Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Monday, 8 Mar 2021

Vol. 275 No. 2

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

Happy International Women's Day to all. The Order of Business is No. 1, statements to mark International Women's Day, to be taken at 2.30 p.m. and to conclude at 4.30 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, with a Minister to be given not less than six minutes to reply to the debate; No. 2, statements to mark Seachtain na Gaeilge, to be taken at 4.45 p.m. and to conclude at 6.15 p.m., with the opening contribution of the Minister not to exceed ten minutes, those of group spokespersons not to exceed eight minutes, and those of all other Senators not to exceed five minutes, with a Minister to be given not less than six minutes to replay to the debate; and Private Members' business, No. 41, motion 9, to be taken at 6.30 p.m., with the time allocated to this debate not to exceed two hours.

I join the Leader in congratulating the artist, Sinead Guckian, on the beautiful piece of art she has gifted to the Oireachtas. It is a proud day to be in the Chamber to see the unveiling of such a beautiful piece of art. It is incredible to think that someone like Nurse O'Farrell was effectively airbrushed out of our history. As stated by the Cathaoirleach, the painting goes a small way towards rectifying that action.

I also join the Leader in wishing everyone a happy International Women's Day. I thank the Cathaoirleach for facilitating a number of Commencement matters this morning on issues pertinent to female members of our society. It was good to have such strong debate in the Seanad this morning.

The first issue I wish to raise is that of women's healthcare in this country. We have touched upon certain aspects of it over the course of the past two weeks in particular and, this morning, Senator McGreehan again raised the issue of endometriosis. There are many areas of women's healthcare that are far behind where they need to be, including maternity care, incontinence services, menopause, endometriosis and many other areas of women's healthcare that need additional support and direct funding.

Those areas need additional support and direct funding and, in that line, I ask the Leader to facilitate a debate with the Minister for Health specifically around the area of the new women's health task force. We should hear from the Minister what he and the task force plan to do to address the clear deficiencies in the provision of women's healthcare in this country. We have a long way to go in that regard.

I will raise another matter on which a debate would be pertinent. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications today announced a consultation with EirGrid on the future of Ireland's electricity system. That exciting public consultation will take place over a 14-week period. I particularly like the idea that we might look to rebalance things across the regions and that, for example, data centres would be asked or encouraged by the Government to locate in areas where the grid is not under pressure. That would mean such centres not locating in the east of the country, as they have been doing, but coming to, for example, the west of Ireland. My county of Mayo would be happy to welcome new investment in energy. There is plenty of space and that would be a welcome initiative in rebalancing investment and growth across the regions. It would be interesting to hear directly from the Minister about that consultation process and what plans he has for the future of our country's electricity system as we aim to achieve 70% renewable electricity by 2030. It is an ambitious, high but achievable target. The House would welcome a debate on the matter.

I listened to one of Ireland's favourite professors, Luke O'Neill, on "The Pat Kenny Show" this morning, discussing the roll-out of vaccines. There have been challenges, difficulties and delays in the roll-out. The people of the country appreciate that our difficulty is supply. We have, in some respects, little control when companies do not meet the levels of delivery they said they would. The professor suggested that we should be exploring the Sputnik V vaccine, towards which there was a little snobbery initially. The findings have been good in over 30 countries that have administered that vaccine. I know that the European Medicines Agency, EMA, is looking at it. We, as a country, should be open to all vaccines that are effective, working well and safe to use. The priority for the Government must be to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

Replying for the other side of the House, as it were, I wish all the women here, all the women of the world and, indeed, all of us a happy International Women's Day. I add my few words of thanks to the women of the world and the women I know for all that they are and do.

I raise the so-called zero Covid proposal for even harsher lockdown measures for the remainder of the year. A report was published recently of the international correspondence and workings of the so-called Independent Scientific Advisory Group which has been pushing for a zero Covid approach. Many of the members of the group are virtually household names, such is the regularity of their appearances in the media. Its internal correspondence suggests that the group is not basing its positions on strict science but, in fact, has been massaging the facts to try to entice politicians into adopting a zero Covid strategy. Four weeks ago, the head of the group wrote to its members asking them to "look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty" and to "go after people and not institutions" because "people hurt faster than institutions". He stated that ridicule "is man's most powerful weapon" and that "the threat of a thing is usually more terrifying than the thing itself". In other words, people should be scared into accepting zero Covid.

That correspondence reads like something out of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. Perhaps it is something from that book. The Social Democrats appear to have bought into the proposals. The correspondence suggests that the group has been deliberately adjusting its targets for zero Covid in order to convince that party's leadership to subscribe to the strategy. All of this information is in the public domain and yet, incredibly, it has not been reported by RTÉ or in the print media. Why is such a group allowed to scaremonger without at least being challenged by politicians or the media on its internal conversations about which we now know? When a medical doctor advocates hurting people because "people hurt faster than institutions", should that person's views be supported by Oireachtas Members and reported uncritically in the media?

I welcome the fact that University College Cork, UCC, has decided not to pursue the joint college arrangement with Minzu University in China. The arrangement would have seen courses across a number of disciplines being delivered jointly. Minzu University has been the focus of concern since one of its teaching staff and a member of the Uyghur community, Mr. Ilham Tohti, and several of his students were arrested and jailed on the basis of alleged separatist activity on its campus.

It concerns me that UCC seems to be afraid to say that it has taken this latest decision on ethical grounds. The fear seems to be, according to one internal consultant's report that it had, about the need for tact and the danger of leading the Chinese authorities to consider that they had lost face. Does this not show what a dangerous player we are dealing with in China when it comes to transparency and respect for human dignity? That is why I have been calling on the Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to examine existing and planned relationships between Irish colleges and universities and Chinese counterparts. There is much more that needs to be examined and said but UCC's decision to freeze the joint college arrangement is at least a welcome first development.

I join with the Leader and previous speakers in thanking Sinead, the artist, for the magnificent portrait in front of us. Let the message be that we will no longer stand for the airbrushing of women out of history. This is a message that needs to go out loud and clear. I wish the Leader and all my female colleagues in the Oireachtas, and all the female officials and staff who assist us so professionally every day, mná na hÉireann indeed, a happy International Women's Day.

I raise a number of ongoing matters with the Leader. The first relates to childcare. I continue to receive representations from families who continue to struggle with the cost of childcare. As I have said before in this House, too many families rise early each morning to ferry their children to childcare facilities, which most of the time is part of a commute for the parents to attend work. This childcare costs families the equivalent of a second mortgage but they are left with no option but to pay it in the absence of a national childcare scheme. As a result, family life and community life in the so-called commuter counties around the capital are affected daily. We must take a more holistic approach to community life. We must address the cost of childcare and, most importantly, we must address the obstacles that such costs put in front of young families. I ask the Leader to invite the Minister to the House so that we can debate the childcare issue again.

I raise again the urgent need to review the means test for carer's allowance. I am currently dealing with two cases out of a number I have been presented with where both applicants are above the current limits. These limits have not changed since 2008. I think we can all agree that Ireland has changed much in those 13 years. In both those cases, women have given up their careers to look after loved ones. I have no doubt, and in both cases medical professionals have said, that those they are caring for would be in State care were it not for the 24-7 care provided by those involved. In replies to parliamentary questions by Labour Party colleagues, we were informed that almost 50% of carer's allowance applications have been refused. There is no question that both these young women never gave a second thought to putting their careers on hold to provide 24-7 care for their loved ones. I ask the Leader to bring my concerns to the attention of the Minister. I am sure that there are many more in this House with similar stories of the sacrifice that many are making, which effectively saves the State billions of euro.

In the time that I have left, I want to reflect on International Women's Day again. It is important that we all acknowledge how all our lives are influenced and shaped by the women who are most important to us. I wish to acknowledge that here today. I thank them all. I also want to remember those special women who shaped my life and gave me a love of community and place who are unfortunately no longer with us today.

I thank everyone for their contributions. It is lovely to hear contributions from across the genders on International Women's Day. It is important and I join with my colleagues in congratulating Sinead Guckian. It is a wonderful piece of art. Not only does it remind us of the airbrushing but it also reminds us of how few pictures of women there are on these walls. We need to change that. The Cathaoirleach is involved in that and I thank him for that.

We had a number of wonderful Commencement matters this morning. This over-dependence on women when it comes to the climate crisis has to be recognised. It is called the eco-gender divide. It is well recognised. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Oxfam have stated that women are bearing the brunt of climate collapse all around the world. In times of drought, they walk farther and farther for water.

They have the domestic chores laid at their feet and they do not have economic independence, including in Ireland, so when it comes to making decisions on sustainability in consumer affairs and domestic chores, it usually does fall to women as well to make them. Advertisers have often taken advantage of that and they have advertised so-called eco or green products directly to women. That is alienating men more and more from the sustainability and greening that we need to see as we move forward. It is the job of all of us to do this now.

I welcome the consultation on EirGrid. When we look at all of the commitments in the programme for Government, they are very much dependent on a secure and stable electricity grid in order to make that happen. I urge everybody to get involved in the consultation. As Senator Chambers said, it is an opportunity to spread things out around the country but it is also an opportunity to look at the significant job ahead of us and to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place to deliver.

Last, but very much not least, I remind the House of the task force on non-pay matters relating to the work of councillors that was examined in the Moorhead report. I urge the Leader to continue to apply pressure to make sure that we get results on that, especially on maternity leave. A Green Party councillor, Clare O'Byrne, having had a baby in December, announced today that she can no longer continue with public representation. That is the only reason she is giving up her seat. The fact that one cannot take a break and there is no proxy voting or administrative help adds to the lack of maternity leave.

I apologise for arriving late and for trying to do two jobs.

The Senator arrived just on time.

Women are familiar with that situation. I am on a committee as well as in the Seanad Chamber.

Today, I wish to raise the issue of access to justice, in particular for women. We have good laws, but they are not enforced or people do not have the resources to access justice to see them enforced. I wish to raise two barriers that prevent women accessing justice. The first relates to the housing assistance payment, HAP, and accessing free legal aid. The problem is that HAP counts towards income when calculating eligibility for civil legal aid. That does not make sense because HAP and homeless HAP are never paid to the tenant, they are paid directly to the landlord. This is especially an issue for women accessing justice since the majority of people in receipt of HAP are women, as are the majority of single-parent households. It is especially relevant for those who have fled from domestic violence situations who are unable to take proceedings for maintenance or to defend applications for access to children. People, mostly women, are being denied access to the courts every day as a result of this discriminatory interpretation of the law. At present, two individuals with the same income are treated differently when it comes to applying for civil legal aid.

Another issue is that women are not able to access free legal aid when they take equality cases to the Workplace Relations Commission. Speaking in today's edition of The Irish Times, Eilis Barry, chief executive of the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, said that fact almost certainly meant many employment discrimination or sexual harassment cases were simply not being taken, although there could be a raft of cases out there. It is not because there has not been a breach of law or because the case is not strong enough, rather, it is because the victims do not have the resources to get representation. Technically, victims have the opportunity to represent themselves but here too there is more systemic injustice because in addition to being less well-off in monetary terms, people on lower incomes face greater levels of time poverty. This is especially true for women who take on more care work, so even if they wanted to represent themselves, women are at a disadvantage. This puts workers in the lowest-paid jobs in a vulnerable position. During the pandemic we saw displays of solidarity with front-line workers such as retail staff and delivery drivers, but it is time we back up the clap with tangible action that will make a difference.

It is time for tangible change. While I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to examine this issue, it would be good to get clarity from the Minister for Justice on whether that will be an independent investigation or one that will be carried out by the Department. We will hear a lot today about how far we have come but these two issues are just the tip of the iceberg and show how far we have left to go to achieve gender equality in Ireland.

I propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that No. 7 be taken before No. 1.

On International Women's Day, we are looking at the portrait of nurse Elizabeth O'Farrell. It is very important to note not just the contribution she made in the shaping of Ireland but also that she continued to serve for the rest of her life in the National Maternity Hospital. An issue I highlighted in the Commencement debate this morning, one which I hope the House will debate, is the importance of ensuring the National Maternity Hospital is in public ownership, under public control and subject to public accountability.

We talk about how far we have to go but one of the things about going further is that we also need to change course. For too long, Ireland has not lived up to its responsibilities to women and has found ways to outsource those responsibilities, such as the delivery of essential services, especially to pregnant women. It is important that we now have the kind of State that Elizabeth O'Farrell fought for, one that takes responsibility for women and has real equality for women and men.

To move from the national to the international, given that it is International Women's Day, I will highlight two issues that I hope we will have a chance to discuss further over the coming weeks. One is the very worrying rollback on reproductive rights for women in Poland. Today, parliamentarians across Europe are taking a stand in support of women because we know the impact those cruel laws can have in terms of issues like fatal foetal anomaly and we know the very real experiences. Ireland is one of the few countries that knows what that can mean. I send solidarity on that today.

I also send solidarity to front-line health workers across the world - nurses like Elizabeth O'Farrell - so many of whom are women and so many of whom are balancing work for society with the work of care. I am concerned that we are still not facing up to our responsibilities to show solidarity in providing access to vaccination for front-line health workers who are women. Nurses all over the world are still awaiting vaccination. I hope we will have a specific debate on COVAX and the coronavirus treatment acceleration program, CTAP, and how Ireland can step up its support, including by applying pressure on intellectual property sharing, if necessary through the World Health Organization, to ensure that front-line workers, the new generation of Elizabeth O'Farrells, are given support and care, as they have given care to their societies.

I wish a happy International Women's Day to all of my wonderful colleagues across the House and to the women of Ireland more widely.

Ireland, like many other countries in the European Union, has been let down by the vaccination roll-out. Delays in vaccine deliveries have resulted in some people, unfortunately, having to wait longer than they should have waited to get the vaccine. While it is always important to have a plan A, it is also important to have a plan B and plan C when it comes to the uncertainty of vaccination roll-out. I propose that we call Boris Johnson and have a conversation on the potential to source a supply of vaccine from the UK.

Everyone knows that the level of vaccination in Northern Ireland is far ahead of the level here in the South. We also know that, unfortunately, the level of infection in the Border counties, from County Donegal to County Louth, has been higher throughout the pandemic than in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, County Monaghan, where I live, has topped the charts in respect of the incidence rate.

While restrictions on both sides of the Border are currently aligned, the success of the vaccination roll-out in the North means that society will open up more quickly in the North than it will in the South. I welcome the comments of the First Minister, Arlene Foster, who yesterday suggested that the two Governments should have a conversation about the roll-out of vaccination, with particular regard to citizens of the Border counties. I ask that we communicate to the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the Government that such a conversation should take place because increased movement of people along the Border will have repercussions for Border counties, which will be at a different level from counties in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Cathaoirleach very much for his intentionality, his specific desire to see the visibility of women increased and the initiative regarding the painting today. The painting is truly lovely and is symbolic of a carer who was airbrushed out of the story. I will spend my remaining time this morning speaking about carers, who tend to be forgotten. In recent conversations we have had with Family Carers Ireland, we have been told that no one ever asks carers how they are. People ask how whomever they care for is but no one ever asks how they are doing. Today, I want us to remember that more than 60% of the carers in Ireland are women. I want to reach out and ask how they are today and to encourage them to take five minutes, to have a cup of coffee and to think of themselves.

I am very grateful that the programme for Government builds on the national carers strategy, launched by a Government of which my party was part, and that we have a refreshed impetus to provide supports for family carers. I call for us to step that up and make sure that we deliver on the GP card and on the other additional supports promised to such carers.

Another key matter at which we need to look is how emergency respite care is provided. If a carer has to go to hospital for an emergency appointment or if an appointment is cancelled and he or she has an opportunity to be seen early, he or she does not have access to immediate respite care. Care for carers themselves is left at the bottom of the list because there is no emergency respite care. I would like the House to have an opportunity to present those views or to have them communicated to the Minister. I have done so myself, as have others. It is important that carers are remembered on this particular day.

Guím Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan sona ar an gCeannaire agus ar gach bean sa Teach agus sa tír. At the outset, I compliment the Leader. I listened to her speaking about women in politics on RTÉ a few days ago. She is a powerful leader for women and a powerful example for them to follow. I want to put that on record today.

It breaks my heart to come in here today and find myself again speaking about the Defence Forces. I read in The Irish Times this morning that the recommendations of the Chief of Staff on the return and recommissioning of officers was rejected by the Minister on the advice of the Department. The most senior military officer in the country made a recommendation only for it to be whipped away by some civilian. The Defence Forces are falling apart. Some 800 people sought to rejoin but only 62 were accepted. These 800 veterans came forward to stand up for the cause. If we have learned nothing else from Covid-19, we have learned that a properly resourced and staffed Defence Forces would have been there to provide the national surge capacity required over the past year. Over the last number of years, we have watched the destruction of the Defence Forces. There have been issues with the medical corps, the absence of technical pay and the closing of the Army apprenticeship school. This school was closed with six weeks' notice while the teachers were paid for the rest of the year. Civil instructors, when they were there, were paid. The Army Ranger Wing is falling apart. With regard to the Naval Service, we have deep-sea cables coming into the country but have nobody to watch them. There are also issues with the Air Corps and air traffic controllers.

We did something for the pilots but did nothing for the air traffic controllers or the technicians.

All developed democracies nest their national emergency management contingent capabilities in their military. In times of non-emergencies, these mature democracies use their reserve national surge capacity for soft power projection internationally, chiefly in the medical engineering and logistic humanitarian response base. Ireland is losing out nationally and internationally in this space by not having an additional surge capacity. We have lost our Reserve Defence Force. I am running out of time so I will leave it at that. This is beyond funny. The Minister stated in The Sun today that we need to recruit more than we are losing. One cannot recruit oneself out of a crisis.

I congratulate the people involved. It is a great day for mná na hÉireann. As the youngest of a big family and having seven sisters, I wonder whether I was henpecked or whether I was subject to the petticoat government. It is a mixed view but I think neither, to be honest.

I ask the Leader to provide a debate on the future of rural Ireland. This stems from the closure of post offices and the recent announcement by Bank of Ireland to close many of its branches, which are spread primarily around rural Ireland such as west Cork, west Kerry, Connemara, Clare, and Donegal. I live in a beautiful village called Schull. It is likely that in the next three to four years the three post offices in the peninsula, Goleen, Schull and Ballydehob, will close. For a person living in the village of Goleen, the former home of the great P.J. Sheehan, the nearest Bank of Ireland is 28 miles away. I had to laugh about a report I read the other day - I sent an email to the bank and it came back to me stating the same - that in most instances there will be a post office within 500 meters of a Bank of Ireland or an AIB bank. What a joke. I am sure the same would apply to the Beara Peninsula, Dingle, Connemara, Clare and such places.

I would like to see a debate on the future of rural Ireland. If one considers the closures of the post office, which are imminent, and the way Bank of Ireland is treating the people of rural Ireland, it is a very serious situation. I would like a debate to be held on these related issues for the future of the already suffering people in the peninsulas of west Cork and west Kerry and places like Connemara and west Clare. If we do not have such a debate and raise our voices, further erosion of services will occur in rural Ireland.

I wish the Leader of the House a happy International Women's Day. I thank Sinead Guckian for such a wonderful work of art. It is absolutely beautiful.

Today, we celebrate hard-won achievements by both men and women for equality and gender diversity. However, unless women are sitting at the table, then we do not have equality and we are not making the decisions. Angela Merkel spoke about the EU gender equality report and the impact of Covid-19 on equality. All of the lower income jobs lost in the hospitality, travel and retail sectors were women's jobs. The majority of those working on the front line are women. Over three quarters of our healthcare and social care workers are women. There are Covid-19 task forces in 87 countries and, guess what, 85% are made up of males. Only one third of EU health ministers are women. According to Central Statistics Office, CSO, data, 12% of leaders across all of our businesses are women. Guess how many are the chairs of boards. A total of 7.4% are chairs of boards in Ireland. We need to see women in leadership roles. Look at this Chamber: 40% female. It shows the hunger for our voices to be heard. In 2019, 24% of councillors were women, and I was one of those. I am delighted to see the announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, of more than €126,159 being given to support Women for Election.

I say "thank you" to the women who have forged a path, to President Mary Robinson, who broke the mould and gave us hope, and to President Mary McAleese. I pay tribute to my own mother, Teresa Dolan née Caulfield, who showed me that I could put my hand to anything, who gave me my strength of character and is my voice of reason. I pay tribute to both my grandmothers, Mary Ellen - Ma Dolan - and Margaret Caulfield - strong women, and my father and brothers, all the women and men who supported me on this journey in public life. I also pay tribute to the women from my area, such as Joan Burke. There is a book coming out today, Proud to Serve, which refers to Joan Burke, the first female TD from Roscommon, who topped the polls in 1965 and opposed the marriage ban.

In 1957 Ms Brigid Hogan Higgins from Kilrickle in Galway was the first female Deputy in more than 20 years. There were only four female Deputies at the time. I wish Ms Hogan Higgins, who turns 88 years young this week, a happy birthday. The stories of more than 28 women are in that book and it is wonderful to pay tribute to those women who represented us here. We need diversity and gender balance in all walks of life to make our world richer with such innovation and creativity. The call for women's day is "choose to challenge". Now is the chance for Seanadóirí, both men and women, to do it. Let us do it every single day.

I thank the Senator for paying tribute to those people who contributed to life in Ireland.

I wish my fellow Senators and all those who are watching a happy International Women's Day. I second the proposed amendment to the Order of Business that the Quality in Public Procurement (Contract Preparation and Award Criteria) Bill 2021 be introduced.

Most of us, as public representatives, are familiar with the appalling waiting list for speech and language therapy services, the absence and huge under-supply of child psychologists in our public health system and the long waiting list for early intervention assessments. In some instances families in north Dublin city are waiting up to four years. I understand the HSE is trying to reconfigure and centralise its services for children with complex needs and that it is trying to bring those individual services together into area based network teams. For the most part, I hope it will bring about a better service and will be successful in the reconfiguration.

However, I am deeply alarmed and concerned by what is about to happen to the Holy Family School for the Deaf Cabra, an area in which I am based. The school is about to lose its on-site specialist speech and language therapy service as a result of the changes to the progressing disability strategy. The service is integral to the delivery of education and the development of children in this school. Some 54% of the school's 140 pupils rely on speech and language therapy service.

What will happen when that specialised speech and language therapy service is lost? There will be increased cost for the HSE because of additional interpretive services every time a child from that school has to get speech and language therapy services. School days will be lost because children must travel from as far as counties Longford and Meath and other areas across the greater Dublin area to attend this school. I want the Leader to ask the Government if it is acceptable this school and another school for the deaf will be forced to lose their on-site specialist speech and language therapy service. What message does it send to a system already creaking at the seams in trying to provide services to children with additional educational needs?

I ask that the Minister with responsibility for disability be brought to the House and, more particularly, that the Leader conveys the concern to Government. It is not just about health; it is about education.

In accordance with the order of the House on Friday, 5 March 2021, the House will stand suspended for 15 minutes and will resume in the Dáil Chamber.

Sitting suspended at 12.43 p.m. and resumed at 1.02 p.m.

I congratulate the Cathaoirleach, the Leader and everybody involved in putting together the commemoration to mark International Women's Day, particularly the unveiling by the Leader of the painting by Sinéad Guckian, a former councillor. I hope we find a prominent position for it in this House. I again congratulate everybody involved.

I call for a debate on defending democracy around the world. The threat posed to democracy as a form of government comes in many guises and from many sources. It is both external, as is happening in Hong Kong, and internal, as we see in Myanmar. However, it also comes from complacency and the idea that democracy is so perfect and so fair a system it does not require constant work and attention to ensure its continuance. It requires constant and active attention. As one of the oldest continuous democracies, we have a duty to advocate for democracy by standing unashamedly with other democracies.

Our deep respect and affection for the Chinese people and their great culture should not prevent us from speaking out loudly and clearly against China's cruel and totalitarian regime. It is not in our ethical or commercial interest to continue to speak softly about the atrocities committed for, and by, the Chinese Communist Party. We must stand firmly with those in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan who stand up for democracy. Our Government must recognise there are other emerging markets in the region, that value and defend democracy, with which we can stand and should do business. Colleagues have raised the issue of China in this House, as I have, on many occasions. However, we need to extend that debate to address democracy across the entire world. Democratic states should stand up for other democratic states. I look forward to that debate.

Happy International Women's Day 2021, or is it 2017?

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers women in work index, progress for women in work could be back to 2017 levels by the end of this year. Some are rightly calling the effect of Covid-19 a global "shecession". The index measures 33 OECD countries across the gender pay gap, labour force participation, women's unemployment and full-time employment. Ireland has mixed results. The gender pay gap has lessened, but the female unemployment rate in 2020 increased at double the rate of men's. For example, that women hold 76% of the jobs in healthcare means they are not only more vulnerable to contracting Covid-19, but also to becoming unemployed because of it. Traditionally, women are more likely to be in temporary, part-time and precarious employment at 26.5% versus 15.1% of males across the EU. Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures tell us that just over 9% of women compared with 0.4% of men took unpaid leave during the pandemic. Women are more vulnerable to redundancies right now and to the long-term economic effect of Covid-19 because of pressures on their time and their Internet bandwidths as well as structural inequalities.

I hope that today is not an exercise in women talking to themselves. We have glaring problems with the gender pay gap, the gender care gap and the lack of investment in public services in care. There are plenty of men and women in the House to have a genuine discussion on the barriers to sharing care work in houses across the country. We need a review of care at every stage of life and investment in our care economy as part of a gender-sensitive recovery. We cannot afford not to. If the statistics around employment do not convince Members, then what about this? Persistent disparities in employment participation cost Europe more than €335 billion per year, or 2.41% of EU GDP in 2019.

I congratulate the Leader and the Cathaoirleach on the unveiling this afternoon. It was great to see.

Since it is International Women's Day, I will begin by paying a personal tribute to a hero of mine, Margaretta D'Arcy. She is a tremendous peace campaigner, activist, socialist, actor and writer whom I have regularly met for many years on the peace trail at Shannon Airport. I salute her among all other colleagues on this important day.

I wish to highlight a fantastic report on inequality by Unite the Union, entitled "Hungry Bellies are not Equal to Full Bellies: Exploring inequality and deprivation in Ireland". It is a devastating analysis of inequality and puts to bed some nonsensical statements that were made a few months ago in this Chamber about inequality decreasing. The statistics and analysis are all there, but I was struck by the personal testimonies of front-line workers like those in Cork Penny Dinners who told us that poverty was growing constantly and there was no equality where poverty was concerned. Inner City Helping Homeless cites an increase of more than 400% in the number of homeless children between 2015 and 2019. As such, it is timely for us to debate inequality. We could flesh out all of these details.

This weekend marked the anniversary of a dark day in the history of Limerick. One hundred years ago, a mayor and former mayor - Seoirse Clancy and Michael O'Callaghan - were murdered. In the early hours of 7 March, crown forces, including the RIC and the Black and Tans, burst into their homes and shot them dead in front of their families. At the same time on the south side of the city, Joseph O'Donoghue from County Westmeath, which is my home county, was removed from his house. His body was found the next morning with 18 bullet holes in it. This was a significant weekend for Limerick and one that we wanted to mark in many ways. Unfortunately, Covid has prevented us from doing so thus far. I hope that we will get the chance to do so later in the year, but the House should be sure of this - Limerick remembers its murdered martyrs.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha dílse.

Broad-ranging issues have been discussed in the Chamber to mark International Women's Day, but one matter that is of particular importance to me from my previous job as a sports journalist is that of inequality in funding for women's sport. The disparity between women's and men's sport remains as large as ever and the efforts to address it are painfully slow. I pay tribute to Mary O'Connor, CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, for her work in this regard.

I pay tribute also to the various sporting organisations that are responsible for the various codes in soccer, GAA, rugby and track and field. They have not just sat around waiting for something to happen; they are making change happen for themselves. This is best epitomised by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association, LGFA, which, through a great commercial partnership with TG4 and Lidl as its main sponsors, has upped the ante on this issue. Both businesses are to be commended on their advertising campaigns, namely, Real Fans and Levelling the Playing Field.

Are we anywhere near levelling the playing field? Last week, at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture Sport and the Gaeltacht, we discussed a letter we had received from Maria Kinsella, the chairperson of the Women's Gaelic Players Association. She sent extensive documentation to us on the funding allocation for women's sport and on the progress made in increasing sport participation. It made for stark reading. She stated that Government grants for a male player stand at €1,363, while for female players, the sum is €424. On gym access, there is no cost for male players whereas 70% of female players pay their own costs, and injury expenses are not much better. My 11-year-old girl, CJ, is passionate about athletics and her favourite book is Girls Play Too by Jacqui Hurley from RTÉ, a book of inspiring stories of Irish sportswomen. It is a fantastic book. Jacqui designed it to show girls like CJ that Irish girls and women can achieve the highest accolades in sport and, by writing and illustrating the book, to show them the role models who exist in various codes and disciplines. If that book is to mean anything, we Senators, Deputies and the Cabinet need to ensure that funding towards women's sport is equalised and that the Levelling the Playing Field advertisement becomes a reality.

I congratulate all concerned on the unveiling of that stunningly beautiful piece of art this morning, which is so appropriate on International Women's Day. I wish a happy International Women's Day to one and all.

This morning, there was the latest big-time announcement in the battle against Covid. The good news reads:

[T]his week will see the first Covid-19 vaccinations among medically vulnerable people aged between 16 and 69 who are at a very high risk of severe disease and death. ... It is estimated there could be up to 160,000 people aged between 16 and 69 who are deemed to be at a high risk from Covid-19 because of serious illness.

That is all very good. My question is how. These headlines put GPs into a tailspin, and there is great expectation, but there is no commensurate communication and consultation. The respected medical commentator and GP, Dr. Ilona Duffy, stated yesterday that GPs bear the brunt of these big-time announcements. Two practices in her home town were left behind, with no vaccinations. This causes tension because there is such a strong expectation and then people are let down, which heightens and intensifies anxiety. Of that wonderful announcement from earlier, which I warmly welcome, I ask how. Can we please communicate and bring people with us, rather than running to the airwaves with a big-time announcement unless the pieces of the complicated jigsaw are in order?

I welcome the offer of Ulster unionism's leader at the weekend to give us some vaccines. I was proud that she would care about the entire island of Ireland but embarrassed that this had not been done already. Can we reach out to our brothers and sisters in Great Britain and Northern Ireland, our closest neighbours? This should have happened a long time ago. It should not take prompts, although they are welcome, from the leader of Ulster unionism to put this into our minds.

I wish everyone a happy International Women's Day. I have said previously in the Chamber that I am very proud to be a son of a former Deputy, but I am even more proud that it was my mother, because of the obstacles and challenges she had. She was once told that because she had four young boys, she could not possibly be a Deputy. In 1989, however, she became a Deputy, and the first thing we did was reconfigure the garage into a constituency office so that she could rebalance her work life and her home life.

I do not think any man would ever consider that option.

Tomorrow night, a book entitled Proud to Serve will be unveiled. It is about 28 female politicians who served as Deputies, Senators or MEPs. A section of it contains comments made by a woman 30 years ago about life for women, particularly women in politics. Her remarks still ring true today.

For far too long women have laboured, and sadly continue to labour, under an abundance of discriminatory attitudes, practices and even laws. It has taken the tenacity, valour and obstinate determination of many women over the years to reverse the blatant discrimination against them in the laws. ...

The Constitution is the guiding light for all our laws. It is the soil in which the plant of our law is rooted. Yet, viewed from a woman's point of view, it is an unbalanced document. Women, wherever they get a mention, are by and large relegated exclusively to domestic spheres. No other role is readily seen for women. The language and thinking of the Constitution are male dominated. Yet is it not an ironic twist that remedies for some of the injustices against women have been arrived at by recourse to the Constitution? ... As matters stand, the recognition of equality of women can be won or lost by the attitude to the Constitution by the courts.

I am not at all impressed by the Government's recital of all they are supposed to have done to improve the lot of women. Is it not scarcely a matter for self-congratulation that they have set about righting injustices against half the population? The fact that we still need an Oireachtas Joint Committee on Women's Rights serves to show that women do not yet enjoy full equality in all spheres. The very existence of this committee, and indeed the lack of a men's rights committee, speaks volumes of the position of women in Irish society in 1991.

I think much of what she stated back then still rings true.

I commend all my colleagues who have spoken on International Women's Day today. I wish everybody well on the day. I wish to particularly commend our male colleagues who have joined in the celebration with such enthusiasm and sincere interest and commitment to raising the issue of equality. I look forward to speaking on International Women's Day later today.

I wish to draw attention to the fact that the period for public consultation on the report commissioned by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, on the Phoenix Park transport and mobility options is drawing to a close. The deadline is this coming Friday. The Phoenix Park is almost 360 years old. I was lucky enough to grow up beside it. It is an amazing public resource in the heart of our city, comprising more than 1,700 acres. One can walk, cycle, skate, picnic or play Gaelic games, polo or cricket or do whatever one wishes to do there. One can enjoy the biodiversity, including the wild fallow deer. It is an amazing amenity.

A steering committee was set up by the Minister of State, involving the National Transport Authority, Dublin City Council, the Office of Public Works, OPW, and Fingal County Council. I was really disappointed by, and quite critical of, the fact that it did not include local residents. There has now been almost six weeks of public consultation. It has been particularly difficult for residents to engage in that process as a result of Covid which, to be fair to the OPW, has also prevented it from holding public meetings. The deadline is this coming Friday and there are important proposals and suggestions being made, including prioritising pedestrians, prioritising space for cyclists, reducing commuter traffic, restricting access through the Cabra, Ashtown and Knockmaroon gates and introducing a public bus service for the first time to connect Heuston Station with Dublin Zoo, the Ashtown visitor centre and all the way to Broombridge Station in Cabra. There is a lot in the proposals. The deadline is this Friday. I encourage everybody to have their say, particularly as this is a park not just of local importance or importance to the city, but for the whole country and, indeed, for international visitors.

Guím Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan sona do mo dheirfiúracha. Táim ag lorg díospóireachta leis an Aire Tithíochta, Rialtais Áitiúil agus Oidhreachta, an Teachta Darragh O'Brien, maidir leis an gciste athghiniúna agus forbartha uirbeach. I congratulate all our sisters today on International Women's Day.

It is important that we do not just celebrate it today but that we do so every day.

I call on the Leader to have the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, come to the House to have a joined-up debate on the urban regeneration fund and the national development plan, which is in the final stages of its consultative process. The urban regeneration fund was announced last week and it has the potential to unlock the real majesty that is Cork city. There is a fear in Cork that the island of the city, including St. Patrick's Street, is dying a death. We must breathe new life into it. We must regenerate, reimagine and reconfigure the island of Cork city. I understand that Bishop Lucey Park is part of a new urban regeneration fund and we are seeing movement in Grand Parade and the docklands. My concern is that we will not see the island of Cork city being developed and I am asking the Minister to come to the House because I have a fear that Cork city is being left behind. We cannot allow that to happen. Our second city pulls people from Dublin. It is the pivotal city in the southern region of our country and it is important that the Minister comes to the House to debate the urban regeneration fund and the national development plan.

A wide variety of topics was raised by colleagues. I accept the amendment to the Order of Business; to take No. 7 before No. 1.

Senator Buttimer has requested a debate with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and I will put that request in for him today. I have no doubt that in the minds of the people who live in Cork, and also of the rest of us because of the contributions people from Cork make about their much-loved city, it will not be allowed to become anywhere close to being second best in Ireland.

Senator Fitzpatrick spoke with immense pride of her love for the Phoenix Park and that is shared among all of us. We all have fond and happy memories from there, particularly as children going to Dublin Zoo or to see the deer. I look forward to the consultation coming together with recommendations on how we will cherish it in the future.

Senator Ahearn spoke with love, fondness and great pride about his mother's contribution to public life, as he should do. She was one of our pioneering female elected representatives on a national stage and she did the Ahearn family proud. Senator Ahearn's brother, Scott, wrote a beautiful tribute to her over the weekend and it was my privilege to be able to share it. It was really lovely and I congratulate the Ahearn family.

Senator Martin spoke about some of the discomfort that is being shared on our airwaves about the vaccination roll-out. I shared his concerns last week and I welcome that my Daddy, who is one of the over 85-year olds, is finally getting his vaccination today. That is a huge weight off all of our minds. We all received a copy of a communication this morning that was sent to all of our GPs yesterday on the proposed roll-out to the next 160,000 critical people to receive their vaccinations. I take on board the Senator's comments. Communication is key and it needs to be clear, consistent and constant. I will pass that message back on.

Senator Cassells talked about equality of opportunity for women in sport. What he said this morning about equality of opportunity in every aspect of life is true. We must positively discriminate. I know that sometimes we talk about positively discriminating on behalf of women in politics or education and the usual cohorts come out and mention tokenism. We have positively discriminated for men from time immemorial and from the foundation of the State and nobody ever batted an eyelid. The only way we will ever equal the stages of every platform that women and men should have equal access to is if men help us. I do not say that flippantly because one cannot be what one cannot see. Our young women must be able to see leadership in sport, education, politics and every walk of life. It is equally true that men must be able to see men leading in caring professions. Otherwise, they will not want to be what they cannot see. The only way we will change that is in a collective manner.

The disparity of the funding between men and women in sport is an absolute crime. However, the only people responsible for that are the 60 Members of this House, the 160 Members of the other House and our Cabinet. We need to shout loudly to make sure the issues about which Theresa Ahearn was speaking in the 1980s and 1990s, which are still so disparate today, are fixed by us and us alone. I thank the Senator for bringing that to the attention of the House.

Senator Gavan spoke about the Unite report. It would be timely to have a debate on the inequality that exists for so many in Ireland and I will make that representation today.

Senator Currie talked about the global "shecession". It is an absolute crime how much Covid has had an impact not just on Irish society but on every society. It has put women back 20 or 30 years. We were so close to having full employment. Senator Currie and I were working last year or the year before on returnships for women to try to get the massive resource of women who are not working back into Irish society. Women have been disproportionately affected in unemployment figures over the past 12 months, which means we will have to redouble our efforts. When the vaccination programme takes hold and allows us to reopen our society, our communities and our economy, we must make sure those women who have been disproportionately affected through their care duties over the past 12 months are encouraged back into the workforce.

Senator Wilson asked for a debate on democracy. I will certainly arrange that in the next few days and the request will go to the Minister.

Senator Sherlock spoke about something that would be a tremendous pity if it were to go ahead. With the advent of the inclusion model, whereby we are trying to put therapies for children into the schools they are in, we might be taking a therapist out of a school that already serves 140 children in Cabra. I will write a letter today on the Senator's behalf to the Minister of State with responsibility for special education and the Minister of State responsible for disability to seek a resolution to that issue.

Senator Dolan spoke about the need to support women and spoke so eloquently about the ladies in her life, that is, her two nannies and her mammy, and how they have propelled her into Irish life.

Senator O'Donovan spoke about the future of rural Ireland and requested a debate on it. I will send that request to the Ministers today.

Senator Craughwell brought up his much loved Defence Forces, as he does nearly every week, and how some of the actions he sees at the moment pain him. That request for a debate has gone to the Minister for Defence and I will give a date for it as soon as one is agreed.

Senator Seery Kearney talked about the need for supports for family carers. That has been more evident than ever during the last 12 months, if it needed to be more evident, and I will request a debate on that too.

Senator Gallagher talked about the delays in the vaccination roll-out, the need for a plan B as well as a plan C and for co-operation North and South. It is nearly 12 months to the day since I sat at the first Cabinet Covid special committee. Its anniversary is tomorrow and it is a tremendous pity that we are still talking about co-operation between the North and the South. At this stage, talk is cheap. We should be doing things. That responsibility lies on everybody North and South, not just the people who are speaking the loudest.

Senator Higgins talked about the need for the National Maternity Hospital to be maintained. I do not think she is alone in her views. We have a long way to go but we have come so far that it would be retrograde for us to be stepping backwards. I note the letter from our eminent obstetrician in The Irish Times last week and agree wholeheartedly with him.

Senator Boylan talked about inequality in accessing justice and free legal aid because of HAP, which she has mentioned before. I have written to the Minister but I will follow up again today.

Senator Pauline O'Reilly spoke about the eco gender divide, how, like most issues it falls disproportionately on women and the need for a debate on it.

Senator Wall spoke about childcare costs and the need for a debate on that issue. I will make that request today.

Senator Mullen spoke about the disinformation and dishonesty that has become evident with regard to the zero Covid campaigners. He reflected on certain politicians believing this information, which is a pity. The old saying that goes with us is that when the information changes, our opinions should too. I welcome the fact that people now realise that what we have been doing is in the public's best interests.

Senator Chambers started off the day by welcoming the beautiful piece of art from Sinead Guckian, as did I. She also spoke about the long way we have to go in the provision of equality in women's healthcare. I will request a debate on that today.

Senator Higgins has moved an amendment to the Order of Business: "That No. 7 be taken before No. 1." The Leader has indicated she is prepared to accept this amendment. Is the amendment agreed? Agreed.

Order of Business, as amended, agreed to.