinion on something, Ministers who are new in their post should take a moment. They should take in the brief and reach out to people who understand the issues and who have been working in that area for ten, 20 or 30 years. Then, from an informed position and not from one of opinion, they should start advocating for that important brief. I wanted to note that because how one starts off in a Ministry is hugely important. None us would hold it against the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, to take that time and work with people before he starts making comments which are actually unhelpful to the huge amount of work that has been done in this area for a long time.
The Leader will be aware that the programme for Government made it quite clear there would be no support for the retention of the Shannon LNG project when it comes up for renewal on its status as a project of common interest, PCI. That is in the programme for Government. It was a huge disappointment, as the Cathaoirleach will know, to those of us in Kerry, especially in north Kerry. I live fewer than eight miles from the site of that proposed project. It was going to provide 500 jobs in construction and many other long-term jobs in a place that is absolutely devastated by unemployment and emigration.
That said, that is the position of the programme for Government which we supported nonetheless. It was a hard thing to do but we supported it because it was the right and responsible thing to do. It is a good programme for Government, not least because it also makes it quite clear there is a commitment to find, identify and provide alternative funding for environmentally viable projects in that distressed area. Some people are saying that commitment is pie in the sky. Time will tell but as far as I am concerned, it is not pie in the sky. I will make sure the Government knows that the people of north Kerry, in County Clare and other areas in the mid-west will be watching closely as to what alternative compensatory works are initiated to replace the Shannon LNG project, which, by the way, is still moot. The project proposer, New Fortress Energy, has indicated that it is going ahead regardless of whether it gets funding from Europe, if it passes the planning process, which is ongoing at the moment. I wish it well in that regard.
I want to join with other speakers in complimenting and paying tribute to the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, on the magnitude of his work and to wish him and his family every blessing and good luck in the next period.
I ask that the Leader facilitate a report and debate, as requested by other Members, on the aviation recovery task force. I remind Members from counties Clare and Limerick that there is more than one airport in the country and that our aviation policy is now one we urgently need to review and to plan for the future. As an island nation, we very much depend upon our airports, not just Dublin, but also Cork, Shannon and Galway. It is important that we have a debate on the report of the aviation recovery task force. It is also important that debate be taken in the context of the decision of the Government on Monday, to be taken again on 20 July, regarding essential and non-essential air travel.
We should look at the creation of air corridors and the remarks of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, this morning regarding the policing of the 14-day quarantine period. However, it is important we recognise that the aviation industry under the DAA is losing almost €1 million per day, which as Members have stated here this morning, is having an impact on jobs and on the terms and conditions of all workers in the aviation sector. That debate is urgent and should be imminent because it is about ensuring that it is not just members of the public who are informed but also the workers, and that the rights of workers are looked at as well.
Planes and ferries have recommenced and people are starting to travel. I met with the management of Cork Airport last week and I was down at the ferry terminal in Ringaskiddy in Cork this week as well. People starting to travel brings its own pressures. That is why the report on the aviation task force recovery plan is very important.
I support my colleagues Senators Conway and Dooley. We were in Shannon Airport yesterday and it was like a ghost town. I strongly support their convictions around proper regional development, which they keep talking about. However, it is time for action, not words, on Shannon Airport and that whole region.
I want to talk about something much more basic than flying, which is the basic human right to clean water. According to the United Nations, all humans have the right to water and sanitation. The human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case here. Since last January, I have gotten phone calls every day of the week from local group schemes or Irish Water run schemes about this matter. We are failing as a nation to provide the basic human right of water.
It is now the new norm to buy bottled water in our country. I remember being in Germany as a young teenager 30 years ago and saying they were mad for buying water and that it would never do in Ireland. Now everyone is buying water all the time. It is a completely normal thing to buy plastic bottles of water. People who are on low incomes, people in direct provision and single mothers are struggling to buy water because they cannot afford it and they are then left with poor quality water for baby food or washing their clothes. Some towns in Clare have had at least 32 incidents of more than three days with no water of any kind, and the group schemes and Irish Water are not supplying any alternatives. Under the UN resolution, water has to be accessible. We used to run fundraisers for wells in South Africa and Ethiopia and now I feel like I need to do fundraisers for people in my own county.
This is not unique to Clare because there are also huge issues in cities, where people are afraid to swim. We cannot drink our water, we cannot cook with it and we cannot swim in it. We need to peel this back to the basics and at least try to get our water right. I look forward to everyone in this House and the other House supporting me in the work we are going to have to do to rectify this situation because we are ending up with 1 million empty plastic water bottles in our seas every day as well. This is an environmental issue, a social issue and a huge health issue if people are drinking poor quality water. We have had incidents of E. coli and cryptosporidium around tourist areas as well. We want people who live in Ireland and who come to Ireland to have confidence in our water and we need to reinstil that confidence. I look forward to working with the whole House on that huge human rights issue.
I raise the issue of the extended maternity leave campaign. I back the very sensible proposal made by my colleague, Senator Fitzpatrick, to refer the issue from this House to the Covid committee. It is a very important issue for thousands of families right across the country. Thousands of babies were born just before or during lockdown and maternity leave is running out for their parents. They are left in an awful situation where they cannot get childcare because the capacity in crèches has been drastically reduced due to social distancing, or because any private arrangements they would have made within their own families or in their communities have fallen through. Babies and mothers have also not had the appropriate check-ups or vaccines and they have not been able to socialise their children, which is very important for childhood development. We are calling for maternity benefit to be extended for three months. Many other exceptional measures were taken during the crisis to get people through it and this is an exceptional once-off measure that the women of Ireland need at this point.
We need to give it to them to allow them to put alternative arrangements in place. The country may be in a different position in three months' time. These women need this measure for their own mental health and for the mental and physical health of their families. I would like this House to send a strong message that we support the women who have conducted this campaign. They need our support. I would really like a Minister to take hold of this issue and for it to come before the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response. It would be a very good step forward if this House were to make such a recommendation. It would show the women behind the campaign, who stood outside Leinster House with their children today and whom I met along with the National Women's Council of Ireland, that we support them. They feel very vulnerable and desperate at this stage.
I join with my colleagues in encouraging people to download the Covid tracking app. It is free. We should all be doing it. I also join in the praise for Dr. Tony Holohan. He has been a fantastic leader over recent months.
I would like to talk about the shocking situation in Ballinasloe with regard to the potential job losses at the company Aptar. This could affect 100 jobs in the town of Ballinasloe. I am calling for a jobs task force to look at investment in towns with populations of fewer than 10,000. Some 100 families in this town will be impacted by the loss of these jobs. I know we will see more of this in the difficult times ahead but we are now facing the loss of 100 jobs in a town less than 10 km away from Shannonbridge, where jobs at Bord na Móna were lost only in the last month. We are seeing the significant effects of climate change, in addition to what is happening with regard to global market dynamics, impacting on towns and villages. What are we going to do to drive investment in these areas?
Ballinasloe is a fantastic and strategic location. It is on the motorway between Dublin and Galway and has fantastic access to rail infrastructure. There is a highly educated workforce in the area, which is right beside Athlone Institute of Technology and which has Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board facilities and the National University of Ireland, Galway, on its doorstep. Many other towns in Ireland can say exactly the same thing. What are we doing to drive investment in those towns? That is crucial.
Our businesses, our retailers and the families in our communities are suffering now and are going to suffer. I call for that jobs task force and for colleagues to work with me. The Tánaiste has already announced support for employees in the area, who are going through an extremely difficult time. My thoughts are with them. We will be working hard to support them in the time ahead.
This time four years ago the Cassells report on the future funding of higher education was launched. Today I was announced as the Labour Party spokesperson on higher education. At the time of the report's launch, there was great energy around. It was thought that we would solve the funding crisis in the higher education sector. Obviously, that has not happened. We often use the phrase that we are kicking the can down the road and that we are going to run out of road. At this stage we have, quite literally, run out of road. The higher education sector needs to be funded. I call on the Minister with responsibility for higher education to come to the House for a debate on the future funding of higher education and the funding crisis the sector is facing.
I also reiterate my party's support for publicly-funded education. I know the Union of Students in Ireland has a very comprehensive campaign supporting publicly-funded education, to which many in this House and the Lower House signed up. I take this opportunity to ask that the Minister be invited here for a robust debate on the future funding of higher education.
With the appointment of a new Minister and Department with responsibility for higher education, we have a great opportunity to have a discussion about what the post-secondary and higher education sector should look like. This sector includes universities, institutes of technology, post-leaving certificate courses, apprenticeships, life-long learning and adult learning. It is a really broad sector. It is time for a really comprehensive vision for what it is going to look like. I again reiterate our support for publicly-funded higher education. It is time for action in this regard. Unfortunately, higher education will not be funded by goodwill and words spoken. I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister as to how we will tackle this funding crisis.
I support everything Senator Lombard said about farm safety.
As Members are aware, I introduced the Farm Safety Agency Bill 2018 in the previous Seanad, which got to Second Stage, and I hope to get it back on the floor of the Houses as soon as it is possible to progress it further. Everybody will have an input on Committee Stage. While it may not be a silver bullet solution to the major problems that exist, I hope it will be a launch pad or a starting point.
Before Senator Lombard raised that issue, I had intended to raise Brexit. It was probably the most widely discussed issue if we were to analyse the previous Seanad but for obvious reasons relating to the Covid crisis, it has gone somewhat under the radar. However, it has not gone away. I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on it at the earliest possible convenience. I know we will probably have Covid-related emergency legislation to get through but as soon as we have an opening it would be important that the relevant Minister or Ministers would come to this House and brief us on where Brexit is at the moment and the progress or lack of same that is being made. As I stated, it has not gone away and aside from Covid it will probably be the factor with the biggest influence on the economy and society in the future.
I plead with the Leader to use what power she has to reconvene what was a very constructive and hard-working committee, namely, the Seanad select committee on Brexit that sat in the Seanad Chamber. There is still a need for the committee and I plead with the Leader to use her influence to have the committee reconvened.
A number of Senators this afternoon have mentioned workers' rights, pay and conditions and maternity leave. It strikes me that there is one category that is often forgotten when debating such matters, namely, councillors and members of local government. Because they are not employees they do not benefit from the usual employment rights such as the minimum wage and maternity, paternity and parental leave. This was brought home to me very acutely last night when I attended the July meeting of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, as my former seat on it was being filled. Another seat in Blackrock was also being filled. One of my colleagues, Councillor Lorraine Hall, was there with her two and a half month old son because she does not benefit from any form of leave in respect of having just had a baby. She does not benefit either from any remote meeting provisions that might be provided to councillors around the country. Something that has very much come to light during Covid is the fact that councils physically have to meet, and that is the case with these Houses as well. In terms of what we can do in this House for local government, there are simple legislative solutions that we could put into law to provide for maternity, paternity and parental leave for councillors, as well as remote meeting facilities for councillors who for whatever reason are not able to attend meetings or for whom it is not advisable that they would attend meetings. That has come to light in particular during the Covid crisis. In my eleven years in local government quite a number of councillors had babies while sitting on the council and many of those babies sat in the chamber with us. As a House, we now have an opportunity to do something about it. I hope we go the full distance in terms of having nearly five years in which to legislate. The next time we get a local government Bill into this House, if they are not already contained in it, I hope that we will take the opportunity to put into it clear provisions to provide for such issues as maternity leave, paternity leave and other ordinary employment rights that every other worker in the economy expects as a matter of right and that Members will support such a Bill wholeheartedly.
I second what Senator Dolan said about the threat of job losses at Aptar in Ballinasloe and the need for a jobs task force for towns under 10,000 people.
Since we met last Tuesday, the statistics for abortions in the first year of its legalisation were published. Those figures show that 6,666 abortions took place here in 2019. To that figure must be added 375 abortions which took place in England and Wales for women who gave Irish addresses, giving a total of just over 7,041, or just over 7,000. It is clear now on any honest assessment that what many people, including me, predicted in the run-up to the referendum in 2018, has sadly come to pass, namely, that there would be a large increase in the number of Irish abortions. For 2018, the last year before abortion was legalised in Ireland, the number of abortions for Irish women in Britain had fallen to 2,879, but if we are to be fair, to that must be added an estimate for the number of illegal abortion pills imported, which the then Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, estimated at three a day or 1,100 in a year, which would give an estimated total of Irish abortions for 2018 of 4,000.
An increase from 4,000 to 7,000 would be a jump of 75%, or 3,000 extra abortions. That is a margin of increase not far off twice the death rate inflicted by Covid-19 on our country. For people who do not believe that pre-born children have an intrinsic value or independent claim on our protection as a society, this increase is barely worth noticing. Among those must be counted certain leaders of the new Government who have chosen to remain silent in these days about the increase and who have not, to my knowledge, had to face any challenging questions from journalists. The Taoiseach, Mr. Martin, said that there was no sound basis for thinking that repeal would lead to an increase in abortion rates. The Tánaiste, Mr. Varadkar, said that abortion in Ireland post-repeal would be "safe, legal and rare". Finally, the Minister, Simon Harris, claimed that in countries that legalised abortion, abortion rates routinely decline.
The law in this area will remain settled as it is for the foreseeable future. However, the many people who believe that pre-born babies have inherent dignity and do have a right to society's care and protection, remain convinced and must insist that we need to have a conversation about why the only counselling agencies the State now supports are those that will put one in touch with abortion facilities as opposed to those who will help and support women, in practical ways, while giving them every reason to believe that their babies can and should be protected; a conversation about why there is not provision for pain relief in legal late-term abortion scenarios where there may be a question about foetal sentience and pain; and a conversation about what we can do together, regardless of differences of religious or philosophical outlook, or attitude to the legality of abortion, to promote positive alternatives to abortion and reduce the number of deaths, by abortion, as a positive social goal.
This issue will never be settled while the law turns its back on a single, innocent individual child or, indeed, on mothers who need a bit of help and encouragement that would take them to a better place. Can we not at least start by having a conversation? I ask the Leader to arrange a debate, as soon as possible, on the newly released abortion statistics and what we might learn from them.
I join with Senator Bacik in condemning the vile abuse, rooted in homophobia, that has been directed against the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. It is incumbent on all of us in this House to stand against the small minority in society who have little to do but engage in homophobic or, indeed, any other form of abuse. The Minister should be judged on the basis of his performance not because of what some trolls on social media decide to post about him.
I agree with the comments made by my colleague, Senator Gallagher, about bingo licences. The issue is a concern for quite a number of community organisations. I hope that in the context of Covid legislation regulations the issue is given consideration.
I agree with another Labour Party Member, Senator Hoey. I call on the new Minister at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Harris, who has responsibility for further and higher education, research, science and innovation to come here and address the House. I would like Deputy Harris to do more than just address the funding crisis and address three things. It is essential that the funding crisis in higher and further education is addressed. The third level institutions, potentially, face a shortfall of up to €500 million this year. It is going to be enormously difficult for students who are going on to third level and they will face a range of challenges when they take up college or training places this autumn. We need to discuss those plans, plus the supports for the institutions. I would like the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Collins, to address those issues.
The next issue I wish to raise is specifically addressed in the programme for Government. I refer to the fact that the south east is now the only region without a university. The critical importance of having a university for the south east is addressed within the programme and the procedures are in place.
I want to determine how the Minister will bang heads together in Waterford and Carlow to ensure we get a technological university of the south east, including a campus based in Wexford. Because this is a new Department, which will be so critical in terms of upscaling and reskilling all of our citizens, dealing with new technology and operating in the post-Covid environment, the Minister and the Department must be given the opportunity to set out their vision for the sector. This is an imaginative Department. We will see significant change because of technology, research and innovation in the coming years. It is exciting and there is an opportunity for the Minister and the Minister of State to set out their visions. Crucially, it is my belief that Ireland can become the centre of a global knowledge economy. This new Department will be essential in so doing. I ask the Leader to ask the Minister to attend and address these issues.
I am delighted to welcome the Covid-19 app and I hope its use will grow. I must confess that I was somewhat cautious when I heard about it as it was being planned. I was very nervous regarding the privacy implications. Last night, when I downloaded the app I read about the extensive data privacy impact assessment that was done. I also read the privacy notice published about it. It is very heartening to know the care taken with regard to privacy by design. It is a very interesting and useful example of the public policy and public need requirements of maintaining and promoting our safety and health in the middle of a global pandemic being balanced against the need for privacy. I would like to think the development of the app, and the great success I hope it will be as more and more use it, gives us a heartening example of the experience of balancing privacy against public need. I would like this example applied in the use of social media. My colleagues have spoken about the Minister becoming a target on social media. We have a very difficult issue with social media being weaponised to silence people but it is not being legislated for and sufficient guidelines or oversight are not in place because of the need for freedom of speech. During our time in this Seanad, I would like us to address this and call in the appropriate Minister as time goes on to deal with it. We need transparency in the registration of social media accounts. We cannot continue to have a situation where it is used to target and to silence in a sinister way.
This morning, I was proud to stand outside Leinster House with mothers calling for the extension of maternity leave for 12 weeks. Senators are well aware of the petition, which has almost 30,000 signatures from people throughout the State. I spoke with Mary from Drimnagh about the issues facing many new mothers who gave birth during the lockdown. They have not had an opportunity to socialise with their children. Many medical appointments and check-ups have been cancelled. Mothers have been isolated from services. Perhaps most worryingly, there is now difficulty securing childcare places. We all know that many crèches are limiting places. When he was Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar said he would consider it but since Deputy Micheál Martin has taken over, there has been absolutely no word from the Government. I cannot say I am that surprised, given that most in Fianna Fáil were content to sacrifice the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in the run-up to the programme for Government negotiations. Today, Fianna Fáil Senators are calling for the issue to be pushed off to the Covid committee but the Taoiseach should take direct responsibility for this.
Will this legislation be brought before these Houses? More than €100 million is a significant figure but these are unprecedented times. On a separate note, I have not forgotten that the last Government broke promises on the introduction of adoptive leave for same-sex parents.
I agree with Senator Hoey's remarks. She and I met four years ago at the publication of the Cassells report. We sat down together and I assured her I would press with the author of the report its implementation. At the time he warned that if the recommendations even in the first 12 months were not implemented, we would fall off a cliff edge. That was four years ago.
Last week in my remarks I touched on the importance of this House addressing the very essence of what faces us, that is, the threat to the survival of businesses, in particular those in the hospitality sector, which employs some 250,000 people. One of the biggest talking points over the weekend, especially on social media, was the images beamed out from the streets of Dublin of people recklessly drinking and not adhering to social distancing. Those in the hospitality sector who are tentatively getting back to work, as well as their employees, felt undermined by these scenes. A great many of them have put a huge degree of professionalism into getting their businesses Covid-compliant, making sure their customers are safe. The scenes in Dublin at the weekend caused anger and resentment, especially among restaurants and bars that are compliant. When I went out in my home town on Saturday night for a meal, members of the Garda came onto the premises to inspect it and make sure it was compliant. Yesterday, while in County Meath, Commissioner Drew Harris talked about the fact that a significant number in the force were deployed to oversee compliance over the weekend. There are people who are frustrated now, and I ask the Leader to convey this sense of frustration to both the Taoiseach and the Minister in charge. People are fearful now that there will be a regression and that the previously-stated date of 20 July will be walked back. These businesses have been closed since March. As I said, 250,000 people are employed in this sector and they are worried and angry. I know from dealing with many members of the Vintners Federation of Ireland and the Restaurants Association of Ireland over the weekend that they are angry at what happened because it undermines the good work they are doing and jeopardises the livelihood of their employees, who are anxious to get back to work. For God's sake, the people who engaged in the behaviour over the weekend and the premises that served the alcohol in the first place would want to show a great deal more cop-on in the coming days because, apart from putting people's health at risk, they are also putting at risk the livelihood of the families and employees in the sector. A great deal more cop-on would want to be shown by these people in the coming days. If not, those who are accessing that alcohol should stay the hell away from those premises because they are making a balls of it for the rest of us.
I congratulate you, a Chathaoirligh, and wish you well in your term. I have no doubt but that you have the experience and the knowledge to do a wonderful job. I also welcome the new Members of the House and wish them well. I have no doubt at all but that this will be a very good Seanad. I congratulate Senator Hackett on her elevation to Minister of State with responsibility for agriculture and wish her well. She is the first person to be so elevated in this House in nearly 40 years.
I know full well why the House made the decision not to take Commencement matters until the end of July but I ask the Leader to have another look at this issue. Perhaps we could have Commencement matters with written replies. I think that could be facilitated. Commencement matters are a very important tool for Members of this House, and I ask the Leader to take on board my suggestion. The Cathaoirleach could announce at some stage during the day, after the Order of Business or whenever else, which Commencement matters he has picked.
I thank Senator Burke for his suggestion. It is worth consideration in light of the current ruling and decision of the House.
There has been much talk about front-line workers but the one group we constantly seem to pass over without mention is my former colleagues in the Defence Forces, who are paid below the minimum wage and do not have the means to push for an increase in pay. I know that the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has taken the defence brief back on and I wish him well. I hope he starts to resolve some of the problems there.
In her former role, the Leader had a great understanding of carers, particularly, and of the needs of those on welfare. This morning, I listened to a young woman on the radio talking about looking after her elderly parents, one of whom suffers from dementia, and about the fact that no respite care is available. There is no centre open where they can go for a few hours in the day to give respite to the families. The woman pleaded, albeit in a very good-humoured way, that somebody somewhere listen to what she said and raise the matter. I do not have access to the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste like the Leader has and I ask that she refer this matter to them.
There are many elderly couples in which one suffers from dementia or Alzheimer's and they are being cared for at home. They have been locked down since early March. It is extremely distressful and difficult for them to get through the day. I understand that those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's after a period of lockdown adjust to that type of living and to get them out and about is quite difficult. I ask the Leader to raise the matter with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to see if there is a way to get centres open, even if only for an hour or two a day, to give that little bit of respite to those who are struggling through this extremely difficult time.
I wish Dr. Tony Holohan well as he takes time out to look after his family. He is a wonderful man.
Senator Cassells spoke about the recklessness of drinking last weekend in Dublin. One distinguished consultant referred to it as being like a day when Dublin had won the all-Ireland, with people falling around the place drunk and no social distancing. I wish to draw attention to the people who served them drink. I know three people who went into a pub, I will not say where, at 6 p.m. and they were still there at 11 p.m. Nobody asked them to leave. There was no meal. On Saturday night, another group of people I know went into another pub on the other side of the city and it was exactly the same. They arrived early, they were allowed to drink until 11 p.m. and nobody asked them to have a meal or to leave. These publicans are reckless and they will cause the industry to be shut down again.
I assure Senator Craughwell that, as a Kildare Senator and somebody who fought hard on behalf of the Defence Forces in the Dáil over the past four years, I will continue to do that and he will not be on his own.
I want to take up Senator Warfield on his comments. He said that An Taoiseach has not said anything on proposals for extending maternity leave. In fact, An Taoiseach said that he has spoken to the three Ministers involved from the Departments of Justice and Equality, Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Public Expenditure and Reform, and they are examining ways of doing this. It does not come without a cost. It will cost about €78 million, so that is not to be glossed over, but it is something that I would support, along with my colleagues who have spoken on it.
Last Monday, we were having our first sitting and it was also the first day of businesses starting to reopen. I was delighted to avail of the opportunity to eat in a restaurant in my own town of Newbridge with friends. It was a very pleasant experience and everybody there obeyed the Covid regulations to the letter of the law. It is important that we all do that. While we are talking about businesses reopening, we have to look forward in seven weeks to schools reopening and that is an issue of major importance for every one of us here and all the people we represent.
While our students are now officially on school holidays, it is five months since they have been in their classrooms with their teachers. It has been a difficult five months for everybody involved in the process - for teachers and for parents but, most important, for the students and, in particular, for those students who have been in vulnerable situations domestically and for those who have special needs. We have had students without routine and without structure and everything must be done to ensure our schools reopen in late August or early September. The Minister has a difficult job in this regard. After all, she will be dealing with almost 3,500 primary schools and almost 800 secondary schools. There is a job of work that must be done, and it has to be priority. We need to have boards of management conduct physical audits in every one of the schools to help support the principals, teachers and students as they come back to school. While I welcome the ongoing engagement with the unions, we are not hearing enough of the students' voice or of the parents' voice which are imperative in this regard. There is a particular group of students who call themselves the incoming sixth years. They have set up their own group. It is inspirational to see young people so passionate and so enthused about going back to school. They really want to have their voice heard and we have to hear their voice as well.
During the past five months, we heard much about issues relating to lack of broadband and not having the same access to e-learning. Certainly that is something we need to address. However, it is fair to say there was an inconsistency of approach among schools and teachers. By far, the vast majority of schools and teachers were excellent. However, I have been engaging with parents and teachers throughout Kildare and there was an inconsistency there. Not everybody stepped up to the mark. I understand the Department advice was not pertinent and was quite sparse. We needed more direction from the Department. Having said that, many lessons have been learned. We need to collate all those lessons and make sure, if a situation like this comes down the line ever again, that we have that.
It is incredibly important that the Minister, Deputy Foley, comes into the Seanad. I ask the Leader to help organise that because, as I said, this has to be a priority for society. Our children need structure and socialisation. They need to have subjects taught in the appropriate manner and within a classroom.
The last point I will make is that I was dismayed when I saw an article from the ESRI in one of the Sunday newspapers a few weeks ago basically stating that students who are in examination years should give up non-examination subjects. That is concerning because we want our young people to be resilient. We want them to learn skills that they can transfer right across their lives and to put a narrow focus on examination subjects would be the wrong step to take. It also made the point that there should not be mock examinations and that all the time in the classroom should be geared towards the leaving certificate and the junior certificate, which I also think is wrong. If we learned anything from what we have gone through in relation to schools it is that it is important to have consistent testing and examinations throughout the years. I would like to have the opportunity to engage with the Minister on that as, I am sure, many others would.
If one issue emerged clearly from Covid-19, it is that we must readdress how we do care of the elderly. That is incumbent on us now. In that context, I ask our Leader to arrange a debate with the relevant Minister or Ministers, as the case may be, regarding having a coherent approach to this matter.
There are three dimensions to this issue. First, there is the question of the accommodation of the elderly. We will have to explore more imaginative solutions in residential villages for older persons and look at the greater incentivisation of granny flats. We are also going to have to support high-quality nursing homes in a way that allows them to provide the safest possible environment. Second, we must quickly put in place statutory home help packages for families with a person in need. Just as we have the fair deal scheme for nursing homes, we need a statutory home help home care package programme for families and individuals in need. Lastly, and this is very important, we need to look at the way we treat our carers in the home. We need to improve the carer's allowance, improve ancillary benefits and make it an attractive package. The tragic overall economic and employment context might make the option of caring for a family relative attractive, if we build up the package and make it even more appealing. We have to support our family carers.
My good colleague, Senator Lombard, said he was putting the Cathaoirleach on notice that he will be raising farm safety constantly. I put the Cathaoirleach on notice that I will be raising the issue of carers, how we look after our carers and their standing and those other issues constantly as well. I ask the Leader for that debate. I will finish by stating that as a Border person, I want to second the remarks Senator Paul Daly made earlier about Brexit. I appeal to the Cathaoirleach and the Leader to act immediately on those proposals.
I am delighted to hear such a focus in so many of the contributions on the employment rights of women. I sincerely hope we can continue in that vein by focusing on several issues raised today. Senator Bacik referred to the gender pay gap and Senator Ward spoke about maternity leave arrangements for councillors. I want to support the call by Senator Gavan for a debate on the terms, conditions and rights of those who went out to work every day to ensure we were kept safe in our homes at the height of the Covid-19 crisis. I refer in particular to many people in the health sector, where there is such a high concentration of women workers, in the retail sector and in many of the other essential services in this country.
There is a wider issue to be discussed as well. I refer to the challenges facing working mothers in the weeks and months to come. It has already been mentioned in respect of the parents of newborns, and in particular the mothers of newborns, and the challenge they face going back to work. I have stood with the Extend Maternity Leave 2020 campaign and the National Women's Council of Ireland to call for an extension of maternity leave. We have been standing with that group for many weeks, and I am heartened to hear so many Government Senators, and in particular those from Fianna Fáil, support that call. I ask them to exert their influence with the Taoiseach, their party leader, to implement that initiative and include it in the July stimulus in the next two weeks. Let us not kick this can down the road into the Covid-19 committee, because time is not on the side of these women. Many of these families cannot access childcare, because those facilities have not been opened and they are not taking in young babies in the coming months as they try to settle into their new arrangements.
Let us not kick the can down the road. Let us try to implement it over the next number of weeks.
There is a wider issue with working parents, and Senator O'Loughlin mentioned this in regard to the return to school, which is how we support them when kids go back to school and if schools have to shut down because of an outbreak or if a blended learning approach is going to be taken. I ask the Leader to bring the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to this House so that we can discuss these issues.
I welcome the fact Ireland is opening up and that sports clubs across the country are getting back to training and to participation in sport, which is vital. We, as a House, need to lead in terms of financial support for sports clubs, whether they are GAA, soccer or rugby clubs or whatever the case may be. The Cathaoirleach will be well aware of the officers and volunteers who run these clubs and the huge financial costs involved.
I refer to the 31 local authorities. In Galway city, for example, clubs might have two, three or four pitch licences and they cost in the region of €700 to €800. Naturally, these facilities have not been used over the past number of months. It is incumbent on the local authorities to forgo the cost of those licences. This is significant in highly-populated areas. If a club is using three or four pitches, then one is looking at around €1,500 to €2,000. A message needs to be sent by the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on pitch licences. At the end of the day, it is a huge asset to have successful sports clubs throughout the country. They are the backbone of communities and they are going through a huge financial crisis at the moment, as has been outlined by Senators Gallagher and Byrne. We need to come up with innovative ways to support them and help them out. This House should send a message, through the local authorities, that this is essential.
I want to take the opportunity to thank the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, who has been a patriot and shown leadership over the past number of months. My fellow Galway man, Dr. Ronan Glynn, from Lydican in Oranmore, is the acting Chief Medical Officer. He is a fine young gentleman, capable and well able and I want to wish him and his family well. It is a significant role and he is well capable and able.
Some €45 million has been paid out in restart grants over the past number of months. It is a very welcome initiative to support businesses in getting back up and running so they can open their doors, continue to employ people and provide services across our State. Of that €2.376 million has been paid out in Galway city and €1.9 million in the rest of the county. It is very welcome in terms of the work that is needed to improve safety for clients, whether it be perspex sheeting or a range of other facilities needed by businesses to restart.
We know from the programme for Government the July stimulus will be hugely important and will be a flagship part of the new Government's economic proposals. I ask the Leader to try to ensure an early debate on the July stimulus once it is published or in advance of that, if that proves possible, to give Senators an opportunity to discuss the important areas of our country that need that extra boost.
The hospitality and tourism sector is an area that is particularly important in my constituency and in many constituencies in the west of Ireland. We have seen the importance of tourism in many areas and it is important that whatever initiatives form part of the July stimulus include specific proposals on tourism and hospitality. It is important in terms of employment and investment. We hope will see more Irish people staying at home this year to take staycations. If the weather improves and we get a proper summer and autumn, people will be encouraged to stay at home and spend in their own localities and other parts of Ireland they may not yet have visited. I ask that the Leader follow that up.
Thank you, Senator Kyne. I call Senator McCallion.
I want to begin by echoing some comments made by fellow Members on the extension of maternity leave and putting it on record that I fully support the campaign as well.
I want to discuss an issue of serious concern to me. It should be of serious concern to all Members in this Chamber. Since the establishment of the institutions in the North, we have yet to see the convening of the North-South Ministerial Council. At a time when one would imagine co-operation between both jurisdictions should be heightened, we have not had one formal sitting of the North-South Ministerial Council. It is my understanding that it is the responsibility of the Irish Government to convene the next meeting of the council. I am asking for that to be done with the utmost emergency.
I am aware that many people have spoken in the Chamber today about coming out of the current pandemic and the Covid-19 crisis we all face. Of course, businesses and people throughout the world are trying to get through those problems, but they do not face the reality the people of this island face, which is the possibility of a no-deal Brexit in six months' time. Businesses and people across this island are in abeyance at the moment. They have little understanding of what could potentially happen. The technical details that are needed across the entire island are lacking at this point.
I call on the Irish Government, as the co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to implement all aspects of the agreement. The days of cherry-picking the particular aspects or parts of the Good Friday Agreement that are liked by one or both guarantors - the British and Irish Governments - need to be gone. The people of the island need to see the full implementation of the entire agreement, not least in the current context. I have already outlined that we have the potential for a no-deal Brexit within the next six months, but for some unknown reason - of course, we are dealing with the pandemic and all that goes with it - the voices on Brexit seem to have been silenced. I do not know why that is the case because we hear clearly, particularly from within Europe, that the British Government is acting in bad faith at the minute. There is a need for a national response. There is a need for a response from the Irish Government and the institutions in the North. I ask the Irish Government to call a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council as a matter of urgency.
Thank you, Senator McCallion. I call Senator Murphy.
First, I want to respond to the comments of Senator Craughwell to assure him with regard to the Defence Forces. Like Senator O'Loughlin, I will use every opportunity, as part of the Government formation, to speak to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on a number of issues relating to the Army. We have issues in my part of the country with regard to the western command and Athlone. Without question, it will be an important matter and I am sure it will be discussed a number of times here in the House.
I will briefly refer to an issue of concern to me, which affects rural and urban areas and the islands. I am concerned about young people with disabilities who are still cocooning. I acknowledge that this is a difficult area and having been approached by parents, carers and teachers, it is clear there is a lot of concern about how these people have suffered from their daily routine not being there during this lockdown. Would it be possible to speak to the Minister of State with responsibility for disabilities in order that these people can return to some form of normality in the coming weeks? I know a number of those people myself and while many strides have been made for them through our system, their great carers and parents putting in a huge effort, there is no doubt that their quality of life has been lost and there is grave concern about them.
The second matter relates to our older population. People with disabilities, young people, older people or elderly people who go to day care centres are all very much part of the fabric of villages and towns, not just in rural areas but in urban parts as well. While it was very important and critical that we took every care with those older people and advised them to cocoon, the other side of the coin is that if this continues, they could deteriorate because they are missing their interactions with people and going into their town or village. The Minister of State with responsibility for older people might come to the House at some stage to discuss a pathway for those day care centres to carefully organise a return to some form of normality. They are vital for those people but they are also vital for local economies because there are centres in most towns, they are spending money in most towns and they are bringing people into the towns. Those people need to be thought about now. While I fully respect and endorse all that has been done up to now by the Government, the Department of Health and the HSE, I still have many questions about opening up foreign travel and all that because we have to be very careful. We must look at opening up a pathway for those young people with disabilities and older people who are still expected to cocoon. Not all those older people will return to the centres and certain issues will have to be addressed regarding social distancing and all that, but many of the groups that have approached me have said they can put that in place because they have large buildings. They are anxious to get some light at the end of the tunnel on the matter.
I congratulate the Cathaoirleach on being elected to his position. I wish him well over his term and look forward to working with him over the next number of years.
I concur with what Senator Gallagher said regarding sporting clubs. I am treasurer of my own local GAA club and have been heavily involved at a national level within that organisation. Throughout the sporting world, there has been a serious reduction in the amount of income for those clubs. A stimulus package of €70 million for clubs was announced by the former Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, a number of weeks ago but more is needed. I ask that the new Minister come to the Chamber and set out new measures to support all sporting organisations throughout the country.
I also ask the Leader that the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport come to the House. During the negotiations on the programme for Government, learning about the proposed 2:1 spend on public transport infrastructure versus road infrastructure caused me some concern. It is important that certainty is given to a number of projects that were on the national development plans up to 2040.
I am speaking in particular about the M4, which was previously taken out of the plan. It is back in. There is a need for certainty that project will be progressed. It is to run from Mullingar, though County Longford, and on to the Leitrim border. It is not just important for the midlands but for the entire north west as an economic driver for the future and for connectivity with Dublin. It is important that there be clarity with regard to that project and that it be progressed.
I also echo the views of Senators Craughwell and O'Reilly with regard to respite and dementia care. I know from personal experience that it has been an extremely difficult time for elderly people. We need to congratulate and to pay tribute to the front-line carers who have been looking after elderly people in homes over recent months. A new view of how we look after elderly people needs to be taken. It is important that more people be allowed live in their own homes and that proper care packages be provided to allow people to be cared for in their own homes rather than in nursing homes. I would welcome an opportunity to meet the various Ministers with a view to progressing that.
Finally, I also echo the call for the extension of maternity leave, which I fully support. My own county and county town have got a lot of negative publicity recently but I welcome the actions of the Criminal Assets Bureau and the Garda Síochána yesterday. They swooped on a number of major crime gangs that have caused a lot of crime and a lot of hurt in our community. It is important that we fully support An Garda Síochána and the business people of Longford. As a Member of the Oireachtas, I will do that. We have a great town and a great county. I take this opportunity to thank them for the work they have done. I look forward to supporting them in making our county great again.
I echo what has already been said with regard to extending maternity leave by 12 weeks. I spoke to women over the weekend who are very stressed about going back to work and leaving their children in crèches due to the pandemic. I had a baby myself just nine months ago so I know the stresses involved, which may include postnatal depression. One does not just have a baby and go on with a hunky-dory life. One goes home to rear that baby. Other obstacles also come with being a new mother or even with just having a new baby in the home. I echo what other women in the Chamber have said with regard to the extension of maternity leave. I hope it is extended by 12 weeks. That is all the women are asking for.
I also echo what other Senators have said with regard to ending direct provision. I am open to a debate with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, with regard to direct provision. That would be extremely welcome. The commitment to ending direct provision in the programme for Government is really good to see. Many of us would like to know when it is going to happen. Will it happen in the next five years or the next six months? It is worrying that we do not have that information.
There are reports in the news today of 12 year old children being dramatically impacted by racism and discrimination. Many people in this Chamber never had to experience discrimination and racism; I get that. As a Traveller woman, I have lived my whole life in a system in Ireland that is very racist. I know what it is like to be in these 12 year old children's shoes and to experience racism. I am open to having a debate as soon as possible on when direct provision is to be ended.
I have a few issues to raise. It is almost a matter of what not to raise after listening to the contributions of all the other Senators. I lend my support to the calls for the extension of maternity leave. I have had four babies. It is a very strange and vulnerable time. I have not had one during the pandemic but one cannot underestimate the worries and fears of a young family going through that situation now.
They do not know whether they are going to be able to put their children into childcare. It is important that the Government looks after mothers and young babies for that extra 12 weeks.
The pandemic also highlights the problems with childcare in this country. I could not go out to work because I could not find childcare and now that I am here in the Seanad my partner is at home minding children but he is only able to do that because he is not lecturing at the moment. We will have a problem in September.
I also wish to raise the lack of disability proofing in legislation. Work has been done in this area and there have been positive moves, but it is not enough. We see mistakes and problems in accessibility all over the country. We have the wrong tactile footing and we do not have accessible playgrounds. In north Louth more than 15% of the population has disabilities. We are prohibiting 15% of the population from enjoying communities and towns. People cannot go down streets with bad footpaths. There is incredible discrimination against people with disabilities in this country. I would appreciate if the Minister with responsibility for disabilities would come in here to speak about how we will provide a positive roadmap for local authorities that would change their focus from not just getting things looking pretty; we need to make things equal and fair for all in the community.
I add my voice to those voices calling for the extension of maternity leave for women. If this pandemic has taught us anything it is the importance of family life. The call is loud and clear in terms of the extension of maternity leave by 12 weeks. The Minister must take that on board as quickly as possible.
I also wish to be associated with my three colleagues who raised the poor conditions and poor pay the members of the Defence Forces have to put up with at the moment. I heard with horror this morning on my local radio station, Kfm, that up to 1,000 members of the Defence Forces have already bought their way out of their contracts at an average cost of €500. This shows the great problems we are experiencing in the Defence Forces at the moment. I urge the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to come to the House to debate the issue. We are all aware of the great work the Defence Forces do for us, not just in this country but in peacekeeping in foreign countries as well. It is also time for the Minister to accept and allow the request of PDFORRA for affiliation with ICTU. That is essential to the pay and conditions of the Defence Forces. It is gone beyond time that that was allowed by this Government. It was considered by the previous Government and it must happen.
In the time allowed to me I also wish to speak about regional development. The issue has been raised by a number of other Members. I was made aware today of the just transition fund that is available. It has a very short window of opportunity. It will provide €11 million in funds but it is only open until 17 July. It is for counties that surround my county of Kildare - places such as north Tipperary, east Galway, Laois, Longford, Offaly, Roscommon and Westmeath. It is intended to generate sustainable employment in green enterprise in those regions and to support communities in those areas. We are all afraid and aware of what will happen as the just transition becomes a factor in all those counties. In Kildare, in areas such as Kilberry, Rathangan and Allenwood in north Kildare, there is serious concern about what will happen in the coming years. I encourage everyone to get involved and to examine this particular fund. It is essential that there is a major take-up of it. I welcome the provision of the fund and I hope it solves the worry those communities are going through at the moment and that we get the much-needed employment in those midland counties. I look forward to continuing to work with a number of groups that are looking at the fund at the moment.
There have been 44 speakers, which is at least twice the norm. There was discretion of a monumental nature regarding the two-minute rule and the rule to discuss just one topic. I extend my sincere apologies and call the father of the House, Senator Norris.
I want to express my outrage at the complete lack of coverage of the opening session of Seanad Éireann by the media. It was a slap in the face for democracy. It is astonishing that the national broadcaster, Teilifís Éireann, had an hour-long news programme, in which it went all around the country seeing nice old ladies making jam and all the rest of it, yet there was not one single mention of Seanad Éireann, which is extraordinary. There was one journalist here, I think, the last time from a provincial newspaper. I do not see anybody here today but maybe they are concealed somewhere. That is shocking.
In the strange circumstances of our first meeting we have largely omitted to pay adequate tribute to the former Cathaoirleach, Senator Denis O'Donovan. In my 30 years in Seanad Éireann, he was the best and most outstanding Cathaoirleach that we have had. He was decent, fair-minded, judicious with a sense of humour and a sense of decorum. I am sure that the new Cathaoirleach will find his example very valuable in the way he conducts himself, and I wish him very well in his new role.
With regard to direct provision, four or five years ago I introduced legislation into this House that was very narrowly voted down. The legislation would have completely solved the direct provision problem at that time. The then Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, told the House that the matter would be resolved within three months. That was four or five years ago so he signally failed to do so and I hope that this session will not fail to address this important matter.
I thank the Senator and I will take up the issues he raised about coverage with the national broadcaster. In response to his point about the former Cathaoirleach, Senator O'Donovan has served this House and the nation well in his role here, in the Dáil and in previous Seanaid.
I remind Senators that when they are allocated two minutes in which to speak and Ministers are waiting that people will not get in. I do not mind if Senators cover 100 topics in two minutes, although it should only be one topic. When Senators go over time, other colleagues, party members and other people in their group will simply not get in. Today, I have allowed latitude but after this, the time limit will be enforced.
In relation to unparliamentary language, which I am sure some Senators have spotted, I do not condone unparliamentary language. I urge Senators to please not look in a certain direction. I will not say who it was but I am sure they can all guess.
As there were 44 speakers, and the Leader has pages of notes listing the topics raised, I am not sure she will be able to cover everything mentioned. General themes did emerge and I have no doubt that she will do her best to cover an unprecedented number of issues.
The Cathaoirleach can certainly see that there is no shortage of work, and willingness to work, by the Members of this House. I will answer in the round for today. All of the requests for debates, and all of them very much needed, will be addressed as soon as we possibly can. I will liaise with regard to forthcoming legislation and we anticipate anything between six and eight Bills being sent to the House in the next number of weeks. If there is capacity to put some of those debates in the schedule, we will certainly work to do that in the next couple of weeks. If not, again cognisant of what was said last week, we have a tremendous number of new Ministers, to give them an opportunity to read into their briefs and become more proficient, and as suggested by one Senator, we might leave the debates until September. If I can facilitate any of the debates in the next couple of weeks, I will be happy to do so.
I will take up Senator Burke's suggestion that we seek Commencement matters to be received in writing. Again, we all appreciate that we have a lot of work to do in the next couple of weeks but that does not mean we do not have queries that need to be answered through whatever mechanism I can find. I will talk to Ms Orla Murray about the rule of only having four questions or debates a day as that probably would not be sufficient for us all over the next couple of weeks. Let me investigate the matter and I will come back to it on Thursday.
Two specific issues were repeatedly raised today. With the permission of the House what I would like to do is write to the Minister with responsibility for sport with regard to our sporting organisations throughout the country to ask for an extension not only of their fundraising licences but also their pitch licences. We are all aware they have all been closed and their fundraising activities are not the same even though communities have definitely rallied and come together. With the permission of the House, on its behalf I will write to the Minister with responsibility for sport requesting this extension.
Far more importantly, with the unanimous support of the House, I will write to the Taoiseach today suggesting we overwhelmingly support the 12-week extension of maternity leave. We are all aware there are two Ministers involved with regard to the payments, namely, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. They need to work together. We could not pass legislation before the new Government was formed, which was last week, but we can certainly pass it now. With the permission of the House, I will write to the Taoiseach saying we overwhelmingly support the 12-week extension and that we will certainly be willing and ready to pass any legislation required to give that extension to the new mammies of Ireland and their husbands.
I very much welcome the Taoiseach's announcement this afternoon to have a public inquiry into the passing of a local constituent of mine, Ultan Meehan. Mary Bartley Meehan has gone on the public record in recent days expressing how concerned, upset and devastated she is at the passing of her husband, only some weeks after the passing of her eldest son, in a nursing home in Meath. There are a lot of questions to be asked and I very much welcome the announcement of the inquiry by An Taoiseach.
Some Members have mentioned the following today. If we could not have loved Tony Holohan more than we did last week, to hear the announcement of the actual personal sacrifice he has made for his State over recent months I have to say he is so highly regarded in our views and in our esteem. I absolutely know and hope he will feel the public will and the value and strength of all of our prayers as his wife goes through the battle she is going through, supported by him. Again, on behalf of the House, I would like to write to him to commend him and thank him for such gracious patriotism in recent months and, indeed, years. He has only become known to most of us in recent months. I will do this on behalf of the House.
With regard to the North-South Ministerial Council, in my four years at the Cabinet table I never attended one of them because there were not Ministers to meet other Ministers. I am very glad that there are now, with the new Government in situ for the past week in Ireland and the Stormont Parliament sitting in Northern Ireland. I will very much welcome the first meeting very soon.